Speaking at FOSDEM 2018 in Brussels, Belgium

As in the last ten (or so) years I attended FODSEM, the biggest European Free Software event. This year, though, I went a day earlier to attend one of the fringe events, the CHAOSSCon.

I didn’t take notice of the LinuxFoundation announcing CHAOSS, an attempt to bundle various efforts regarding measuring and creating metrics of Open Source projects. The CHAOSS community is thus a bunch of formerly separate projects now having one umbrella.

OpenStack’s Ildiko Vancsa opened the conference by saying that metrics is what drives our understanding of communities and that we’re all interested in numbers. That helps us to understand how projects work and make a more educated guess how healthy a project currently is, and, more importantly, what needs to be done in order to make it more sustainable. She also said that two communities within the CHAOSS project exist: The Metrics and the Software team. The metrics care about what information should be extracted and how that can be presented in an informational manner. The Software team implements the extraction parts and makes the analytics. She pointed the audience to the Wiki which hosts more information.

Georg Link from the metrics team then continued saying that health cannot universally be determined as every project is different and needs a different perspective. The metrics team does not work at answering the health question for each and every project, but rather enables such conclusions to be drawn by providing the necessary infrastructure. They want to provide facts, not opinions.

Jesus from Bitergia and Harish from Red Hat were talking on behalf of the technical team. Their idea is to build a platform to understand how software is developed. The core projects are prospector, cregit, ghdata, and grimoire, they said.

I think that we in the GNOME community can use data to make more informed decisions. For example, right now we’re fading out our Bugzilla instance and we don’t really have any way to measure how successful we are. In fact, we don’t even know what it would mean to be successful. But by looking at data we might get a better feeling of what we are interested in and what metric we need to refine to express better what we want to know. Then we can evaluate measures by looking at the development of the metrics over time. Spontaneously, I can think of these relatively simple questions: How much review do our patches get? How many stale wiki links do we have? How soon are security issues being dealt with? Do people contribute to the wiki, documentation, or translations before creating code? Where do people contribute when coding stalls?

Bitergia’s Daniel reported on Diversity and Inclusion in CHAOSS and he said he is building a bridge between the metrics and the software team. He tried to produce data of how many women were contributing what. Especially, whether they would do any technical work. Questions they want to answer include whether minorities take more time to contribute or what impact programs like the GNOME Outreach Program for Women have. They do need to code up the relevant metrics but intend to be ready for the next OpenStack Gender diversity report.

Bitergia’s CEO talked about the state of the GriomoireLab suite.
It’s software development analysis toolkit written largely in Python, ElasticSearch, and Kibana. One year ago it was still complicated to run the stack, he said. Now it’s easy and organisations like the Document Foundation run run a public instance. Also because they want to be as transparent as possible, he said.

Yousef from Mozilla’s Open Innovation team then showed how they make use of Grimoire to investigate the state of their community. They ingest data from Github, Bugzilla, newsgroup, meetups, discourse, IRC, stackoverflow, their wiki, rust creates, and a few other things reaching back as far as 20 years. Quite impressive. One of the graphs he found interesting was one showing commits by time zone. He commented that it was not as diverse as he hope as there were still many US time zones and much fewer Asian ones.

Raymond from the Linux Foundation talked about Metrics in Open Source Communities, what are they measuring and what do they do with the data. Measuring things is not too complicated, he said. But then you actually need to do stuff with it. Certain things are simply hard to measure, he said. As an example he gave the level of user or community support people give. Another interesting aspect he mentioned is that it may be a very good thing when numbers go down, also because projects may follow a hype cycle, too. And if your numbers drop, it’ll eventually get to a more mature phase, he said. He closed with a quote he liked and noted that he’s not necessarily making fun of senior management: Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

Boris then talked about Crossminer, which is a European funded research project. They aim for improving the management of software projects by providing in-context recommendations and analytics. It’s a continuation of the Ossmeter project. He said that such projects usually die after the funding runs out. He said that the Crossminer project wants to be sustainable and survive the post-funding state by building an actual community around the software the project is developing. He presented a rather high level overview of what they are doing and what their software tries to achieve. Essentially, it’s an Eclipse plugin which gives you recommendations. The time was too short for going into the details of how they actually do it, I suppose.

Eleni talked about merging identities. When tapping various data sources, you have to deal with people having different identity domains. You may want to merge the identities belonging to the same person, she said. She gave a few examples of what can go wrong when trying to merge identities. One of them is that some identities do not represent humans but rather bots. Commonly used labels is a problem, she said. She referred to email address prefixes which may very well be the same for different people, think j.wright@apple.com, j.wright@gmail.com, j.wright@amazon.com. They have at least 13 different problems, she said, and the impact of wrongly merging identities can be to either underestimate or overestimate the number of community members. Manual inspection is required, at least so far, she said.

The next two days were then dedicated to FOSDEM which had a Privacy Devroom. There I had a talk on PrivacyScore.org (slides). I had 25 minutes which I was overusing a little bit. I’m not used to these rather short slots. You just warm up talking and then the time is already up. Anyway, we had very interesting discussions afterwards with a few suggestions regarding new tests. For example, someone mentioned that detecting a CDN might be worthwhile given that CloudFlare allegedly terminates 10% of today’s Web traffic.

When sitting with friends we noticed that FOSDEM felt a bit like Christmas for us: Nobody really cares a lot about Christmas itself, but rather about the people coming together to spend time with each other. The younger people are excited about the presents (or the talks, in this case), but it’s just a matter of time for that to change.

It’s been an intense yet refreshing weekend and I’m looking very much forward to coming back next time. For some reason it feels really good to see so many people caring about Free Software.

Talking at Cubaconf 2017 in Havanna, Cuba

Few weeks ago I had a talk at Cubaconf 2017 in Havanna, Cuba. It’s certainly been an interesting experience. If only because of Carribean people. But also because of the food and the conditions the country has be run under the last decades.

Before entering Cuba, I needed a tourist visa in form of the turist trajeta. It was bothering me for more than it should have. I thought I’d have to go to the embassy or take a certain airline in order to be able to get hold of one of these cased. It turned out that you can simply buy these tourist cards in the Berlin airport from the TUI counter. Some claimed it was possible to buy at the immigration, but I couldn’t find any tourist visa for sale there, so be warned. Also, I read that you have to prove that you have health insurance, but nobody was interested in mine. That said, I think it’s extremely clever to have one…

Connecting to the Internet is a bit difficult in Cuba. I booked a place which had “Wifi” marked as their features and I naïvely thought that it meant that you by booking the place I also get to connect to the Internet. Turns out that it’s not entirely correct. It’s not entirely wrong either, though. In my case, there was an access point in the apartment in which I rented a room. The owner needs to turn it on first and run a weird managing software on his PC. That software then makes the AP connect to other already existing WiFis and bridges connections. That other WiFi, in turn, does not have direct Internet access, but instead somehow goes through the ISP which requires you to log in. The credentials for logging in can be bought in the ISPs shops. You can buy credentials worth 1 hour of WiFi connection (note that I’m avoiding the term “Internet” here) for 3 USD or so from the dealer around the corner. You can get your fix from the legal dealer cheaper (i.e. the Internet office…), but that will probably involve waiting in queues. I often noticed people gathering somewhere on the street looking into their phones. That’s where some signal was. When talking to the local hacker community, I found out that they were using a small PCB with an ESP8266 which repeats the official WiFi signal. The hope is that someone will connect to their piece of electronics so that the device is authenticated and also connects the other clients associated with the fake hotspot. Quite clever.

The conference was surprisingly well attended. I reckon it’s been around hundred people. I say surprisingly, because from all what I could see the event was weirdly organised. I had close to zero communication with the organisers and it was pure luck for me to show up in time. But other people seemed to be in the know so I guess I fell through the cracks somehow. Coincidentally, you could only install the conference’s app from Google, because they wouldn’t like to offer a plain APK that you can install. I also didn’t really know how long my talks should be and needed to prepare for anything between 15 and 60 minutes.

My first talk was on PrivacyScore.org, a Web scanner for privacy and security issues. As I’ve indicated, the conference was a bit messily organised. The person before me was talking into my slot and then there was no cable to hook my laptop up with the projector. We ended up transferring my presentation to a different machine (via pen drives instead of some fancy distributed local p2p network) in order for me to give my presentation. And then I needed to rush through my content, because we were pressed for going for lunch in time. Gnah. But I think a few people were still able to grasp the concepts and make it useful for them. My argument was that Web pages load much faster if you don’t have to load as many trackers and other external content. Also, these people don’t get updates in time, so they might rather want to visit Web sites which generally seem to care about their security. I was actually approached by a guy running StreetNet, the local DIY Internet. His idea is to run PrivacyScore against their network to see what is going on and to improve some aspects. Exciting.

My other talk was about GNOME and how I believe it makes more secure operating systems. Here, my thinking was that many people don’t have expectations of how their system is supposed to be looking or even working. And being thrown into the current world in which operating systems spy on you could lead to being primed to have low expectations of the security of the system. In the GNOME project, however, we believe that users must have confidence in their computing being safe and sound. To that end, Flatpak was a big thing, of course. People were quite interested. Mostly, because they know everything about Docker. My trick to hook these people is to claim that Docker does it all wrong. Then they ask pesky questions which gives me many opportunities to mention that for some applications squashfs is inferior to, say, OStree, or that you’d probably want to hand out privileges only for a certain time rather than the whole life-time of an app. I was also to make people look at EndlessOS which attempts to solve many problems I think Cubans have.

The first talk of the conference was given by Ismael and I was actually surprised to meet people I know. He talked about his hackerspace in Almería, I think. It was a bit hard to me to understand, because it was in Spanish. He was followed by Valessio Brito who talked about putting a price on Open Source Software. He said he started working on Open Source Software at the age of 16. He wondered how you determine how much software should cost. Or your work on Open Source. His answer was that one of the determining factors was simply personal preference of the work to be performed. As an example he said that if you were vegan and didn’t like animals to be killed, you would likely not accept a job doing exactly that. At least, you’d be inclined to demand a higher price for your time. That’s pretty much all he could advise the audience on what to do. But it may also very be that I did not understand everything because it was half English and half Spanish and I never noticed quickly enough that the English was on.

An interesting talk was given by Christian titled “Free Data and the Infrastructure of the Commons”. He began saying that the early textile industry in Lyon, France made use of “software” in 1802 with (hard wired) wires for the patterns to produce. With the rise of computers, software used to be common good in the early 1960s, he said. Software was a common good and exchanged freely, he said. The sharing of knowledge about software helped to get the industry going, he said. At the end of the 1970s, software got privatised and used to be licensed from the manufacturer which caused the young hacker movement to be felt challenged. Eventually, the Free Software movement formed and hijacked the copyright law in order to preserve the users’ freedoms, he said. He then compared the GPL with the French revolution and basic human rights in that the Free Software movement had a radical position and made the users’ rights explicit. Eventually, Free Software became successful, he said, mainly because software was becoming more successful in general. And, according to him, Free Software used to fill a gap that other software created in the 80s. Eventually, the last bastion to overcome was the desktop, he said, but then the Web happened which changed the landscape. New struggles are software patents, DRM, and privacy of the “bad services”. He, in my point of view rightfully so, said that all the proliferation of free and open source software, has not lead to less proprietary software though. Also, he is missing the original FOSS attitude and enthusiasm. Eventually he said that data is the new software. Data not was not an issue back when software, or Free Software even, started. He said that 99% of the US growth is coming from the data processing ad companies like Google or Facebook. Why does data have so much value, he asked. He said that actually living a human is a lot of work. Now you’re doing that labour for Facebook by entering the data of your human life into their system. That, he said, is where the value in coming from. He made the the point that Software Freedoms are irrelevant for data. He encouraged the hackers to think of information systems, not software. Although he left me wondering a bit how I could actually do that. All in all, a very inspiring talk. I’m happy that there is a (bad) recording online:

I visited probably the only private company in Cuba which doubles as a hackerspace. It’s interesting to see, because in my world, people go and work (on computer stuff) to make enough money to be free to become a singer, an author, or an artist. In Cuba it seems to be the other way around, people work in order to become computer professionals. My feeling is that many Cubans are quite artsy. There is music and dancing everywhere. Maybe it’s just the prospects of a rich life though. The average Cuban seems to make about 30USD a month. That’s surprising given that an hour of bad WiFi costs already 1 USD. A beer costs as much. I was told that everybody has their way to get hold of some more money. Very interesting indeed. Anyway, the people in the hackerspace seemed to be happy to offer their work across the globe. Their customers can be very happy, because these Cubans are a dedicated bunch of people. And they have competitive prices. Even if these specialists make only hundred times as much the average Cuban, they’d still be cheap in the so called developed world.

After having arrived back from Cuba, I went to the Rust Hackfest in Berlin. It was hosted by the nice Kinvolk folks and I enjoyed meeting all the hackers who care about making use of a safer language. I could continue my work on rustifying pixbuf loaders which will hopefully make it much harder to exploit them. Funnily enough, I didn’t manage to write a single line of Rust during the hackfest. But I expected that, because we need to get to code ready to be transformed to Rust first. More precisely, restructure it a bit so that it has explicit error codes instead of magic numbers. And because we’re parsing stuff, there are many magic numbers. While digging through the code, other bugs popped up as well which we needed to eliminate as side challenges. I’m looking much forward to writing an actual line of Rust soon! ;-)

Talking at GI Tracking Workshop in Darmstadt, Germany

Uh, I almost forgot about blogging about having talked at the GI Tracking Workshop in Darmstadt, Germany. The GI is, literally translated, the “informatics society” and sort of a union of academics in the field of computer science (oh boy, I’ll probably get beaten up for that description). And within that body several working groups exist. And one of these groups working on privacy organised this workshop about tracking on the Web.

I consider “workshop” a bit of a misnomer for this event, because it was mainly talks with a panel at the end. I was an invited panellist for representing the Free Software movement contrasting a guy from affili.net, someone from eTracker.com, a lady from eyeo (the AdBlock Plus people), and professors representing academia. During the panel discussion I tried to focus on Free Software being the only tool to enable the user to exercise control over what data is being sent in order to control tracking. Nobody really disagreed, which made the discussion a bit boring for me. Maybe I should have tried to find another more controversial argument to make people say more interesting things. Then again, it’s probably more the job of the moderator to make the participants discuss heatedly. Anyway, we had a nice hour or so of talking about the future of tracking, not only the Web, but in our lives.

One of the speakers was Lars Konzelmann who works at Saxony’s data protection office. He talked about the legislative nature of data protection issues. The GDPR is, although being almost two years old, a thing now. Several types of EU-wide regulations exist, he said. One is “Regulation” and the other is “Directive”. The GDPR has been designed as a Regulation, because the EU wanted to keep a minimum level of quality across the EU and prevent countries to implement their own legislation with rather lax rules, he said. The GDPR favours “privacy by design” but that has issues, he said, as the usability aspects are severe. Because so far, companies can get the user’s “informed consent” in order to do pretty much anything they want. Although it’s usefulness is limited, he said, because people generally don’t understand what they are consenting to. But with the GDPR, companies should implement privacy by design which will probably obsolete the option for users to simply click “agree”, he said. So things will somehow get harder to agree to. That, in turn, may cause people to be unhappy and feel that they are being patronised and being told what they should do, rather than expressing their free will with a simple click of a button.

Next up was a guy with their solution against tracking in the Web. They sell a little box which you use to surf the Web with, similar to what Pi Hole provides. It’s a Raspberry Pi with a modified (and likely GPL infringing) modification of Raspbian which you plug into your network and use as a gateway. I assume that the device then filters your network traffic to exclude known bad trackers. Anyway, he said that ads are only the tip of the iceberg. Below that is your more private intimate sphere which is being pried on by real time bidding for your screen estate by advertising companies. Why would that be a problem, you ask. And he said that companies apply dynamic pricing depending on your profile and that you might well be interested in knowing that you are being treated worse than other people. Other examples include a worse credit- or health rating depending on where you browse or because your bank knows that you’re a gambler. In fact, micro targeting allows for building up a political profile of yours or to make identity theft much easier. He then went on to explain how Web tracking actually works. He mentioned third party cookies, “social” plugins (think: Like button), advertisement, content providers like Google Maps, Twitter, Youtube, these kind of things, as a means to track you. And that it’s possible to do non invasive customer recognition which does not involve writing anything to the user’s disk, e.g. no cookies. In fact, such a fingerprinting of the users’ browser is the new thing, he said. He probably knows, because he is also in the business of providing a tracker. That’s probably how he knows that “data management providers” (DMP) merge data sets of different trackers to get a more complete picture of the entity behind a tracking code. DMPs enrich their profiles by trading them with other DMPs. In order to match IDs, the tracker sends some code that makes the user’s browser merge the tracking IDs, e.g. make it send all IDs to all the trackers. He wasn’t really advertising his product, but during Q&A he was asked what we can do against that tracking behaviour and then he was forced to praise his product…

Eye/o’s legal counsel Judith Nink then talked about the juristic aspects of blocking advertisements. She explained why people use adblockers in first place. I commented on that before, claiming that using an adblocker improves your security. She did indeed mention privacy and security being reasons for people to run adblockers and explicitly mentionedmalvertising. She said that Jerusalem Post had ads which were actually malware. That in turn caused some stir-up in Germany, because it was coined as attack on German parliament… But other reasons for running and adblocker were data consumption and the speed of loading Web pages, she said. And, of course, the simple annoyance of certain advertisements. She presented some studies which showed that the typical Web site has 50+ or so trackers and that the costs of downloading advertising were significant compared to downloading the actual content. She then showed a statement by Edward Snowden saying that using an ad-blocker was not only a right but is a duty.

Everybody should be running adblock software, if only from a safety perspective

Browser based ad blockers need external filter lists, she said. The discussion then turned towards the legality of blocking ads. I wasn’t aware that it’s a thing that law people discuss. How can it possibly not be legal to control what my client does when being fed a bunch of HTML and JavaScript..? Turns out that it’s more about the entity offering these lists and a program to evaluate them *shrug*. Anyway, ad-blockers use either blocking or hiding of elements, she said where “blocking” is to stop the browser from issuing the request in first place while “hiding” is to issue the request, but to then hide the DOM element. Yeah, law people make exactly this distinction. She then turned to the question of how legal either of these behaviours is. To the non German folks that question may seem silly. And I tend to agree. But apparently, you cannot simply distribute software which modifies a Browser to either block requests or hide DOM elements without getting sued by publishers. Those, she said, argue that gratis content can only be delivered along with ads and that it’s part of the deal with the customer. Like that they also transfer ads along with the actual content. If you think that this is an insane argument, especially in light of the customer not having had the ability to review that deal before loading that page, you’re in good company. She argued, that the simple act of loading a page cannot be a statement of consent, let alone be a deal of some sorts. In order to make it a deal, the publishers would have to show their terms of service first, before showing anything, she said. Anyway, eye/o’s business is to provide those filter lists and a browser plugin to make use of those lists. If you pay them, however, they think twice before blocking your content and make exceptions. That feels a bit mafiaesque and so they were sued for “aggressive geschäftliche Handlung”, an “aggressive commercial behaviour”. I found the history of cases interesting, but I’ll spare the details for the reader here. You can follow that, and other cases, by looking at OLG Koeln 6U149/15.

Next up was Dominik Herrmann to present on PrivacyScore.org, a Web portal for scanning Web sites for security and privacy issues. It is similar to other scanners, he said, but the focus of PrivacyScore is publicity. By making results public, he hopes that a race to the top will occur. Web site operators might feel more inclined to implement certain privacy or security mechanisms if they know that they are the only Web site which doesn’t protect the privacy of their users. Similarly, users might opt to use a Web site providing a more privacy friendly service. With the public portal you can create lists in order to create public benchmarks. I took the liberty to create a list of Free Desktop environments. At the time of creation, GNOME fell behind many others, because the mail server did not implement TLS 1.2. I hope that is being taking as a motivational factor to make things more secure.

Talking at Kieler LinuxTage 2017 in Kiel, Germany

I was invited to present GNOME at the Kieler LinuxTage in Kiel, Germany.


Compared to other events, it’s a tiny happening with something between fifty and hundred people or so. I was presenting on how I think GNOME pushes the envelope regarding making secure operating systems (slides, videos to follow). I was giving three examples of how GNOME achieves its goal of priding a secure OS without compromising on usability. In fact, I claimed that the most successful security solutions must not involve the user. That sounds a bit counter intuitive to people in the infosec world, because we’re trying to protect the user, surely they must be involved in the process. But we better not do that. This is not to say that we shouldn’t allow the user to change preferences regarding how the solutions behave, but rather that it should work without intervention. My talk was fairly good attended, I think, and we had a great discussion. I tend to like the discussion bit better than the actual presentation, because I see it as an indicator for how much the people care. I couldn’t attend many other presentations, because I would only attend the second day. That’s why I couldn’t meet with Jim :-/

But I did watch Benni talking about hosting a secure Web site (slides). He started his show with mentioning DNS which everybody could read, He introduced DNSSEC. Which, funnily enough, everybody also can read, but he failed to mention that. But at least nobody can manipulate the response. Another issue is that you leak information about your host names with negative responses, because you tell the client that there is nothing between a.example.com and b.example.com. He continued with SSH for deploying your Web site and mentioned SSHFP which is a mechanism for authenticating the host key. The same mechanism exists for Web or Mail servers, he said: DANE, DNS-based Authentication of named entities. It works via TLSA records which encode either the certificate or the used public key. Another DNS-based mechanism is relatively young: CAA. It asserts that a certificate for a host name shall be signed by a certain entity. So you can hopefully prevent a CA that you’ve never heard of creating a certificate for your hosts. All of these mechanisms try to make the key exchange in TLS a bit less shady. TLS ensures a secure channel, i.e. confidentiality, non-repudiation, and integrity. That is considered to be generally useful in the Web context. TLS tends to be a bit of a minefield, because of the version and configuration matrix. He recommended to use at least TLS as of version 1.2, to disable compression due to inherent attacks on typical HTTP traffic (CRIME), and to use “perfect forward secrecy” ciphers for protecting the individual connections after the main key leaked. Within TLS you use x509 certificates for authenticating the parties, most importantly in the Web world, the server side. The certificate shall use a long enough RSA key, he said, The certificate shall not use a CN field to indicate the host name, but rather the SAN field. The signatures should be produced with “at least SHA-256”. He then mentioned OCSP because life happens and keys get lost or stolen. However, with regular OSCP the clients expose the host names they visit, he said. Enter OCSP Stapling. In that case the Web server itself gets the OCSP response and hands it over to the client. Of course, this comes with its own challenges. But it may also happen that CAs issue certificates for a host name which doesn’t expect that new certificate. In that case, Certificate transparency becomes useful. It’s composed of three components, he said. Log servers which logs all created certificates, monitors which pull the logs, and auditors which check the logs for host names. Again, your Browser may want to check whether the given certificate is in the CT logs. This opens the same privacy issue as with OCSP and can be somewhat countered with signed log statements from a few trusted log servers.

In any case, TLS is only useful, he said, if you are actually using it. Assuming you had a secure connection once, you can use the TLS Strict Transport Security header. It tells the browser to use TLS in the future. Of course, if you didn’t have that first connection, you can have your webapp entered in the STS Preloading list which is then baked into major browsers. Another mechanism is HTTP Public Key Pinning which is a HTTP header to tell the client which certificates or CAs shall be accepted. The header value is a simple list of hashed certificates. He mentioned the risk of someone hijacking your Web presence with an injected HPKP header. A TLS connection has eventually been established successfully. Now the HTTP layer gets interesting, he said. The Content Type Options header prevents Internet Explorer from snooping content types which might cause an image to be executed as JavaScript. Many Cross-Site Scripting attacks, he said, originate from being embedded in a frame. To prevent that, you can set the X-Frame-Options header. To activate Cross-Site Scripting protection mechanisms, the X-XSS-Protection header can be set. It’s probably turned off by default for compatibility reasons, he said. If you know where exactly your data is coming from, you can make use of a Content Security Policy which is like SELinux for your browser. It’s a bit of a complicated mechanism though. For protecting your Webapp he mentioned Sub-Resource Integrity which is essentially the hash of what script you expect. This prevents tampering with the foreign script, malicious or not.

I think that was one of the better talks in the schedule with many interesting details to be discovered. I enjoyed it a lot. I did not enjoy their Web sites, though, which are close to being unusable. The interface for submitting talks gives you a flashback to the late 90’s. Anyway, it seems to have worked for many years now and hope they will have many years to come.

Talking at PET-CON 2017.2 in Hamburg, Germany

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to talk at the 7th Privacy Enhancing Techniques Conference (PET-CON 2017.2) in Hamburg, Germany. It’s a teeny tiny academic event with a dozen or so experts in the field of privacy.

The talks were quite technical, involving things like machine learning over logs or secure multi-party computation. I talked about how I think that the best technical solution does not necessarily enable the people to be more private, simply because the people might not be able to make use of the tool properly. A concern that’s generally shared in the academic community. Yet, the methodology to create and assess the effectiveness of a design is not very elaborated. I guess we need to invest more brain power into creating models, metrics, and tools for enabling people to do safer computing.

So I’m happy to have gone and to have had the opportunity of discussing the issues I’m seeing. Likewise, I find it very interesting to see where the people are currently headed towards.

Talked at mrmcd 2017 in Darmstadt, Germany

I attended this year’s MRMCD in Darmstadt, Germany. I attended a few times in the past and I think this year’s edition was not as successful as the last ones. The venue changed this year, what probably contributed to some more chaos than usual and hence things not running as smoothly as they did. I assume it will be better next year, when people know how to operate the venue. Although all tickets were sold during the presale phase, it felt smaller than in the last years. In fairness, though, the venue was also bigger this year. The schedule had some interesting talks, but I didn’t really get around to attend many, because I was busy preparing my own shows (yeah, should’ve done that before…).

I had two talks at this conference. The first was on playing the children’s game “battleship” securely (video). That means with cryptography. Lennart and I explained how concepts such as commitment schemes, zero knowledge proofs of knowledge, oblivious transfer, secure multiparty computation and Yao’s protocol can be used to play that game without a trusted third party. The problem, in short, is to a) make sure that the other party’s ships are placed correctly and b) to make sure the other party answers correctly. Of course, if you get hold of the placements of the ships these problems are trivial. But your opponent doesn’t like you to know about the placements. Then a trusted third party would solve that problem trivially. But let’s assume we don’t have such a party. Also, we want to decentralise things, so let’s come up with a solution that involves two players only.

The second problem can be solved with a commitment. A commitment is a statement about a something you’ve chosen but that doesn’t reveal the choice itself nor allows for changing ones mind later. Think of a letter in a closed envelope that you hand over. The receiver doesn’t know what’s written in the letter and the sender cannot change the content anymore. Once the receiver is curious, they can open the envelope. This analogy isn’t the best and I’m sure there’s better real-world concepts to compare to commitment schemes. Anyway, for battleship, you can make the other party commit to the placement of the ships. Then, when the battle starts, you have the other party open the commitment for the field that you’re shooting. You can easily check whether the commitment verifies correctly in order to determine whether you hit a ship or water.

The other problem is the correct placement of the ships, e.g. no ships shall be adjacent, exactly ten ships, exactly one five-field ship, etc. You could easily wait until the end of the game and then check whether everything was placed correctly. But that wouldn’t be (cryptographic) fun. Let’s assume one round of shooting is expensive and you want to make sure to only engage if the other party indeed follows the rules. Now it’s getting a bit crazy, because we need to perform a calculation without learning anything else than “the ships are correctly placed”. That’s a classic zero knowledge problem. And I think it’s best explained with the magic door in a cave.

Even worse, we need to somehow make sure that we cannot change our placement afterwards. There is a brain melting concept of secure multi-party computation which allows you to do exactly that. You can execute a function without knowing what you’re doing. Crazy. I won’t be able to explain how it works in a single blog post and I also don’t intend to, because others are much better in doing that than I could ever be. The gist of the protocol is, that you model your functionality as a Boolean circuit and assign random values to represent “0” or “1” for each wire. You then build the truth table for each gate and replace the values of the table (zeros and ones) with an encryption under both the random value for the first input wire and the random value for the second input wire. The idea now is that the evaluator can only decrypt one value in the truth table given the input keys. There are many more details to care about but eventually you have a series of encrypted, or garbled, gates and you need the relevant keys in order to evaluate it. You can’t tell from the keys you get whether it represents a “0” or a “1”. Hence you can evaluate without knowing the other party’s input.

My other talk was about a probable successor of Return Oriented Programming: Data Oriented Programming (video). In Return Oriented Programming (ROP) and its variants like JOP the aim is to diverge the original control flow in order to make the program execute the attacker’s functionality. This, however, can probably be thwarted by Control Flow Integrity. In its simplest form, it checks on every branch whether it is legit. Think of a database with a list of addresses which are allowed to a list of other addresses. Of course, real-world implementations are more clever. Anyway, let’s assume that we’ll have a hard time exploiting our target with ROP, because we cannot change the CFG of the program. If our attack doesn’t change the CFG, though, we should be safe for anything that detects its modification. That’s the central idea of DOP.

Although I’m not super excited about this year’s edition, I’m looking forward to seeing the next year’s event. I hope it’s going to be a bit more organised; including myself ;-)

Talking at FrOSCon 2017

I attended my first FrOSCon in St. Augusting, Germany. It’s one of the bigger Free Software events in Germany. Supposedly, the Chemnitzer LinuxTage is one of the few events which are bigger than FrOSCon. I thought it’s time for me to attend this event, so I went.

I was scheduled for two talks. One in the very first slot and one in the very last slot. So, to some extent, I was opening and closing the conference ;-) But the official keynote was, to my surprise, performed by Karen. She keynoted the conferences with her “big heart” talk. He told her story about her wanting to find out what software her pacemaker runs. Of course, it was an endless quest with no success. She described herself as a cyborg because of the machinery that is linked up to her body. She researched the security of devices such as pacemakers and found devastating results. In fact, software is deployed in many critical parts with people having no clue how the impact will be if the software is being attacked. She described the honeymoon effect and projected it to the security aspects of deployed software. She described it as a time in which no vulnerabilities are known. But once a vulnerability has been found, the number of known vulnerability increases exponentially. She found a study which shows that Free Software responds better to found vulnerabilities than proprietary systems. She said she went from thinking “Open Source was cool” to “Open Source is essential” because it responds much better in case of security breaches. She cautioned us to be careful with the Internet of Things™, because it will lead to people being connected without the people even knowing. All software has bugs, she said, but with Software Freedom we are able to do something about the situation. It’s been an enjoyable talk and I recommend watching the video.

Another interesting talk was given by Raffa about open data in public transport. Open data, especially in trip planning, can give us better results, he said, because personal preferences can be respected better. But also competition will become tougher if the data is free which might lead to better products. My personal argument in favour of open data is that it would allow offline routing rather than having to connect to the Internet. Some public transportation companies have freed their data, like the companies in Berlin, Ulm, Rhein Neckar, and Rhein Sieg, which is, funnily enough, the local company responsible for the public transport in the area of the event. However, some companies are still hesitant. The reasons are manifold. One is that they don’t want to deal with complaints about wrongly displayed data or simply outdated data that the third party didn’t bother to update. Also abuse is a concern. What would abuse even mean in this context? Well, some companies are afraid that the data is not only being used for trip planning but for finding out how the companies work or what their financial situation is, e.g. by inferring information from the data.

Andreas Schreiber talked about the complications of Open Source in Science. He works at DLR, which is a publicly funded research institute. Software is important to the DLR. 1500 people develop software which costs around 150 Million EUR per year and makes them probably the biggest software house in Germany, he said. As they are producing as releasing software they got in trouble with licensing issues. For example, they released software which was not open source although they thought it was. They also used software themselves which they may not have been entitled to use. Their CIO eventually issued a warning regarding the use and release of Open Source which made the speaker offer workshops and knowledge databases for issues around open source. They created a brochure which they intend to distribute to other institutes, too, because they tend to get more requests for this kind of information from the outside than from the inside of their organisation. I found interesting that the problems, according to the participants of their workshops, are that monetising won’t work, that building a community is hard, and that it costs more time to do “open source” than not which is demotivating. It’s been interesting to learn about issues involved in both consuming and producing open source software.

As I’ve mentioned, I was booked for two events, a talk and a workshop. My workshop was about signing OpenPGP keys. I held a small presentation and ranted, some times a bit unfairly, about the current state of affairs. I showed how people do it as of now and how I think we can do better than that. It’s been the first slot in this conference and the audience was small, albeit larger than expected. We even got to suggest improvements in Gentoo’s packaging, so I consider it a success. My talk (slides) was about how GNOME advances the security of desktop systems. The audience was super engaged and I felt I couldn’t focus so much on other things I only touched upon. But the discussion showed that people do care about a usable desktop. We were talking a lot about dialogues and modal prompts and how they do not contribute to the security of a system. I claimed that they exist because they were cheap for the app developer to do. But we at GNOME, I said, try or at least should try to avoid those as much as possible and we find other ways of enabling the app to capture the user’s intent. I’m surprised that we had such a lively discussion in the very last slot of the conference.

I’m happy to have attended the event and to meet surprisingly many GNOME people! It’s surprisingly close to Frankfurt and Cologne both of which have good connections via plane or train. With around 1800 attendees it’s quite big although the many tracks and rooms make it feel less crowded.


It’s summer and it’s GUADEC time! This year’s GUADEC took place in Manchester, England. It was surprisingly less bad for that location ;-) The organisers deserve a big round of applause for having pulled the event off. After having organised last year’s GUADEC I have first hands experience running such an event. So a big “thank you” to the team from England :)

The venue was a big and modern university and the accommodation was neatly located a few footsteps from the lecture hall. That’s especially nice for the typical English weather ;-) We got to live in the student dorms and I’m a bit jealous of today’s student to be able to live in such a comfortable place.

I attended a few talks from the list, among them was Christian Hergert reporting on The State of Builder which was a bit scattered and not very well structured for beginners like me. I guess was meant to be more of a showing off new features instead of a structured walk through the design and thoughts behind the project. I knew the project existed but I never really got around to work with it so I was a bit put off. But I took that for a good opportunity for installing the latest Flatpaked application :)

I liked Simon’s talk on enabling users to modify the software they are running. Essentially, you can click a button in the application and it’ll fire up an IDE where you can change code and hit “play” to run the new version. Amazing. Software Freedom at its best. He demoed a prototype and I think it’s got potential. I really like the idea of the user being able to tinker around easily. Especially given that the status quo is jhbuild. That’s a nice tool, but it proves to be hard for people to make good use of it. I hope we will see something like this being used in the future.

Federico was telling us about the efforts to make use of the Rust language for GNOME. The gist is, essentially, that you better start with leaf functions of your app or library rather than a central function in your architecture. I then tried to find leaf functions with the help of the compiler, but I failed. I tried Egypt but I wasn’t patient enough to make proper use of the generated dot file in order to identify leaf functions. Maybe I should give cflow a try next time.

I used the BoF days to dip a little bit into Rust. It’s always helpful to have a bunch of smart hackers around. That’s what I like about these kind of events. You get to know and talk to very smart people. I also tried to catch up with my very talented student and discuss the changes we’d like to see.

Thanks to the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring my travel and to the local team for having organised a successful event!

GUADEC 2017 group photo

OpenSuSE Conference 2017 Nuremberg, Germany

As last year I was honoured to be invited to OpenSuSE Conference in Nuremberg, Germany.

The event has grown and I felt a relaxed yet productive atmosphere when entering the venue. Just a few minutes after I arrived I hooked up with interesting people with even more interesting discussions. It was very nice to get together with all the Free Software friends I made over the last years. It was also pleasent to see the event becoming bigger and bigger. I take that as a sign that our community grows although it might also just be consolidation of events.

The organision team provided everything from Brazilian BBQ to perfect weather :) The schedule hosted interesting sessions, including mine of course ;-) I had a small workshop on signing OpenPGP keys and I made people use GNOME Keysign. ;-) It was successful in the sense that we were able to shake out a few bugs to make the application more robust. I also realised that networks are not very permissive nowadays. More precisely, the WiFi blocked mDNS traffic preventing the apps from finding each other :( One design goal of the app was to not have to rely on an Internet connection. But if the networks prevent clients from talking to each other then I think we need to go via the Internet in order to transfer files locally :/ Fortunately, we are working on an Internet transport. Stay tuned for further posts on this issue.

Oh, and we even had a GNOME stand full of amazing stuff.

Talking at GPN 2017 in Karlsruhe, Germany

Although the GPN is an annual event, I haven’t managed to go very often. Last time has already been a while. It’s a pity, because the event is very cute. The location is just amazing which makes being there really fun. It’s a museum hosting many things from our digital world. If you visit only one thing in Karlsruhe, go and visit it. In fact, we tried to organise a small excursion during GUADEC last year. Bloomberg also has an article about the event.

I could only stay one day, but I opened the conference with my talk on building a more secure operating system without sacrificing usability which, of course, was a GNOME related talk. The room was packed and people had to sit on the floor. Based on the feedback I think the people liked to be explained what challenges are to be solved in order to ship more secure systems to more people. You can find the slides here. In case you want to practise your German, you can watch the video here.

The schedule had a few other gems, too. My favourite was Loeschi talking about the upcoming Smart Meter Gateway situation in Germany and how it compares to the rest of Europe. The talk about QR Codes was also nicely done and explained quite well how they work. I hope to be able to attend the event more often :) Especially because I wish the Free Software and the “hacker” people would mingle a bit more.