Ouf, long time no blog. Sorry about that. Life is.. busy these days. One of my occupations has been to defend against USB-borne attacks, as mentioned before. Probably the most known is the BadUSB attack which masquerades as a mass storage device but also is a keyboard. Then, the device would inject keystrokes which hack your machine. This class of attacks is difficult to defend against, because the operating system can hardly determine whether the user did indeed want to plug a device with those capabilities in. There is another class of attacks, though, which is a bit easier to defend against, I think. That other class is based on buggy drivers which the malicious USB device pulls in. So once you attach your device, the host’s kernel will look for the appropriate driver and let it speak with the device. That’s very convenient because it makes devices just work. However, certain drivers might not be of the same quality than others and there have indeed been cases which allow a malicious USB device to interact with a bit-rotten driver which in turn led to fatal consequences.
I have been thinking a lot about how to defend against either class of attacks. You can easily come up with various solutions based on pop-ups interrupting the user and authoring the device before it will be ready for use. Or with a policy-based solution that requires you to generate a firewall-like description of what the machine is allowed to do. Or a mixture of those two attempts. And that’s what has been done, already. Arguably, none of these solutions has been successful, as I am not aware of any built-in protection scheme for any major operating system. The reason, I believe, is that users expect things to just work and once you make it not work, users get grumpy. So the challenge is to unfold protection capabilities without changing the users’ experience.
The short version of our approach is that we are trying to be smart about the user’s intent. That is, if the screen is locked, then we block the device. If a new keyboard is present and it tries to perform “dangerous” actions, we block them. Of course, you may very well expect that device to work when the screen is locked or the new keyboard to perform actions deems dangerous. This is why is make sure you have a way to opt out of the mechanism and continue to enjoy your GNOME experience. Almost all credits go to Ludovico for coming up with a set of patches as well as following up to make sure we can get it merged. Our slides are here and the video of our presentation is here:
But I wanted to write more about GUADEC… This year’s GUADEC was in Thessaloniki, Greece, and I had the pleasure to be talking about the above mentioned protection. It was the end of the summer so the city was nicely warm and comfy. The coffee, juices, pastries, and other food and drinks in small shops on the streets were amazingly fresh and yummie. Arriving in Thessaloniki was okay. I’ve had better airport transfers in my life, but since there were only two buses it was hard to get lost. I needed to pay attention to the GPS, though, to find my right stop. It’s been long since I’ve slept in a bunk bed, but because we’re all GNOME people we had a good time.
Meeting friends, old and new, is really good and I have had a fantastically efficient time talking to people. It’s so much better to meet in-person and talk directly rather than via email or bug tracker.
This year I spoke at FOSDEM again. It became sort of a tradition to visit Brussels in winter and although I was tempted to break with the tradition, I came again.
I had two talks at this year’s FOSDEM, both in the Security track. One on my work with Ludovico on protecting against rogue USB devices and another one on tracking users with core Internet protocols. We got a bigger room this year, but it was still packed. Despite the projector issues, which seem to be appearing more often recently, the talks went well. The audience was very engaged and we had a lively discussion in the hallway. In fact, the discussion was extremely fruitful because we were told about work in similar areas which we ought to check out.
For our USB talk I thought I’d set the mindset first and explain how GNOME thinks it should interact with the user. That is, the less interaction is required, the better it is. Especially for a security system where the user may not know what to do. In fact, we try to just make it work™ without the user having to do anything. That is vastly different from other projects are doing. In particular, Kaspersky wants you to enter a PIN when attaching a new keyboard and the USBGuard dialogue is not necessarily suitable for our users.
In the talk on Internet protocols I mainly showed that optimisations regarding the latency need to be balanced against the privacy needs of the users. Because in order to reduce latency you usually share a state with the other end which tends to be indicated through some form of token or cookie. And because you have this shared state, the server can discriminate you. What you can try to do is to not send the token or cookie in first place. Of course, then you lose the optimisation. In turns out, however, that TLS 1.3 can be as fast, i.e. 1 round trip, and that the latency is not better or worse if you resume a previous session. Note how I talk about latency only and ignore other aspects such as CPU cycles spent for the connection establishment. Another strategy is to not send the token unencryptedly. With TLS 1.2 the Session Ticket is sent without any form of encryption which enables a network-based attacker to see your token and correlate your requests. The same is true for other optimisations such as TCP Fast Open. I have also presented our approach to balancing privacy and latency, namely a patched WolfSSL and Linux. With these patched versions we send the TCP Fast Open cookie via TLS s.t. the attacker cannot see it when we request it.
The conference was super busy and I was super busy with talking to people. It’s amazing how fast time flies when you are engaged in interesting discussions. I bumped from one person into another and then it was already time for dinner. The one talk I’ve seen was done by my colleague on preventing cryptographic misuse of libraries. More precisely, an attempt to provide sane APIs which make shooting yourself in the foot very hard.
The country is incredibly civilised and friendly. I felt much more reminded of Japan rather than China. It’s a very safe and easy place to travel. The public transportation system is fast and efficient. The food is cheap and you’ll rarely be surprised by what you get. The accommodation is a bit pricey but we haven’t been disappointed. But the fact the
Taiwan is among the 20 countries which are least reliant on tourism, you may also say that they have not yet developed tourism as a GDP dominating factor, shows. Many Web sites are in Chinese, only. The language barrier is clearly noticeable, albeit fun to overcome. Certain processes, like booking a train ticket, are designed for residents, only, leaving tourists only the option of going to a counter rather than using electronic bookings. So while it’s a safe and fun country to travel, it’s not as easy as it could or should be.
The conference was fairly big. I reckon that there have been 500 attendees, at least. The tracks were a bit confusing as there were info panels showing the schedule, a leaflet with the programme, and a Web site indicating what was going on, but all of those were contradicting each other. So I couldn’t know whether a talk was in English, Chinese, or a wild mix of those. It shouldn’t have mattered much, because, amazingly enough, they had live translation into either language. But I wasn’t convinced by their system, because they had one poor person translating the whole talk. And after ten minutes or so I noticed how the guy lost his concentration.
Anyway, a few interesting talks I have seen were given by Trend Micro’s Fyodor about fraud in the banking and telephony sector. He said that telcos and banks are quite similar and in fact, in order to perform a banking operation a phone is required often times. And in certain African countries, telcos like Vodafone are pretty much a bank. He showed examples of how these sectors are being attacked by groups with malicious intents. He mentioned, among others, the Lazarus group.
Another interesting talk was about Korean browser plugins which are required by banks and other companies. It was quite disastrous. From what I understood the banks require you to install their software which listens on all interfaces. Then, the bank’s Web site would contact that banking software which in turn cryptographically signs a request or something. That software, however, is full of bugs. So bad, that you can exploit them remotely. To make matters worse, that software installs itself as a privileged program, so your whole machine is at risk. I was very surprised to learn that banks take such an approach. But then again, currently banks require us to install their proprietary apps on proprietary phone operating systems and at least on my phone those apps crash regularly
My own talk was about making operating system more secure and making more secure operating systems. With my GNOME hat on, I mentioned how I think that the user needs to led in a cruel world with omnipresent temptation to misbehave. I have given similar presentations a few times and I developed a few questions and jokes to get the audience back at a few difficult moments during the presentation. But with that didn’t work so well due to the language barrier. Anyway, it was great fun and I still got some interesting discussions out of it afterwards.
Big kudos to the organisers who have been running this event for many many years now. Their experience can certainly be seen in the quality of the venue, the catering, and the selection of speakers. I hope to be able to return in the next few years.
I got to talk about how I believe GNOME is in a good position make a safe and secure operating system. I presented some case studies and reported on the challenges that I see. For example, Simone mentioned in her talk that certain users don’t trust a software if it is too simple. Security stuff must be hard, right?! So how do measure the success of your security solution? Obviously you can test with users, but certain things are just very hard to get users for. For example, testing GNOME Keysign requires a user not only with a set up MUA but also with a configured GnuPG. This is not easy to come by. The discussions were fruitful and I got sent a few references that might be useful in determining a way forward.
OpenPGP Email Summit
I also attended the OpenPGP Email Summit in Brussels a few weeks ago. It’s been a tiny event graciously hosted by a local company. Othershave written reports, too, which are highly interesting to read.
It’s been an intense weekend with lots of chatting, thinking, and discussing. The sessions were organised in a bar-camp style manner. That is, someone proposed what to discuss about and the interested parties then came together. My interest was in visual security indication, as triggered by this story. Unfortunately, I was lured away by another interesting session about keyserver and GDPR compliance which ran in parallel.
For the plenary session, Holger Krekel reported on the current state of Delta.Chat. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go. It’s trying to provide an instant messaging interface with an email transport. I’ve used this for a while now and my experience is mixed. I still get to occasional email I cannot decrypt and interop with my other MUA listening on the very same mailbox is hit and miss. Sometimes, the other MUA snatches the email before Delta.chat sees it, I think. Otherwise, I like the idea very much. Oh, and of course, it implements Autocrypt, so your clients automatically encrypt the messages.
Continuing the previous talk, Azul went on to talk about countermitm, an attempt to overcome Autocrypt 1.0‘s weaknesses. This is important work. Because without the vision of how to go from Autocrypt Level 1 to Level 2, you may very well question to usefulness. As of now, Emails are encrypted along their way (well. Assuming MTA-STS) and if you care about not storing plain text messages in your mailbox, you could encrypt them already now. Defending against active attackers is hard so having sort of a plan is great. Anyway, countermitm defines “verified groups” which involves a protocol to be run via Email. I think I’ve mentioned earlier that I still think that it’s a bit a sad that we don’t have the necessary interfaces to run protocols over Email. Outlook, I think, can do simple stuff like voting for of many options or retracting an email. I would want my key exchange to be automated further, i.e. when GNOME Keysign sends the encrypted signature, I would want the recipient to decrypt it and send it back.
Phil Zimmermann, the father of PGP, mentioned a few issues he sees with the spec, although he also said that it’s been a while that he was deeply into this matter. He wanted the spec to be more modern and more aggressively pushing for today’s cryptography rather than for the crypto of the past. And in fact, he wants the crypto of tomorrow. Now. He said that we know that big agencies are storing message today for later analyses. And we currently have no good way of having what people call “perfect forward secrecy” so a future key compromise makes the messages of today readable. He wants post quantum crypto to defeat the prying eyes. I wonder whether anybody has implemented pq-schemes for GnuPG, or any other OpenPGP implementation, yet.
My takeaways are: The keyserver network needs a replacement. Currently, it is used for initial key discovery, key updates, and revocations. I think we can solve some of these problems better if we separate them. For example, revocations are pretty much a fire and forget thing whereas other key updates are not necessarily interesting in twenty years from now. Many approaches for making initial key discovery work have been proposed. WKD, Autocrypt, DANE, Keybase, etc. Eventually one of these approaches wins the race. If not, we can still resort back to a (plain) list of Email addresses and their key ids. That’s as good or bad as the current situation. For updates, the situation is maybe not as bad. But we might still want to investigate how to prevent equivocation.
Another big thing was deprecating cruft in the spec to move a bit faster in terms of cryptography and to allow implementers to get a compliant program running (more) quickly. Smaller topics were the use of PQ safe algorithm and exploitation of backwards incompatible changes to the spec, i.e. v5 keys with full fingerprints. Interestingly enough, a trimmed down spec had already been developed here.
I was invited to be a panellist at this year’s FIfFKon in Berlin, Germany. While I said hi to the people at All Systems Go!, my main objective in Berlin was to attend the annual conference of the FIfF, the association for people in computing caring about peace and social responsibility.
The most interesting talk for me was held by Rainer Mühlhoff on the incapacitation if the user. The claim, very broadly speaking, is that providing a usable interface prevents your users from learning how to operate the machine properly. Or in other words: Making an interface for dumb people will attract dumb people and not make them smarter. Of course, he was more elaborate than that.
He presented Android P which nudges the user into a certain behaviour. In Android, you get to see for how long you have used an app and encourages you to stop. Likewise, Google nudges you into providing your phone number for account recovery. The design of that dialogue makes it hard to hit the button to proceed without providing the number. Those nudges do not prevent a choice to be made, they just make it more likely that the user makes one particular choice. The techniques are borrowed from public policy making and commercial settings. So the users are being an instrument themselves rather than a sovereign entity.
Half way through his talk he made a bit of a switch to “sealed interfaces” and presented the user interface of a vacuum cleaner. In the beginning, the nozzle had a “bristly” or “flat” setting, depending on whether you wanted to use it on a carpet or a flat surface. Nowadays, the pictogram does not show the nozzle any more, but rather the surface you want to operate on. Similarly, microwave ovens do not show the two levers for wattage and time any more, but rather full recipes like pizza, curry, or fish.
The user is prevented from understanding the device in its mechanical details and use it as an instrument based on what it does. Instead the interaction is centred on the end purpose rather than using the device as a tool to achieve this end. The commercialisation of products numbs people down in their thinking. We are going from “Don’t make me think” to “Can you do the thinking for me” as, he said, we can see with the newer Android interfaces which tries to know already what you intend to do.
Eventually, you adapt the technology to the human rather than adapting the human to the technology. And while this is correct, he says, and it has gotten us very far, it is wrong from a social theory point of view. Mainly because it suggests that it’s a one-way process whereas it really is an interdependency. Because the interaction with technology forms habits and coins how the user experiences the machine. Imagine, he said, to get a 2018 smartphone in 1995. Back in the day, you probably could not have made sense out of it. The industrial user experience design is a product of numbing users down.
A highly interesting talk that got me thinking a little whether we ought to teach the user the inner workings of software systems.
The panel I was invited for had the topic “More privacy for smart phones – will the GDPR get us a new break through?” and we were discussing with a corporate representative and other people working in data protection. I was there in my capacity as a Free Software representative and as someone who was working on privacy enhancing technologies. I used my opportunities to praise Free Software and claim that many problems we were discussion would not exist if we consequently used Free Software. The audience was quite engaged and asked a lot of questions. Including the ever popular point of *having* to use WhatsApp, Signal, or any of those proprietary products, because of the network effect and they demanded more regulation. I cautioned that call for various reasons and mentioned that the freedom to choose the software to run has not yet fully been exploited. Afterwards, some projects presented themselves. It was an interesting mix of academic and actual project work. The list is on the conference page.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to Kyiv to keynote (video) the local Open Source Developer Network conference. Actually, I had two presentations. The opening keynote was on building a more secure operating system with fewer active security measures. I presented a few case studies why I believe that GNOME is well positioned to deliver a nice and secure user experience. The second talk was on PrivacyScore and how I believe that it makes the world a little bit better by making security and privacy properties of Web sites transparent.
The audience was super engaged which made it very nice to be on stage. The questions, also in the hallway track, were surprisingly technical. In fact, most of the conference was around Kernel stuff. At least in the English speaking track. There is certainly a lot of potential for Free Software communities. I hope we can recruit these excellent people for writing Free Software.
Lennart eventually talked about CAsync and how you can use that to ship your images. I’m especially interested in the cryptography involved to defend against certain attacks. We also talked about how to protect the integrity of the files on the offline disk, e.g. when your machine is off and some can access the (encrypted) drive. Currently, LUKS does not use authenticated encryption which makes it possible that an attacker can flip some bits in the disk image you read.
Canonical’s Christian Brauner talked about mounting in user namespaces which, historically, seemed to have been a contentious topic. I found that interesting, because I think we currently have a problem: Filesystem drivers are not meant for dealing with maliciously crafted images. Let that sink for a moment. Your kernel cannot deal with arbitrary data on the pen drive you’ve found on the street and are now inserting into your system. So yeah, I think we should work on allowing for insertion of random images without having to risk a crash of the system. One approach might be libguestfs, but launching a full VM every time might be a bit too much. Also you might somehow want to promote drives as being trusted enough to get the benefit of higher bandwidth and lower latency. So yeah, so much work left to be done. ouf.
Then, Tycho Andersen talked about forwarding syscalls to userspace. Pretty exciting and potentially related to the disk image problem mentioned above. His opening example was the loading of a kernel module from within a container. This is scary, of course, and you shouldn’t be able to do it. But you may very well want that if you have to deal with (proprietary) legacy code like Cisco, his employer, does. Eventually, they provide a special seccomp filter which forwards all the syscall details back to userspace.
As I’ve already mentioned, the conference was highly technical and kernel focussed. That’s very good, because I could have enlightening discussions which hopefully get me forward in solving a few of my problems. Another one of those I was able to discuss with Jakob on the days around the conference which involves the capabilities of USB keyboards. Eventually, you wouldn’t want your machine to be hijacked by a malicious security device like the Yubikey. I have some idea there involving modifying the USB descriptor to remove the capabilities of sending funny keys. Stay tuned.
Anyway, we’ve visited the city and the country before and after the event and it’s certainly worth a visit. I was especially surprised by the coffee that was readily available in high quality and large quantities.
I’ve more or less just returned from this year’s GUADEC in Almeria, Spain where I got to talk about assessing and improving the security of our apps. My main point was to make people use ASan, which I think Michael liked Secondarily, I wanted to raise awareness for the security sensitivity of some seemingly minor bugs and how the importance of getting fixes out to the user should outweigh blame shifting games.
I presented a three-staged approach to assess and improve the security of your app: Compilation time, Runtime, and Fuzzing. First, you use some hardening flags to compile your app. Then you can use amazing tools such as ASan or Valgrind. Finally, you can combine this with afl to find bugs in your code. Bonus points if you do that as part of your CI.
I encountered a few problems, when going that route with Flatpak. For example, the libasan.so is not in the Platform image, so you have to use an extension to have it loaded. It’s better than it used to be, though. I tried to compile loads of apps with ASan in the past and I needed to compile a custom GCC. And then mind the circular dependencies, e.g. libmfpr is needed by GCC. If I then compile a libmfpr with ASan, then GCC would stop working, because gcc itself is not linked against ASan. It seems silly to have those annoyances in the stack. And it is. I hope that by making people play around with these technologies a bit more, we can get to a point where we do not have to catch those time consuming bugs.
The organisation around the presentation was a bit confusing as the projector didn’t work for the first ten minutes. And it was a bit unclear who was responsible for making it work. In that room the audio also used to be wonky. I hope it went well alright after all.
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.
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 email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.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.
This season’s CCCongress, the 34C3, (well, the 2017 one) moved from Hamburg to Leipzig. That was planned, in the sense that everybody knew before the event moved to Hamburg, that the location will only be available for a few years.
My own CCCongress experience in the new location is limited, because I could not roam around as much as I wanted to. But I did notice that it was much easier to get lost in Hamburg than in the new venue. I liked getting lost, though.
We had a talk on anonymisation networks (slides, video) scheduled with three people, but my experience with making a show with several people on stage is not so good. So we had a one man show which I think is good enough. Plus, I had private commitments that prevented me from attending the CCCongress as much as I would have wanted to.
I could attend a few talks myself, but I’ll watch most of them later. CCCongress is getting less about the talks but about meeting people you haven’t seen in a while. And it’s great to have such a nice event to cater for the desire to catch up with fellow hackers, exchange ideas and visions.
That said, I’ll happily come back next year, hopefully with a bit more time and preparation to get the most of the visit. Although it hasn’t been announced yet, I would be surprised if it does not take place there again. So you might as well book your accommodation already
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!