Maybe Better If You Don’t Read This Story on Public WiFi

January 7th, 2016

– I knew things were bad – but I didn’t know they were this bad.

– Unless you want to be in complete denial about your computer security issues, you will want to read this.

– dennis

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We took a hacker to a café and, in 20 minutes, he knew where everyone else was born, what schools they attended, and the last five things they googled.

In his backpack, Wouter Slotboom, 34, carries around a small black device, slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes, with an antenna on it. I meet Wouter by chance at a random cafe in the center of Amsterdam. It is a sunny day and almost all the tables are occupied. Some people talk, others are working on their laptops or playing with their smartphones.

Wouter removes his laptop from his backpack, puts the black device on the table, and hides it under a menu. A waitress passes by and we ask for two coffees and the password for the WiFi network. Meanwhile, Wouter switches on his laptop and device, launches some programs, and soon the screen starts to fill with green text lines. It gradually becomes clear that Wouter’s device is connecting to the laptops, smartphones, and tablets of cafe visitors.

On his screen, phrases like “iPhone Joris” and “Simone’s MacBook” start to appear. The device’s antenna is intercepting the signals that are being sent from the laptops, smartphones, and tablets around us.

More text starts to appear on the screen. We are able to see which WiFi networks the devices were previously connected to. Sometimes the names of the networks are composed of mostly numbers and random letters, making it hard to trace them to a definite location, but more often than not, these WiFi networks give away the place they belong to.

We learn that Joris had previously visited McDonald’s, probably spent his vacation in Spain (lots of Spanish-language network names), and had been kart-racing (he had connected to a network belonging to a well-known local kart-racing center). Martin, another café visitor, had been logged on to the network of Heathrow airport and the American airline Southwest. In Amsterdam, he’s probably staying at the White Tulip Hostel. He had also paid a visit to a coffee shop called The Bulldog.

Session 1:

Let everyone connect to our fake network

The waitress serves us our coffee and hands us the WiFi password. After Slotboom is connected, he is able to provide all the visitors with an internet connection and to redirect all internet traffic through his little device.

Most smartphones, laptops, and tablets automatically search and connect to WiFi networks. They usually prefer a network with a previously established connection. If you have ever logged on to the T-Mobile network on the train, for example, your device will search for a T-Mobile network in the area.

Slotboom’s device is capable of registering these searches and appearing as that trusted WiFi network. I suddenly see the name of my home network appear on my iPhone’s list of available networks, as well as my workplace, and a list of cafes, hotel lobbies, trains, and other public places I’ve visited. My phone automatically connects itself to one of these networks, which all belong to the black device.

Slotboom can also broadcast a fictitious network name, making users believe they are actually connecting to the network of the place they’re visiting. For example, if a place has a WiFi network consisting of random letters and numbers (Fritzbox xyz123), Slotboom is able to provide the network name (Starbucks). People, he says, are much more willing to connect to these.

We see more and more visitors log on to our fictitious network. The siren song of the little black device appears to be irresistible. Already 20 smartphones and laptops are ours. If he wanted to, Slotboom could now completely ruin the lives of the people connected: He can retrieve their passwords, steal their identity, and plunder their bank accounts. Later today, he will show me how. I have given him permission to hack me in order to demonstrate what he is capable of, though it could be done to anyone with a smartphone in search of a network, or a laptop connecting to a WiFi network.

Everything, with very few exceptions, can be cracked.

The idea that public WiFi networks are not secure is not exactly news. It is, however, news that can’t be repeated often enough. There are currently more than 1.43 billion smartphone users worldwide and more than 150 million smartphone owners in the U.S. More than 92 million American adults own a tablet and more than 155 million own a laptop. Each year the worldwide demand for more laptops and tablets increases. In 2013, an estimated 206 million tablets and 180 million laptops were sold worldwide. Probably everyone with a portable device has once been connected to a public WiFi network: while having a coffee, on the train, or at a hotel.

The good news is that some networks are better protected than others; some email and social media services use encryption methods that are more secure than their competitors. But spend a day walking in the city with Wouter Slotboom, and you’ll find that almost everything and everyone connected to a WiFi network can be hacked. A study from threat intelligence consultancy Risk Based Security estimates that more than 822 million records were exposed worldwide in 2013, including credit card numbers, birth dates, medical information, phone numbers, social security numbers, addresses, user names, emails, names, and passwords. Sixty-five percent of those records came from the U.S. According to IT security firm Kaspersky Lab, in 2013 an estimated 37.3 million users worldwide and 4.5 million Americans were the victim of phishing—or pharming—attempts, meaning payment details were stolen from hacked computers, smartphones, or website users.

Report after report shows that digital identity fraud is an increasingly common problem. Hackers and cybercriminals currently have many different tricks at their disposal. But the prevalence of open, unprotected WiFi networks does make it extremely easy for them. The Netherlands National Cyber ??Security Center, a division of the Ministry of Security and Justice, did not issue the following advice in vain: “It is not advisable to use open WiFi networks in public places. If these networks are used, work or financial related activities should better be avoided.”

Slotboom calls himself an “ethical hacker,” or one of the good guys; a technology buff who wants to reveal the potential dangers of the internet and technology. He advises individuals and companies on how to better protect themselves and their information. He does this, as he did today, usually by demonstrating how easy it is to inflict damage. Because really, it’s child’s play: The device is cheap, and the software for intercepting traffic is very easy to use and is readily available for download. “All you need is 70 Euros, an average IQ, and a little patience,” he says. I will refrain from elaborating on some of the more technical aspects, such as equipment, software, and apps needed to go about hacking people.

Session 2:

Scanning for name, passwords, and sexual orientation

Armed with Slotboom’s backpack, we move to a coffeehouse that is known for the beautiful flowers drawn in the foam of the lattes, and as a popular spot for freelancers working on laptops. This place is now packed with people concentrating on their screens.

Slotboom switches on his equipment. He takes us through the same steps, and within a couple of minutes, 20 or so devices are connected to ours. Again we see their Mac-addresses and login history, and in some cases their owners’ names. At my request, we now go a step further.

Slotboom launches another program (also readily available for download), which allows him to extract even more information from the connected smartphones and laptops. We are able to see the specifications of the mobile phone models (Samsung Galaxy S4), the language settings for the different devices, and the version of the operating system used (iOS 7.0.5). If a device has an outdated operating system, for example, there are always known “bugs,” or holes in the security system that can be easily exploited. With this kind of information, you have what you need to break into the operating system and take over the device. A sampling of the coffeehouse customers reveals that none of the connected devices have the latest version of the operating system installed. For all these legacy systems, a known bug is listed online.

We can now see some of the actual internet traffic of those around us. We see that someone with a MacBook is browsing the site Nu.nl. We can see that many devices are sending documents using WeTransfer, some are connecting to Dropbox, and some show activity on Tumblr. We see that someone has just logged on to FourSquare. The name of this person is also shown, and, after googling his name, we recognize him as the person sitting just a few feet away from us.

Information comes flooding in, even from visitors who are not actively working or surfing. Many email programs and apps constantly make contact with their servers—a necessary step for a device to retrieve new emails. For some devices and programs, we are able to see what information is being sent, and to which server.

And now it’s getting really personal. We see that one visitor has the gay dating app Grindr installed on his smartphone. We also see the name and type of the smartphone he’s using (iPhone 5s). We stop here, but it would be a breeze to find out to who the phone belongs to. We also see that someone’s phone is attempting to connect to a server in Russia, sending the password along with it, which we are able to intercept.

Session 3:

Obtaining information on occupation, hobbies, and relational problems

Many apps, programs, websites, and types of software make use of encryption technologies. These are there to ensure that the information sent and received from a device is not accessible to unauthorized eyes. But once the user is connected to Slotboom’s WiFi network, these security measures can be circumvented relatively easily, with the help of decryption software.

To our shared surprise, we see an app sending personal information to a company that sells online advertising. Among other things, we see the location data, technical information of the phone, and information of the WiFi network. We can also see the name (first and last) of a woman using the social bookmarking website Delicious. Delicious allows users to share websites—bookmarks—they are interested in. In principle, the pages that users of Delicious share are available publicly, yet we can’t help feeling like voyeurs when we realize just how much we are able to learn about this woman on the basis of this information.

First we google her name, which immediately allows us to determine what she looks like and where in the coffeehouse she is sitting. We learn that she was born in a different European country and only recently moved to the Netherlands. Through Delicious we discover that she’s been visiting the website of a Dutch language course and she has bookmarked a website with information on the Dutch integration course.

In less than 20 minutes, here’s what we’ve learned about the woman sitting 10 feet from us: where she was born, where she studied, that she has an interest in yoga, that she’s bookmarked an online offer for a anti-snore mantras, recently visited Thailand and Laos, and shows a remarkable interest in sites that offer tips on how to save a relationship.

Slotboom shows me some more hacker tricks. Using an app on his phone, he is able to change specific words on any website. For example, whenever the word “Opstelten” (the name of a Dutch politician) is mentioned, people see the word “Dutroux” (the name of a convicted serial killer) rendered on the page instead. We tested it and it works. We try another trick: Anyone loading a website that includes pictures gets to see a picture selected by Slotboom. This all sounds funny if you’re looking for some mischief, but it also makes it possible to load images of child pornography on someone’s smartphone, the possession of which is a criminal offense.

Password intercepted

We visit yet another cafe. My last request to Slotboom is to show me what he would do if he wanted to really harm me. He asks me to go to Live.com (the Microsoft email site) and enter a random username and password. A few seconds later, the information I just typed appears on his screen. “Now I have the login details of your email account,” Slotboom says. “The first thing I would do is change the password of your account and indicate to other services you use that I have forgotten my password. Most people use the same email account for all services. And those new passwords will then be sent to your mailbox, which means I will have them at my disposal as well.” We do the same for Facebook: Slotboom is able to intercept the login name and password I entered with relative ease.

Another trick that Slotboom uses is to divert my internet traffic. For example, whenever I try to access the webpage of my bank, he has instructed his program to re-direct me to a page he owns: a cloned site that appears to be identical to the trusted site, but is in fact completely controlled by Slotboom. Hackers call this DNS spoofing. The information I entered on the site is stored on the server owned by Slotboom. Within 20 minutes he’s obtained the login details, including passwords for my Live.com, SNS Bank, Facebook, and DigiD accounts.

I will never again be connecting to an insecure public WiFi network without taking security measures.

– Follow this link to the original of this story…

…from a letter to a friend….

December 25th, 2015
You have new angles I’ve never suspected.  A Marshal McLuhan fan, I’m thinking.
And I get what you are saying.  Everything is modified by media.
But it reminds me of the description of the classic discussion between a new meditator and a meditation teacher.
The teacher explains to the highly incredulous newbie that all those voices in his head – all that ego chatter, no matter how real it seems and no matter how omnipresent it is – it is not who they are.
He says that who you really are is the silence that sits quietly behind the ego’s chatter – and that this is true no matter whether you believe it or not.
“How can one know this is true?”, the student asks?
The teacher says “Simple logic. The chatter is like the contents of a bowl and the silence is the bowl.   You can take the ego’s chatter out and still have the bowl’s silence.  But you cannot remove the bowl and still have the ego’s chatter.  Hence we know which one is more fundamental.”
The media is like this.  It is omnipresent, it taints everything and everything is modified and shaped by it.  But, in the end, it is nothing without us.  Without us, it cannot exist though we can exist without it.
So, I acknowledge the media’s power but I can’t go so far as you and believe that nothing is happening but the media and its effects.
Under the firestorm of information echoing and feeding back on itself is the physical world, are the lives being lived and lost, is every child learning to walk and every human learning to love.
They say that the first thing a surgeon reaches for when they confronting a problem is a scalpel, or a carpenter a hammer.
Perhaps, after so many years in the media and so many years drinking its particular kool-aid, you have lost the sense that it is, in the end, a powerful overlay and a echo machine of a high order – but it is not the substrate.
One of the reasons I read so many things, as I’m sure you do, is because multiple cross correlations can tend to null out local effects.  It has been hard to get a ‘handle’ on ISIS.  Cultural echoes, media echoes, vested interest echoes, nationalistic echoes and more are all jamming the river of information with crap and bias.
But, unless I’m to believe that the media is the ground or substrate of the world, I have to believe that under its storm of echoes, there lies a deeper reality that, while perhaps difficult to see clearly, is there none the less.
I know you are an idealist and a realist and that it is a hard thing to be both.  And I know that people, myself very much included, can get burnt out by the world’s insanities and just go stale towards it all.  I hear some of that in your words, my friend.
In all of the insanity of this world, there still is a higher road.  And, in an amusing way, it is not through it but rather around it.
When Buddha said that when we wish reality to be different than it is, we only manufacturers unhappiness for ourselves, he was sharing a great truth.  There are a lot of truths like that lying about.  With them, one can embark on transcending rather than coping or conquering or even understanding the world.
Someone once said, “Be in the world but not of the world”.  Or, more graphically, as Ali said, “Float like a butterfly and string like a bee.”
All your criticisms have a very large grain of truth in them which you’ve won through hard experience and, undoubtedly, the loss of some skin.  But there’s more.
I spend a lot of time looking at this world square on trying to see its realities behinds its illusions.  But I remain joyful in spite of all that because I think there’s more.
And, if like an Existentialist or a Stoic, you look at it square and accept that there is one hell of a lot that cannot be changed, there still is all the rest to play in.  And one of the best areas to play in is your own mind and perceptions.  They are malleable, they are shapable and they are yours to own.  Intentional, incremental self transcendence is quite simply capable of being yours.
That was recorded lecture #43 from Dennis’ “Ministry to Burnt Out News Folk”.  Stay tuned next week when we offer a shampoo that will, with just one application, make you literally 20 years younger and twice as smart.
Until then, hang onto your willy and never give up,
Dennis

Iranian hackers infiltrated U.S. power grid, dam computers, reports say

December 24th, 2015
  • This is a scary article.  And reading it, you might be forgiven if you think this is something new and that our government’s security folks will be all over soon to quash it.
  • But,in fact, it is not new.  Not hardly.  The United State’s power structures have been under attack by foreign hackers and very likely compromised for sometime now.
  • Compromised how?  And how badly, you say?
  • Well, first they are compromised primarily because the Internet and the power grid networks involved are just simply too much and too complicated. The number of people who really understand technical stuff at this level are few. And the need to have our power infrastructure all up and running all the time is intense. We have thousands of facilities, thousands of people working in the industry and God only knows how many software vendors have written packages to help make it all run and sold the packages to the industry. Just think of how little you, your friends and your neighbors (and virtually all the people you know) really know about computers and networks and you’ll begin to see how few are protecting so many from so much.
  • And how badly are we compromised?
  • Well, you’ll have to read the article to get some idea of how badly we’re compromised – but know this:  this is not new.  Here’s a link to an article I posted back in April of 2009 – on this same subject.  You might read it first and then read the new article and see if you think ‘the government’s security folks will be all over [this situation] soon to quash it’.
  • Here’s a few quotes from the new article to get your juices flowing:
  •  
    • “The hackers have gained access to an aging, outdated power system. Many of the substations and equipment that move power across the U.S. are decrepit and were never built with network security in mind; hooking the plants up to the Internet over the last decade has given hackers new backdoors in.”
    • “Last year, Homeland Security released several maps that showed a virtual hit list of critical infrastructure, including two substations in the San Francisco Bay area, water and gas pipelines and a refinery. And according to a previously reported study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a coordinated attack on just nine critical power stations could cause a coast-to-coast blackout that could last months, far longer than the one that plunged the Northeast into darkness in 2003.”
  • dennis

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Iranian hackers breached the control system of a dam near New York City in 2013, and are also implicated in some of a dozen attacks that have infiltrated the U.S. power grid system in the last decade, say two separate reports.

The reports by the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press both raise concerns about the security of the country’s aging infrastructure.

Two people familiar with the dam breach told the Wall Street Journal it occurred at the Bowman Avenue Dam in Rye, New York. The small structure about 20 miles from New York City is used for flood control.

The hackers gained access to the dam through a cellular modem, the Journal said, citing an unclassified Department of Homeland Security summary of the incident that did not specify the type of infrastructure.

The breach came as hackers linked to the Iranian government were attacking U.S. bank websites after American spies damaged an Iranian nuclear facility with the Stuxnet computer worm.

Homeland Security spokesman S.Y. Lee would not confirm the breach to Reuters. He said the department’s 24-hour cybersecurity information-sharing hub and an emergency response team coordinate responses to threats to and vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure.

Meanwhile, about a dozen times in the last decade, sophisticated foreign hackers have gained enough remote access to control the operations networks that keep the lights on, according to top experts who spoke only on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, the Associated Press found.

Security researcher Brian Wallace was on the trail of hackers who had snatched a California university’s housing files when he stumbled into one example: Cyberattackers had opened a pathway into the networks running the United States power grid.

Digital clues pointed to Iranian hackers. And Wallace found that they had already taken passwords, as well as engineering drawings of dozens of power plants, at least one with the title “Mission Critical.”

The drawings were so detailed that experts say skilled attackers could have used them, along with other tools and malicious code, to knock out electricity flowing to millions of homes.

The attack targeted Calpine Corp., a power producer with 82 plants operating in 18 states and Canada — it has one plant in Courtright, Ont. The hacking software appeared to originate in Iran, but the hacking group included members in the Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Wallace was astonished. But this breach, The Associated Press has found, was not unique.

Capability to strike at will

These intrusions have not caused the kind of cascading blackouts that are feared by the intelligence community. But so many attackers have stowed away in the systems that run the U.S. electric grid that experts say they likely have the capability to strike at will.

The hackers have gained access to an aging, outdated power system. Many of the substations and equipment that move power across the U.S. are decrepit and were never built with network security in mind; hooking the plants up to the Internet over the last decade has given hackers new backdoors in.

Distant wind farms, home solar panels, smart meters and other networked devices must be remotely monitored and controlled, which opens up the broader system to fresh points of attack. Hundreds of contractors sell software and equipment to energy companies, and attackers have successfully used those outside companies as a way to get inside networks tied to the grid.

None of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the natural capital they use

December 19th, 2015
  • With truths like this laying about on the ground around us, is it any wonder some of us get discouraged about our prospects.
  • dennis

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The notion of “externalities” has become familiar in environmental circles. It refers to costs imposed by businesses that are not paid for by those businesses. For instance, industrial processes can put pollutants in the air that increase public health costs, but the public, not the polluting businesses, picks up the tab. In this way, businesses privatize profits and publicize costs.

While the notion is incredibly useful, especially in folding ecological concerns into economics, I’ve always had my reservations about it. Environmentalists these days love speaking in the language of economics — it makes them sound Serious — but I worry that wrapping this notion in a bloodless technical term tends to have a narcotizing effect. It brings to mind incrementalism: boost a few taxes here, tighten a regulation there, and the industrial juggernaut can keep right on chugging. However, if we take the idea seriously, not just as an accounting phenomenon but as a deep description of current human practices, its implications are positively revolutionary.

To see what I mean, check out a recent report [PDF] done by environmental consultancy Trucost on behalf of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) program sponsored by United Nations Environmental Program. TEEB asked Trucost to tally up the total “unpriced natural capital” consumed by the world’s top industrial sectors. (“Natural capital” refers to ecological materials and services like, say, clean water or a stable atmosphere; “unpriced” means that businesses don’t pay to consume them.)

It’s a huge task; obviously, doing it required a specific methodology that built in a series of assumptions. (Plenty of details in the report.) But it serves as an important signpost pointing the way to the truth about externalities.

Here’s how those costs break down:

The majority of unpriced natural capital costs are from greenhouse gas emissions (38%), followed by water use (25%), land use (24%), air pollution (7%), land and water pollution (5%), and waste (1%).

So how much is that costing us? Trucost’s headline results are fairly stunning.

First, the total unpriced natural capital consumed by the more than 1,000 “global primary production and primary processing region-sectors” amounts to $7.3 trillion a year — 13 percent of 2009 global GDP.

(A “region-sector” is a particular industry in a particular region — say, wheat farming in East Asia.)

Second, surprising no one, coal is the enemy of the human race. Trucost compiled rankings, both of the top environmental impacts and of the top industrial culprits.

Here are the top five biggest environmental impacts and the region-sectors responsible for them:

UNEP: top five environmental impacts
Click to embiggen.
UNEP

The biggest single environmental cost? Greenhouse gases from coal burning in China. The fifth biggest? Greenhouse gases from coal burning in North America. (This also shows what an unholy nightmare deforestation in South America is.)

Now, here are the top five industrial sectors ranked by total ecological damages imposed:

 

UNEP: top five industrial sectors by impact
Click to embiggen.
UNEP

It’s coal again! This time North American coal is up at number three.

Trucost’s third big finding is the coup de grace. Of the top 20 region-sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. Ponder that for a moment: None of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying their full freight. Zero.

That amounts to an global industrial system built on sleight of hand. As Paul Hawken likes to put it, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.

This gets back to what I was saying at the top. The notion of “externalities” is so technical, such an economist’s term. Got a few unfortunate side effects, so just move some numbers from Column A to Column B, right?

But the UNEP report makes clear that what’s going on today is more than a few accounting oversights here and there. The distance between today’s industrial systems and truly sustainable industrial systems — systems that do not spend down stored natural capital but instead integrate into current energy and material flows — is not one of degree, but one of kind. What’s needed is not just better accounting but a new global industrial system, a new way of providing for human wellbeing, and fast. That means a revolution.

  • To the original article:

More on ISIS

November 16th, 2015
  • Back on May 8th, 2015, while we were in Montreal, Canada, I wrote a piece on ISIS (here).  In it, I confessed I was mystified by many things about ISIS.  Such as where did it come from, how did it get so powerful, how did it have so much money and why did the west’s response to it seem so muted.
  • In the last day, I’ve read two articles have significantly enlightened me.
  • The first is entitled, “You can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia” and which was penned by Alastair Crooke writing in The World Post
  • The second is entitled, “Why ISIS fights” by Martin Chulov writing for the Guardian in the U.K.
  • I highly recommend that you read them.  They are a bit long and dense with history and information but will be well worth your effort.  If you can only read one, then I recommend the first.
  • I am going to cut-to-the-chase, as they say, and tell you what I’ve gotten from reading them.  If you don’t like spoilers, then go read the articles now before you continue.  This will be a good thing to do because then you will be able to see if you come to the same conclusions as I have.

——-

  • The central thread that comes out of these articles is the long-standing and pervasive influence of Wahhabism (Wiki article on this here) in the Middle East and most especially in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Wahhabism is considered to be a branch of Sunni Islam and it is a very conservative form of that faith which traces it roots to the 18th century and a man named, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
  • The fortunes of this branch of Islam and those of the Saud family, have waxed and waned in Arabia for nearly 150 years since al-Wahhab first began preaching.
  • It is key to note that Wahhabism is the variety of Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia today and that the Saud family became, and has been for many years, the Saudi Royal Family.

——

  • ISIS today is a reinvigorated version of Wahhabism.  A version that has reinvented itself to be true to its original tenants.
  • Pure Wahhabism is a very conservative faith and its ISIS practitioners strongly feel that the version of Wahhabism practiced now in Saudi Arabia has lost its way due to the influence of oil, the west and the Saud family itself.  They also feel that anything other than pure Wahhabism is simply wrong and such people only deserve killing.
  • And many very wealthy Saudis have sympathy for these fundamentalist Wahhabian views and herein lies the source of the vast wealth that underlies ISIS.
  • It gets worse.
  • Saudi Arabia, where these donors live, is a major ally of the United States in it struggle against other disruptive forces in the Middle East.  Struggles against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, for example and against the growing threat and influence of Iran.

——

  • So, for the U.S. and the west to go to war aggressively against ISIS is tantamount to confronting the most conservative elements in Saudi society and could unravel or seriously weaken the U.S.’s alliance with Saudi Arabia.

——

  • So, there we are.  If the U.S. and/or the other western powers seriously try to crush ISIS, other parts of the house of cards we’ve built in the Middle East, beginning with our alliance with Saudi Arabia, may well crumble and who knows where that will lead?
  • As just one factor, Saudi Arabia controls a serious percentage of the world’s oil.
  • And the Saudis have been well-armed (by the west, of course).

——

  • But, given ISIS’s monomaniacal focus to push unrelentingly for an Islam (their version of Islam) that dominates the world, a confrontation with them is going to be a hard confrontation to avoid.  Witness what just happened with the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris in which 129 people died.
  • But at least I understand now where they’ve gotten their enormous supply of money and why the west has been slow off the mark to crush them.
  • But this problem is not going to go away.

 

– research thanks to Colette M., Piers L. and Kierin M.

Small town mayor relinquishes electronics and passwords to agents at SFO

October 5th, 2015
  • An interesting story. Prescient of our future?  
  • Just last month, I read in an American publication about a news conference held by the senior leaders of the NSA, the CIA, the FBI and several other security-related agencies.  The reason they held the conference was to say to the press and the American public that this ‘tension’ between them and the public needs to be toned down.  That they are only trying to protect our security interests and that they need to be free to get on with it.
  • Interesting that they failed to note that a lot of this started when Edward Snowdon pulled the covers back from their secret programs and the public found much of what was revealed deeply unpalatable.  No comment on that and little has been done about it save for imposing a few small limitations here and there.
  • But, if those limitations are reimplemented, we’ll never know about it because it will all be done behind those same secret curtains again (and for our own good, I’m sure).
  • So, here they are in this story forcing their way into a private citizen’s private affairs/data with no warrant, no probable cause and no comment when asked about it by the press.  Basically, “Nothing to see here.  Just move along now, move along.”
  • Is this how they are going to win the public’s trust again?
  • And, isn’t the deepest irony here that if the fellow searched had wanted to hide something, he simply could have dropped an encrypted copy of it onto any of a hundred places out in the Internet cloud and erased it from his phone before entering the country.  Once home, he grabs it again from the web, decrypts it and he’s done.
  • The only criminals and terrorists the Feds are going to capture these Bully-Boy methods are the dumbest of the dumb.  
  • So what is the point then?  Simple harassment of the public? A flexing of their muscles so we can all see how very powerful they really are?  Or just a profound example of bureaucratic ineptitude wherein the left hand has no idea what the right hand’s doing?
  • dennis

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As feds battle over privacy, mayor compares the situation to North Korea.

Stockton, California Mayor Anthony R. Silva attended a recent mayor’s conference in China, but his return trip took a bit longer than usual. At the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) this week, agents with the Department of Homeland Security detained Silva and confiscated his personal cell phone among other electronics. According to comments from the mayor, that may not even be the most alarming part.

“Unfortunately, they were not willing or able to produce a search warrant or any court documents suggesting they had a legal right to take my property,” Silva told SFGate. “In addition, they were persistent about requiring my passwords for all devices.”

The mayor’s attorney, Mark Reichel, told SFGate that Silva was not allowed to leave the airport without forfeiting his passwords. Reichel was not present for Silva’s interaction with the DHS agents, either. The mayor was told he had “no right for a lawyer to be present” and that being a US citizen did not “entitle me to rights that I probably thought,” according to the paper.

As of Friday, Silva had not yet received his property from the SFO detention. SFGate reports Reichel contacted the US Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, but they would not comment on whether they still had the mayor’s possessions. The paper also reached out to a spokesperson at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but that office also refused comment. (Ars has reached out to the mayor’s office for any new information, and we’ll update this story accordingly if we hear back.)

Authorities demanding access to password-protected devices has become a hot-button issue across the country, highlighted in particular by the federal government’s ongoing battle with Silicon Valley over the lack of crypto backdoors in modern smartphones. At the end of last month, one US District Judge in Pennsylvania ruled that forcing suspects to surrender their passwords was unconstitutional on Fifth Amendment grounds.

Evidently, Silva was well aware of the situation and only had his concerns heightened by first-hand experience. Talking to SFGate, he briefly compared the government battle on privacy to notorious dictatorships worldwide.

“I think the American people should be extremely concerned about their personal rights and privacy,” Silva told the paper. “As I was being searched at the airport, there was a Latino couple to my left, and an Asian couple to my right also being aggressively searched. I briefly had to remind myself that this was not North Korea or Nazi Germany. This is the land of the Free.”

  • To the original in Ars Technica:  

Why are houses so expensive? (UK article)

September 18th, 2015
  • As time passes, my ideas about what and where our problems are shifting too.  
  • Currently, I’m focused on the idea that our representative democracies, which are primarily a balancing of self interests; one against each other, are, by their very nature, incapable of dealing with problems affecting our ‘commons’.
  • The housing cost problems described in this Guardian article make this point particularly well.  
  • It is in the majority’s common interests that most of us should be able to find and afford reasonably priced housing.  But a minority of us, well positioned to take advantage of the situation, have elevated their minority self interests over the majority and, in their greed, they are making a bad situation worse.
  • This has happened because ‘we’ the people have never decided to implement governments which look out for our common interests as their top priority.  
  • And you can be sure that those who are looking after their self interests and wealth are never going to support this.  They will, in fact, actively suppress the idea.
  • dennis

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There’s a sizeable chance that many people born before me in the late 1980s – and far more who were born after me – will never own their home in the UK. The goal for most people is now to get on “the housing ladder”: buy a small house or flat, and gradually move to a nicer area and bigger home as your profits increase. This wasn’t always the case. Back in the early 1980s, around half the population of the country owned their own home, and half rented – 30% in social housing, from their local council, and 20% from private landlords.

Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of right to buy meant that those who bought their council home saw the value of their subsidised purchase rise rapidly, meaning housing was seen less as a permanent home, more as an investment. At the same time, councils stopped building homes partly due to economic constraints, and partly due to the ideological shift away from renting and towards home ownership.

But now we’re in a crisis. Homes cost an awful lot in many places in the UK, and wages haven’t kept pace with inflation, or risen as much as house prices, post-recession. The young, in particular, find their earning potential and borrowing allowances have been harder hit than most. Meanwhile, the vast majority of new private-sector jobs are in the capital, where house prices are exorbitant.

The average house price for the UK was £282,000 in July according to the Office for National Statistics, which, if you live in London, sounds like nothing – the average house price there nudged £525,000 this month. But the average UK earner, who takes home £24,648 gross, including bonuses, can only afford a house worth around £110,000, if you imagine them taking out a mortgage worth 4.5 times their salary. To find a job paying that much and a house that costs that little isn’t easy – saving for a deposit while paying market rents is even harder.

Part of the problem is scarcity. Britain simply isn’t building enough housing to meet the demand for homes. Part of that is due to a brick shortage that began before the recession, and a skills shortage: British workers predominantly don’t want to be builders, and the rhetoric against hiring in skilled workers from the EU and beyond also stymies attempts to build more.

But many people profit from rising house prices: landbanking is a huge problemthat exacerbates the housing crisis. In areas where homes are needed, it works in private companies’ interests to sit on land that could be developed, inflating its prices, and in turn inflating house prices.

Where housing expansion has happened is in private renting, the sector least likely to increase the home ownership rate in Britain. If you ask most people what is the biggest barrier to raising the capital necessary for a deposit, most will say that it’s high rents. It’s in landlords’ interests to keep people renting, rather than buying. An interest-only mortgage lets you cream off a considerable profit while buying more properties.

And once profits rise in houses, and people see property not as a home but as an investment opportunity, outside investors pour in. Concerns have been raised at the proportion of new-build properties in London being bought and treated as asset lockers in the capital – left empty, while appreciating in value at very little risk for the predominantly foreign buyers. Meanwhile, families flounder on the housing waiting lists, or are forced out to far-flung towns, away from their children’s schools or support networks.

Houses aren’t expensive simply because of supply and demand. As long as houses are expensive, people will work to keep them expensive – buy-to-let landlords with far more capital can buy up houses and rent them out at high costs, wealthy British and foreign investors can buy up land and new-build luxury property knowing that the likelihood of profit is a far better bet than with any other investment. Keeping families and individuals locked out of home ownership for a lifetime works as a financial racket, which is precisely what we’re dealing with.

There’s also the massive regional disparity – growing up, I remember working out exactly how much I’d need to earn to afford a mortgage on my own home. It seemed achievable, because I foolishly hadn’t assumed a global recession would cause stagnant wages while house prices continued rising unhindered. And to get a mortgage on a property where I grew up in Newport, at an average of £115,828I’d need to earn around £29,000 per year. I’ll admit to earning far more. But to buy the average home where I currently live near Clapham, I’d need to earn £182,809. I earn far less. Why do I stay, rather than returning home and snapping up a four-bed house? The same reason anyone does – friends, work opportunities, and an emotional investment in the local surroundings.

But across England and Wales, the average home costs 8.8 times the average salary. In Westminster, it’s 24 times the local salary, compared to 12 times a decade earlier. Everywhere in England and Wales, the house price/local salary ratio has risen since 2002. Part of the reason so many people want to buy is because renting conditions can be so poor, while rent is so high. Those hoarding properties can hike up house prices as people become increasingly desperate to get on “the ladder”.

Scarcity causes a number of responses: firstly panic – watch any queue outside a house in Walthamstow, or try to rent a room in London or Oxford, and realise how many people are scrabbling for any opportunity to solve their personal housing crisis. But it also encourages hoarding: the financially solvent notice an asset’s sharp increase in value and hoard that asset, inflating the price and their profits at the same time. One in five homes in the UK is now owned by a private landlord, yet landlords only account for 2% cent of the adult population.

But crises reach a head: at the moment, house prices are so expensive, many people will be unable to afford to buy at all, which impacts on birth rates, encourages people to move abroad, and affects the economy, both because people are spending more on rent and less on goods that boost the economy, and because housing is a precarious market to rely on to prop up GDP. It’s because the market has been allowed to grow unchecked, and landlords and investors allowed to distort and inflate the market, that houses are expensive. But to bring prices down, some homeowners have to lose out and end up in negative equity. It depends on who politicians value most – homeowners, or Generation Rent. Or, we can all sit tight and wait for the bubble to burst.

  • To the original in the Guardian:  

 

The California Drought Is Just the Beginning of Our National Water Emergency

August 21st, 2015

For years, Americans dismissed dire water shortages as a problem of the Global South. Now the crisis is coming home

The United Nations reports that we have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis and that, by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent. Five hundred renowned scientists brought together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that our collective abuse of water has caused the earth to enter a “new geologic age,” a “planetary transformation” akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Already, they reported, a majority of the world’s population lives within a 30-mile radius of water sources that are badly stressed or running out.

The Great Grief

August 18th, 2015

“We seldom realize it, but we are living in something very similar to the Garden of Eden referred to in the Bible. An environment we are perfectly adapted to. An environment which is both extremely rare and extremely precious in the endless vacuum and hard radiation of space. And an environment which, like the Biblical Garden of Eden, once forfeited, will never be returned to us again as it was.

Our world is filled with plants and animals born of three and a half billion years of evolution and woven into incomprehensibly beautiful and complex patterns of interdependency. The elephants, the glaciers, the rain forests and the reefs with their long beaches of white sand. The annual migrations and the nests built with such care, the new cubs at play in their first year, the green mountains covered with ancient and dark conifers and the frogs that sing life’s song of longing to us from the ponds of our springs and summers.

It is a palette of life, this world – our birthplace. It is filled with millions of overlaid evolutionary brush stokes. And, in this small place, safe from the pitiless and vast nothingness beyond our sky, a vibrant and magical complexity has been building and feeding into itself for eons – self-replicating – driven and warmed by the bounty of the sun’s glow and spilling forth ever more beautiful forms keen of eye and glorious of leaf – a small and fragile garden in a universe of desert.

Sit outside on a warm day with a soft breeze blowing and the leaves singing. Before you, a small child, or a puppy or a kitten playing in the grass feeling the joy of life welling new and ask yourself what it is all worth – this natural world of ours.

If you have the freedom and ease to be able to do these things and feel what I’m talking about, then you are still among the lucky ones in this world. Many, even as the sun blesses our thoughts, cry for water and for food. Cry from disease and cold, from fouled water and repressive governments and brutality. The world is becoming a narrow and hard place. A world of haves and have nots, of wealth and poverty, of lives of beautiful indulgences and of grinding misery.

Some would say there have always been rich and poor and there’s always been disease and misery. Yes, but in recent centuries, things were getting better. Despots were giving way to governments for their people, Health care and sanitation were reaching further each year into the lives of the marginalized. Education was more freely available. Mankind was on a steady ascension towards the light of a fair and equitable world.

But, all of this, the summer sun, the joy of nature’s bounty and the steady rise towards social enlightenment are all now sliding towards an unimaginable edge beyond which they will simply be memories of what once was and what once could have been.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

– I penned all of that back in August of 2006.  And things have been sliding slowly and inexorably towards the edge in our world ever since.

-Yesterday, I talked with a brilliant fellow here in Vancouver, B.C., for several hours about all of this.  

– He told me that he is more ‘hopeful’ than I am and I was curious what he meant.

– What he meant was, yes, there’s going to be a major reset of the natural world and millions will die and most species existent will perish.  But, that’s change and change always comes.  Humankind will survive, even if we are driven down into the stone-ages. And we will ascend again using the rubble from our last rise to fuel our need for materials.  Yes, the children of those future times will never know a world like ours but they will be born into their world and it will seem natural to them.

– That was his optimism and hope – only that we will survive.

– I understood and agreed with a lot of his logic.  

– But I cannot help but feel such a deep grief that it doesn’t need to be this way.  There’s is, really, only the fact that we have little capacity to see the havoc we are causing and less capacity to do anything about it that causes all of this.  

– There is nothing inevitable about about the changes we are unleashing on the biosphere because of our activities and that’s the source of my personal grief.

– A friend forwarded me the article, below, and it fits this moment in time so very well.

– dennis

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The Great Grief:
How to cope with losing our world

by Per Espen Stoknes

To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning & sadness, not bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly say that we will face unprecedented warming in the coming decades. Those same scientists, just like you or I, struggle with the emotions that are evoked by these facts and dire projections. My children—who are now 12 and 16—may live in a world warmer than at any time in the previous 3 million years, and may face challenges that we are only just beginning to contemplate, and in many ways may be deprived of the rich, diverse world we grew up in. How do we relate to – and live – with this sad knowledge?

Across different populations, psychological researchers have documented a long list of mental health consequences of climate change: trauma, shock, stress, anxiety, depression, complicated grief, strains on social relationships, substance abuse, sense of hopelessness, fatalism, resignation, loss of autonomy and sense of control, as well as a loss of personal and occupational identity.

This more-than-personal sadness is what I call the “Great Grief”—a feeling that rises in us as if from the Earth itself. Perhaps bears and dolphins, clear-cut forests, fouled rivers, and the acidifying, plastic-laden oceans bear grief inside them, too, just as we do. Every piece of climate news increasingly comes with a sense of dread: is it too late to turn around? The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media. It may crop up as fears about what kind of world our sons or daughters will face. But where do we bring it? Some bring it privately to a therapist. It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.

This Great Grief recently re-surfaced for me upon reading news about the corals on the brink of death due to warming oceans as well as overfishing of Patagonian toothfish in plastic laden oceans. Is this a surging wave of grief arriving from the deep seas, from the ruthlessness and sadness of the ongoing destruction? Or is it just a personal whim? As a psychologist I’ve learned not to scoff at such reactions, or movements in the soul, but to honor them.

A growing body of research has brought evidence from focus groups and interviews with people affected by droughts, floods, and coastal erosion. When elicited, participants express deep distress over losses that climate disruptions are bringing. It is also aggravated by what they perceive as inadequate and fragmented local, national and global responses. In a study by researcher  Susanne Moser on coastal communities, one typical participant reports: “And it really sets in, the reality of what we’re trying to hold back here. And it does seem almost futile, with all the government agencies that get in the way, the sheer cost of doing something like that – it seems hopeless. And that’s kind of depressing, because I love this area.” In another study by sociologist Kari Norgaard, one participant living by a river exclaims: “It’s like, you want to be a proud person and if you draw your identity from the river and when the river is degraded, that reflects on you.” Another informant experiencing extended drought explained to professor Glenn Albrecht’s team that even if “you’ve got a pool there – but you don’t really want to go outside, it’s really yucky outside, you don’t want to go out.”

A recent climate survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication had this startling statistic: “Most Americans (74%) say they only ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss global warming with family and friends, a number that has grown substantially since 2008 (60%).” Emphasis mine.

These quotes and statistics underscore the reality that many prefer to avoid or not dwell in—this Mordor-esque land of eco-anxiety, anger, despair, and depression. One of denial’s essential life-enhancing functions is to keep us more comfortable by blotting out this inner, wintry darkness.

The climate survey, however, also has this encouraging finding: “Americans are nine times more likely to lean toward the view that it is people’s responsibility to care for the Earth and its resources (62%) than toward the belief that it is our right to use the Earth and its resources for our own benefit (7%).”

So, what if instead of continuing to avoid this hurt and grief and despair, or only blaming them—the corporations, politicians, agrobusinesses, loggers, or corrupt bureaucrats—for it, we could try to lean into, and accept such feelings. We could acknowledge them for what they are rather than dismissing them as wrong, as a personal weakness or somebody else’s fault. It seems, somehow, important to persist and get in touch with the despair itself, as it arises from the degradation of the natural world. As a culture we may uncover some truths hinted at by feelings we tend to discredit as depressive. These truths include that they accurately reflect the state of ecology in our world. More than half of all animals gone in the last forty years, according to the Living Planet Index. Most ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably, according to the Millennium Assessment Report. We’re living inside a mass extinction event, say many biologists, but without hardly consciously noticing.

In order to respond adequately, we may need to mourn these losses. Insufficient mourning keeps us numb or stuck in anger at them, which only feeds the cultural polarization. But for this to happen, the presence of supportive voices and models are needed. It is far harder to get acceptance of our difficulty and despair, and to mourn without someone else’s explicit affirmation and empathy.

Contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. It holds the potential to break open the psychic numbing. Maybe there is also community to be found among like-hearted people, among those who also can admit they’ve been touched by this “Great Grief,” feeling the Earth’s sorrow, each in their own way. Not just individual mourning is needed, but a shared process that leads onwards to public re-engagement in cultural solutions. Working out our own answers as honestly as we can, as individuals and as communities, is rapidly becoming a requirement for psychological health.

To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning and sadness, not speedily bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference. And with this deepening, an extended caring and gratitude may open us to what is still here, and finally, to acting accordingly.

? Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist, economist & entrepreneur. He has cofounded clean-energy companies, and spearheads the BI Norwegian Business School’s executive program on green growth. The above excerpt was adapted from his latest book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green 2015). Publ. here 15.5.2015

– research thanks to Kathy G.

– thanks for the conversation to Jim L.

– To the original article:

 

 

Mysterious world of the ‘dark web’

August 17th, 2015

The “dark web” is a part of the world wide web that requires special software to access. Once inside, web sites and other services can be accessed through a browser in much the same way as the normal web.

However, some sites are effectively “hidden”, in that they have not been indexed by a search engine and can only be accessed if you know the address of the site. Special markets also operate within the dark web called, “darknet markets”, which mainly sell illegal products like drugs and firearms, paid for in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

There is even a crowdfunded “Assassination Market”, where users can pay towards having someone assassinated.

Because of the the dark web’s almost total anonymity, it has been the place of choice for groups wanting to stay hidden online from governments and law enforcement agencies. On the one hand, there have been whistleblowers using the dark web to communicate with journalists, but more frequently it has been used by paedophile groups, terrorists and criminals to keep their dealings secret.

Going dark

There are a number of ways to access the dark web, including the use of Tor, Freenet and I2P. Of these, the most popular is Tor (originally called The Onion Router), partly because it is one of the easiest software packages to use. Tor downloads as a bundle of software that includes a version of Firefox configured specifically to use Tor.

Tor provides secrecy and anonymity by passing messages through a network of connected Tor relays, which are specially configured computers. As the message hops from one node to another, it is encrypted in a way that each relay only knows about the machine that sent the message and the machine it is being sent to.

Rather than conventional web addresses, Tor uses “onion” addresses, which further obsure the content. There are even special versions of search engines like Bing and Duck Duck Go that will return onion addresses for Tor services.

It is a mistake to think that Tor is entirely anonymous. If a web site is accessed, it can still potentially find out information about whoever is accessing the site because of information that is shared, such as usernames and email addresses. Those wanting to stay completely anonymous have to use special anonymity services to hide their identity in these cases.

Services on the dark web would not have been as popular without a means of paying for them. This is something that Bitcoin has made possible. A recent study by Carnegie Mellon researchers Kyle Soska and Nicolas Christin has calculated that drug sales on the dark net total US$100 million a year. Most, if not all, was paid for in Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is made even more difficult to track on the dark web through the use of “mixing services” like Bitcoin Laundry, which enables Bitcoin transactions to be effectively hidden completely.

How ‘dark’ is the dark web?

The developers of Tor and organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF argue that the principal users of Tor are activists and people simply concerned with maintaining their privacy. Certainly, Tor has been used in the past for journalists to talk to whistleblowers and activists, including Edward Snowden).

However, even a cursory glance at the Hidden Wiki – the main index of dark websites – reveals that the majority of sites listed are concerned with illegal activities. Some of these sites are scams, and so it is not clear how easy it is to buy guns, fake passports and hire hackers from the services listed. But there are likely sites on the dark web where these things are entirely possible.

Although the dark web makes law enforcement agencies’ jobs much more difficult, they have had a great deal of success in bringing down sites and arresting their users and the people behind them. The most famous of these was the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the person behind the most well known of the drug markets, Silk Road.

More recently, the FBI’s arrest of two users of a child abuse site on the dark web highlighted that they are now able to use a range of techniques to unmask Tor users’ real internet addresses.

– To the Original: