I recently got the opportunity to understand what was going on with a Tianchi android KTV console with north korean content loaded on it. A description of the encryption and evolution of DRM protections associated with the device is published on the North Korea Tech blog.
I had the privilege to address the annual Chaos Communication Congress (36C3) in Leipzig last week about the state and remaining issues in private communications.
The TL;DR for me is that many of the trade-offs are balancing the stability of user experience with privacy mechanisms – and finding more ergonomic user experience interactions will be as important as new systems schemes are to improving the ecosystem.
I am particularly excited by the number of ongoing effort reducing trust in central servers. Many of the mechanistic trade-offs we face are due to the topology of our systems. With systems designed for fully anonymous interaction, like mixnets, PIR, and oblivious messaging, we can model and mitigate threats from much more realistic adversaries than we do with popular channels today. (For instance, consider an office which has received a whistle blowing message. If the receiving investigation wants to identify the source, they likely control both the local network, and have the ability to send messages to the account that initiated the conversation. Our current designs will find it quite difficult to protect a user from this scenario)
I gave a talk this past summer at DEFCON on the ethical quandary that continues to play a role in the academic discussion of network censorship measurement. Over the course of my phd studies, there was a significant arc of time where the community yielded to caution as the issues around ethics were better understood.
These issues have not gone away, and in the intervening six months since this talk, we’ve seen new groups re-develop techniques deemed problematic by the prevailing winds of the academic community.
One of the most interesting lines of inquiry within the Censored Planet project at the University of Michigan is trying to pull apart the different actors involved in Internet censorship. One of the interesting quirks is that a significant factor in why content might not be available to users is that the web publisher themselves have limited who they’ll respond to.
This relates to existing phenomenons like increased balkanization of the web, where regions and nations promote domestic services and networks, but is as much a function of where lucrative markets are and a reaction to the background of fraud and malicious online traffic.
One outcome of this research is a set of measurements looking at how and where CDNs limit access, that will be presented tomorrow at IMC.
Like many parts of the Internet, a take-away here is that attribution is hard.
Excited to be included in the 2018 class of CSIS NextGen Scholars.
The following is a response to an invitation to participate in the recently formed Cuba Internet Task Force.
Task Force Representatives:
I will not be joining the Cuba Internet Task Force, or Subcommittees, because I believe the harm done by the existence of these committees outweighs any potential benefit of the recommendations that can come from them.
In recent years, Cuba has increasingly normalized Internet usage, through expansion and cost reduction of WiFi, through the advent of AirBNB as a major source of tourism revenue, and through growing traffic capacity.
In the scope of my work, I have documented the flourishing community wireless networks operating in tandem with official Internet service from ETECSA. These community efforts already address the “last mile” problem, and it is not hard to imagine the future where they are consolidated or integrated to provide Internet-to-the-home for many more Cubans.
These efforts are hindered by the perception by the Cuban government that the Internet and its associated ‘freedom’ are being forced upon them by the United States. In the wake of the creation of this task force, Cuban media has focused on the implied pressure, and private individuals in the Cuban technology sector have come under increased scrutiny.
Instead of attempting to influence the policies of another sovereign nation, I encourage us to reflect more on our internal policies. US government sanctions currently require a wide range of US-based education and reference sites from blocking Cuban traffic. Likewise, limitations preventing Cubans from connecting to US-invested undersea cables are partially responsible for the scarcity and cost of Cuban Internet connections. Reducing these sanctions can allow Cubans to become a market for US companies, and will provide additional incentives for widespread connectivity across the country.
Through a series of unlikely events, I found myself with the opportunity to visit Beirut for a week in early March of 2018. It was a great experience, and challenged many of the stereotypes I had developed about the realities of both the middle east and proximity to conflict zones.
The most impressive aspect of Lebanon to me was the handling and presence of the refugee situation in the area. Lebanon has had a significant southern area of refugee camps for those moving away from conflict in Palestine. More recently, a sizable refugee population has entered the country leaving the Syrian conflict. Today, there are more refugees in Lebanon than citizens, which is a source of conflict and tension in many parts of the country.
Camps, at least the impressive images of dense clusters of refugees we see in western news, do not reflect the reality I found in Lebanon. At least from the portion of the eastern countryside I saw, refugees are situated in small clusters of a few families at edges of existing towns and cities. While shelter construction is rushed, as families arrive and quickly need places to stay, there’s a significant local variability in how much local time and resources are available to construct more livable dwellings. On the ground, the competence and overloaded-ness of the local NGOs and community members is probably the biggest factor in outcome. The structures I saw had power, TVs, and charging android phones.
I was caught off guard in a good way by the urban population center of Beirut. First, Beirut continues to exist as a melting pot of a bunch of different ethnicities and cultures. Second, there was both a general tolerance and liberalism that exceeded what I’ve seen in UAE or Pakistan. Third, that liberalism translated into a much less pervasive security apparatus than I was expecting given the location and strife in the region. I needed to provide a passport as Identification for hotels, but did not need it for travel in the country, and did not need to show ID for access to school campuses of businesses. Part of that is white privilege, but in general there was not infrastructure to support any meaningful restrictions of movement or exclusion of groups from public areas.
I was likewise surprised by the seeming ease with which people were able to travel between Lebanon and Syria. For the demo day of a syrian entrepreneurship bootcamp, a number of spectators traveled to Beirut for the day from Damascus. The general sentiment I heard from several Lebanese was that the country is generally safe, but that as you get towards the edges, it’s preferable to travel with someone from the area who knows people. It’s often non-obvious, but traveling with someone who already has relationships built with those in the region seems to be the accepted way of keeping situations diffused.
In terms of connectivity, much of the stress of the country is that the conflict surrounding it has meant that there are not solid landline connections to the rest of the world. This means most Internet traffic is routed through an undersea cable to Cyprus, which limits the overall capacity for the country. In turn, this leads to relatively expensive fixed-line Internet pricing, with many people opting for mobile Internet. Mobile connections can often be cheaper and faster than the DSL providers. In rural areas, it was noted that there are some cases of communities sharing mobile connections, through hotspots or tethering to a connected phone.
One of the signs I found heartening was that at the makerspace in Beirut, there were members with Tor project and Internet activism stickers on their laptops. The ability openly express support for those causes is a great sign that civil society is able to function without significant pressure on that front.
I’m very excited to have two talks at CCC at the end of the month. The bulk of accepted talks can be seen and voted on at the CCC “halfnarp”.
The first talk is on the Internet in Cuba. It expands upon the recent talk I presented at IMC last month, to provide additional color on what Internet access is really like in Cuba, and what the community there is doing to create LANs and other alternatives to the official but expensive ETECSA service.
The second talk looks again at technology in Pyongyang. Since 2014, there have been a number of talks about the totally closed off tech ecosystem there, but as it ramps up we continue to only get a few glimpses into what’s going on, and it’s getting only harder as the broader tensions ramp up. My goal is to propose a path for getting more rather than less transparency into the picture, because it is a really fascinating place.
The talks should both be recorded, and might even be streamed. If you’re one of the (I hear it could be up 16,000) participants, I hope to see you in Leipzig!