Talking at mrmcds 2016 in Darmstadt, Germany

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the mrmcds in Darmstadt, Germany. Just like I did the last years. Like the years before, the conference was nicely themed. This year, the theme was all things medical. So speakers were given doctors’ coats, conference staff were running around like surgeons, alcohol could be had intravenously …

mrmcd 2016 logo

The talk on medical device nightmares (video) showed some medical devices like which show and record vital signs such as the pulse or blood pressure. But also more fancy devices such as an MRI. Of course, he did not only show the devices themselves, but rather how they tested them on their external interfaces, i.e. the networking port. Speaking of the MRI: It exposed a few hundred open ports. The services listening on these ports crashed when nmap scanned the host… But at least apparently they recovered automatically. He also presented an anaesthetic monitoring device, which is supposed to show how much alive a patient still is. The device seems to have a telnet interface which you can log on to with default credentials. The telnet interface has, not surprisingly, a command injection vulnerability, which allowed them to take ownership of the device. The next step was then to hijack the framebuffer and to render whatever they wanted on it. For example nice looking vital data; as if the patient was still alive. Or, probably the more obvious thing to do: Show Rick Astley.

It’s been an entertaining talk which makes you realise how complicated the whole area of pharmaceutical or medical appliances is. They need to go through a long and troublesome certification process, not unlike other businesses (say, car manufacturers). Patching the underlying Windows is simply not possible without losing the certification. You may well ask whether a certificate or an up-to-date OS is better for your health. And while I make it look a bit ridiculous now, I do appreciate that it’s a tough subject.

My own talk on GNOME (video) was well visited. I explained why I think GNOME is a good candidate for shipping security software to the masses. I said that GNOME cares about its users and goes the extra mile to support as many users as possible. That includes making certain decisions to provide a secure by default system. I gave two examples of how I think GNOME pushes the envelope when it comes to making security usable. One was the problem of OpenPGP Keysigning. I mentioned that it’s a very geeky thing which mortals do not understand. Neither do many security people, to be honest. And you can’t even blame them because it’s a messy thing to do. Doing it properly™ involves a metric ton of OpSec to protect the integrity of the key to be signed. I think that we can make the process much more usable than it is right now while even maintaining security. This year, I had Andrei working with me to make this happen.

The other example I gave was the problem of USB security. Do you know when you use your USB? And do you know when you don’t? And do you know when other people use your USB? I talked about the possibility to lock down your USB ports while you’re not in front of your computer. The argument goes that you can’t possibly insert anything if you’re away. Of course, there are certain cases to keep in mind, like not forbidding a keyboard to be plugged in, in case the old one breaks. But there is little reason to allow your USB camera to work unless you are actively using your machine. I presented how this could look like by showing off the work the George did last summer.

My friend Jens talked about Reverse Engineering of applications. He started to explain why you would do that in first place. Analysing your freshly received malware or weaknesses (think backdoors or bypasses) in your software are motivations, he said. But you might as well tinker with old software which has no developer anymore or try to find APIs of other software for interoperational purposes, he said. Let me note that with Free Software, you wouldn’t have to reverse engineer the binary ;-) But he also mentioned that industrial espionage is a reason for people to reverse engineer a compiled programme. The tool he uses the most is the “file” tool. He went on to explain the various executable formats for various machine flavours (think: x86, ELF, PE, JVM). To go practical, he showed a .NET application which only writes “hello, world!”, because malware, he said, is written in .NET nowadays. In order to decompile the binary he recommended “iLspy” as a one-stop suite for reverse engineering .NET applications. Next up were Android applications. He showed how to pull the APK off the device and how to decompose it to JAR classes. Then he recommended CFR for decompiling those into Java code. His clients, mostly banks, he said, try to hide secret keys in their apps, so the first thing he does when having a new job is to grep for “secret”. In 80% of the cases, he said, it is successful. To make it harder for someone to reverse engineer the binary, obfuscators exist for Java, but also for C. He also mentioned some anti debugging techniques such as to check for the presence of certain DLLs or to throw certain interrupts to determine whether the application runs under a debugger. It was a very practical talk which certainly made it clear that the presented things are relevant today. Due to the limited time and the many examples, he could only scratch the surface, though.

It’s been a nice conference with 400ish attendees. I really like how they care about the details, also when it comes to make the speakers feel good. It’s too sad that it’s only one weekend. I’m looking forward to attending next year’s edition :-)

Using NetworkManager to export your WiFi settings as a barcode

With my new phone, I needed to migrate all the WiFi settings. For some reason, it seems to be hard to export WiFi configuration from Android and import it in another. The same holds true for GNOME, I guess.

The only way of getting WiFi configuration into your Android phone (when not being able to write the wpa_supplicant file) seems to be barcodes! When using the barcode reader application, you can scan a code in a certain format and the application would then create a wifi configuration for you.

I quickly cooked up something that allows me to “export” my laptop’s NetworkManager WiFis via a QR code. You can run and it creates a barcode of your currently active configuration, if any. You will also see a list of known configurations which you can then select via the index. The excellent examples in the NetworkManager’s git repository helped me to get my things done quickly. There’s really good stuff in there.

I found out that I needed to explicitely render the QR code black on white, otherwise the scanning app wouldn’t work nicely. Also, I needed to make the terminal’s font smaller or go into fullscreen with F11 in order for the barcode to be printed fully on my screen. If you have a smaller screen than, say, 1360×768, I guess you will have a problem using that. In that case, you can simply let PyQRCode render a PNG, EPS, or SVG. Funnily enough, I found it extremely hard to print either of those formats on an A4 sheet. The generated EPS looks empty:

Printing that anyway through Evince makes either CUPS or my printer die. Converting with ImageMagick, using convert /tmp/barcode.eps -resize 1240x1753 -extent 1240x1753 -gravity center -units PixelsPerInch -density 150x150 /tmp/barcode.eps.pdf
makes everything very blurry.

Using the PNG version with Eye of GNOME does not allow to scale the image up to my desired size, although I do want to print the code as big as possible on my A4 sheet:

Now you could argue that, well, just render your PNG bigger. But I can’t. It seems to be a limitation of the PyQRCode library. But there is the SVG, right? Turns out, that eog still doesn’t allow me to print the image any bigger. Needless to say that I didn’t have inkscape installed to make it work… So I went ahead and used LaTeX instead

Anyway, you can get the code on github and gitlab. I guess it might make sense to push it down to NetworkManager, but as I am more productive in writing Python, I went ahead with it without thinking much about proper integration.

After being able to produce Android compatible WiFi QR codes, I also wanted to be able to scan those with my GNOME Laptop to not having to enter passwords manually. The ingredients for a solution to this problem is parsing the string encoded as a barcode and creating a connection via the excellent NetworkManager API. Creating the connection is comparatively easy, given that an example already exists. Parsing the string, however, is a bit more complex than I initially thought. The grammar of that WiFi encoding language is a bit insane in the sense that it allows multiple encodings for the same thing and that it is not clear to encode (or decode) certain networks. For example, imagine your password is 12345678. The encoding format now wants to know whether that is ASCII characters or the hex encoded passphrase (i.e. the hex encoded bytes 0x12,0x34,0x56,0x78). In the former case, the encoded passphrase must be quoted with double quotes, e.g. P:"12345678";. Fair enough. Now, let’s imagine the password is "12345678" (yes, with the quotes). Then you need to hex encode that ASCII string to P:22313233343536373822. But, as it turns out, that’s not what people have done, so I have seen quite a few weird QR codes for Wifis out there :(

Long story short, the program should also scan your barcode and create a new WiFi connection for you.

Do you have any other ideas how to migrate wifi settings from one device to another?

On GNOME Governance

On 2015-10-04 it was announced that the governing body of the GNOME Foundation, the Board, has a vacant seat. That body was elected about 15 weeks earlier. The elections are very democratic, they use an STV system to make as many votes as possible count. So far, no replacement has been officially announced. The question of what strategy to use in order to find the replacement has been left unanswered. Let me summarise the facts and comment on the strategy I wish the GNOME project to follow.

The STV system used can be a bit hard to comprehend, at first, so let me show you the effects of an STV system based on the last GNOME elections. With STV systems, the electorate can vote for more than one candidate. An algorithm then determines how to split up the votes, if necessary. Let’s have a look at the last election’s first votes:


We see the initial votes, that is, the number of ballots in which a candidate was chosen first. If a candidate gets eliminated, either because the number of votes is sufficient to get elected or because the candidate has the least votes and cannot be elected anymore, the vote of the ballot is being transferred onto the next candidate.

In the chart we see that the electorate chose to place 19 or more votes onto two candidates who got directly elected. Overall, six candidates have received 13 or more votes. Other candidates have at least 30% less votes than that. If we had a “simple” voting mechanism, the result would be the seven candidates with the most votes. I would have been one of them.

But that’s not how our voting system works, because, as we can see below, the picture of accumulated votes looks differently just before eliminating the last candidate (i.e. me):


If you compare the top seven now, you observe that one candidate received votes from other candidates who got eliminated and managed to get in.

We can also see from the result that the final seat was given to 17.12 votes and that the first runner-up had 16.44 votes. So this is quite close. The second runner-up received 10.39 votes, or 63% of the votes of the first runner-up (so the first runner-up received 158% of the votes of the second runner-up).

We can also visually identify this effect by observing a group of eight which accumulated the lion’s share of the votes. It is followed by a group of five.

Now one out of the seven elected candidates needed to drop out, creating a vacancy. The Foundation has a set of rules, the bylaws, which regulate vacancies. They are pretty much geared towards maintaining an operational state even with a few directors left and do not mandate any particular behaviour, especially not to follow the latest election results.


Of course this is not about what is legally possible, because that’s the baseline, the bare minimum we expect to see. The GNOME Foundation’s Board is one of the few democratically elected bodies. It is a well respected entity in industry as well as other Free Software communities. I want it to stay that way. Most things in Free Software are not very democratic; and that’s perfectly fine. But we chose to have a very democratic system around the governing body and I think that it would leave a bad taste if the GNOME Foundation chooses to not follow these rather young election results. I believe that its reputation can be damaged if the impression of forming a cabal, of not listening to its own membership, prevails. I interpret the results as a strong statement of its membership for those eight candidates. GNOME already has to struggle with accusations of it not listening to its users. I’d rather want to get rid of it, not fueling it by extending it to its electorate. We’re in the process of acquiring sponsors for our events and I don’t think it’s received well if the body ignores its own processes. I’d also rather value the membership more rather than producing arguments for those members who chose to not vote at all and try to increase the number of members who actually vote.

GUADEC 2015 in Gothenburg, Sweden

This summer, GUADEC, the GNOME Users and Developers Conference took place in Gothenburg, Sweden. It’s a lovely city, especially in summer, with nice people, excellent beers, and good infrastructure. Fun fact: Unisex toilet seem to be very popular in Gothenburg. The conference was hosted in sort of a convention centre and was well equipped to serve our needs. I guess we’ve been around 150 people to come together in order to discuss and celebrate our favourite Free Software project: GNOME.

One of the remarkable talks I attended was given by Matthias Kirschner from the FSFE presented on software freedom and how is concerned about the computer as a general purpose machine. So his talk was title “The computer as a Universal Machine”. He was afraid that the computing machines we are using become more and more special purpose devices rather than a general purpose machine. He gave examples of how he thinks that has happened, like corporations hiding the source code or otherwise limit access to change the behaviour of the computing machines we are using. Other examples were media with Digital Restrictions Management. Essentially it is about removing features instead of widening the functionality. As such, SIM locks also served an example. With SIM locks, you cannot change your SIM card when, say, you are on holidays. More examples he gave were the region code of DVDs or copy restrictions on CD-ROMs. He was also referring to the Sony CD story from a couple of years ago when they infected buyers of their CD-ROMs or the Amazon fiasco where they deleted books on their reader devices. Essentially, these companies are trying to put the user into the back-seat when it comes to take control over your devices.

While protecting the owner of the computer sounds useful in a few scenarios, like with ATMs, it can be used against the owner easily, if the owner cannot exercise control over what the machine considers trusted. A way to counter this, he said, is to first simply not accept the fact that someone else is trying to limit the amount of control you can exercise over your machines. Another thing to do, according to him, is to ask for Free Software when you go shopping, like asking for computers with a pre-installed GNU/Linux system. I liked most parts of the talk, especially because of the focus on Free Software. Although I also think that for most parts he was preaching to the choir. But I still think that it’s important to remind ourselves of our Free Software mission.

Impressively enough, you can already watch most of the Videos! It’s quite amazing that they have already been cut and post-process so that we can watch all the things that we missed. I am especially looking forward to Christian’s talk on Builder and the Design session.

I really like going to GUADEC, because it is so much easier and more pleasant to communicate with people in-person rather than on low bandwidth channels such as IRC or eMail. I could connect my students with all these smart people who know much more about the GNOME stack than I do. And I was able to ask so many things I hadn’t understood. Let’s hope there will be GUADEC next year! If you are interested in hosting next year’s edition, you should consider submitting a bid!

On my travel back I realised that the Frankfurt Airport is running Ubuntu:

I want to thank the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring my travel to GUADEC 2015.
Sponsored by GNOME!

Open Source Hong Kong 2015

Recently, I’ve been to Hong Kong for Open Source Hong Kong 2015, which is the heritage of the GNOME.Asia Summit 2012 we’ve had in Hong Kong. The organisers apparently liked their experience when organising GNOME.Asia Summit in 2012 and continued to organise Free Software events. When talking to organisers, they said that more than 1000 people registered for the gratis event. While those 1000 were not present, half of them are more realistic.

Olivier from Amazon Web Services Klein was opening the conference with his keynote on Big Data and Open Source. He began with a quote from RMS: about the “Free” in Free Software referring to freedom, not price. He followed with the question of how does Big Data fit into the spirit of Free Software. He answered shortly afterwards by saying that technologies like Hadoop allow you to mess around with large data sets on commodity hardware rather than requiring you to build a heavy data center first. The talk then, although he said it would not, went into a subtle sales pitch for AWS. So we learned about AWS’ Global Infrastructure, like how well located the AWS servers are, how the AWS architecture helps you to perform your tasks, how everything in AWS is an API, etc. I wasn’t all too impressed, but then he demoed how he uses various Amazon services to analyse Twitter for certain keywords. Of course, analysing Twitter is not that impressive, but being able to do that within a few second with relatively few lines of code impressed me. I was also impressed by his demoing skills. Of course, one part of his demo failed, but he was reacting very professionally, e.g. he quickly opened a WiFi hotspot on his phone to use that as an alternative uplink. Also, he quickly grasped what was going on on his remote Amazon machine by quickly glancing over netstat and ps output.

The next talk I attended was on trans-compiling given by Andi Li. He was talking about Haxe and how it compiles to various other languages. Think Closure, Scala, and Groovy which all compile to Java bytecode. But on steroids. Haxe apparently compiles to code in another language. So Haxe is a in a sense like Emcripten or Vala, but a much more generic source-to-source compiler. He referred about the advantages and disadvantages of Haxe, but he lost me when he was saying that more abstraction is better. The examples he gave were quite impressive. I still don’t think trans-compiling is particularly useful outside the realm of academic experiments, but I’m still intrigued by the fact that you can make use of Haxe’s own language features to conveniently write programs in languages that don’t provide those features. That seems to be the origin of the tool: Flash. So unless you have a proper language with a proper stdlib, you don’t need Haxe…

From the six parallel tracks, I chose to attend the one on BDD in Mediawiki by Baochuan Lu. He started out by providing his motivation for his work. He loves Free/Libre and Open Source software, because it provides a life-long learning environment as well as a very supportive community. He is also a teacher and makes his students contribute to Free Software projects in order to get real-life experience with software development. As a professor, he said, one of his fears when starting these projects was being considered as the expert™ although he doesn’t know much about Free Software development. This, he said, is shared by many professors which is why they would not consider entering the public realm of contributing to Free Software projects. But he reached out to the (Mediawiki) community and got amazing responses and an awful lot of help.
He continued by introducing to Mediawiki, which, he said, is a platform which powers many Wikimedia Foundation projects such as the Wikipedia, Wikibooks, Wikiversity, and others. One of the strategies for testing the Mediawiki is to use Selenium and Cucumber for automated tests. He introduced the basic concepts of Behaviour Driven Development (BDD), such as being short and concise in your test cases or being iterative in the test design phase. Afterwards, he showed us how his tests look like and how they run.

The after-lunch talk titled Data Transformation in Camel Style was given by Red Hat’s Roger Hui and was concerned with Apache Camel, an “Enterprise Integration” software. I had never heard of that and I am not much smarter know. From what I understood, Camel allows you to program message workflows. So depending on the content of a message, you can make it go certain ways, i.e. to a file or to an ActiveMQ queue. The second important part is data transformation. For example, if you want to change the data format from XML to JSON, you can use their tooling with a nice clicky pointy GUI to drag your messages around and route them through various translators.

From the next talk by Thomas Kuiper I learned a lot about Gandi, the domain registrar. But they do much more than that. And you can do that with a command line interface! So they are very tech savvy and enjoy having such customers, too. They really seem to be a cool company with an appropriate attitude.

The next day began with Jon’s Kernel Report. If you’re reading LWN then you haven’t missed anything. He said that the kernel grows and grows. The upcoming 4.2 kernel, probably going to be released on August 23rd. might very well be the busiest we’ve seen with the most changesets so far. The trend seems to be unstoppable. The length of the development cycle is getting shorter and shorter, currently being at around 63 days. The only thing that can delay a kernel release is Linus’ vacation… The rate of volunteer contribution is dropping from 20% as seen for 2.6.26 to about 12% in 3.10. That trend is also continuing. Another analysis he did was to look at the patches and their timezone. He found that that a third of the code comes from the Americas, that Europe contributes another third, and so does Australasia. As for Linux itself, he explained new system calls and other features of the kernel that have been added over the last year. While many things go well and probably will continue to do so, he worries about the real time Linux project. Real time, he said, was the system reacting to an external event within a bounded time. No company is supporting the real time Linux currently, he said. According to him, being a real time general purpose kernel makes Linux very attractive and if we should leverage that potential. Security is another area of concern. 2014 was the year of high profile security incidents, like various Bash and OpenSSL bugs. He expects that 2015 will be no less interesting. Also because the Kernel carries lots of old and unmaintained code. Three million lines of code haven’t been touch in at least ten years. Shellshock, he said, was in code more than 20 years old code. Also, we have a long list of motivated attackers while not having people working on making the Kernel more secure although “our users are relying on us to keep them safe in a world full of threats”

The next presentation was given by Microsoft on .NET going Open Source. She presented the .NET stack which Microsoft has open sourced at the end of last year as well as on Visual Studio. Their vision, she said, is that Visual Studio is a general purpose IDE for every app and every developer. So they have good Python and Android support, she said. A “free cross platform code editor” named Visual Studio Code exists now which is a bit more than an editor. So it does understand some languages and can help you while debugging. I tried to get more information on that Patent Grant, but she couldn’t help me much.

There was also a talk on Luwrain by Michael Pozhidaev which is GPLv3 software for blind people. It is not a screen reader but more of a framework for writing software for blind people. They provide an API that guarantees that your program will be accessible without the application programmer needing to have knowledge of accessibility technology. They haven’t had a stable release just yet, but it is expected for the end of 2015. The demo unveiled some a text oriented desktop which reads out text on the screen. Several applications already exist, including a file editor and a Twitter client. The user is able to scroll through the text by word or character which reminded of ChorusText I’ve seen at GNOME.Asia Summit earlier this year.

I had the keynote slot which allowed me to throw out my ideas for the future of the Free Software movement. I presented on GNOME and how I see that security and privacy can make a distinguishing feature of Free Software. We had an interesting discussion afterwards as to how to enable users to make security decisions without prompts. I conclude that people do care about creating usable secure software which I found very refreshing.

Both the conference and Hong Kong were great. The local team did their job pretty well and I am proud that the GNOME.Asia Summit in Hong Kong inspired them to continue doing Free Software events. I hope I can be back soon :-)

GNOME.Asia Summit 2015 in Depok, Indonesia

I have just returned from the GNOME.Asia Summit 2015 in Depok, Indonesia.

Out of the talks, the most interesting talk I have seen, I think, was the one from Iwan S. Tahari, the manager of a local shoe producer who also sponsored GNOME shoes!

Open Source Software in Shoes Industry” was the title and he talked about how his company, FANS Shoes, est 2001, would use “Open Source”. They are also a BlankOn Linux partner which seems to be a rather big thing in Indonesia. In fact, the keynote presentation earlier was on that distribution and mentioned how they try to make it easier for people of their culture to contribute to Free Software.
Anyway, the speaker went on to claim that in Indonesia, they have 82 million Internet users out of which 69 million use Facebook. But few use “Open Source”, he asserted. The machines sold ship with either Windows or DOS, he said. He said that FANS preferred FOSS because it increased their productivity, not only because of viruses (he mentioned BRONTOK.A as a pretty annoying example), but also because of the re-installation time. To re-install Windows costs about 90 minutes, he said. The average time to install Blank On (on an SSD), was 15 minutes. According to him, the install time is especially annoying for them, because they don’t have IT people on staff. He liked Blank On Linux because it comes with “all the apps” and that there is not much to install afterwards. Another advantage he mentioned is the costs. He estimated the costs of their IT landscape going Windows to be 136,57 million Rupees (12000 USD). With Blank On, it comes down to 0, he said. That money, he can now spend on a Van and a transporter scooter instead. Another feature of his GNU/Linux based system, he said, was the ability to cut the power at will without stuff breaking. Indonesia, he said, is known for frequent power cuts. He explicitly mentioned printer support to be a major pain point for them.

When they bootstrapped their Free Software usage, they first tried to do Dual Boot for their 5 employees. But it was not worth their efforts, because everybody selected Windows on boot, anyway. They then migrated the accounting manager to a GNU/Linux based operating system. And that laptop still runs the LinuxMint version 13 they installed… He mentioned that you have to migrate top down, never from bottom to top, so senior management needs to go first. Later Q&A revealed that this is because of cultural issues. The leaders need to set an example and the workers will not change unless their superiors do. Only their RnD department was hard to migrate, he said, because they need to be compatible to Corel Draw. With the help of an Indonesian Inkscape book, though, they managed to run Inkscape. The areas where they lack support is CAD (think AutoCAD), Statistics (think SPSS), Kanban information system (like iceScrum), and integration with “Computer Aided Machinery”. He also identified the lack of documentation to be a problem not only for them, but for the general uptake of Free Software in Indonesia. In order to amend the situation, they provide gifts for people writing documentation or books!

All in all, it was quite interesting to see an actual (non-computer) business running exclusively on Free Software. I had a chat with Iwan afterwards and maybe we can get GNOME shaped flip-flops in the future :-)

The next talk was given by Ahmad Haris with GNOME on an Android TV Dongle. He brought GNOME to those 30 USD TV sticks that can turn your TV into a “smart” device. He showed various commands and parameters which enable you to run Linux on these devices. For the reasons as to why put GNOME on those devices, he said, that it has a comparatively small memory footprint. I didn’t really understand the motivation, but I blame mostly myself, because I don’t even have a TV… Anyway, bringing GNOME to more platforms is good, of course, and I was happy to see that people are actively working on bringing GNOME to various hardware.

Similarly, Running GNOME on a Nexus 7 by Bin Li was presenting how he tried to make his Android tabled run GNOME. There is previous work done by VadimRutkovsky:

He gave instructions as to how to create a custom kernel for the Nexus 7 device. He also encountered some problems, such as compilations errors, and showed how he fixed them. After building the kernel, he installed Arch-Linux with the help of some scripts. This, however, turned out to not be successful, so he couldn’t run his custom Arch Linux with GNOME.
He wanted to have a tool like “ubuntu-device-flash” such that hacking on this device is much easier. Also, downloading and flashing a working image is too hard for casually hacking on it, he said.

A presentation I was not impressed by was “In-memory computing on GNU/Linux”. More and more companies, he said, would be using in-memory computing on a general operating system. Examples of products which use in-memory computing were GridGain, SAP HANA, IBM DB2, and Oracle 12c. These products, he said, allow you to make better and faster decision making and to avoid risks. He also pointed out that you won’t have breaking down hard-drives and less energy consumption. While in-memory is blazingly fast, all your data is lost when you have a power failure. The users of big data, according to him, are businesses, academics, government, or software developers. The last one surprised me, but he didn’t go into detail as to why it is useful for an ordinary developer. The benchmarks he showed were impressive. Up to hundred-fold improvements for various tests were recorded in the in-memory setting compared to the traditional on-disk setting. The methodology wasn’t comprehensive, so I am yet not convinced that the convoluted charts show anything useful. But the speaker is an academic, so I guess he’s got at least compelling arguments for his test setup. In order to build a Linux suitable for in-memory computation, they installed a regular GNU/Linux on a drive and modify the boot scripts such that the disk will be copied into a tmpfs. I am wondering though, wouldn’t it be enough to set up a very aggressive disk cache…?

I was impressed by David’s work on ChorusText. I couldn’t follow the talk, because my Indonesian wasn’t good enough. But I talked to him privately and he showed me his device which, as far as I understand, is an assistive screen reader. It has various sliders with tactile feedback to help you navigating through text with the screen reader. Apparently, he has low vision himself so he’s way better suited to tell whether this device is useful. For now, I think it’s great and I hope that it helps more people and that we can integrate it nicely into GNOME.

My own keynote went fairly well. I spent my time with explaining what I think GNOME is, why it’s good, and what it should become in the future. If you know GNOME, me, and my interests, then it doesn’t come as a surprise that I talked about the history of GNOME, how it tries to bring Free computing to everyone, and how I think security and privacy will going to matter in the future. I tried to set the tone for the conference, hoping that discussions about GNOME’s future would spark in the coffee breaks. I had some people discussing with afterwards, so I think it was successful enough.

When I went home, I saw that the Jakarta airport runs GNOME 3, but probably haven’t done that for too long, because the airport’s UX is terrible. In fact, it is one of the worst ones I’ve seen so far. I arrived at the domestic terminal, but I didn’t know which one it was, i.e. its number. There were no signs or indications that tell you in which terminal you are in. Let alone where you need to go to in order to catch your international flight. Their self-information computer system couldn’t deliver. The information desk was able to help, though. The transfer to the international terminal requires you to take a bus (fair enough), but whatever the drivers yell when they stop is not comprehensible. When you were lucky enough to get out at the right terminal, you needed to have a printed version of your ticket. I think the last time I’ve seen this was about ten years ago in Mumbai. The airport itself is big and bulky with no clear indications as to where to go. Worst of all, it doesn’t have any air conditioning. I was not sure whether I had to pay the 150000 Rupees departure tax, but again, the guy at the information desk was able to help. Although I was disappointed to learn that they won’t take a credit card, but cash only. So I drew the money out of the next ATM that wasn’t broken (I only needed three attempts). But it was good to find the non-broken ATM, because the shops wouldn’t take my credit card, either, so I already knew where to get cash from. The WiFi’s performance matches the other airport’s infrastructure well: It’s quite dirty. Because it turned out that the information the guy gave me was wrong, I invested my spare hundred somewhat thousands rupees in dough-nuts in order to help me waiting for my 2.5 hours delayed flight. But I couldn’t really enjoy the food, because the moment I sat on any bench, cockroaches began to invade the place. I think the airport hosts the dirtiest benches of all Indonesia. The good thing is, that they have toilets. With no drinkable water, but at least you can wash your hands. Fortunately, my flight was only two hours late, so I could escape relatively quickly. I’m looking forward to going back, but maybe not via CGK ;-)

All in all, many kudos to the organisers. I think this year’s edition was quite successful.

Sponsored by GNOME!

DFN Workshop 2015

As in the last few years, the DFN Workshop happened in Hamburg, Germany.

The conference was keynoted by Steven Le Blond who talked about targeted attacks, e.g. against dissidents. He mentioned that he already presented the content at the USENIX security conference which some people think is very excellent. He first showed how he used Skype to look up IP addresses of his boss and how similarly targeted attacks were executed in the past. Think Stuxnet. His main focus were attacks on NGOs though. He focussed on an attacker sending malicious emails to the victim.

In order to find out what attack vectors were used, they contacted over 100 NGOs to ask whether they were attacked. Two NGOs, which are affiliated with the Chinese WUC, which represents the Uyghur minority, received 1500 malicious emails, out of which 1100 were carrying malware. He showed examples of those emails and some of them were indeed very targeted. They contained a personalised message with enough context to look genuine. However, the mail also had a malicious DOC file attached. Interestingly enough though, the infrastructure used by the attacker for the targeted attacks was re-used for several victims. You could have expected the attacker to have their infrastructure separated for the various victims, especially when carrying out targeted attacks.

They also investigated how quickly the attacker exploited publicly known vulnerabilities. They measured the time of the malicious email sent minus the release date of the vulnerability. They found that some of the attacks were launched on day 0, meaning that as soon as a vulnerability was publicly disclosed, an NGO was attacked with a relevant exploit. Maybe interestingly, they did not find any 0-day exploits launched. They also measured how the security precautions taken by Adobe for their Acrobat Reader and Microsoft for their Office product (think sandboxing) affected the frequency of attacks. It turned out that it does help to make your software more secure!

To defend against targeted attacks based on spoofed emails he proposed to detect whether the writing style of an email corresponds to that of previously seen emails of the presumed contact. In fact, their research shows that they are able to tell whether the writing style matches that of previous emails with very high probability.

The following talk assessed end-to-end email solutions. It was interesting, because they created a taxonomy for 36 existing projects and assessed qualities such as their compatibility, the trust-model used, or the platform it runs on.
The 36 solutions they identified were (don’t hold your breath, wall of links coming): Neomailbox, Countermail, salusafe, Tutanota, Shazzlemail, Safe-Mail, Enlocked, Lockbin, virtru, APG, gpg4o, gpg4win, Enigmail, Jumble Mail, opaqueMail,,, Mailpile, Bitmail, Mailvelope, pEp, openKeychain, Shwyz, Lavaboom, ProtonMail, StartMail, PrivateSky, Lavabit, FreedomBox, Parley, Mega, Dark Mail, opencom, okTurtles, End-to-End,, and LEAP (Bitmask).

Many of them could be discarded right away, because they were not production ready. The list could be further reduced by discarding solutions which do not use open standards such as OpenPGP, but rather proprietary message formats. After applying more filters, such as that the private key must not leave the realm of the user, the list could be condensed to seven projects. Those were: APG, Enigmail, gpg4o, Mailvelope, pEp,, and

Interestingly, the latter two were not compatible with the rest. The speakers attributed that to the use of GPG/MIME vs. GPG/Inline and they favoured the latter. I don’t think it’s a good idea though. The authors attest pEp a lot of potential and they seem to have indeed interesting ideas. For example, they offer to sign another person’s key by reading “safe words” over a secure channel. While this is not a silver bullet to the keysigning problem, it appears to be much easier to use.

As we are on keysigning. I have placed an article in the conference proceedings. It’s about GNOME Keysign. The paper’s title is “Welcome to the 2000s: Enabling casual two-party key signing” which I think reflects in what era the current OpenPGP infrastructure is stuck. The mindsets of the people involved are still a bit left in the old days where dealing with computation machines was a thing for those with long and white beards. The target group of users for secure communication protocols has inevitably grown much larger than it used to be. While this sounds trivial, the interface to GnuPG has not significantly changed since. It also still makes it hard for others to build higher level tools by making bad default decisions, demanding to be in control of “trust” decisions, and by requiring certain environmental conditions (i.e. the filesystem to be used). GnuPG is not a mere library. It seems it understands itself as a complete crypto suite. Anyway, in the paper, I explained how I think contemporary keysigning protocols work, why it’s not a good thing, and how to make it better.

I propose to further decentralise OpenPGP by enabling people to have very small keysigning “parties”. Currently, the setup cost of a keysigning party is very high. This is, amongst other things, due to the fact that an organiser is required to collect all the keys, to compile a list of participant, and to make the keys available for download. Then, depending on the size of the event, the participants queue up for several hours. And to then tick checkboxes on pieces of paper. A gigantic secops fail. The smarter people sign every box they tick so that an attacker cannot “inject” a maliciously ticked box onto the paper sheet. That’s not fun. The not so smart people don’t even bring their sheets of paper or have them printed by a random person who happens to also be at the conference and, surprise, has access to a printer. What a gigantic attack surface. I think this is bad. Let’s try to reduce that surface by reducing the size of the events.

In order to enable people to have very small events, i.e. two people keysigning, I propose to make most of the actions of a keysigning protocol automatic. So instead of requiring the user to manually compare the fingerprint, I propose that we securely transfer the key to be signed. You might rightfully ask, how to do that. My answer is that we’ve passed the 2000s and that we bring devices which are capable of opening a TCP connection on a link local network, e.g. WiFi. I know, this is not necessarily a given, but let’s just assume for the sake of simplicity that one of our device we carry along can actually do WiFi (and that the network does not block connections between machines). This also prevents certain attacks that users of current Best Practises are still vulnerable against, namely using short key ids or leaking who you are communicating with.

Another step that needs to be automated is signing the key. It sounds easy, right? But it’s not just a mere gpg --sign-key. The first problem is, that you don’t want the key to be signed to pollute your keyring. That can be fixed by using --homedir or the GNUPGHOME environment variable. But then you also want to sign each UID on the key separately. And this is were things get a bit more interesting. Anyway, to make a long story short: We’re not able to do that with plain GnuPG (as of now) in a sane manner. And I think it’s a shame.

Lastly, sending the key needs to be as “zero-click” as possible, too. I propose to simply reuse the current MUA of the user. That sounds easy, but unfortunately, it’s only 2015 and we cannot interact with, say, Evolution and Thunderbird in a standardised manner. There is xdg-email, but it has annoying bugs and doesn’t seem to be maintained. I’m waiting for a sane Email-API. I mean, Email has been around for some time now, let’s now try to actually use it. I hope to be able to make another more formal announcement on GNOME Keysign, soon.

the userbase for strong cryptography declines by half with every additional keystroke or mouseclick required to make it work

— attributed to Ellison.

Anyway, the event was good, I am happy to have attended. I hope to be able to make it there next year again.


It’s winter again and it was clear that FOSDEM was coming. However, preparation fell through the cracks, at least for me, mainly because my personal life is fast-paced at the moment. We had a table again, and our EventsBox, which is filled with goodness to demo GNOME, made its way from Gothenburg, where I actually carried it to a couple of months ago.

Unfortunately though, we didn’t have t-shirts to sell. We do have boxes of t-shirts left, but they didn’t make it to FOSDEM :-\ So this FOSDEM didn’t generate nearly as much revenue as the last years. It’s a pity that this year’s preparation was suboptimal. I hope we can improve next year. Were able to get rid of other people’s things, though ;-) Like last year, the SuSE people brought beer, but it was different this time. Better, even ;-)

The fact that there wasn’t as much action at our booth as last years, I could actually attend talks. I was able to see Sri and Pam talking on the Groupon incident that shook us up a couple of months ago. It was really nice to see her, because I wanted to shake hands and say thanks. She did an amazing job. Interestingly enough, she praised us, the GNOME Foundation’s Board of Directors, for working very professionally. Much better than any client she has worked with. I am surprised, because I didn’t really have the feeling we were acting as promptly as we could. You know, we’re volunteers, after all. Also, we didn’t really prepare as much as we could have which led to some things being done rather spontaneously. Anyway, I take that as a compliment and I guess that our work can’t be all too bad. The talk itself showed our side of things and, if you ask me, was painting things in a too bright light. Sure, we were successful, but I attribute much of that success to network effects and a bit of luck. I don’t think we could replicate that success easily.

GNOME’s presence at FOSDEM was not too bad though, despite the lack of shirts. We had a packed beer event and more talks by GNOMEy people. The list includes Karen‘s keynote, Benzo‘s talk on SDAPDS, and Sri‘s talk on GNOME’s impact on the Free Software ecosystem. You can find more here.

A talk that I did see was on improving the keysigning situation. I really mean to write about this some more. For now, let me just say that I am pleased to see people working on solutions. Solutions to a problem I’m not sure many people see and that I want to devote some time for explaining it, i.e. in s separate post. The gist is, that contemporary “keysigning parties” come with non-negligible costs for both, the organiser and the participant. KeySigningPartyTools were presented which intend to improve they way things are currently done. That’s already quite good as it’ll reduce the number of errors people typically make when attending such a party.

However, I think that we need to rethink keysigning. Mostly, because the state of the art is a massive SecOps fail. There is about a gazillion traps to be avoided and many things don’t actually make so much sense. For example, I am unable to comprehend why we are muttering a base16 encoded version of your 160 bit fingerprint to ourselves. Or why we must queue outside in the cold without being able to jump the queue if a single person is a bit slow, because then everybody will be terribly confused and the whole thing taking even longer. Or why we need to do everything on paper (well, I know the arguments: Your computer can be hacked, be social, yadda yadda). I did actually give a talk on rethinking the keysigning problem (slides). It’s about a project that I have only briefly mentioned here and which I should really write about in the near future. GNOME Keysign intends to be less of a SecOps fail by letting the scan a barcode and click “next”. The rest will be operations known to the user such as sending an email. No more manually comparing fingerprints. No more leaking data to the Internet about who you want to contact. No more MITM attacks against your OpenPGP installation. No more short key ids that you accidentally use or because you mistyped a letter of the fingerprint. No more editing raw Perl in order to configure your keysigning tool. The talk went surprisingly well. I actually expected the people in the security devroom to be mad when someone like me is taking their perl and their command line away. I received good questions and interesting feedback. I’ll follow up here with another post once real-life lets me get to it.

Brussels itself is a very nice city. We were lucky, I guess, because we had some sunshine when we were walking around the city. I love the plethora of restaurants. And I like that Brussels is very open and cultural. Unfortunately, the makerspace was deserted when we arrived, but it is was somewhat expected as it was daytime… I hope to return again and check it out during the night ;-)

GNOME at FSCONS14 in Gothenburg, Sweden

I was glad to be invited to FSONCS 2014 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Remember that this is also the place for next year’s GUADEC! This year’s FSCONS was attended by around 150 people or so. I guess it was a bit less. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a very cool event with many interesting people and talks.

We, GNOME, had a presence at the event due to me bringing the EventsBox and T-Shirts to Gothenburg. It was quite a trip, especially with those heavy boxes…

The first keynote of the conference was given by Karl Fogel. He declared the end of copyright in 1993. He imagined copyright as a tree whose bottom has been chopped off, but the, the top hasn’t noticed that just yet. He put copyright on a timeline and drew a strong relation to the printing press. He claimed that in the United Kingdom, a monopoly used to control who prints and distributes books and it then transferred to a differently shaped monopoly which involved the actual authors. These could then transfer their rights to printers. He went on with ranting about the fact that nowadays you cannot tip the author for their (free) work. He appealed to the authors of f-droid or the firefox mobile app market to integrate such a functionality. Overall it was an interesting talk with many aspects. He is a talented speaker.

The second keynote was given by Leigh Honeywell. She talked about communities and community building. She said that she got most of the ideas presented in her talk from Sumana Harihareswara‘s “Models we use to change the world”. During her talk she referred to her experiences when founded the HackLabTO Hackerspace after having attended the CCCamp 2007. She basically shared models of understanding the community and their behaviour. The Q&A session was inspiring and informative. Many questions about managing a community were asked and answered.

Another interesting talk was given by Guilhem Moulin who went on to talk about Fripost. It is a democratic email service provider from Sweden. He gave a bit of an insight regarding the current Email usage on today’s Internet. He claimed that we have 2.7 billion internet users and that the top three email service providers accumulate roughly a third of this population. His numbers were 425 million for GMail, 420 million for Hotmail, and 280 million for Yahoo. All these companies are part of PRISM, he said, which worried him enough to engage with Fripost. In fact, he became a board member after having been a user and a sysadmin. As someone who operates a mail server for oneself and others with similar needs, I was quite interested in seeing concentrated efforts like this. Fripost’s governance seems to be interesting. It’s a democratic body and I wonder how to thwart malicious subversion. Anyway, the talk was about technical details as to how to create your own So I can only encourage to run your own infrastructure and found structures that care about running ecosystem. A memorable quote he provided to underpin this appeal is attributed to Schneier: “We were safer when our email was at 10,000 ISPs than it was at 10“.

My talk went sufficiently well. I guess I preached to the choir regarding Free Software. I don’t think I needed to convince the people that Free Software is a good thing. As for convincing the audience that GNOME is a good thing, I think I faced a big challenge. Some of the attendees didn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about their desktop which is great. But some others were more in the, what I would call, old school category using lynx, xautoscreenlock, and all that stuff from the 90s. Anyway, we had a great session with many questions from the audience such that I couldn’t even go through my slides.

I had a lightning talk about signing OpenPGP keys using GNOME Keysign. I probably need to write up a separate blog post for that. In short, I mentioned that short key IDs are evil, but that long key IDs are also problematic. Actually, using keyservers is inherently problematic and should be avoided. To do so, I showed how I transfer a key securely and sign it following best practices (thanks to Andrei for an initial version!). Bastian was nice enough to do the demo with me. We needed to cheat a little though, as currently, they key is transferred using the WiFi network you are on. The WiFi, however, didn’t allow us to create a TCP connection to each other. We thus opened a WiFi hotspot and used that. I think this would be a useful feature.

The last talk of the conference was given by Hans Lysglimt from Norway. He is, among other things, a politician, an activist, and an entrepreneur who founded an email service. His runbox has around 1000000 accounts and 30000 paid subscriptions, so it’s fairly big, compared to Fripost at least. Again, running email services myself, I found it interesting to listen to the stories he had to tell. His story was that he received a gag order for running his commercial email service provider. It remained unclear whether it was send because of his interview with Julian Assange or not.

Interestingly, he didn’t seem to have received many correct subpoenas in the sense that they were Norwegian court orders. However, in one case the American authorities went through the Norwegian legal system which he found funny in itself because the two legal system were not very similar. He eventually mentioned that every email service provider has at least one gag order, either an implicit or and explicit one. Ultimately, he concluded that you cannot trust a corporation.

FSCONS is an interesting event. Their manifesto is certainly impressive. I am glad to have visited and I am looking forward to visiting again. It is very atmospheric, very relaxed, and friendly. A very nice place to be.

LibreOffice Con in Bern, Switzerland

I was invited to give a talk in Bern, Switzerland, for the LibreOffice Conference. The LibreOffice people are a nice crowd with diverse backgrounds. I talked to design people, coders doing rather low-level GL things, marketing folks, some being new to Free Software, and to some being old farts. It sounds like a lot of people and one is inclined to think of boat loads of people attending the conference when having the community statistics in mind. But it has been a very cosy event, with less than a hundred people. I found that surprising, but not necessarily in a bad way.

I couldn’t make it to many talks, because the conference took place on week days. But judging from the schedule there were many interesting talks. The only thing I didn’t like about the schedule was the weird formatting. Seriously, who makes the track’s name more visible than the talk’s title..? Also grouping by room and not by time is a bit weird.

Anyway, my talk went well although it was in the first slot after the free beer party ;-) You can find my slides in the collection. I was talking about GNOME in general, but with a twist for those who migrate from proprietary software to Free Software. I hope I could convey that the GNOME desktop might be a viable alternative to proprietary products.

As this was a great, comfortable conference, I’m looking forward to visiting next year’s event.