Friday, September 23, 2005

How far is too far in detaining potential suspects?

In the rush to solve "terrorism" there are repeatedly stories of horrors visited by the police upon innocent civilians. I think the police are going too far.

Here is one such story: Suspicious behaviour on the tube (David Mery, Thursday September 22, 2005, The Guardian)

The fellow is apparently a tech journalist because he describes the variety of technical gear kept in his apartment that he uses in conducting reviews of technical gear.

The story is that he was returning home for work, and found himself suddenly arrested by the police. He lives in London England, and this was in July shortly after the bombing in the subways system. Around the same time you may recall a Brazilian was shot and killed by London police officers because they suspected him of suspicious activity, but he turned out to be completely innocent.

In this case the police ticked off a list of suspicious activities (quoted from the article):

  • they found my behaviour suspicious from direct observation and then from watching me on the CCTV system;
  • I went into the station without looking at the police officers at the entrance or by the gates;
  • two other men entered the station at about the same time as me;
  • I am wearing a jacket "too warm for the season";
  • I am carrying a bulky rucksack, and kept my rucksack with me at all times;
  • I looked at people coming on the platform;
  • I played with my phone and then took a paper from inside my jacket.

Very innocent, but the result is he spent the night in jail, his girlfriend was terrorized first because he didn't show up for their date and that she couldn't reach him, and later because the police raided their apartment. He also had to hire a lawyer (er... soliciter), and now the police are refusing to erase the record of the incident meaning that all police agencies around the world (due to information sharing) will now see his name having a Terrorism indicator in his record. (due to having been arrested for suspicion of terrorism)

er... isn't something wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Carter-Baker commission recommends voting system improvements

Panel calls for improved voting lists, ID requirements (Monday, September 19, 2005, CNN.COM): Concerns a bipartisan commission chaired by Pres. Carter and James Baker. The commission was geared to making recommendations concerning the conduct of American elections.

What is the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform?

The Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform is a panel of distinguished civic and political leaders co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Dr. Robert Pastor, Director of American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management, serves as Executive Director of the Commission. The twenty-one members of the Commission represent a broad spectrum of the American political experience.


The full report and other information is available here:

The CNN article lists these as some of the recommendations:

  • Congress should pass a law requiring voter-verifiable paper audit trails on all electronic voting machines.
  • States should require voters to present photo IDs and offer free photo IDs to those who don't have drivers' licenses.
  • All "legitimate domestic and international election observers" should be granted unrestricted access to the election process, within the rules of the election.
  • News organizations should voluntarily refrain from projecting any presidential election results in any state until all polls have closed in all states but Alaska and Hawaii.
  • States should establish uniform procedures for the counting of provisional ballots, which voters can use when there are questions about their registration.
  • Also, states should develop registration systems that allow easy checks of voters from one state to another and the purging of outdated voter records

The article also discusses a recommendation by the private Commission on Federal Election Reform to change the primary system to schedule the primaries regionally. But it isn't clear from the article whether this recommendation was also made by the Carter Baker commission.

The theme I see is increased reliability of voter identification, and improved verifiability. I of course strongly support voter-verifiable paper trails.

For example if the election were conducted with a touch screen system, and the touch screen computer produced a paper card containing the votes. So long as the card is printed with a known font, font size, etc, then it's easily scannable by a computer, and at the same time is easily human readable. Hence, we would have the advantage of digitized information allowing a quick counting process, while at the same time giving the people comfort knowing their vote was registered properly and can be recounted easily.

But that leaves as an issue the red flag discussed yesterday. There's a concern with Deibolds tabulating computers whether or not there's security holes. You could have the front end of the system, the vote taking, be nice and orderly, but with insecure tabulating computers the election validity would still be unclear.

The commission was conducted with the assistance of:

Monday, September 19, 2005

Deibolds role in rigged voting

Background: Following the fiasco finish to the 2000 U.S. presidential elections (effectively dramatized by Michael Moore) there was major hue and cry to "fix" the election system. I guess some people took "fix" a different way than the people meant them to take it. In the 2004 election we had the rise of "voting machines" which were supposed to be easier than the punch card system. The spin put forward was the 2000 fiasco was due to confusion on the voters part, with the punch card ballots being problematic to use. Supposedly having a touch screen is easier.

While punch cards are straight out of the 1930's in terms of technological prowess, I think the use of voting machines ought to be rethought. As a computer professional I know damn well that digitally recorded information is very changable, and as a U.S. citizen I dearly want my vote to be properly recorded and counted.

Digitally recorded votes are susceptible to being untraceably changed, with the only safeguard being the security of the computers used to take votes, transfer votes, and process votes.

One of the stories that emerged in 2004 is at ... it concerns relative insecurity of the dominant voting machine, built by Diebold. For example, the Diebold CEO was also highly involved with the Bush campaign and was recorded boasting that Bush would win the 2004 election. Considering the closeness of that election, it's very "interesting" for him to have made such a boast.

One of the things did in 2004 was locate and publish a bunch of Diebold internal memos detailing known security problems with their voting machines, how they had circumvented the qualification processes which were meant to properly certify the machines for use in elections, etc.

Now we have "The Brad Blog" with this stunning exclusive story: EXCLUSIVE! * A DIEBOLD INSIDER SPEAKS! DIEB-THROAT : 'Diebold System One of Greatest Threats Democracy Has Ever Known' Identifies U.S. Homeland Security 'Cyber Alert' Prior to '04 Election Warning Votes Can be 'Modified Remotely' via 'Undocumented Backdoor' in Central Tabulator Software!

Basically what we have here is an insider anonymously contacting this Brad fellow. Apparently the insider is fairly high level, having represented Diebold to the public at times. He tells that certain problems are well known within the company, but that there is a top-down demand for silence on these problems. The people who have spoken up about it have been "isolated".

The problem cited is "remote access" to the GEMS central tabulator machines. Each one has a modem in it which, if connected to a phone line, allows remote access to the tabulator machine. Further the security on the remote access port is weak enough that the US-CERT (a cyber-security team) has rated it a "medium" risk, which is pretty damn flimsy. Hence, modifying the election on a broad scale wouldn't require cooperation from a large team, but could involve a small team who goes around accessing tabulator machines remotely and changing the election results.

It's easy to see in this the typical scared corporates trying to cover up a problem 'lest it hurt the sales figures which directly ties to the stock price. This reaction has happened over and over in various corporate-connected disasters throughout the ages. For example, take tobacco and smoking. For decades, while people were continuing to die from smoking tobacco, the people being told there wasn't any proof connecting tobacco smoking with lung cancer, but all along the tobacco companies knew there was a connection. Their denials were directly tied to preserving sales, because if they told the truth their sales probably would have plummeted. Well, considering what's happened now that we know that tobacco smoking causes lung cancer ... their sales might not have plummeted as badly as they feared.

In any case, the Brad Blog guy got to talk with a Diebold PR guy who denied everything and provided a whitewashing study that supposedly proves the Diebold machines helps with greater accuracy in the elections.

I don't care if their machines helped in a few ways ... so long as they cannot be independantly validated, so long as they're provided under veils of corporate secrecy and whitewashing, so long as there's no paper trail allowing truly independant validation of the election results, etc, then we cannot trust our elections. If we cannot trust our elections, then how can we trust that the politicians are going to be held accountable to us???

In the U.S. the politicians are theoretically supposed to serve us. Obviously in recent years this theory has been demolished. But that's part of the social contract forming the bedrock of this country. We the people need to take our country back.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Travel security scam? Airport security as a way to create a boondoggle?

It's important to remember that public statements of purpose aren't always the real reason that something happens. For example the public statement of why the U.S. defied International law to invade Iraq was the threat posed by the supposed Weapons of Mass Descruction still owned by Iraq. It's clear in hindsight that even the U.S. administration knew they were lying up a storm (so why haven't they been impeached yet?) and that something else was the reason. (Probably Iraq's oil)

In any case, today there's an announcement of a program allowing people, who pay a fee, to bypass airport security.

A $79.95 opportunity to breeze through security (Published: September 13, 2005, 10:22 AM PDT, By Joe Sharkey, The New York Times, published by C|NET News)

The deal is this new company is offering, for $79.95, to provide a high quality and hopefully unforgeable identity card that embeds all sorts of personal data. Thumbprints, iris scans, etc.

The stick is the pain airport travellers have to "endure" in going through airport security checks. If you've traveled by air you know the stupid rigamarole ... take off your shoes (because one idiot supposed terrorist made a halfway decent attempt using shoe based bombs) ... take off your belt, jewelry, cell phone, other metal object (but, I can't take the rods out of my legs, and tend to end up being checked anyway) ... take your laptop out of its case (as if that's a real problem?) ... and wait through a line.

That carrot is the being able to bypass that pain. But, by offering a way past the pain for some that's probably gonna delay the time when the system has to be fixed. But the system itself needs to be fixed.

Isn't it stupid to have to take off your shoes? This stems from the attempt by "the shoe bomber" to blow up an airplane by lighting his shoes on fire. One person, one time, makes a half assed attempt that failed, and now we all have to take our shoes off? I say this is stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

But let's stay with the topic here. What's really happening is that because of the stick held by the TSA, those who agree to the carrot are having to turn over personal biometric data. Hence, the TSA is pushing us all along a path towards a day when we are all tracked everywhere we go. Today it's airport travellers, tomorrow who knows what?

The other day when I renewed my drivers license, they took a biometric scan of my thumbprint. Why? What are they gonna use it for?

I do agree that an identity card that isn't secure and doesn't do a good job of identification is practically worthless. e.g. how easy is it to get a forged drivers license?

For this airport card they're requiring a social security number and two forms of government ID. Uh, wait, the social security number is not supposed to be used for identification. In any case, how easy is it to obtain falsified social security numbers or government ID cards?

And, is total tracking of our every move what we want???

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Unlikely that Arafat was assassinated

Last fall when Yasser Arafat died mysteriously, there was speculation over whether he was assassinated. Presumably some secret service might have developed a strange poison and administered it to him somehow, just like from a James Bond movie or some such.

At the time I made these two postings:

Was Arafat assassinated?

Arafat health records stay private

Today we have news of an independant review of Arafat's health records. Which leaves some puzzles, but answers a few questions.

Medical Records Say Arafat Died From a Stroke; Poisoning Unlikely (By STEVEN ERLANGER and LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN, Published: September 8, 2005, also published by the International Herald Tribune

The story that emerges is more about medical ineptitude than anything else. Or maybe the ineptitude has to do with the conditions under which Arafat was living, basically beseiged by the Israeli military in his compound. In any case it's clear he didn't get proper treatment until it was too late, but even then the doctors were unclear what was the illness they were treating.

For example his own physician did not arrive in Ramallah until just before Arafats evacuation to Paris. For example, blood and stool samples were taken and flown to Tunis, but those samples never arrived in Tunis.

The findings of the review say poisoning is highly unlikely, but the article describes an extreme illness (of some kind) coming on very suddenly after eating. Surely the poisoning theory stems from the sudden onset of mysterious symptoms.

The review describes his death as a stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an unknown infection. The bleeding disorder, disseminated intravascular coagulation, was not recognized until late in his illness, when he arrived in Paris. His illness began on October 12, but he was not evacuated to Paris until October 29.

Troubling is the context in which this happened. Arafat had been beseiged in his Ramallah compound for three years. The Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, had a long history of hatred towards Arafat and a desire to kill him. Yet official Israeli policy was to not harm Arafat, and therefore the official action was to isolate Arafat in Ramallah.

Sharon himself said he informed President George W. Bush on April 14, 2004, that he no longer felt bound by his promise to Bush in March 2001 not to harm Arafat...

"President Bush replied that it would perhaps be best to leave Arafat's fate in the hands of the Almighty. Sharon said that one should sometimes help Him."

In this context I can't discount the Palestinian theory that agents of Israel poisoned Arafat. Maybe the word "poison" is not accurate, as toxins tend to wash out of the body quickly and the effect of this illness lasted for nearly a month. If Arafats death were caused by nefarious agents, rather than simple food poisining, it would have involved some kind of organism introduced probably through his food.

At the same time this theory looks more remote. It's easy to see how his living conditions were not at all good, that he was an old man, and that old people tend to die of illnesses. Perhaps it's a simple case rather than a nefarious one?