Month: April 2009


Visual Security

April 9, 2009

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The story of Bob Quick’s exposure of secret anti-terrorist documents to photographers outside Number Ten, and his subsequent resignation, is of course highly amusing. It does also highlight some significant issues.

The changes that information technology make to privacy and secrecy are changes what can be done with information that was always available. Most obviously, information once captured can be stored, searched and shared. But also, what was a glimpse can now easily be turned into something that can be analysed at leisure. The implications are not immediately obvious.

In the current case, new technology doesn’t really come into it. People have been taking pictures outside 10 Downing Street with good-quality cameras for a long time. Nonetheless, we now need to be aware that anything exposed to public view is potentially public property.

One example is the “Fake ATM” fraud, where criminals fit an extra magnetic strip reader onto an existing ATM, and also add a video camera to record the user entering their PIN. They then can clone the cards and use the PINs.

A possibility I’ve not heard of, but which occurred to me when I worked in a large shared office building, involves barcodes. The building issued temporary passes to guests which opened the security gates with a barcode. It should not be difficult to take a picture of somebody wearing such a badge, read the barcode from the image, and print a fake temporary pass with the same barcode which would then open the gate. I never got round to trying it, because I couldn’t find free software for reading and printing the barcodes.

This is just the beginning. The ubiquitous security video cameras do not, these days, produce images of sufficient quality to resolve text, barcodes etc. (except of course in CSI and the like, where they can resolve even minute off-screen detail via incidental reflections). But they are getting better. The same goes for cameras in phones, and “toy” concealable cameras. But the high end today of both security video and cellphones are probably about at the level where exposed text can be captured, and it is a matter of only a few years before such image quality becomes the norm.

Confidential documents are often exposed by people reading them while in transit, on trains and planes as well as getting in and out of official cars. Bob Quick got caught out because he was in a place where it was natural for him to be photographed directly with proper cameras. But someone hanging around Canary Wharf underground with a T929 could quite likely grab a fair bit of confidential information surreptitiously.

So if your documents are worth shredding rather than dropping in the bin, they’re worth keeping inside an opaque folder when in any public place.

Update: Via a commenter at Bruce Schneier’s, this has happened before


New powers are different

April 8, 2009

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This, via Radley Balko strikes me as a hugely insightful point.

It was easier for Obama to fire the CEO of a private company than it is to fire most federal employees.

Corporatism doesn’t just lead to massive inefficiency in the economy and cause a dangerous increase in state power. On top of those problems, it also changes the balance of power within the government. As observed, the president has more personal power over a newly semi-nationalised company than he does over a government agency.

Existing state powers get fossilised into the permanent (civil service) structure, largely out of the control of the executive. When new powers are acquired, they are normally under much more direct “democratic” control than old powers. Over time, as the consequence of the powers being used “politically” or even (gasp!) by a “populist”, they are taken over by the permanent establishment.

In this country, we have seen it most clearly in relation to the E.U. Something that would be very difficult for a politician to do directly is much easier for the same politician to do by proposing it to the European Commission and running it through as a directive.

This could be a major reason for the steady drive for more state power. It is not that politicians think the government doesn’t have enough power, it is that they need the government to have new power that they can actually control.



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