The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Morning reading list

Before diving back into one of the most abominable wrecks of a software application I've seen in years, I've lined up some stuff to read when I need to take a break:

OK. Firing up Visual Studio, reaching for the Valium...

This might be what someone used to attack us in Cuba

In late 2016, someone apparently attacked American diplomats in Cuba and China with a device that caused people to hear loud sounds and experience concussion-like brain damage. Now, doctors working with the attack victims may have figured out what it was:

The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.

“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion.

Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety.

In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.

Military strategists have talked about various nonlethal weapons for a long time. I don't remember reading about microwave weapons until now, since sound on its own seemed to be a pretty good way of disabling troops. But this is interesting, and disturbing.

The next war

Via Bruce Schneier, retired USMC Colonel Mark Canclan has authored a report outlining what threats we're likely to face in the next few years, and how to cope with them. He includes some chilling strategic possibilities:

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet' s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls' cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency's initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine's account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron's Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other's throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The report is fascinating, and the vignettes that Canclan describes should be keeping US military and defense personnel up at night.

Primer on Multi-Factor Authentication

Via Schneier, Stuart Schechter has an excellent article for MFA n00bs people new to multi-factor authentication:

Many online accounts allow you to supplement your password with a second form of identification, which can prevent some prevalent attacks. The second factors you can use to identify yourself include authenticator apps on your phone, which generate codes that change every 30 seconds, and security keys, small pieces of hardware similar in size and shape to USB drives. Since innovations that can actually improve the security of your online accounts are rare, there has been a great deal of well-deserved enthusiasm for two-factor authentication (as well as for password managers, which make it easy to use a different random password for every one of your online accounts.) These are technologies more people should be using.

However, in trying to persuade users to adopt second factors, advocates sometimes forget to disclose that all security measures have trade-offs . As second factors reduce the risk of some attacks, they also introduce new risks. One risk is that you could be locked out of your account when you lose your second factor, which may be when you need it the most. Another is that if you expect second factors to protect you from those attacks that they can not prevent, you may become more vulnerable to the those attacks.

Before you require a second factor to login to your accounts, you should understand the risks, have a recovery plan for when you lose your second factor(s), and know the tricks attackers may use to defeat two-factor authentication.

Read it, and then send it to all of your non-technical friends, unless they happen to be politicians in a certain elephantine party in the U.S.

The TSA finally talks frankly about security

Bruce Schneier says that the TSA's thoughts about security at smaller airports are exactly the conversation they should be having:

Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes -- 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.

To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group's report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It's nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It's not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year.

We don't know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency's willingness to explore changes in the screening process.

There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don't have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.

And just think, it's only taken 15 years and $45 billion to get here...

Trollin' trollin' trollin', keep those Russkies trollin'

Researchers at Clemson University, working with 538.org, identified 3 million tweets from 2,800 Twitter handles belonging to Russian trolls:

“We identified five categories of IRA-associated Twitter handles, each with unique patterns of behaviors: Right Troll, Left Troll, News Feed, Hashtag Gamer, and Fearmonger. With the exception of the Fearmonger category, handles were consistent and did not switch between categories.”

The five types:

  • Right Troll: These Trump-supporting trolls voiced right-leaning, populist messages, but “rarely broadcast traditionally important Republican themes, such as taxes, abortion, and regulation, but often sent divisive messages about mainstream and moderate Republicans…They routinely denigrated the Democratic Party, e.g. @LeroyLovesUSA, January 20, 2017, “#ThanksObama We're FINALLY evicting Obama. Now Donald Trump will bring back jobs for the lazy ass Obamacare recipients,” the authors wrote.
  • Left Troll: These trolls mainly supported Bernie Sanders, derided mainstream Democrats, and focused heavily on racial identity, in addition to sexual and religious identity. The tweets were “clearly trying to divide the Democratic Party and lower voter turnout,” the authors told FiveThirtyEight.
  • News Feed: A bit more mysterious, news feed trolls mostly posed as local news aggregators who linked to legitimate news sources. Some, however, “tweeted about global issues, often with a pro-Russia perspective.”
  • Hashtag Gamer: Gamer trolls used hashtag games—a popular call/response form of tweeting—to drum up interaction from other users. Some tweets were benign, but many “were overtly political, e.g. @LoraGreeen, July 11, 2015, “#WasteAMillionIn3Words Donate to #Hillary.”
  • Fearmonger: These trolls, who were least prevalent in the dataset, spread completely fake news stories, for instance “that salmonella-contaminated turkeys were produced by Koch Foods, a U.S. poultry producer, near the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday.”

Will learning that Russian trolls' "mission was to divide Americans along political and sociocultural lines, and to sow discord within the two major political parties" help people call bullshit on trolling tweets and posts? Probably not. But a guy can dream.

How the McDonalds Monopoly game was rigged

Via Schneier, the head of security for the marketing firm running the game stole the million-dollar game pieces:

[FBI Special Agent Richard] Dent’s investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million prizes and a Dodge Viper.

When Dent alerted McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, executives were deeply concerned. The company’s top lawyers pledged to help the FBI, and faxed Dent a list of past winners. They explained that their game pieces were produced by a Los Angeles company, Simon Marketing, and printed by Dittler Brothers in Oakwood, Georgia, a firm trusted with printing U.S. mail stamps and lotto scratch-offs. The person in charge of the game pieces was Simon’s director of security, Jerry Jacobson.

Dent thought he had found his man. But after installing a wiretap on Jacobson’s phone, he realized that his tip had led to a super-sized conspiracy. Jacobson was the head of a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons, who had falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes.

The longish read is worth the time.

Too many things in my inbox

I probably won't have time to read all of these things over lunch:

Share that last one with your non-technical friends. It's pretty clever.

Morning links

I didn't have a chance to read these yesterday:

Now I'm off to work. The heat wave of the last few days has finally broken!

Your mouse knows when you're lying

Via Bruce Schneier, interesting research into how to use mouse movements to detect lying:

Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have long noted a big "tell" in human behavior: Crafting a lie takes more mental work than telling the truth. So one way to spot lies is to check someone's reaction time.

If they're telling a lie, they'll respond fractionally more slowly than if they're telling the truth. Similarly, if you're asked to elaborate on your lie, you have to think for a second to generate new, additional lies. "You're from Texas, eh? What city? What neighborhood in that city?" You can craft those lies on the fly, but it takes a bit more mental effort, resulting in micro hesitations.

In essence, the scientists wanted to see whether they could detect -- in the mouse movements -- the hesitation of someone concocting a lie.

Turns out ... they could. The truth-tellers moved the mouse quickly and precisely to the true answer. The folks who were lying jiggered around the screen for a bit, in a sort of hemming-and-hawing adaptation of Fitts' Law.

That's kind of cool. And kind of scary.