Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Being a little more anonymous online

November 9, 2016

With increased State sponsored surveillance and changes in the political tenor even in formerly moderate countries more people are asking “how to I keep my communications secure?”.

Sadly for most people the complexities of being totally opaque are too onerous, add too much complexity, or are simply not worth the effort.

But there’s no need to give up totally and just roll over. There are still things you can do to keep some of your communications at least less likely to be exposed.

If you’re in a vulnerable group – which sadly in the US today potentially means people of color, (im)migrants, women and those who don’t fit into conventional gender roles – then maybe it’s time to start taking a bit more care about your digital footprints…



Lane Filtering

July 4, 2014

There is nothing more frustrating for a motorcyclist than being stuck in stationary or slow moving traffic, especially when there is ample room either against the shoulder or between lanes to safely filter to the front of the queue.

Sadly in the US lane filtering (or splitting) is only legal in California, and even the splitting rules for the Californians largely recommend something closer to filtering.

Every motorcyclist probably has a different view of what’s safe – no matter what the outcome it’s always your fault – I personally err on the side of caution and would be happy to see it only allowed if traffic is moving at less than 25 mph and the motorcycle was allowed to go no more than 20 mph above the speed of the queue. Riders need to consider many factors – not just the size of their bike and the size of the gap!

Statistics from Europe on motorcycle accidents have shown a 2.8% chance of harm coming to a stationary motorcycle in traffic but it drops to a 0.4% chance when riders can filter forward. So not only does it help create more space on the road for motorists it actually keeps the rider safer. (more…)

Connected Cars and Smarter Smartphones

June 25, 2014

As smartphones get smarter, and cars more connected it seems to me that there is a huge untapped market. Not everyone will replace their car along with their phone (or vice versa) so an opportunity exists to create a flexible, standards based solution both for new vehicles and aftermarket retro fit scenarios.

Luckily many of the standards needed to deliver this already exist. Bluetooth, NFC, wireless charging, ODB-II can all combine to present a seamless experience – if only the software was available to tie it all together… (more…)

Why can’t I have one number, but two SIMs?

June 10, 2014

In this age of smartphones with big delicate pieces of glass and a non-swappable battery that dies in the middle of the afternoon I often need to carry a second phone. For active folks with a 5″ phablet with glass front and rear they might want a beater phone to take when they run or hit the trails.

The simple solution used to be just swap your SIM. But in these days of regular, Micro, Nano who knows what else sized SIM that’s not always practical, even with the variety of trays available to help convert. (more…)

More TSA weirdness

February 27, 2013

As I travel a fair bit for work and pleasure I get to enjoy the TSA “Freedom Massage” and the rest of the theater on a fairly frequent basis. At the checkpoint I’ve seen fairly inconsistent behavior even at the same airport (and while there are some terrible jumped up lunchroom monitors wearing the uniform there are also some great folks manning the front line as well).

Not the main topic of this post, but as I’ve noted before I opt out for freedom. But when I do I also get to skip the metal detector. If I was really determined to get something sharp passed the pat down I’m sure I could find a way. (more…)

Why play by the rules?

August 30, 2011

When we moved to the US we did everything by the book. We produced the reams of paperwork and stood in line in Embassies and at the immigration desk at the airport and tried not to get too frustrated by the inane processes and offhand welcome we got.


Because we like it here we changed visa status from E-3 (Australian reciprocal) to H-1B (and my wife and daughter to H4 – a status which has no employment authorization) and went through even more paperwork (but a lot of duplication) and endured the nerve wracking trip home to sit in a queue at the US Embassy for a 5 minute “interview” to get the new stamps (and then repeated the process for our renewal). At the same time we’re going through the Green Card process so there has been more paperwork, more forms to fill in and the wonderful Labor Certification process (advertising my job to see if we can find someone local to do it… luckily we didn’t, so I get to stay and I’m comfortable in the fact that I’m not stealing jobs from Americans)


As an Employment Based Green Card applicant filed in the EB-3 category though it looks like another 6 years or so before the backlog clears and we get a decision (yes, that’s another 6 years where my wife and daughter can’t work but we don’t even know what the outcome will be) but that’s okay… we’re working through it and keeping our fingers crossed.


But then we see stories in the press about how relatives of the US President manage to get Social Security Numbers even though they are here illegally and have outstanding deportation orders against them and that there is a plan to grant an effective amnesty to 300,000 illegal immigrants and provide them with work permits and you start to wonder if being patient and playing by the rules is the right way to go?!


If the Government is choosing to reward illegal immigrants with expedited reviews of their cases and work permits what impact will that have on the backlog for legal migrants, and the efforts to address the issues faced by H4 spouses and children of H-1B workers who can’t get a work permit until they are approved for a Green Card?


I understand this is a politically charged topic, I appreciate that for a number of illegals there are very compelling reasons and I realize that especially in the current economic situation this is a very contentious topic and there are no easy answers… but for a country founded on migration and defined by the inscription “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the Statue of Liberty it seems like a slap in the face to those who still want to make a home here


TSA – Boarding passes and ID checks

July 23, 2011

Every time you fly now in the US (and other places) you have to run the gauntlet of uniformed, unionized, shelf stackers who are providing the front-line troops for the Theatrical Security Agency and their contemporaries.

You’d think they would stop folks getting to the gate without valid IDs and boarding passes wouldn’t you?

The recent discovery of a traveler managing to board a plane with someone else’s boarding pass got me wondering how simple it was to actually get past security and while you may get turned away before you board a plane it’s just another demonstration of how farcical a lot of this knee-jerk political posturing is.

It turns out back in 2006 someone launched a site to let you print fake boarding passes. Rather than do something about the problem the FBI shut his site down and subjected him to investigation, though all charges were later dropped.

In 2008 – two years later – the TSA had a self-congratulatory blog post about how they’re aware of the problems posed by photoshop and are working to introduce more secure barcodes… in some airports, for some airlines, for flyers who are using mobile check-in, rather than print-at-home boarding passes.

Now, in 2011 while I have seen evidence of these the problem seems to be that the TSO’s are not always sure what to do when presented with one and, even worse, the handheld scanners seem to be in such short supply that trying to use one (as I did recently) requires a wait while they try and get a scanner to the desk or give up and just waive you through.

So, we know the checks for the boarding passes at least to get you airside are a joke, but at least they’re checking everyone’s ID right?

Well… maybe not. In the US if you refuse to show ID or claim to have simply forgotten it then you can still get past, though you’ll be subject to more questions (though in the first example the guy was able to use a library card as ID) so in theory you could bypass that check as well.

Couple these loopholes with the TSAs less than stellar record of stopping folks getting through checkpoints without the means to harm their fellow travelers and we have a pretty sorry state of affairs.

So, what would it take to close these loopholes, or at least tighten things up to require a more sophisticated attack? At the very least every TSO station needs to have the ability to confirm – in real-time – the validity of a boarding pass. Is the passenger who’s details appear on the card match the ID, do the details match the flight manifest, does the type of boarding pass (print-at-home, airline issued) match what the system think has been issued (has the passenger even checked in for this flight) as well as supplemental information like have they checked luggage (an international passenger with just a paperback and no checked luggage for instance should warrant a little more examination), and the system has to be applied across the board for everyone passing the gate.

There seem to be a number of other loopholes – airline staff get by with just a wave of their airline credentials, as do TSA agents even when they don’t appear to be recognized by colleagues. How about a separate “staff” enterance for them to stop them being held up by regular passengers (or causing frustration by queue jumping – I know they need to get to work, but it’s frustrating having them turn up en masse and totally disrupt a lane) and what about the ground staff, both airport and airline personnel as well as the guys delivering bottles of water to the newsagent… what checks do they face before they get airside?

The TSA have an important job to do – keeping travelers safe – but they appear to be expending a lot of effort, even a decade after 9/11, on looking busy rather than actually creating a secure environment…. And it’s Tax dollars and rises in ticket prices that are funding it so the day we stop questioning it is the day we say we’re happy with the way they’re doing their job.

Does the TSA think Terrorists are stupid?

June 25, 2011

I travel for business and pleasure fairly regularly and I like to play a little game I call “opting out for freedom” where I don’t subject myself to any security measure that isn’t applied across the board to every person getting within damaging range of an aircraft.

While I’m not an American, as I live here at the moment it’s interesting to watch how the TSA is using a nebulous threat to eat away at the historic protections, and accuse anyone who questions their actions or motives of being a terrorist.

The Constitution of the United States, a document which is supposed to set out the rights for its citizens and ensure that the Government does not abuse those it is elected to govern, includes as part of the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” … some would argue that the new image scanners and pat downs are a clear violation of that. It’s interesting to read the comments from “Blogger Bob’s” post when the TSA implemented the new “enhanced pat-downs” and the total lack of meaningful response. More PR drivel from the Theatrical Security Agency.

“Theatrical Security Agency?” you say. “Surely you got that wrong?”

Well, I don’t think so. All of their measures are reactive (taking off your shoes, no liquids over 3oz) and even the new scanners (millimeter wave and backscatter x-ray) have been demonstrated to be flawed at detecting the very things they claim to detect (but don’t point that out or the lobbyists who work for the firms earning millions of dollars to install these devices will shout you down). Do they make us any safer? I suspect not… in fact I couldn’t find a single press release about a successful nullification of a security threat thanks to all these measures.

In fact, it’s possible to argue that by concentrating people at checkpoint lines and piling up even mundane confiscated items (like nail-clippers or Utili-keys) the security agencies are creating potential death-traps. Luckily only in fiction so far (though a similar attack has already happened in Russia)


Iain M Banks – Transition

But this is all old news.

Why do I wonder if the TSA thinks Terrorists are stupid?

I’ve noticed something travelling over the last few months which disturbs me. Because if I notice it without evil intent and simply as a way to make my journey through the enforced conga line of my (currently twice weekly) TSA then you have to imagine that terrorists may have thought this out themselves (after all if they are clever enough to wage international war against America, get paid and trained by America, learn how to fly planes in America they’re probably smart enough to spot the obvious)

The new scanners… are all theater. In every one of the airports I’ve travelled through in the past few months there’s one common factor… there is always a way to avoid them. In some airports there are lanes that simply don’t go past the scanner, and I’ve yet to see a person forced to go around to a machine. In other airports there are often lanes where the scanner isn’t operating or not staffed so everyone is simply going through the metal detector arch. Even in places where it’s in use the “random” selection is anything but… just the other morning I watched the 50+ people in the queue ahead of me get split so alternate pairs were sent through the new imaging device… I was able to save myself the trouble of opting out simply by timing when I stepped away from the conveyor belt after consigning my bag to the xray.

As September 11 2009 proved terrorists aren’t always lone wolves (in fact as TWA 847 and 840 or the simultaneous hijacking of 5 aircraft in 1970)… what’s to stop a number of people walking past security with the parts to a weapon or the components of a liquid bomb that then get consolidated. Heck, I’ve even arranged travel before so I could meet a colleague at an airport – in our case it was to exchange paperwork, but once inside the security cordon with some imagination and a decent travel budget, it’s probably not hard to muddy the waters though backtracking via the now ubiquitous security cameras would at least help unravel the trail after any such event.

The problem the TSA, and others like them, face is huge. They have to be seen to be doing something but they can never be 100% successful. Politically motivated, doomed for failure, influenced by lobbyists, staffed by minimum wage unionized civil servants they know they are doomed to failure but while the money’s there for the taking (and conspiracy theorists would suggest they can be used to wind back civil liberties) they’ll keep on doing what they do.

There may be no solution, and there’s certainly no easy answer. Redesigning airports from the ground up to provide multiple layers of security, adding Israeli style human filters, implementing 100% coverage with security measures, reducing hand luggage while increasing automated scanning of cargo, stopping the CAI meddling in other counties affairs and stop going to war to support the oil/mineral economy – these will all help… but faced with a determined threat all these prophylactic measures will do is make the terrorist work harder to achieve their goals.

“People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.” – Benjamin Franklin.

Opting Out for Freedom

June 2, 2011

I travel fairly often, both for business and pleasure, and I’m the guy who always opts out of the new scanners.

Not because I’m a terrorist, some kind of subversive or because I am worried about the long term medical implications of untested millimeter wave or backscatter x-ray machines but because I want to send a message.


The message is simple. Don’t let politicians under the guise of the war on terror whittle away at those inconvenient freedoms that we won’t notice as they are taken away bit by bit. Don’t less commercial interests drive the adoption of technology at our expense with no benefit. Don’t let the terrorists win by creating a climate of fear where these abuses are simply accepted.

First it was the requirement to show ID before you could board a plane (sounds a bit like Eastern European travel passes) and now you have to submit to either security by theatre or an attempt at public humiliation. What next? Travel Permits? DNA testing?

The only winners are the suppliers of these very expensive pieces of equipment, and the politicians who earmark these into legislation in return for promises of campaign support. Has a single terrorist been thwarted by these measures? It would seem not as the press releases that self-important agencies like the TSA love to issue just talk about what a great “deterrent” they are, and how safe the machines are… meanwhile the politicians and TSA officials skip both the machines and the enhanced pat-down process that we mere mortals have to decide between.

Ironically in many airports it’s possible by getting in the right line, or picking the right checkpoint to avoid these machines altogether – do we really expect agents of the Axis of Evil to be less cunning than a harassed business traveller desperate to get to Boise to sell tractor parts?

There are better solutions: making use of properly trained screening agents (as in Israel); designing airports to be safe and secure by default to reduce risk of an attack in an un-secured place by starting basic checks and observation further out; by making passengers, airlines, airport operators and the security agencies partners in the process.

Meantime… I’m the guy being made to stand in my socks while a TSA Agent yells “male assist, opt-out” because it’s easier to try and shame me into compliance than actually make flying safer. Next time you fly… join me. It’s fun being the center of attention sometimes 🙂

Building a safe and portable way to get online

May 19, 2011

Over the last few months I’ve had a couple of friends go through some rather unfortunate domestic situations which have involved partners spying on their computer activities, intercepting and even sending emails from what they thought was a private account. They’ve used a variety of means ranging from simply accessing a machine that’s not been locked through to using a keylogger or network sniffer to steal passwords and read email.

There are weaknesses with any operating system, especially if you do not have sole access to the machine or a way to secure the local area network to avoid eavesdroppers, so to try and solve the problem I looked at ways to eliminate the risks of both physical access and software spying.

The solution I came up with is a little technical, but works pretty well and provides a good balance of security and ease of use


The first part of the solution is unobtrusive USB Flash Drives. These can take many forms but for convenience I’ve been using LaCie USB Keys that look like keys. They come in various sizes (though I consider 8GB the minimum for what I’m doing) and are easy to hide in plain sight, and you’re not likely to misplace it if it’s with your house or car keys.

The second part of the solution is a stand-alone installation of Ubuntu. While it’s not as user friendly or as familiar as Windows or OSX for a lot of people its fairly simple to set up a totally self-contained installation that runs entirely from the USB Key – it leaves no trace on the host machine, it never starts the host machine (so software key-loggers and other spyware are useless) and it’s fairly light-weight so you can start up or shut down in less than 30 seconds.

Setting Ubuntu up in this way doesn’t follow the usual path to build a LiveCD that most people use to try out Linux – with that style of setup you can’t store data on the drive or perform in-place upgrades (patching the build, adding new drivers or even migrating to a new version)

The final part of the solution is installing anti-virus scanners that you can use to examine the host machine, and a VPN client to secure your communications with the outside world…

Preparing the Bootable Ubuntu key

These instructions do assume you have a clue what you’re doing, and that you can deal with the consequences of doing something wrong along the way. If you follow the recommendations you should be okay but, as with anything of this nature, there may be dragons ahead…

Safely selecting the right drive.

You may omit this step if after partitioning you choose to install grub to the root of the usb drive you are installing Ubuntu to, (ie sdb not sdb1). Unless you do this correctly though you can overwrite the HDD MBR which can be a pain to deal with so it’s not recommended. If you don’t know what grub is… proceed with caution!

·         Turn off and unplug the computer.

·         Remove the side from the case.

·         Unplug the power cable from the hard drive.

·         Plug the computer back in.

Installing Ubuntu

·         Insert the flash drive.

·         Insert the Live CD.

·         Start the computer, the CD should boot.

·         Select language

·         Select “Install Ubuntu”.

·         Select Download updates while installing and Select Install third-party software.
If you have an active network connection (wired recommended) this will save time later on.

·         Forward

·         At “Allocate drive space” select “Specify partitions manually (advanced)”.

·         Forward

·         Confirm Device is correct.

·         Click “free space” and then “Add”.

·         Select “Primary”, “New partition size …” = 4 to 6 GB, Beginning, Ext4, and Mount point = “/” then OK.

Optionally configure a Home partition

If you’re only planning to have a single user and primarily store data in desktop folders then this isn’t required.

·         Click “free space” and then “Add”.

·         Select “Primary”, “New partition size …” = 4 to 8 GB, Beginning, Ext2, and Mount point = “/home” then OK.

Optionally configure swap space

This allows hibernation but from experience with this configuration it’s quicker and easier to shut down and start than hibernate.

·         Click “free space” and then “Add”.

·         Select “Primary”, “New partition size …” = remaining space, (1 to 2 GB, same size as RAM), Beginning and “Use as” = “swap area” then OK.

Finish installation

·         Confirm “Device for boot loader installation” points to the USB drive. Default should be ok if HDD was unplugged.

·         Click “Install Now”.

·         Select your location.

·         Forward.

·         Select Keyboard layout.

·         Forward.

·         Insert your name, username, password, computer name and select if you want to log in automatically or require a password.

·         Select “Encrypt my home folder” for added security (especially if there is a risk of losing the drive)

·         Select forward.

·         Wait until install is complete.

·         Turn off computer and reconnect the HDD.

·         Reboot computer and select the flash drive to start

·         Log in and complete installation, upgrading packages and adding options like Chrome browser or Evolution email client

Securing your connection

While having a stand-alone machine image that allows you to keep local content secure you want to make sure no one is sniffing communications on wired or wireless networks. At the very least you need to ensure people are not stealing passwords so in Chrome you want  to install something like the KB SSL Enforcer which will try to redirect any connection to a secure channel to make snooping a lot harder.

If you want to ensure none of your online communications are overheard then you want to install and configure a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection with someone like StrongVPN – this has the added advantage for some that you can even choose which country you want to appear to be surfing from 🙂

There are a number of Linux based anti-virus solutions (such as ClamAV) that can be used to scan the host machine but I’d recommend if you want to clean a Windows machine that you get a bootable version of Spybot S&D (that you can also run from a Flash Drive and keep up-to-date) as that’s a more robust solution.

Email and Documents

Depending on your situation you may want to keep as much as possible on the USB Key and as little as possible on the web, vice versa or somewhere in between. Personally I recommend setting up a new webmail (Hotmail or Gmail) account only once you are securely connected (so the password is never visible on an unsecured connection) and using Evolution to keep that in sync with the local drive so you can work either from the disk in off-line mode, or log in from a web browser in an internet café or somewhere away from prying eyes. For documents a service like Ubuntu One (probably a good bet as it’s integrated with the OS), DropBox or SkyDrive gives you the flexibility of working locally or “in the cloud”.

Given the risks of losing the drive, or corruption happening due to an overzealous or early removal I would strongly recommend keeping important data backed up somewhere secure and online just in case. You might want to consider installing Prey on the image just in case you lose it.

Stay safe out there!

A lot of the things you need to do to stay safe is common sense – don’t share logins, don’t re-use password and things like that but sometimes you need to bring more sophisticated tools and techniques to bear… I’d love to see some comments about how to improve this solution or make it simpler. If you like the idea of having this sort of setup but the instructions have put you off I’m happy to build a key for you for a reasonable fee (to cover time and expenses). Support for Ubuntu or any other applications mentioned here should come from the respective suppliers.