Electoral Chaos

The Green Party is driving a set of recounts that might change the outcome in one or more swing states. Simultaneously, there is a growing movement to ask the Electoral College to choose a candidate other than Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States. Some surprisingly serious people are publicly making arguments for the Electoral College taking an active role, including law professors Sandy Levinson and Lawrence Lessig. Lessig’s essay at the Washington Post starts:

Conventional wisdom tells us that the electoral college requires that the person who lost the popular vote this year must nonetheless become our president. That view is an insult to our framers. It is compelled by nothing in our Constitution. It should be rejected by anyone with any understanding of our democratic traditions  — most important, the electors themselves. (“The Constitution lets the electoral college choose the winner. They should choose Clinton,” Lawrence Lessig)

Lessig’s piece links to Federalist #68, written by the newly popular Hamilton. Having the electoral college not vote for Trump, after Clinton conceded, and after the current President met with him, seems problematic at best. Trump promised to respect the results if he was elected, but yesterday tweeted claims that “millions” had voted illegally, which might lead one to expect that some had voted illegally for him, adding legitimacy to a recount or re-evaluation of results.

A Electoral College outcome other than Trump will be labeled a “stolen election,” and there have already been threats of violence by surprisingly serious people. Some of those who might engage in violence are already are engaged in disgraceful and un-American attacks on their fellow citizens based on race, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation. They seem to treat the election as a “great disinhibition.” However, as horrifiying as those attacks are, and as many as there are, there are people who would not engage in such attacks but would call the election stolen. That would further undercut the legitimacy of the Federal government. (Chaos and legitimacy is topic that’s been occupying my thoughts for a while, but I have relatively little to say which is new.)

My take: the Electoral College exists for a reason. (See the above-linked Federalist #68). The best choice from a very bad set of possibilities is a “caretaker” government. The country is roughly evenly divided in hating either Clinton, Trump, or both. We should select a President who will not push for large changes or mess things up, and can start to address the real class issues which were exposed by the election. A middle of the road Republican and Democrat might be less unpalatable than other options.

Some relevant and interesting links:

Please keep comments civil. Additional interesting links are welcome.

[Update Dec 2: This is a thoughtful, left-wing consideration of the election, which makes the point that no single explanation is dominant. “Everything mattered: lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election.” Also, seven electors are now looking to strike a deal: “Teen becomes seventh ‘faithless elector’ to protest Trump as president-elect.” By the way, there’s probably an interesting story in how a 19 year old becomes a member of the Electoral College. Lastly, the Economist has an article on “Why an electoral college rebellion would be a bad idea.”]

[Update Dec 8: “Dump the electoral college? Bad idea, says Al Gore’s former campaign chairman.,” which includes the argument “it forces candidates to campaign in a variety of closely contested races, where political debate is typically robust.” Despite that, Texas Republican Elector Christopher Suprun has written “Why I Will Not Cast My Electoral Vote for Donald Trump.”]

Mac Command Line: Turning Apps into Commands

I moved to MacOS X because it offers both a unix command line and graphical interfaces, and I almost exclusively use the command line as I switch between tasks. If you use a terminal and aren’t familiar with the open command, I urge you to take a look.

I tend to open documents with open ~/Do[tab]… I wanted a way to open more things like this. I wanted to treat every app as if it were a command. I did this a little while back, and recently had to use a Mac without these little aliases and it was annoying! (We know that mousing was objectively faster and cognitively slower than keyboard use.

So I thought I’d share. This works great in a .tcshrc. I spent a minute translating into bash, but the escaping escaped me. Also, I suppose there might be a more elegant approach to the MS apps, but it was easier to write 5 specific aliases than to figure it out.

Anyway, here’s the code:

foreach f (/Applications/*.app /Applications/Utilities/*.app)
    set t=`basename -a $f`
	# Does not work if your app has a shell metachar in the name. Lookin' at you, superduper!
    set w=`echo $t | sed  -e 's/ //g' -e  's/.app$//'  | tr '[A-Z]' '[a-z]'`
    alias $w open -a \""$f"\"  

alias excel open -a "/Applications/Microsoft\ Office\ 2011/Microsoft\ Excel.app"
alias word open -a "/Applications/Microsoft\ Office\ 2011/Microsoft\ Word.app"
alias powerpoint open -a "/Applications/Microsoft\ Office\ 2011/Microsoft\ PowerPoint.app"
alias ppt powerpoint
alias xls excel

(Previously: Adding emacs keybindings to Word.)

Election 2016

This election has been hard to take on all sorts of levels, and I’m not going to write about the crap. Everything to be said has been said, along which much that never should have been said, and much that should disqualify those who said it from running for President. I thought about endorsing Jill Stein, the way we endorsed McCain-Palin in 2008, but even the Onion is having trouble being funny.

One thing which makes the American election system less functional is the electoral college system, which means that essentially a small number of states decide the election.

There is an effort underway to change that to a national popular vote, and there’s a group working towards that by getting states to agree amongst themselves to allocate their electoral college votes towards the winner of the national popular vote, once enough states have made that commitment to control the results of the elections. Its a pretty neat approach to patching the Constitution, and you can learn more at National Popular Vote.

Also in the spirit of nice things to see today, WROC in Rochester is streaming from the resting place of Susan B Anthony, whose tombstone has been covered with “I voted” stickers, and as I watch, people are reading the Seneca Falls Declaration.

Gavle Goat, now 56% more secure!

A burned wooden goat

“We’ll have more guards. We’re going to try to have a ‘goat guarantee’ the first weekend,” deputy council chief Helene Åkerlind, representing the local branch of the Liberal Party, told newspaper Gefle Dagblad.

“It is really important that it stays standing in its 50th year,” she added to Arbetarbladet.

Gävle Council has decided to allocate an extra 850,000 kronor ($98,908) to the goat’s grand birthday party, bringing the town’s Christmas celebrations budget up to 2.3 million kronor this year. (“Swedes rally to protect arson-prone yule goat“_

Obviously, what you need to free up that budget is more burning goats. Or perhaps its a credible plan on why spending it will reduce risk. I’m never quite sure.

Previously: 13 Meter Straw Goat Met His Match, Gavle Goat Gone, Burning News: Gavle Goat, Gävle Goat Gambit Goes Astray, The Gavle Goat is Getting Ready to Burn!.

Image: The goat’s mortal remains, immortalized in 2011 by Lasse Halvarsson.

Diagrams in Threat Modeling

When I think about how to threat model well, one of the elements that is most important is how much people need to keep in their heads, the cognitive load if you will.

In reading Charlie Stross’s blog post, “Writer, Interrupted” this paragraph really jumped out at me:

One thing that coding and writing fiction have in common is that both tasks require the participant to hold huge amounts of information in their head, in working memory. In the case of the programmer, they may be tracing a variable or function call through the context of a project distributed across many source files, and simultaneously maintaining awareness of whatever complex APIs the object of their attention is interacting with. In the case of the author, they may be holding a substantial chunk of the plot of a novel (or worse, an entire series) in their head, along with a model of the mental state of the character they’re focussing on, and a list of secondary protagonists, while attempting to ensure that the individual sentence they’re currently crafting is consistent with the rest of the body of work.

One of the reasons that I’m fond of diagrams is that they allow the threat modelers to migrate information out of their heads into a diagram, making room for thinking about threats.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about threat modeling tools, including some pretty interesting tools for automated discovery of existing architecture from code. That’s pretty neat, and it dramatically cuts the cost of getting started. Reducing effort, or cost, is inherently good. Sometimes, the reduction in effort is an unalloyed good, that is, any tradeoffs are so dwarfed by benefits as to be unarguable. Sometimes, you lose things that might be worth keeping, either as a hobby like knitting or in the careful chef preparing a fine meal.

I think a lot about where drawing diagrams on a whiteboard falls. It has a cost, and that cost can be high. “Assemble a team of architect, developer, test lead, business analyst, operations and networking” reads one bit of advice. That’s a lot of people for a cross-functional meeting.

That meeting can be a great way to find disconnects in what people conceive of building. And there’s a difference between drawing a diagram and being handed a diagram. I want to draw that out a little bit and ask for your help in understanding the tradeoffs and when they might and might not be appropriate. (Gary McGraw is fond of saying that getting these people in a room and letting them argue is the most important step in “architectural risk analysis.” I think it’s tremendously valuable, and having structures, tools and methods to help them avoid ratholes and path dependency is a big win.)

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?


  • Collaboration. Walking to the whiteboard and picking up a marker is far less intrusive than taking someone’s computer, or starting to edit a document in a shared tool.
  • Ease of use. A whiteboard is still easier than just about any other drawing tool.
  • Discovery of different perspective/belief. This is a little subtle. If I’m handed a diagram, I’m less likely to object. An objection may contain a critique of someone else’s work, it may be a conflict. As something is being drawn on a whiteboard, it seems easier to say “what about the debug interface?” (This ties back to Gary McGraw’s point.)
  • Storytelling. It is easier to tell a story standing next to a whiteboard than any tech I’ve used. A large whiteboard diagram is easy to point at. You’re not blocking the projector. You can easily edit as you’re talking.
  • Messy writing/what does that mean? We’ve all been there? Someone writes something in shorthand as a conversation is happening, and either you can’t read it or you can’t understand what was meant. Structured systems encourage writing a few more words, making things more tedious for everyone around.

Software Tools

  • Automatic analysis. Tools like the Microsoft Threat Modeling tool can give you a baseline set of threats to which you add detail. Structure is a tremendous aid to getting things done, and in threat modeling, it helps in answering “what could go wrong?”
  • Authority/decidedness/fixedness. This is the other side of the discovery coin. Sometimes, there are architectural answers, and those answers are reasonably fixed. For example, hardware accesses are mediated by the kernel, and filesystem and network are abstracted there. (More recent kernels offer filesystems in userland, but that change was discussed in detail.) Similarly, I’ve seen large, complex systems with overall architecture diagrams, and a change to these diagrams had to be discussed and approved in advance. If this is the case, then a fixed diagram, printed poster size and affixed to walls, can also be used in threat modeling meetings as a context diagram. No need to re-draw it as a DFD.
  • Photographs of whiteboards are hard to archive and search without further processing.
  • Photographs of whiteboards may imply that ‘this isn’t very important.” If you have a really strong culture of “just barely good enough” than this might not be the case, but if other documents are more structured or cared for, then photos of a whiteboard may carry a message.
  • Threat modeling only late. If you’re going to get architecture from code, then you may not think about it until the code is written. If you weren’t going to threat model anyway, then this is a win, but if there was a reasonable chance you were going to do the architectural analysis while there was a chance to change the architecture, software tools may take that away.

(Of course, there are apps that help you take images from a whiteboard and improve them, for example, Best iOS OCR Scanning Apps, which I’m ignoring for purposes of teasing things out a bit. Operationally, probably worth digging into.)

I’d love your thoughts: are there other advantages or disadvantages of a whiteboard or software?

Journal of Terrorism and Cyber Insurance

At the RMS blog, we learn they are “Launching a New Journal for Terrorism and Cyber Insurance:”

Natural hazard science is commonly studied at college, and to some level in the insurance industry’s further education and training courses. But this is not the case with terrorism risk. Even if insurance professionals learn about terrorism in the course of their daily business, as they move into other positions, their successors may begin with hardly any technical familiarity with terrorism risk. It is not surprising therefore that, even fifteen years after 9/11, knowledge and understanding of terrorism insurance risk modeling across the industry is still relatively low.

There is no shortage of literature on terrorism, but much has a qualitative geopolitical and international relations focus, and little is directly relevant to terrorism insurance underwriting or risk management.

This is particularly exciting as Gordon Woo was recommended to me as the person to read on insurance math in new fields. His Calculating Catastrophe is comprehensive and deep.

It will be interesting to see who they bring aboard to complement the very strong terrorism risk team on the cyber side.

What does the MS Secure Boot Issue teach us about key escrow?


No, seriously. Articles like “Microsoft Secure Boot key debacle causes security panic” and “Bungling Microsoft singlehandedly proves that golden backdoor keys are a terrible idea” draw on words in an advisory to say that this is all about golden keys and secure boot. This post is not intended to attack anyone; researchers, journalists or Microsoft, but to address a rather inflammatory claim that’s being repeated.

Based on my read of a advisory copy (which I made because I cannot read words on an animated background (yes, I’m a grumpy old man (who uses too many parentheticals (especially when I’m sick)))), this is a nice discovery of an authorization failure.

What they found is:

The “supplemental” policy contains new elements, for the merging conditions. These conditions are (well, at one time) unchecked by bootmgr when loading a legacy policy. And bootmgr of win10 v1511 and earlier certainly doesn’t know about them. To those bootmgrs, it has just loaded in a perfectly valid, signed policy. The “supplemental” policy does NOT contain a DeviceID. And, because they were meant to be merged into a base policy, they don’t contain any BCD rules either, which means that if they are loaded, you can enable testsigning.

That’s a fine discovery and a nice vuln. There are ways Microsoft might have designed this better, I’m going to leave those for another day.

Where the post goes off the rails, in my view, is this:

About the FBI: are you reading this? If you are, then this is a perfect real world example about why your idea of backdooring cryptosystems with a “secure golden key” is very bad! Smarter people than me have been telling this to you for so long, it seems you have your fingers in your ears. You seriously don’t understand still? Microsoft implemented a “secure golden key” system.[1] And the golden keys got released from MS own stupidity.[2] Now, what happens if you tell everyone to make a “secure golden key” system? [3] (Bracketed numbers added – Adam)

So, [1], no they did not. [2] No it didn’t. [3] Even a stopped clock …

You could design a system in which there’s a master key, and accidentally release that key. Based on the advisory, Microsoft has not done that. (I have not talked to anyone at MS about this issue; I might have talked to people about the overall design, but don’t recall having done so.) What this is is an authorization system with a design flaw. As far as I can tell, no keys have been released.

Look, there are excellent reasons to not design a “golden key” system. I talked about them at a fundamental engineering level in my threat modeling book, and posted the excerpt in “Threat Modeling Crypto Back Doors.”

The typical way the phrase “golden key” is used (albiet fuzzily) is that there is a golden key which unlocks communications. That is a bad idea. This is not that, and we as engineers or advocates should not undercut our position on that bad idea by referring to this research as if it really impacts on that “debate.”

“Better Safe than Sorry!”

“Better safe than sorry” are the closing words in a NYT story, “A Colorado Town Tests Positive for Marijuana (in Its Water).”

Now, I’m in favor of safety, and there’s a tradeoff being made. Shutting down a well reduces safety by limiting the supply of water, and in this case, they closed a pool, which makes it harder to stay cool in 95 degree weather.

At Wired, Nick Stockton does some math, and says “IT WOULD TAKE A LOT OF THC TO CONTAMINATE A WATER SUPPLY.” (Shouting theirs.)

High-potency THC extract is pretty expensive. One hundred dollars for a gram of the stuff is not an unreasonable price. If this was an accident, it was an expensive one. If this was a prank, it was a financed by Bill Gates…Remember, the highest concentration of THC you can physically get in a liter of water is 3 milligrams.

Better safe than sorry is a tradeoff, and we should talk about it ask such.

Even without drinking the, ummm, kool-aid, this doesn’t pass the giggle test.

Tacoma Narrows and Security

I always get a little frisson of engineering joy when I drive over the Tacoma Narrows bridge. For the non-engineers in the audience, the first Tacoma Narrows bridge famously twisted itself to destruction in a 42-mph wind.

The Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsing

The bridge was obviously unstable even during initial construction (as documented in “Catastrophe to Triumph: Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows.”) And so when it started to collapse, several movie cameras were there to document the event, which is still studied and analyzed today.

Today, people are tired of hearing about bridges collapsing. These stories undercut confidence, and bridge professionals are on top of things (ahem). When a bridge collapses, there’s a risk of a lawsuit, and if that was happening, no company could deliver bridges at a reasonable price. We cannot account for the way that wind behaves in the complex fiords of the Puget Sound.

Of course, these are not the excuses of bridge builders, but of security professionals.

I always get a little frisson of engineering joy when I drive over the Tacoma Narrows bridge, and marvel at how we’ve learned from previous failures.

What’s Classified, Doc? (The Clinton Emails and the FBI)

So I have a very specific question about the “classified emails”, and it seems not to be answered by “Statement by FBI Director James B. Comey on the Investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Use of a Personal E-Mail System .” A few quotes:

From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification. Separate from those, about 2,000 additional e-mails were “up-classified” to make them Confidential; the information in those had not been classified at the time the e-mails were sent.

For example, seven e-mail chains concern matters that were classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level when they were sent and received. These chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending e-mails about those matters and receiving e-mails from others about the same matters. There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.

Separately, it is important to say something about the marking of classified information. Only a very small number of the e-mails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information. But even if information is not marked “classified” in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.

I will state that there is information which is both classified and available to the public. For example, the Snowden documents are still classified, and I have friends with clearances who need to leave conversations when they come up. They are, simultaneously, publicly available. There is a legalistic position that such information is only classified. Such rejection of reality is uninteresting to me.

I can read Comey’s statements two ways. One is that Clinton was discussing Snowden documents, which she likely needed to do as Secretary of State. The other is that she was discussing information which was not both public and classified. My assessment of her behavior is dependent on knowing this.

Are facts available to distinguish between these cases?

Happy Independence Day!

Since 2005, this blog has had a holiday tradition of posting “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Never in our wildest, most chaotic dreams, did we imagine that the British would one day quote these opening words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. [Ed: That article is jargon-laden, and interesting if you can wade past it.]

So, while it may be chaotic in the most negative of senses, there’d be some succor should we see a succinct success as England secedes from the United Kingdom. Of course, London, West-Virginia-style, secedes from said secession. Obviously, after this, the United Kingdom of Scotland, Northern Ireland and London should remain a part of the EU, dramatically simplifying the negotiation.

Or, perhaps, in light of the many British who were apparently confused about the idea that Leave meant Leave, or the 2% margin of the vote, it would be reasonable and democratic to hold another election to consider what should happen. A problem with democracy is often that a majority, however slim, votes in a way that impacts the rights of a minority, and, whilst we’re waxing philosophic, we would worry were the rights of that minority so dramatically impacted as the result of a non-binding vote. Perhaps a better structure to reduce chaos in the future is two votes, each tied to some super-majority. A first to negotiate, and a second to approve the result.

It doesn’t seem like so revolutionary an idea.

Passwords 2016


I’m excited to see the call for papers for Passwords 2016.

There are a few exciting elements.

  1. First, passwords are in a category of problems that someone recently called “garbage problems.” They’re smelly, messy, and no one really wants to get their hands dirty on them.
  2. Second, they’re important. Despite their very well-known disadvantages, and failure to match any useful security model, and despite l Gates saying that we’d be done with them within the decade, they have advantages, and have been hard to displace.
  3. Third, they suffer from a common belief that everything to be said has been said.
  4. Fourth, the conference has a variety of submission types, including academic papers and hacker talks. This is important because there are many security research communities, doing related work, and not talking. Maybe the folks at passwords can add an anonymous track, for spooks and criminals willing to speak on their previously undocumented practices via skype or SnowBot? (Ideally, via the SnowBot, as PoC.)

Studying the real problems which plague us is a discipline that medicine and public health have developed. Their professions have space for everyone to talk about the real problems that they face, and there’s a clear focus on “have we really addressed this plague?”

While it’s fun, and valuable, to go down the memory corruption, crypto math, and other popular topics at security conferences, it’s nicer to see people trying to focus on a real cyber problem that hits every time we look at a system design.

Image: Mary E. Chollet, via Karen Kapsanis.