Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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)

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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.

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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

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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.

Do you pray you’ll never lose your laptop or phone

May 18, 2011

How many laptop or mobile phone users have ever had that sinking feeling when you realize your precious device isn’t where you thought it was. Your phone isn’t in your pocket or your laptop disappears from your bag on a crowded train.

If you’ve planned ahead and installed a small bit of software from the Prey Project then you can do more than pray…

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Prey is a small utility that hides itself away (on Windows, OSX, Linux and many different types of smartphone) and, most of the time, does nothing.

However if it receives an instruction to wake up and go to work (for computers that’s via the web control panel you can access from anywhere, for smartphones it’s via an SMS message) any thief will be in for a surprise…

When activated Prey will collect as much information as it can to help you track it down – GPS location, IP address, available wifi networks and, if it has a webcam, it’ll even take a picture of its surroundings. All this information gets bundled up and send to the web console every 20 minutes (or however often you set it for) until you gather enough information to either have law enforcement go and pick it up (or sheepishly go back to Starbucks to collect it).

Prey is open source and free for basic use, but they do have a more powerful commercial version (Prey Pro) available if you need more features or the ability to manage a large number of devices.