Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Privacy and Safety Rights

We are at the beginning of a world filled with powerful and inexpensive technologies, and having to deal with societal issues that result. These discussions are centered on our right to privacy, but often lack any discussion on any other rights, specifically, our right to safety. I discount any course of action resulting from a one-sided opinion, which by its very nature will, of course, sound like a good idea. But more useful is a balanced analysis which includes both sides of an argument and looks for common-sense compromises.

When looking at any issue, I like to start by looking at the core assumptions, in this case the right to privacy and the right to safety, to make sure they’re well-grounded.

The right to privacy is addressed partially by the Bill of Rights, which protects the privacy of beliefs, unreasonable searches and personal information. A variety of other laws and court decisions protect other facets of privacy, but at best our right to privacy, by law, does not cover everything in all situations.

The right to safety is guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution, which states “All men are, by nature, free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety”. So both of these rights seem well-grounded, however, no right is absolute, for example, our right to free speech is curtailed by prohibiting slander, inciting a riot, or threatening the President. So don’t expect your rights to privacy or safety to be absolute.

In many cases, our right to privacy is a key component of our right to safety. But the key here is that both rights are “ours”. The issue becomes when one right is “ours” and the other is “yours”, and that’s where technology has us headed. Let’s look at two examples, then see if we can build the beginning of a framework that can be used to evaluate new regulations.

Tesla cars are redefining personal transportation in three important ways, first by being all-electric and zero-emission, second by affording excellent crash protection and finally, most important to this discussion, self-driving capabilities. They achieve human-less operation by utilizing eight cameras which deliver 360 degree visibility with a range from 160 feet to over 800 feet. This technology delivers impressive accident avoidance, helping reduce the 6 million times per year this occurs in the U.S. These accidents result in 3 million injuries, two-thirds of them permanent, and over 32,000 deaths. Is the “constant surveillance” needed to save lives worth the privacy risks? Is it ethical to record everyone, without their permission, to make driving safe?

Ring doorbells improve home safety by alerting you when someone comes to your door, stream video to your smartphone to allow you to see who it is, and have a two-way conversation. They also can record that video, detering porch thieves and home invaders. But they also include a controversial audio recording feature, which can be disabled, that treads on the fine line between unauthorized wiretapping and having the expectation of privacy in a specific venue. For a single-family home on a half-acre of land, it would seem that anyone trespassing on your property should not have that expectation, while the reverse would be expected in a high-rise apartment building. While video recording clearly improves your safety, does exterior audio recording provide anything substantial?

The above two examples are just illustrative of the different decisions we can make in trading off privacy and safety. But we need a higher-level framework to guide our decisions and I offer the following four bullet points as a starting point to be discussed and debated.

  • Individuals should have strong privacy rights to protect their safety, but also realize that the country they live in contains a large number of bad people that do bad things. Over one million instances of violent crime and over nine million instances of property crime occur each year in the U.S., with an estimated economic impact varying from $690 billion to over $3 trillion dollars. 
  • Individuals should have very strong safety rights. Aside from the economic impact above or suffering a personal injury, being a victim of crime can bring on feelings of guilt, anger, anxiety, depression, fear, and in serious cases, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Safety is at the second level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, just above our physiological needs for air, water, food, sleep and health, demonstrating its importance.
  • The Government should have limited privacy rights. They are entrusted with an incredible amount of power and their workings should be as transparent and open to the public as possible. In cases where national security requires privacy, strong oversight is necessary. Only in the most extreme cases should the government be allowed to keep secrets. 
  • The Government should have limited rights to safety, meaning they can’t abuse their power to keep themselves, their political party or a pet project safe. The Government has to earn our vote, not mislead us, to their ideals. In the United States, people hold the ultimate power, as written in the Declaration of Independence, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. The Government should never abuse their power to further their own selfish interests of survival.

Ultimately I believe the laws covering privacy and safety rights will hinge on the overall morality of our individuals, businesses and governments. A highly moral fabric will lead to a naturally safer society, which in turn will allow stronger rights to privacy. Sadly, the reverse is also true. Ultimately it’s our collective choice, but whatever the outcome, we need solutions that deliver effective compromises.


This article was first published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Technology First magazine.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Dark World

There have been three eras of computing, platforms that have dominated the landscape and enabled the next wave of technology expansion. The mainframe era, saddled by high cost,limited reach and a character-based mentality, gave way to personal computers and, eventually, their phenomenal growth. The PC era was capped by the complexity and cost of its inherently distributed nature, and gave way to the Internet era, fueled by massive increases in bandwidth, web standards and mobile devices. But even twenty years ago it was apparent to me that security would be the Internet era’s achilles heel and the emergence of real risks to critical infrastructure, the establishment of government cyber-warfare programs and the criminal, business-like nature of the dark web shows the Internet era needs to tail off and give way, slowly but eventually to a fourth era of computing, which I’ll call “The Dark World”.

Metaphorically, the Internet era started as a large white canvas, open and inviting. On that canvas emerged black spots, hiding small pieces, implemented by devices like firewalls intrusion prevention devices. More dark spots emerged with the spread of encryption, now protecting more than half of the data transported across the Internet. Real progress is being made, but the white canvas is growing faster than the dark spots can overtake it, and the solution, the fourth wave of computing, will begin as a dark canvas, with white spots appearing where needed. A black canvas can grow exponentially without exposing additional security risk. I don’t believe that today’s black spots will ever grow fast enough or big enough to be a true fix, just needed band-aids along the way.

The Dark World will be a fully encrypted platform, an integrated stack of hardware and software where locked down is the default and plain text is not an option. It will incorporate today’s common solutions, such as disk encryption and Transport Layer Security, but will introduce recent and cutting-edge advancements such as post-quantum encryption, encrypted memory and fully homomorphic encryption, allowing services to be built without ever decrypting the data. Given the immense overhead of such a platform, in terms of 2018 dollars, this platform will naturally start on the highest-value assets, perhaps your firewalls, externally-facing web servers, services that must be HIPAA, PCI or GDPR compliant or your critical infrastructure. This fourth era of computing, like its predecessors, will start small and pose little obvious threat to today’s predominant technology vendors. But interest, investment and innovation will rapidly advance the capabilities and cost-effectiveness of this new era and some point, and probably not too far off, the fourth era of computing will be the default and will leave to support the Internet era, just like we still do for PCs and mainframes, as legacy systems.

The biggest challenge of The Dark World may be the mental mindshift of risk. No longer will we be worried about the leaking of our assets, money, intellectual property or state secrets, to the criminal element or another government. The real risk will be the loss of these assets to ourselves and certainly our governments will panic when they lose that access as well. Our technical staffs will be “flying blind”, yet expected to maintain high service levels. But managing these risks, finding the appropriate “side doors” to satisfy both elected officials and corporate governance, will come front and center as the discussion moves from “what to protect” to “what not to lose”.

The purpose of a strategy is not about getting the details right, but to get people looking. We are all bombarded by millions of pieces of information a day and out of necessity ignore. The message here is to start noticing advancements in encryption and look for a platform to emerge. If all the details above are wrong, but we end up with that metaphorical black canvas, we’ll usher in the next explosion of technology growth.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

At The Beginning

At the beginning, God saw chaos in the land of computing and decided to take action. So…

On the first day, he created the System/360 mainframe and peripherals, and brought standards to the land of chaos.

On the second day, God saw the mainframe was lonely, and created RJE stations, terminals and time-sharing, bringing access to millions. And he was pleased.

On the third day, God saw that the mainframe was too large and only for the few and the rich, and he created DOS, the Intel 8080 processor and the smaller IBM PC to free the people.

On the fourth day, God saw the PC was lonely and limited, and Ethernets, file servers and the Internet were born, bringing computing freedom to the masses. And he was pleased.

On the fifth day, God saw the PC was too bulky and stationary, and created the handheld Apple Newton and Palm Pilot’s to untether the people and have computing fit in their pockets and purses.

On the sixth day, God saw the PDA was lonely and limited and created cellular data networks, which begat the iPhone and the many Android variants, and computing was carried everywhere by everyone. And he was pleased.

On the seventh day, God created billions of tiny processors running everything from cars to refrigerators and connected them to the Internet using Bluetooth, low-power RF, 5G cellular and dozens of other technologies to form the Internet of Things.

And he was pleased.

And so he rested.

But the CIO won’t get a good night’s sleep for years to come.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Google Drive Report

If you’re like me, you’ve accumulated a lot of files on your Google Drive and getting a summary might provide some helpful insights. The following Google App Script will output a summary report by Mime type (e.g. pdf, jpeg) with the total number of files and the total number of bytes used, sorted descending so the largest total number of bytes comes first. It also includes a few statistics on the Google Drive usage. You will find that certain Google file types do not count against your space quota and will have a zero file size.

To use this script...
  • Create a Google App Script (New … More … Google App Script) in your Google Drive, delete any code you see, cut and paste the code below into the script, save the script and give it a name of your choosing.
  • Create a new Google document (New … Google Docs) to hold the report, give it a name, type in a few characters (gibberish is fine) and format those characters in the font type and size you want the output report to take.  Copy (CTRL+C) the document id from the URL (the gibberish part that will look something like 1azjbDuyyT7DNvSfKsP9kOugGukF3iVN5lZ9hud47_aU), then save the document.
  • Paste (CTRL+V) the document ID into the Google App Script, replacing the bolded “YOUR FILE ID GOES HERE” on line 8.
  • Run the script (Run … AllDriveFiles or the arrowhead icon).
  • When the script is finished, you can view your report file.

The output (partial example) will look something like this.

Report generated on Tue Mar 14 2017 14:55:25 GMT-0400 (EDT)

Google Drive Storage Used is 3454522976 Bytes (3294.49 MB)
Google Drive Storage Limit is 123480309760 Bytes (117760.00 MB)
Google Drive Storage Percent Used is 2.80%


Type = application/pdf Count = 2256 Size = 2167898741 Bytes (2067.47 MB)
Type = image/jpeg Count = 3525 Size = 1706782169 Bytes (1627.71 MB)
Type = video/mp4 Count = 8 Size = 369721056 Bytes (352.59 MB)
Type = video/quicktime Count = 3 Size = 162988797 Bytes (155.44 MB)
Type = video/x-m4v Count = 1 Size = 33350360 Bytes (31.81 MB)

If this isn’t exactly what you need, I hope it will serve as a useful starting point and reference.

----------------------------- Google App Script Code ----------------------------------------

function AllDriveFiles() {
// Get date to output on the report
var today = new Date();
var todaysdate = new Date(today.getTime() - 1 * 24 * 60 * 60 * 1000);
var date = todaysdate.toDateString();
// Open the output file by its ID
var report = DocumentApp.openById('YOUR FILE ID GOES HERE');
// Remove any text already in the report
report.setText("  ");
// Print the date
str = 'Report generated on ' + today;
report.getBody().appendParagraph(' ');  
var used = DriveApp.getStorageUsed();
// Print amount of Drive space being used
str = 'Google Drive Storage Used is ' + used + ' Bytes (' + (used/1048576).toFixed(2) + ' MB)';
var limit = DriveApp.getStorageLimit();
// Print the total amount of Drive space
str = 'Google Drive Storage Limit is ' + limit + ' Bytes (' + (limit/1048576).toFixed(2) + ' MB)';
percent = used*100/limit;
// Print the percentage of the total space used by Drive - this does not include sources like GMail
str = 'Google Drive Storage Percent Used is ' + percent.toFixed(2) + '%';
report.getBody().appendParagraph(' ');
report.getBody().appendParagraph(' ');
// Get all Drive files and store the total file count and total file space by each unique Mime Type
var arrType = [];
var arrCount = [];
var arrSize = [];
var files = DriveApp.getFiles();
while (files.hasNext()) {
 var file = files.next();
 arrLen = arrType.length;
 for (i = 0; i < arrLen; i++) {
   if (file.getMimeType() == arrType[i]) {
     arrSize[i] = arrSize[i] + file.getSize();
     i = arrLen + 10;
 if (i == arrLen) {
    arrType[i] = file.getMimeType();
    arrCount[i] = 1;
    arrSize[i] = file.getSize();
// Sort the arrays by descending total file size
arrLen = arrType.length;
var sorted=0;
var i=0;
while (sorted == 0) {
 while (i < arrLen-1) {
   if (arrSize[i] < arrSize[i+1]) {
     Type = arrType[i];
     Count = arrCount[i];
     Size = arrSize[i];
     arrType[i] = arrType[i+1];
     arrCount[i] = arrCount[i+1];
     arrSize[i] = arrSize[i+1];
     arrType[i+1] = Type;
     arrCount[i+1] = Count;
     arrSize[i+1] = Size;
   else {
// Print each detail line
arrLen = arrType.length;
for (i = 0; i < arrLen; i++) {
 str = 'Type = ' + arrType[i] + ' Count = ' + arrCount[i] + ' Size = ' + arrSize[i] + ' Bytes (' + (arrSize[i]/1048576).toFixed(2) + ' MB)';

Sunday, January 15, 2017

AWS IoT Button and TP-Link Smart Plug

A TP-Link smart plug is inserted into a standard electrical outlet and is controlled by the Kasa smartphone app to turn on and off the power to whatever device, for example a lamp, that’s plugged into it. It can also be controlled by voice commands when paired with an Amazon Echo. I wanted to experiment with Amazon Web Service (AWS) Internet of Things (IoT) services using my purchase of an Amazon Programmable Dash Button to control the TP-Link. The design point was that any click (single, double or long press) of the button would turn the power off if it’s currently powered on, and vice versa. That required querying the current device status, parsing the data returned and issuing the proper on/off command. Even the most simple projects, when dealing with unfamiliar technology, leads to lots of challenges and learning, which I’ll share in this blog.

I split the project in two parts, dealing first with controlling the TP-Link from a known environment, namely my MacBook Air on my home wireless network. There is no documented API for the TP-Link, but thanks to a Google search turning up a shell script on George Georgovassilis’s Techblog, I had a starting point. Commands are sent to TCP port 9999 on the TP-Link, which requires a statically-defined, internal IP address so it doesn’t move around, and I defined that on the wireless router. Executing the shell script from a Terminal prompt worked without issue. Knowing that I would be issuing those commands from the Internet (AWS) side of things and not having the ability to statically define the external IP address of my home’s Internet connection, I created a dynamic DNS name using the DYNU (www.dynu.com) service. Now when my home IP address changes, that gets sent to DYNU and they update DNS. I opened port 9999 inbound on my firewall to just the TP-Link, connected my Mac outside my home network via my Android phone’s hotspot capability. Testing was successful and the first part of the project was complete.

The second part dealt with understanding the parts and flows of AWS. When the IoT button is clicked, a message is sent to AWS which is mapped via a Simple Notification Service (SNS) message to one or more AWS Lambda functions. These functions can be written in Python 2.7 or Javascript (Node.js), but not the shell script I’d used so far. Deciding on Python, a language I had never used, I took a short crash course to learn its general syntax and converted the shell script, including updating the script’s netcat calls to standard Python socket calls. After several rounds of additional learning, I had a syntactically proper program and testing began. I was surprised to find that the data returned when querying the TP-Link was slightly different than before, and used a print statement to log the new string and modified the Python program to match. The final hurdle was learning that the socket needed to be closed and a new one created after the query and before the on/off command sent.

So now I have a working IoT button, but two factors limit its usefulness in this purpose. First, it takes about five seconds between clicking the button and the TP-Link changing its power status. Second, the IoT button is limited to about one thousand clicks before its power runs out with no way to charge or replace its battery. Turning lights on and off once a day would drain the button in a little over a year. Turning Christmas lights on and off once a day during each December would be a more suitable, and handy, use case.

Below is the code, with the only required change is updating DNS name (or IP address) in the two bolded connect statements,

AWS Lambda Python 2.7 Function

import socket
import base64
def lambda_handler(event, context):
  on = base64.b64decode(bytes('AAAAKtDygfiL/5r31e+UtsWg1Iv5nPCR6LfEsNGlwOLYo4HyhueT9tTu36Lfog=='))
  off = base64.b64decode(bytes('AAAAKtDygfiL/5r31e+UtsWg1Iv5nPCR6LfEsNGlwOLYo4HyhueT9tTu3qPeow=='))
  query = base64.b64decode(bytes('AAAAI9Dw0qHYq9+61/XPtJS20bTAn+yV5o/hh+jK8J7rh+vLtpbr'))
# Query the TP_Link for its current power status
  s = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
  s.connect(('YOUR IP OR DNS NAME', 9999))
  reply = base64.b64encode(bytes(s.recv(1024)))
  reply = reply[:7]
# If the TP_Link is off, turn it on, and vice versa
  s = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
  s.connect(('IP OR DNS NAME', 9999))
  if reply == 'AAACPND':

Friday, December 16, 2016

IT is Disappearing

Things disappear because either you can’t see them anymore or they become so familiar and pervasive you just totally ignore them, effectively disappearing into the background noise of life. Both of these are happening with information technology and if you’re in this field you might feel that you’re not appreciated the way you’re accustomed to, and that change is quite unexpected, given the explosion of the Internet, mobile devices, home automation technology, 4G cellular networks, driverless cars, ultra-thin laptops and hoverboards. But this isn’t a viewpoint of reality, it’s just about how people perceive the world.

Back in the “good old days”, computer rooms filled entire floors of office buildings, often viewable through thick glass windows revealing rows of big boxes with flashing lights, spinning tapes and technicians in white lab coats. Thick black coax cables connected your steel-cased terminal, with its indestructible keyboard, to secured wiring closets that routed the cables through bored out holes in floors on their way to those multi-million-dollar mainframes. You had special printers, usually large and noisy, that consumed their own special paper, boxes of continuous, green-and-white forms. If you were lucky, you had a special “knife” to separate one output from another. Those heydays changed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as the personal computer became popular and getting your new 486 or Pentium system with its huge boxy system unit and LCD monitor was a day to cherish. Printers morphed into sleek ink-jet and lasers, 8.5”x 11” cut-sheet wonders and loading the right drivers was a right of passage. Then starting at the end of century, things started going in reverse.

Intel-based servers, occupying a fraction of a mainframe’s space, came into fashion. That eventually led to virtualization and hyper-convergence, further shrinking its footprint until an entire room became a couple racks of equipment, hardly impressive as it stood there without a blink, a spin or a technician. Then we moved it to an outsourced data center and now we’re moving it to “the cloud”.

So servers have disappeared.

All the coax cable was removed and your office technology moved over to the same wires as your telephone. Wireless networks removed even the cord and we buried the wireless access points in the ceiling for the best coverage and even if you let its antenna hang from the ceiling, most humans don’t look up all that often, a fact I used to my advantage when hiding Easter eggs from my children. If it was above eye level, they couldn’t find it, even after they knew that’s what I was doing. Faster networks dissolved those irritating slowdowns and everyone has multi-megabit Internet at home.

So networks disappeared.

The PCs are still there, but instead of a thirty pound monster we have two pound laptops with solid-state disks to deliver ten times the performance. But we also have our smartphone and tablets almost making the need for a laptop moot. Executives routinely leave their laptop in their office while traveling, packing their instant-on, less-than-a-pound, all-day-battery iPad, most likely one they bought with their own money. The special printers are gone, consumed by the office copier. Instead of loading serious gobs of software, we access services on the Internet.

So the PCs, while not invisible yet, are fading fast.

The Help Desk has largely become faceless as tickets are entered and problems are resolved, most times without two humans conversing, much less seeing, each other. While useful, productive and necessary, it further removes the connection between people, and the human element is largely disappearing.

So the people join the PCs, not invisible totally, but again, fading.

To further compound the issue, technology is so pervasive it’s disappearing in front of our eyes. I have technology in every pocket. My car key has technology, my smartphone is technology personified, my credit cards have chips and my watch has sensors and a bluetooth connection. I have a smart TV combined with a Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast and cable box. My TV is way smarter than me. My washing machine senses its load, the dryer the its dryness and the outdoor lights sense when someone is near. The car talks to satellites, connects bluetooth and senses the key in my pocket. It was once magical, and now it’s all so familiar I take it for granted.

So it’s all around us, all the time, and we notice it about as much as the air we breathe.

It’s no wonder that the question of “What’s the value of IT” comes up more frequently. We’re disappearing and what people don’t see they naturally question. In my opinion this is not one question, but two. First portion is asking us to make visible all those things they no longer see, or at least used to see parts of. We need to realize that all these things are largely invisible these days for the variety of reasons stated above and take steps to make them real again. Something as simple as making a list of software available in your company, a major systems diagram or the number of PCs being upgraded this year can go a long way.

The second part is asking what are the people in the IT department actually doing. That question can make us very defensive, but it shouldn’t, because if we really think about it, we deliver the changes our business’s require, fix their issues and protect IT assets from a variety of threats. We need to communicate those with a non-defensive posture, using a common language and with a sense of excitement. We should take notice of whole industries that provide mostly invisible products like banking and car insurance, and learn how they convey their value to customers.

Or bury yourself in your cube with your do-not-disturb sign. Your choices will determine your fate.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Guessing Games

I have three simple rules for constructing passwords. They must be easy to remember, hard to guess and quick to type. Inspecting this a bit closer, the “easy” and “quick” are about me, and I can decide what is and isn’t. But the most important, “guess”, is not about me, it’s about the person trying to hack my account. So I can’t decide if my chosen password is “hard” until I get into the thoughts of the hacker. Since that is literally quite impossible, we’ll have to substitute a little research, and a little deduction, to come up with some ways they might approach their guessing. Then we can match a chosen password against these methods to see if they stand a good chance of succeeding. If they might, find another password. If they can’t, sleep easy.

For this analysis, we’ll assume the password needs to be 8 characters in length and contain at least one letter and one number. That results in 2.8 trillion possible combinations, the result of each position having 36 potential (a-z, 0-9) characters.

The most obvious method, but also the most useless, is to programmatically generate guesses. We’ll call this one “random”. Each attempt to guess has a probability of 1 divided by 2.8 trillion, or roughly ten times less likely than winning the Powerball Jackpot (1 in 292 billion) with one ticket. If your thief can try one million guesses every second, it will take about two years to try all the possibilities. So while it’s highly improbable this method could work, it’s also the only method that nobody can protect against, no matter what obscure 8 characters you pick. But this is also the method the “experts” want to make harder by making the password longer, include a capital letter or some special character. Ludacris, in my opinion. 2.8 trillion choices is tough enough.

Since most people think in similar ways, it’s not surprising that they tend to pick similar, simple passwords. We’ll call this one “popular”. Trying only a few thousand of these passwords will likely let a hacker into someone’s account. If your password looks anything even close to “password”, “12345678”, “baseball”, “football”, “superman”, “trustno1”, “sunshine”, “whatever” or “startrek”, stop reading this and change your password now. Anything you use that looks simple is a bad choice. And that rule, “not simple”, is really the only thing you really need to remember.

If a hacker is specifically targeting you, they have the time and motivation to research your life to formulate likely guesses. We’ll call this “targeted”. If you’re a big Bob Seger fan, they might try “bobseger”. If you’re Donald Trump, they might try “melania1” (his wife’s name). If you’re password is built around your personal information or interests, change it now.

The final method is based upon my observations of passwords I’ve encountered, which are very often based on a dictionary words or people’s names, followed by a number, normally “1” unless they are forced to change periodically, then between “1” and “9” (only geeks use “0”) . This final method we’ll call “dictionary”. While the English dictionary contains a little over a million words (who knew?), only 3,000 or so are commonly used. And a fraction of them are seven characters long. And while fewer in number, that’s still true for baby names. If your password starts with a 7-character name or word, again, change it now.

Based the above, and while I don’t claim it’s perfect and will always be a work in progress, it’s a good place to start, and we now have six objective tests to compare our password against. Given the way I construct my passwords, here is my score.

Easy to remember - pass
Quick to type - pass
Popular Attack - pass
Targeted Attack - pass
Dictionary Attack - pass
Random Attack - fail (but everybody fails)

So yeah, I sleep well. I hope you do too.