October 6, 2022

Archives for September 2007

One Laptop Per Child (New Version), Reviewed by 12-Year-Old

[Today we welcome back SG, a twelve-year-old who previously reviewed the B2 version of the One Laptop Per Child computer. SG had a chance to examine the latest (B4) version of the OLPC machine and write a new review. As before, the review is unedited, just as SG wrote it. – Ed]

After my first review, the administrators at OLPC were kind enough to send Mr. Felten the newer model of the computer, the B4, for me to review. The difference between the two models was quite dramatic. Between new games, new applications, design changes, and a few touch ups for the system, the B4 clearly outshines the B2. I didn’t even know about a bunch of problems in the B2 until they got fixed in the B4!

The minute I picked the new computer up, I saw the physical differences. There are bumps on the handle of the B4. The B2 has none. The flip- up antenna on the B2 was encased in hard plastic, and on the B4, it’s just thick rubber. The keyboards are pretty much the same, apart from a few minor differences along the top. Once I opened it up and started it, I noted how much quicker it booted up than the B2. Then I saw the icons. The B2 has less than half the icons than the B4, which has 13!

As for games, entertainment, and the internet, this computer has bountiful resources. There were many new and fun programs. One of them, called “Block party”, is just plain old tetris with a different name. As I am not really gifted in tetris, I had a lot of fun losing repeatedly. The internet was a lot better on this newer laptop. In my last review, I complained about how slow it was and how the connection was so-so. In the B4, both of those problems have been fixed. It is quick, always connects, and is really very nice. If you don’t want to go on the web to read the new Freedom to Tinker article, “News Reader” lets you subscribe to websites’ feeds. In the games category, “Connect” is a game which can only be played on two separate OLPC laptops . The game is a little like tick tack toe. If you’ve ever played “Connect 4”, that’s the same game. If you want to watch some video clip from the web, “watch and listen”, OLPC’s media player, has you covered. Want some music? Use “tamtam”. This application is similar to Garageband, but not quite the same. Last but not least is “Record”. On the B2, “record” just took pictures with an okay camera. On the B4, you can take pictures with a pretty good camera AND record video with no time limit (as far as I can tell). I was surprised and overjoyed to discover I could take video with the new one.

One of the coolest applications is called simply “Chat”. It is basically an IM-ish kind of thing that works between all OLPC laptops. Since I got two laptops from OLPC, I could test out the chat application with my friends and family. I spent a lot of time having silent conversations with the friend sitting across the room, so that was fun. Etoys is another cool application, and it is definitely the program of a genius technologist. Although it is difficult to understand and use, once you get into the swing of things, it’s awesome. To use Etoys you make a “sketch” on the computer, then save it, and that’s where the fun begins. You can write “scripts” that make the sketch move around the screen in the way that you want. You can put it in “books” that have multiple pages for a flip book or make animations with it (ie. a bouncing ball, flying bird, eating kid, etc.). In Turtle Art, you get a chance to write a simple program that makes the turtle in the middle of the screen move. It’s very cool.

Last review, I said that my main problem with the computer was its slow speed and its battery charge. And I am happy to say that both of those problems have been fixed in the new version. It has more applications, higher quality camera, more games, a few design changes for the better, and much more. I tested how long it would stay alive by opening it and leaving it open. Surprisingly, it stayed awake for more than four hours! And some other testing revealed that the B4 does, in fact, auto save your documents and stuff if it runs out of battery while an unsaved document is on it. I like that feature, because there were many times with the B2 that I was typing and it just died, leaving me rather stunned for a couple seconds until I came to my senses and wearily plugged it in. Then it would take hours to charge up again. But in the B4, it charges up really quickly. Another minor turn for the better is the plug. Now they are greener, more round, easier to hold, and they have the XO sign on them.

I thought that this version was way better than the last one. It was just easier to figure out, more fun to spend time on, just better. It’s going to be hard to send it back to OLPC, but I’m going to have to. It’s great that they’re going to start selling them to the public. (You have to buy two, and you send one to a needy kid in a third world country and keep one for yourself. Read about it in the New York Times… …) I hope I can get one!

For a regular laptop, this would be the paragraph about its problems, its deficiencies. But the thing is, there aren’t any problems with this computer! Congratulations, OLPC. You’ve done it. Or will you come out with yet better laptops? Is that even possible? We’ll have to see…

Major Intrusion at MediaDefender

MediaDefender, a company providing technical countermeasures and intelligence gathering for copyright owners, suffered a severe cyber-intrusion over the past year or so. This was revealed last week when the intruders released what appears to be most of MediaDefender’s email from this calendar year, along with the source code for its products, and even one of the company’s VoIP phone calls.

Published analyses of the released material mostly confirm what was already suspected, that MediaDefender’s technical tactics had mixed effectiveness, and that the company may have edged across the ethical (and possibly legal) line by launching active cyber-attacks on suspected infringers.

The intruders, on the other hand, went far across the line, committing serious crimes. If caught, they’ll face severe punishment, and rightly so. No excuse can justify this kind of break-in.

Nor have the intruders struck a blow for online freedom. Instead, they have helped their opponents paint a (misleading) picture in which righteous copyright owners are under attack by a small cabal of scofflaw super-hackers.

Expect a backlash. And the main victims of that backlash, as usual, will be ordinary users who aren’t out to hurt anybody but just want some way to coexist peacefully with copyright owners.

[Correction (Sept. 25): Corrected the first paragraph, which previously said voice mail had been captured, to say that a VoIP phone call was captured.]

On freezing your credit reports

In my last post, where I discussed the (likely) theft of my SSN from the State of Ohio, I briefly discussed the possibility of “freezing” my credit report. I’ve done some more investigation on how, exactly, this works.

Details seem to vary from state to state (Consumer’s Union has a nice summary), but you generally can write to each of the three major credit report bureaus, via postal mail, and request that your account be “frozen.” This will not prevent you from getting “pre-approved” credit-card offers. For that, you separately opt-out, although you can at least do it online. Once your request takes effect, most requests to access your credit report will be denied. There are a wide variety of exceptions, mostly related to people who you’re already doing business with, which strikes me as entirely reasonable.

Cost? If you’re the victim of identity fraud (and it’s unclear whether I meet that definition), it’s free. You include a copy of your police report when you’re writing your letters to each of the credit ratings bureaus. If not, the cost is $10 per bureau. Multiply by three, and that’s $30. You’re married and want to do it for your spouse? Add another $30. What if you want to temporarily (or permanently) lift the block? The price varies, but it’s comparable.

Here’s the problem with this system: let’s say you’re doing the sort of things for which people legitimately want to look up your credit report (e.g., borrowing money for a car, opening a new credit card, renting a new apartment, etc.). Particularly if you’re changing jobs, moving to a new area, and so forth, you’ll be doing a lot of this all at once. As a result, precisely when you’re most often giving out your SSN and thus increasing your vulnerability, you also have to disable the block on your account, exposing yourself to the risk of identity theft.

The proper answer, of course, is to arrange for SSNs to have no more value to an identity thief than your name and address. The unanswered question, then, is what exactly can replace it as an authenticator? One possibility, raised in the thread on car dealers who insist on fingerprints, is to require these sorts of transactions be notarized. A notary public‘s main function is to authenticate that a specific person signed a specific document. You already need a notary’s services when you buy or sell a house. Why not require their services for any transaction that involves a personal credit report? The answer, I imagine, is cost, both in time and money. Department stores would be unable to give you “instant credit cards.” Applying to rent an apartment would become more complicated and annoying. There would be more friction, all around, to get credit. However, if identity theft continues to be such a significant problem, maybe it’s a trade-off worth making.

(Aside: how, exactly, do you convince the notary of your identity? The answer varies, but it seems to involve a photo ID, signature, and in some cases a thumbprint. You could certainly imagine cutting the notary out of the process and pushing the same authentication process out to a cash register or wherever else, but this creates a trusted path problem. When a human notary is authenticating a paper document, there’s no question to anybody what, exactly, is being authenticated. If you give your biometric and ID card to a scanner in a store, you have no idea where that data is going and what, ultimately, is being authenticated on your behalf. Astute readers may see a connection between this and the need for election systems to have voter-verifiable paper trails, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Response to ITIF Voting Report

[This post was written by David Robinson and me, based on our discussions with Alex Halderman, Joe Calandrino, and Ari Feldman.]

On Tuesday, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a report on the possible role of paper trails in auditing elections conducted using DRE machines. The report contained a blend of reasonable and unreasonable claims, and careful and uncareful argumentation. A lay reader might come away from the report – entitled Stop the Presses: How Paper Trails Fail to Secure e-Voting – with the belief that the addition of paper trails to DRE voting machines makes them less secure than they are on their own. Such a belief would be incorrect.

As the report puts it at one point, “The addition of paper audit trails to DRE voting machines would simply convert our elections back to a paper ballot system.” The report dwells at remarkable length on the convenient appearance of extra ballots during Lyndon Johnson’s political career. But we know about that cheating today precisely because paper ballots, unlike many DRE vote tallies, can be independently recounted.

One could spend months arguing about what exact position emerges from the 19 pages of delicately drafted hedging that make up the body of this report. But the bottom line – contrary to the impression most readers will gather from the report – is that paper and electronic voting together are, if done right, better than either the best paper system or the best computerized system would be alone.

The ITIF report suggests that a situation in which the paper and electronic records don’t match would be a disaster, since authorities wouldn’t know which record to trust. But that’s a shortsighted view. Divergent paper and electronic records are a sure sign that something has gone awry during voting. In some cases, that sign lets officials make a reasonable judgment about which record is, under the specific circumstances of a given race, more likely to be trustworthy.

The real worst-case scenario isn’t divergent paper and electronic records – with their attendant litigation and political discord. The real worst case is an attack or error that never even comes to the attention of election officials or the public, because there isn’t an independent way of catching problems.

On stolen data with privacy-relevant information

I just received a first-class letter from the State of Ohio, telling me:

The State of Ohio has confirmed that your name and social security number was contained on a computer back-up device that was stolen. It is unlikely that someone can access the data contained in the device without specialized knowledge and equipment. Because we have no information to date that the data has been accessed, everything we are doing, or suggesting that you consider doing, is preventative.

The State of Ohio is doing everything possible to recover the stolen device and protect the personal information that was on the device. We regret that the loss of this sensitive data may place an undue burden of concern on you.

The letter explains how I can sign up with Debix for their identity protection services, and provides a PIN for me to use. (So, now I can spread my SSN further. Wonderful.)

The last time I set foot in Ohio was over three years ago, when I testified about electronic voting security issues, so it seems odd that they would still have my SSN on file. I don’t recall if they specifically asked me for my SSN, but it’s common for these sorts of things to ask for it as part of reimbursing travel expenses. It’s also possible that my SSN was on this backup tape for other reasons. Some news stories say that sixty Connecticut citizen’s information were present on the tape; I’m from Texas, so that shouldn’t have affected me. The State of Ohio has its own official web site to discuss the incident, which apparently happened back in June, yet they’re only telling me now.

Okay, let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on here. First, the “back-up device” in question appears to be nothing more than a backup tape. They don’t say what kind of tape it was, but there are only a handful of options these days, and it’s not exact hard to buy a tape drive, making the “specialized knowledge and equipment” line seem pretty unlikely. (As long as I’ve been doing security work, I’ve seen similar responses. The more things change…) So what actually happened? According to the official web site:

The Inspector General investigation determined that: “OAKS administrators failed to protect confidential information by authorizing state employees, including college interns, to take backup tapes containing sensitive data to their homes for overnight storage”; “OAKS, OIT (Office of Information Technology) and OBM (Office of Budget and Management) officials failed to report the theft of confidential information to state and law enforcement officials in a timely manner”; and “OAKS administrators failed to protect confidential information by allowing personnel to store sensitive data in an unsecured folder on the OAKS intranet.” The Inspector General found no evidence to suggest state agencies or employees engaged in criminal or illegal behavior surrounding these circumstances.

At its core, Ohio apparently had fantastically poor procedures along with what Jerry Saltzer refers to as the “bad news diode“, i.e., bad news never flows up the chain of command. Combine those and it shouldn’t be surprising that something would eventually go wrong. In my case, such poor procedures make it believable that nobody bothered to delete my information after it was no longer necessary to retain it. Or, maybe they have some misguided anti-terrorist accounting rule where they hang onto this data “just in case.” Needless to say, I don’t know.

It’s reasonable to presume that this sort of issue is only going to become more common over time. It’s exceptionally difficult to keep your SSN truly private, particularly if reimbursement paperwork, among other things, unnecessarily requires the disclosure of a SSN. The right answer is probably an amalgamation of data destruction policies (to limit the scope of leaks when they happen), rational data management policies (to make leaks less likely), and federal regulations making it harder to convert a SSN into cash (to make leaked SSNs less valuable).

(Sidebar: when my wife and I bought a new car in 2005, the dealer asked for my SSN. “I’m paying cash. You don’t need it,” I said. They replied that I could either wait until the funds cleared, or I could let them run a credit check on me. I grumbled and caved in. At least they didn’t ask for my fingerprint.)