The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Friday miscellany

In no particular order:

  • Today is the 100th anniversary of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York, in which 146 workers died. If you want to know why we have unions in the U.S., read the story. This is the world to which the radical right are happy to return us.
  • I have to hand it to Citibank and their crack team of fraud preventatives. Last week I bought a plane ticket from Chicago to London for about $700. A few hours later I attempted to put down a £100 deposit on a hotel room in London. Citibank declined the smaller charge, because it was an international purchase without card-in-hand, as they say. Note I bought the airline ticket online also.
    A 10-minute phone call to them, followed by an apologetic phone call to the hotel, and it went through fine. This morning, I bought a £58 round trip rail ticket from London to York on a day within both the air ticket and hotel reservation (both of which Citibank knows about), and their computer called me within seconds to warn me of yet more fraud. Fifteen minutes later they have finally—finally!—acknowledged that I might be in the UK for a couple of days, and possibly will be using my credit card to make reservations ahead of the trip. Note to people outside the US: They're not trying to protect me; they're trying to protect themselves. In the US, card holders have a $50 liability limit for fraudulent transactions; the bank's liability is essentially limitless. But still, guys?
  • Microsoft's Raymond Chen has a funny anecdote about the Seattle Symphony Orchestra's front office getting confused between Paul Cézanne and Camille Saint-Saëns, complete with a handy chart to tell the difference.

That is all.

148 years too late

Via Bruce Schneier, a retired CIA codebreaker recently decoded a message sent to Confederate Lt. Gen. John Pemberton in July 1863:

The encrypted, 6-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War.

The message is from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton.

"He's saying, 'I can't help you. I have no troops, I have no supplies, I have no way to get over there,'" Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright said of the author of the dispiriting message. "It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was."

That day, 4 July 1863, the Union not only captured Vicksburg but also prevailed at Gettysburg. Historians generally agree the two victories effectively ended any possibility of the Confederacy winning the war, though they would continue to fight for another 20 months.

The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:

"Gen'l Pemberton:

You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston."

The last line, Wright said, seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton would be the code to break the message.

The news story has more details about how they found the message, and how they broke the code.

Never ascribe to malice...

I've recently had the opportunity to work on-site with a client who has a strong interest in protecting its customers' privacy. They have understandably strict policies regarding who can see what network data, who can get what access to which applications, etc. And they're interested in the physical security of their buildings.

At some point, however, process can stymie progress, and this client recently added a physical security measure that can stand as a proxy for everything else about how they function. Not content with having a full-time security guard at each lobby entrance, and with doors that require an ID to open, they now have a man-trap-style revolving door system. Only one person can enter the door at a time, or alarms sound. The doors move slowly enough that even the slowest walkers—and this is far Suburbistan, so there are many—can get through without hurrying. And to make extra-special-certain, these doors require a second ID badge.

Now, the client building is 30 km from the nearest city of any size, and that city doesn't even rank in the top 50 by population. In order to get to the building you have to drive some distance from anyplace you'd ever want to be, then cross a parking lot whose area, according to Google Maps, is four times greater than the building's footprint. In other words, they're protecting the building from...nobody. Nobody will ever lay siege to this place.

This aptly demonstrates the philosophy throughout the organization: they have immense barriers that have no purpose except to prevent any actual work from happening. My effort for this particular client lasted several long weeks and produced, in the end, about fifteen lines of code. They brought 60 developers onto the project to speed it up, with the result that 60 developers tripped over procedures and project management at immense cost to the company to produce something four guys in a garage could have done in the same length of time.

There's a punchline, a poignant one for the day after Elizabeth Edwards died: the client is a major health-insurance company.

Do you want to know why the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country? I think I have the answer.

N.B.: The title of this post comes from one of my favorite quotes, usually ascribed to Napoleon Bonaparte but probably coined by Robert Heinlein: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

The threat condition level is colorless

Via Schneier, the Department of Homeland Security will soon get rid of color-coded warnings:

In an interview on “The Daily Show” last year, the homeland security chief, Janet Napolitano, said the department was “revisiting the whole issue of color codes and schemes as to whether, you know, these things really communicate anything to the American people any more.”

The answer, apparently, is no.

The Homeland Security Department said the colors would be replaced with a new system — recommendations are still under review — that should provide more clarity and guidance. The change was first reported by The Associated Press.

I wonder what that guy at O'Hare—the one who says "The current threat advisory level is orange" all day—I wonder what he'll do now?

When to change passwords

Security guru Bruce Schneier has great advice about when to change your passwords:

The primary reason to give an authentication credential -- not just a password, but any authentication credential -- an expiration date is to limit the amount of time a lost, stolen, or forged credential can be used by someone else. If a membership card expires after a year, then if someone steals that card he can at most get a year's worth of benefit out of it. After that, it's useless.

... An attacker who gets the password to your bank account by guessing or stealing it isn't going to eavesdrop. He's going to transfer money out of your account -- and then you're going to notice. In this case, it doesn't make a lot of sense to change your password regularly -- but it's vital to change it immediately after the fraud occurs.

... So in general: you don't need to regularly change the password to your computer or online financial accounts (including the accounts at retail sites); definitely not for low-security accounts. You should change your corporate login password occasionally, and you need to take a good hard look at your friends, relatives, and paparazzi before deciding how often to change your Facebook password. But if you break up with someone you've shared a computer with, change them all.

Note to phishers

A good friend woke up this morning to find her email and Facebook accounts hacked, with a message sent out to everyone in her address book that she'd been robbed at gunpoint while visiting London and desperately needed a credit card to get on the plane back home.

Other than the story's baseline implausibility (a gun robbery in London being about as likely as getting trampled by a moose in Atlanta), there were other clues it was a phisher. For one thing, my friend is an American lawyer, not a Nigerian criminal, so she has a direct, concise, and moreover punctuated writing style not immediately in evidence in the phishing message.

The take-away, to all the would-be phishers reading this: you'll get farther with your frauds if you learn better English. Next time, instead of asking for credit-card numbers, write this: "Help! I am being held captive unless I can draft a 500-word essay on epistemology, and they'll only allow me one reference book! Please, I'm desperate, send me Strunk and White before I use unnecessary words!"

Oh, and also try hacking your victim's spouse's account, which will make it harder for people to verify the dodge.

Speaking of creativity

Waaaaay back in ancient history, I actually reported a Nigerian scammer to the FBI. This was, oh, 1997 or so, maybe 1998. The FBI already had a cybercrimes unit in San Francisco, and I had a half-hour conversation with one of the agents there about a bizarre email I'd received from a Nigerian IP address. We actually did some IP tracing and header analysis on the email to determine its origin. Yes, the scam was that new.

Who was it that said, the more things change, the more they stay the same? Right:

OFFICER IN-CHARGE:
NAME: Mr. Robert Stephen Sien @
FBI UK Internet Fraud Watch/Alert
Phone: +44 792 457 7408

We are writing in response to our track light monitoring device which we received today in our office about your transactions.

The Federal Bureau Of Investigation (FBI) Washington DC, in conjunction with the Scotland Yard, Has screened through our various Monitoring Networks also our German counterpart the anti fraud unit reported that your identity/information was used to dupe a German Business man to the tune of $5 Million USD by some Africa/Nigerian Fraudsters.

After all the series of investigations conducted here in our office we tracked your record and we found out that you have never had any fraudulent case that may jeopardize your image and personality.

We have concluded our investigation and you have been approved to be compensated from the total amount recovered for scam victims compensation. So all you need to do right now in other to receive your compensation and clear your name from the list of these Con Men which has already been forwarded to our office is to secure the CLEAN BILL CERTIFICATE immediately.

This Certificate will clear your name from the scam list which will enable you receive the sum of $500,000.00 Usd compensation fund.

You are required to contact Robert S. Sien by email: rssien@aol.com with your full name and contact details for easy communication also to guild you on how to secure the CLEAN BILL CERTIFICATE and claim your money.

THANKS FOR YOUR CO-OPERATION.

Robert Stephen Sien.
FBI SPECIAL AGENT

You know what tipped me off? What made me certain this was a 419 scammer? Because, you can see, it's quite well crafted, no loose ends, nothing to arouse suspicion.

What tipped me off was this:

When real FBI agents refer to their employer, they never capitalize "of".

It's obvious when you look at it.

Why aren't there more terror attacks?

Bruce Schneier gives three main reasons:

One, terrorist attacks are harder to pull off than popular imagination -- and the movies -- lead everyone to believe. Two, there are far fewer terrorists than the political rhetoric of the past eight years leads everyone to believe. And three, random minor terrorist attacks don't serve Islamic terrorists' interests right now.

... So, to sum up: If you're just a loner wannabe who wants to go out with a bang, terrorism is easy. You're more likely to get caught if you take a long time to plan or involve a bunch of people, but you might succeed. If you're a representative of al-Qaida trying to make a statement in the U.S., it's much harder. You just don't have the people, and you're probably going to slip up and get caught.

Fallows on Times Square

Brilliant:

If the TSA Were Running New York

- All vans or SUVs headed into Midtown Manhattan would have to stop and have their contents inspected. If any vehicle seemed for any reason to have escaped inspection, Midtown in its entirety would be evacuated;

- A whole new uniformed force -- the Times Square Security Administration, or TsSA - would be formed for this purpose;

- The restrictions would never be lifted and the TsSA would have permanent life, because the political incentives here work only one way.

... The point of terrorism is not to "destroy." It is to terrify. And for eight and a half years now, the dominant federal government response to terrorist threats and attacks has been to magnify their harm by increasing a mood of fear and intimidation. That is the real case against the ludicrous "orange threat level" announcements we hear every three minutes at the airport. It's not just that they're pointless, uninformative, and insulting to our collective intelligence; it's that their larger effect is to make people feel frightened rather than brave.

It always strikes me that Israel, which has actual, ongoing terrorism, doesn't x-ray people's shoes.