Taking a laptop across the border? There’s good news and bad news.
As you may recall, since 2009 there has been an ongoing struggle with how much right the U.S. government has to search laptops that people are carrying into the U.S., without a warrant, or even any particular reason other than that they feel like it. Plus, “border” has actually been defined to mean “within 100 miles of the border,” which literally covers a lot of territory.
Now, the agency has released an updated written directive that clarifies how passwords and cloud data should be handled, according to the Associated Press. “The new rules make clear that agents are only allowed to inspect information physically present on a device — and not information stored remotely, such as on the cloud,” the AP writes. “To prevent officers from accessing information they shouldn’t, they are now required to request that travelers turn off their devices’ network connectivity, or disable it themselves.” Passwords provided to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must be deleted or destroyed immediately following a search.
The department also defined two levels of search.
- Basic searches: officers can look through passengers’ contacts, photos and other material without reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior
- Advanced searches: devices are connected to external equipment so their contents can be reviewed or stored, which requires the approval of a supervisor and “reasonable suspicion of activity in violation” of the law or “a national security concern,” such as a person’s presence on a terror watch list
On the other hand, “if someone refuses to unlock a device, the device can be detained by CBP,” writes Geneva Sands for ABC News. “U.S. citizens will always be allowed to enter the U.S., but their phones could be held back — generally for no more than five days,” though people have reported having their devices seized for up to seven months. “For non-citizens, refusal to open a device could lead to denied entry. If incriminating information is found, CBP officers could refer the case to an investigative agency, like the FBI, or for non-citizens, deny them entry into the U.S.”
“The New Directive does not specifically allege that travellers have a positive obligation to provide a passcode or other means of access to USCBP during a border search; it merely states that USCBP officers may request access and then detain the device for further examination if the traveller does not provide it,” writes Henry Chang of Blaney McMurtry LLP in Lexology. “This is likely because the law is still not clear regarding whether travellers actually have a legal obligation to provide passcodes or other means of access during a border search.” In addition, “nothing precludes USCBP from detaining an electronic device for a much longer period by alleging that ‘extenuating circumstances’ exist,” he adds. “The threat of having their electronic device seized, even temporarily, could compel some travellers to cooperate. The New Directive also does not address the issue of how long USCBP may delay the entry of a traveller in connection with the search of their electronic devices. The threat of an extended delay, which may cause the traveller to miss their flight, could also compel some travellers to cooperate.”
What brought this all on? The ACLU filed a lawsuit last year against the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 11 travelers whose smartphones and laptops were searched at the border, the AP writes. Other organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have been pushing for a test case that would extend the Riley decision – which requires law enforcement officials to have a warrant to search someone’s cell phone — to laptops at the border. In December, the U.S. government filed a motion to dismiss the case. The ACLU is preparing its response for late January, according to Bart Jansen in USA Today.
“It is positive that CBP’s policy would at least require officers to have some level of suspicion before copying and using electronic methods to search a traveler’s electronic device,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the ACLU. “However, this policy still falls far short of what the Constitution requires — a search warrant based on probable cause. The policy would still enable officers at the border to manually sift through a traveler’s photos, emails, documents, and other information stored on a device without individualized suspicion of any kind. Additionally, it fails to make clear that travelers should not be under any obligation to provide passcodes or other assistance to officers seeking to access their private information. Congress should continue to press CBP to improve its policy.”
A bill is actually under consideration to require a warrant to search the devices of Americans at the border, write Charlie Savage and Ron Nixon in the New York Times, but it is unlikely to pass in this political climate, they add.
In other news, CBP announced some numbers. Its border agents inspected 30,200 phones and other electronic devices in fiscal year 2017, which ended in September — a nearly 60 percent spike from 2016, when 19,051 devices were searched,” according to the AP. It’s even a bigger spike from previous years: the New York Times reported that inspection of electronic devices rose from 4764 in 2015 to 23,000 in 2016, while according to the Los Angeles Times, just 8,053 travelers had their devices searched in the 2015 fiscal year. That’s compared with 6,500 between 2008 and 2010, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. U.S. border agents also searched the electronic devices of 59 percent more international travelers in fiscal year 2017 than the previous year, including U.S. citizens and foreigners, adds the Los Angeles Times. Nonetheless, the agency said the searches represented just a tiny fraction — 0.007 percent of arriving international travelers — out of more than 397 million, the AP wrote.
(Yes, I’m aware some of the numbers don’t match up. Perhaps they’ve changed over time? Or some are fiscal year, which ends on September 30, and some are calendar year? Either way, lotta devices.)
In particular, this is a concern to attorneys, who worry about violations of attorney-client privilege. The New Directive does have some additional guidelines in this area, Chang writes.
You could call it Schrodinger’s Email System: Email messages aren’t lost; there just isn’t any way to gain access to them.
That’s the situation the state of Rhode Island has been facing since 2015, which came to light earlier this month due to a public records request. Before then, state agencies had been using a combination of Novell Groupwise and Microsoft Exchange email servers, and decided to consolidate them into a single Office 365 email system.
A laudable goal, in general. The problem is that Microsoft and Novell never did play very well together, and by 2014 Novell was essentially not around anymore, with Micro Focus buying Groupwise. (In fact, you can still buy it today.) The upshot is that the vendor working with Rhode Island to help migrate the email systems – Microsoft Consulting Services – warned the state that it could lose up to 5 percent of the email messages in the process, according to an article in the Providence Journal, which broke the story.
Hence the Schrodinger’s email nature of the new system. “Department of Administration spokeswoman Brenna McCabe told The Journal, ‘We did not lose the emails,’” writes Katherine Gregg. “But she acknowledged, ‘They are [now] in a format that is not easily searchable … [And] it would take significant resources to put the data in an accessible, searchable format.’” So if you can’t search or gain access to the email messages, does it matter whether they’re “lost” or not? What would be different if they were considered “lost”?
The situation came to light when software entrepreneur and two-time candidate for governor Ken Block filed a public records request. He was reportedly performing a computer analysis of the potential for voter fraud in Rhode Island for a nonprofit organization co-founded by President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, Gregg writes. “As part of his continuing inquiry, Block asked the elections board for communications — dating back to Jan. 1, 2003 — from the state to local boards of canvassers about ‘voter registration … voter identification policies and processes.’”
That was when Block learned about the inaccessible email messages, which he presumably passed on to the Journal. “There were significant problems with the syncing process, as the two systems are wholly incompatible with each other,” Richard Thornton, the campaign-finance director for the state Board of Elections, told Block. “There may, or may not be, additional email communications responsive to your request, but for which the State of RI has no capacity to retrieve presently.”
This is not to unduly pick on Rhode Island. Back in the day, people used proprietary email systems because that’s what there was, and different agencies used different email systems because that’s how they were typically acquired. While the state happened to bet on the wrong horse, technologically speaking, it hadn’t made a bad choice in picking Groupwise. If anything, one could criticize the state for not upgrading sooner, but there was a recession in there as well. Chances are, a number of other states are in the same pickle. One could also criticize the state for not having reduced the size of its email system before the migration, but again that’s hardly a problem confined to Rhode Island.
Plus Block appears to be going off the deep end about it a little bit. The state has not yet responded with how many email messages are missing – if it even can – but it isn’t at all clear that “most” email messages before 2015 are unrecoverable, as he told the Journal. He also complained about the cost of retrieving the email messages, but to be fair he’s asking for a large amount of email going back fifteen years on what could be little more than a fishing expedition in that the vast majority of studies have found that voter fraud is a minuscule problem.
Similarly, Block criticized Thornton for saying the state had moved to the new system “for more efficient backup of data, a more standardized approach for records retention and a secure disaster recovery solution” in light of the problem. “”Wow. How does that square with Thornton’s email?” he told the Journal. But obviously it was because of just this sort of situation that the state did make the move to a single email vendor.
Realistically, how many people can lay their hands on email that they sent in 2003? My Gmail account goes back to April 7, 2004, and I was one of the early adopters. While I may have .pst files around from Outlook systems I was using before then, what are the chances I could actually find a way to read them?
It’s an example of the sort of problem typically referred to as the “digital dark ages” brought on as organizations – particularly governments – went digital. But due to the proprietary nature of the hardware and software people used, plus technology’s inexorable march on, much of this old data may no longer be readable by future generations.
This is why organizations are encouraged to migrate their archives to up-to-date hardware and software every couple of years, to ensure the data can still be read going forward.
Ever decided you were going to save all your data until you found out how much space it was going to take up, and then change your mind? The Library of Congress is in that position, which is why it recently announced it is no longer going to save every Tweet.
The Library had started saving all the Tweets in 2010, retroactive to the beginning of Twitter in 2006, but as of January, that will stop. While the Library is going to continue to keep the Tweets it already has, it will save Tweets only on a selective basis.
“The technical infrastructure for the Library’s Twitter archive follows the same general practices for monitoring and managing other digital collection data at the Library,” the Library wrote in January 2013. “Tape archives are the Library’s standard for preservation and long-term storage. Files are copied to two tape archives in geographically different locations as a preservation and security measure. The volume of tweets the Library receives each day has grown from 140 million beginning in February, 2011 to nearly half a billion tweets each day as of October, 2012.
In addition, “Since 2000, the library has been collecting pages from websites that document government information and activity,” writes Doug Criss for CNN. “Today, that archive is more than 300 terabytes in size and represents tens of thousands of different sites. The library’s entire collection of printed books has been estimated to total about 10 terabytes of data.”
Actually, there’s more to it than a simple matter of storage – it’s a matter of being able to find the information afterwards. The Library had said when it started saving the Tweets that it would develop a system by which people could search them, and that hasn’t happened yet, nor is it clear when such a search functionality will be available. In fact, the Library of Congress said public access to the archive would be blocked until it could figure out “a cost-effective and sustainable” way to let people view and use it, Criss writes.
“Six years after the announcement, the Library of Congress still hasn’t launched the heralded tweet archive, and it doesn’t know when it will,” Andrew McGill wrote in the Atlantic in August, 2016 – indeed, predicting that the Library might eventually cut the project off. “No engineers are permanently assigned to the project. So, for now, staff regularly dump unprocessed tweets into a server—the digital equivalent of throwing a bunch of paperclipped manuscripts into a chest and giving it a good shake. There’s certainly no way to search through all that they’ve collected.”
In fact, some are dubious that the Library’s decision has anything to do with storage at all, such as Kalev Leetaru in Forbes. “Given that the Library’s collection is, in its current form, essentially a dark archive saved to cold storage, enhanced compression and no query access mean the actual storage costs are minimal,” he writes. “By 2013 the Library’s Twitter archive totaled just 133 terabytes ‘for two compressed copies.’ Even assuming a massive growth rate, a full petabyte of data stored securely with “99.999999999% durability” (9 nine’s), costs just around $7,300 a month for immediate access or as low as $4,000 a month for batch access (5-12 hour access delay) in today’s modern commercial cloud. If the Library just needed to store the Twitter firehose securely and durably without any kind of user access (its current model), price and technical capability would not seem to be a limiting factor.”
Similarly, Leetaru continues, if the Library thinks text-only Tweets are no longer useful, why not just find a way to save the attached imagery? “It is unclear why the Library has concluded that it should simply abandon archiving Twitter, rather than making the argument that if a lack of multimedia content and links is the problem, then perhaps it should add multimedia and link archiving to its preservation pipeline or partner with organizations like the Internet Archive to preserve this content,” he writes. “After all, the Library has evolved countless times over the last two centuries as technology has changed.”
The timing on all this is actually interesting given how important Twitter is in international politics right now, such as the #MeToo movement being named the Time “Person of the Year.” “At a time when an increasing number of world leaders are taking to Twitter to discuss major policy issues, make formal statements and engage with their citizens at the same time we are talking about Russian influence operations, terrorist recruiting, trolls and harassment on social media, it might seem that this is absolutely the wrong time to suddenly announce with no warning that the Library of Congress will no longer be archiving the full Twitter firehose,” Leetaru writes.
“Generally, the tweets collected and archived will be thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy,” the library said in a statement. But Leetaru criticized this sentiment. “One of the most basic problems with hand selecting specific topics over time is that it is often unclear at any given moment what will be important in the future,” he writes. “Not only does this mean that myriad society-influencing topics will not be archived at all, but even those topics that are archived will not be included until long after they have begun trending, meaning the early formative conversations around issues like future #metoo movements will be lost forever.”
“That’s a huge blow to the ability of Americans to hold politicians and companies accountable,” agrees Kara Alaimo in CNN. “In particular, social media has become more important to our politics than ever before, so we need more tools to hold politicians responsible for their behavior on social media — not less. But it’s precisely because Twitter has become such a big part of our national conversation that we need the tools to monitor it. If additional funding is necessary for the Library of Congress to be able to maintain a complete record, including visual and deleted tweets, Congress should provide it.”
Not everyone disagrees with the Library’s decision. “Its goal has never been to archive the web as a whole, only to preserve portions of it,” writes Jacob Brogan in Slate. “With that in mind, continuing to archive all of Twitter as such seems largely unnecessary, and possibly even counterproductive if future scholars really do want to look into the platform’s rise.”
As you may recall, in 2014 I wrote about an app called Confide, billed as “Snapchat for business.” Intended to send messages secretly, it didn’t allow people to read over your shoulder or let you take a screenshot, and deleted the messages after they’re read. Moreover, the company used end-to-end encryption, meaning it couldn’t read the messages, either, and the messages were never stored on the company’s servers. There was some handwringing at the time about what would happen if it got into the hands of politicians (though most of the attention appeared to be on what it could mean for infidelity).
Surprisingly, it took three years, but some politicians in Missouri recently got nailed for using it. Earlier this month, the Kansas City Star reported that Governor Eric Greitens and several staff members had the application on their personal cellphones. The paper wasn’t able to prove that the staff members were using it to conduct government business – kind of by definition — but it’s created a lot of attention in the appropriately named Show-Me State.
“In addition to Greitens — whose Confide account is under the name ‘Er Robert’ — the governor’s chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, legislative director, press secretary, policy adviser, director of cabinet affairs and several other senior staff members have Confide accounts connected to their personal cell phones,” the Star reports. It did not say how it found this out.
“The fact that senior staff are using it as well hints that the public’s business is what’s at stake here, and if the governor and top officials are using this for public business, they are subverting the Missouri Sunshine Law,” writes the Joplin Globe in an editorial.
“For public servants, text messages constitute government communications,” writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an editorial. “They’re a big deal.”
One state senator called for attorney general Josh Hawley – who is also running for the Senate — to investigate the situation, but at first he said he couldn’t because he is already defending the governor in several other legal cases, but he might appoint a special prosecutor, according to the Post-Dispatch. However, he has since said he will open an investigation.
Greitens spokesman Parker Briden had told The Star, “I don’t believe anyone has (Confide) downloaded on a state-issued device,” reports the AP. And that may well be true, but it evades the issue. The thing is, public officials have a long history of conducting public business on personal devices, either accidentally, because they thought it was more secure, or potentially to evade public records laws. So even if it’s not on a state-issued device, it could still be a problem.
Greitens blamed the liberal media for being “desperate for salacious headlines,” writes the Associated Press, and to judge by some of the comments on the articles, some Missouri voters agree with him.
Meanwhile, Hawley is suggesting that the state update its Sunshine laws to more explicitly address text messages.
Another nuance in the story is that both Hawley and Greitens are Republicans, while the state senator who called for investigation is a Democrat. Some also believe that Greitens intends to run for President in the future.
Ironically, one effect of the story has been to encourage many other Missouri politicians to sign up for the app, the Star reports. “Rep. Robert Cornejo, a St. Charles County Republican who already had a Confide account, posted a link to The Star’s story on Twitter, noting: ‘I get a notification every time one of my ‘contacts’ joins Confide. This story explains why my phone has been buzzing all morning as people (from both sides of the aisle) join.’”
If nothing else, Tuesday’s special election for Senator in Alabama is a fascinating case of electronic discovery.
The day before the election, “Montgomery County Circuit Judge Roman Ashley Shaul granted a preliminary injunction directing counties to set voting machines ‘to preserve all digital ballot images,’” writes Mary Papenfuss in the Huffington Post. “The order was requested in a lawsuit filed last week on behalf of Alabama citizens demanding that voting records be protected.” The judge ordered ballot images to be saved for six months.
Plaintiffs said they wanted images to be preserved because they felt that the ballot design was confusing (shades of Florida 2000) and they wanted to make it easier to do a recount if it were necessary, Papenfuss writes. Moreover, state and federal law requires the images to be saved, writes Connor Sheets in AL.com.
However, later that day, Alabama’s state Supreme Court stayed that order, saying that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and state administrator of elections Ed Packard, “do not have authority to maintain such records or to require local officials to do so,” Sheets writes in a different AL.com article.
“The court will hold a hearing on Dec. 21 about whether to dismiss the case outright,” Sheets writes. “By that point the state will have had ample time to destroy the digital ballot images legally under the stay.”
Interestingly, the state doesn’t count the actual ballots, but the images of the ballots, Sheets writes. And it’s actually less a matter of “destroying” the records than whether election officials would push the button on each machine to direct it to save the images in the first place, though certainly any images that did get saved could get destroyed.
Some of the machines include a switch to either save all, destroy, or save only write-in ballots, but not all the machines have the switch, according to Andrew Yawn in the Montgomery Advertiser. Alabama saved only images of the write-in ballots. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote in a press release that “To change them, as the plaintiffs seek, would not mean simply flipping a switch, but would require the third-party vendor, Elections Systems and Software, to travel to 2,000 voting machines around Alabama to change them. This process could not be completed in a day. To attempt it the day before and day of the election would cause chaos, confusion, and delay,”
(One wonders, what is the default? And why isn’t the default simply set to be saving the images in the first place?)
This is all very interesting in light of Judge Roy Moore’s contention that he wants to have a recount of the ballots after his loss. What would there be to count? If nothing else, articles about the subject showed there’s a lot of confusion.
There are still the paper ballots, which are preserved for 22 months, according to Yawn. But because, by law, only the digital images are counted, they would presumably have to be rerun through the machines, which could end up with different results. Marshall said in his statement that that was the procedure. On the other hand, “Alabama law does not provide for such manual recounts, only a machine recount of the digital images that are taken at the time each ballot is cast,” writes Andrew Gumbel in the Guardian. “If those images are then destroyed, there is no easy way to verify that they were read and counted correctly.”
Incidentally, an automatic recount only happens if there is a .5 percent difference or less. The difference is actually about 20,000 votes, or around 1.5 percent, according to the Associated Press. “The state canvassing board will declare whether an automatic recount is needed, when it meets sometime between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3. The recount would begin within 72 hours of that decision.”
States that have given up paper ballots altogether in favor of electronic ones have varying requirements, writes Sean Steinberg in WhoWhatWhy. “Plenty of other states — including Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin — already release their ballot images to the public upon request. Some jurisdictions, like Dane County, WI, go even further and post their ballot images online,” he writes. “Colorado has ruled in favor of keeping the ballot images, as has Arizona. While Colorado also designated ballot image files as public record, Arizona ultimately decided against making them publicly available.”
The case sets an important precedent for what could happen in the 2018 Congressional elections, writes Steven Rosenfeld in AlterNet, which are also expected to be closely contended.
The Supreme Court has begun hearing arguments in the case of Carpenter vs. the United States, which could help determine what sort of data the government could get about you without a warrant.
As you may recall, in 2010 and 2011, two guys in Detroit were accused of robbing electronics stores of cellphones, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used their cellphones to prove that they were nearby a number of the incidents. To do this, the FBI went to the suspects’ cellphone providers and obtained a lot of data about the suspects’ locations – more than 12,000 for one guy, and almost 24,000 for the other guy. The defense attorneys for the guys are saying that the phones revealed so much personal data about the guys that a warrant should have been required for the search. The case is called Carpenter vs. the United States, because one of the guys is named Carpenter, and he was sentenced to 116 years for the robberies.
(An aside – 116 years? For stealing some cellphones, even tens of thousands of dollars’ worth?)
It’s complicated, because it’s all predicated on the third-party doctrine, which states that by giving a third party access to your data – such as giving the phone company the number you’re dialing – you give up protection to that data. That’s all based on a 1979 case called Smith vs. Maryland.
But as time goes on, that becomes more fraught. “I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the Government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in 2012. “I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.”
Even the Attorney General who successfully argued Smith is saying its time is past. “This is taking the Smith precedent way too far, in a vastly different technological age,” writes Stephen Sachs in the Washington Post. “When the Supreme Court decided Smith, in the pre-dawn of the digital age, we didn’t know about the Internet, smartphones, cloud computing, Facebook or Twitter. No one involved in the case could foresee the digital revolution that was to come.”
Without changing the third-party doctrine, the future could be even worse. Under that third-party doctrine precedent, the government could have access to all sorts of data collected by the Internet of Things, such as how much beer you have in your fridge and your Fitbit’s data.
Moreover, such electronic surveillance is really cheap, writes Jake Lapperuque in Slate. “It previously cost roughly $250 an hour to track someone on foot and $275 an hour to track them by car,” he writes. “Now, police can track an individual with a GPS tracking device for a mere 36 cents an hour. Cellphone tracking can be as cheap as 4 cents an hour. In the past, resource constraints meant that the government could only track and log the locations and activities of a small group of people. Now it can do so for the entire population.”
“If a warrant isn’t required for the Carpenters of the world, it isn’t required for the rest of us either,” write Matthew B. Kugler and Sarah O. Schrup in the Los Angeles Times. “And the government will remain free to gather far more information about the behaviors and beliefs of its citizens than it should.”
On the good news side, some people had expressed concern about new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump in April, fearing that his views would be in lockstep with the President’s. But based on his questions earlier this week, he seems to be agreeing that the current system goes too far, though he’s coming at it from a different angle from the other justices: calling it a property right.
Other Justices found other ways to argue the case, with Justice Elena Kagan asking how it differed from putting a GPS on a car – which the court ruled in 2012 required a warrant.
Some Justices also suggested that Congress, not the Supreme Court, should be changing this law if necessary, pointing to examples such as the Stored Communications Act, one of the ways in which the FBI obtained access to the data without a warrant. “Justice Anthony Kennedy strongly suggested that since Congress did pass legislation governing searches like this one, the court should defer to its co-equal branch, writes Nina Totenberg for NPR. “In an area where it’s difficult to draw a line, why shouldn’t we give very significant weight to Congress’ determination, through the Stored Communications Act?” she quotes him as saying.
On the other hand, other justices pointed out, the Stored Communications Act itself is more than 30 years old, it can take Congress a long time to do something, and in the meantime, Americans’ rights would be being violated.
In general, opposition to this third-party doctrine cuts across the political spectrum, with conservative organizations and publications such as Reason, the Federalist, and the Cato Institute also chiming in. That also gave Gorsuch the opportunity to drag the Founding Fathers into it. “John Adams said one of the reasons for the war was the use by the government of third parties to obtain information forced them to help as their snitches and snoops,” he said. “Why—why isn’t this argument exactly what the framers were concerned about?” For his part, Jim Harper in the Federalist one-upped him by citing the 1215 Magna Carta.
The court could go in multiple ways. It could, for example, rule that getting such data without a warrant was ok, but only for a single day, not for weeks as in Carpenter. On the other hand, it was pointed out that gathering that data for multiple days can actually help prove a person’s innocence by demonstrating that they went to a particular site without being associated with a crime.
The court is expected to rule on the case by June.
Now that bitcoin and its friends have practically reached the shoeshine boy level of hysteria, people are becoming more interested in how you keep track of the things. So the topic of cryptocurrency storage has been raising its ugly head.
The traditional banking system does have its advantages, after all – your deposits are insured and stores know how to use the currency. “Normally, the value of a currency is backed up by a country’s central bank – or in the case of the euro, a whole host of countries’ central bank.That means that while it’s not protected, and values can change, there is at least someone responsible,” writes James Andrews in the Mirror UK. “With crypto currencies there is nothing backing their value at all. That means prices are based solely on what people think they’re worth, and if something undermines that belief they can go into freefall.”
Moreover, cryptocurrency owners are faced with threats from every direction, writes Alexandr Nellson in Medium (who goes on to describe his detailed recommendations about how to store bitcoin).
Keep it online? It could get stolen. It could get hacked. The place you store it could get hacked. Keep it online at home? All of that, plus you could accidentally throw it away. Your house could burn down and take your storage device with it. Keep it on some sort of physical medium, such as paper? All of that, too. Some people go so far as to carve their bitcoin keys on a piece of metal to prevent the fire-and-water problems inherent in paper, but then you have to worry about the inherent problems in each kind of metal.
“Silver, gold, copper, brass, bronze, nickel, cobalt, would survive the housefire fire unmelted,” writes the Bitcoin Wiki., which goes into great depth on every possible harm that could come to every way of storing bitcoin. “Some Aluminium alloys can survive but you have to have the right ones. At around 1500° Steel and Nickel should be okay. Titanium is above the housefire range and so is tungsten, however tungsten rings are known to shatter due to the brittle nature of the very hard metal.”
Plus, in general, the more secure the method, the harder it is to actually, like, spend it. Is any method foolproof? Unfortunately not, if only because fools are so ingenious.
This isn’t new. As long ago as 2013 – which, in the world of cryptocurrency – was a long time ago – there was a poor Welsh guy picking through the garbage dump in a fruitless search for the hard disk he’d thrown away with $7.5 million of Bitcoin on it. (If he ever did find it – now worth $72 million — he’s not letting on.) Even really smart guys like Elon Musk have reportedly lost track of their bitcoin, and he has a lot of company.
“According to new research from Chainalysis, a digital forensics firm that studies the bitcoin blockchain, 3.79 million bitcoins are already gone for good based on a high estimate—and 2.78 million based on a low one,” write Jeff John Roberts and Nicolas Rapp in Fortune. “Those numbers imply 17 percent to 23 percent of existing bitcoins, which are today worth around $8,500 each, are lost.”
Ironically, according to many experts, the best way to keep your bitcoin – which are generated from the Internet – is to keep them off the Internet, a method known as “cold storage.”
Naturally, people are trying to monetize the storage, whether it’s by selling a wide variety of hardware and software devices to hold bitcoin or offering services to store it. As institutional investors start becoming more interested in cryptocurrency, bitcoin storage companies such as Coinbase are approaching them, while banks that are already working with institutional investors such as South Korea’s Shinhan Bank are expanding into storing bitcoin as well. And we’re talking big money.
“Over 100 hedge funds have been created in the past year exclusively to trade digital currency,” writes Brian Armstrong, Coinbase cofounder and CEO. “An even greater number of traditional institutional investors are starting to look at trading digital assets (including family offices, sovereign wealth funds, traditional hedge funds, and more). By some estimates there is $10B of institutional money waiting on the sidelines to invest in digital currency today.”
In any event, whether you think cryptocurrency is the future of money, or just this generation’s tulip fever, you can’t get away from storage.
It turns out that the new Blade Runner movie is all about backups. Who knew. Needless to say, spoilers follow.
The original Blade Runner movie, made in 1982, was set in 2019, which means only a little more than a year from now. Sometimes I think we have a long way to go; other times, I think we’re already there. But in any event, a major plot point in Blade Runner 2049 – set in 2049, in case you couldn’t figure that out – was about an event called the Black Out, where all the data and all the backups got zapped. That meant that, by and large, people in the new movie couldn’t go back and get information about the period of the previous movie, or events before it. The Black Out was set in 2022.
An event like the Black Out certainly fits in with concerns that some people have about a “digital dark ages,” where so much data is stored only electronically that if it gets destroyed, we’ll end up losing a lot of our history. And the characters in the new movie spend a lot of time trying to track down information that used to be available, using techniques such as audio files and what looks like microfiche – all garbled and fragmented, of course.
While watching the movie, I was naturally wondering what had caused the Black Out in the first place. I was thinking, maybe a Carrington event? or something else related to the Earth’s or the Sun’s magnetic field? But it turned out to be something a lot more deliberate: Replicants had set off a nuclear bomb to create an electromagnetic pulse, which shut down everything electronic, and they had also destroyed all the archives as well, to keep humans from using the archives to track down replicants to “retire” them.
Exactly how the replicants destroyed the archives isn’t clear, nor is it clear why there weren’t backups made of the archives and, uh, replicated – as it were — around the world. (Or even off of it, since “off-world” is a thing n the Blade Runner movies.) But, you know, it’s a movie.
That’s not the only discussion of backups in Blade Runner 2049. One of the characters has an electronic girlfriend, a holographic simulation that is, as they say, fully functional. But she can only exist on the protagonist’s home network until that character gets her an Emanator, a device that lets her also exist out in the world. It’s as if Amazon’s Alexa was a hologram and there’s a difference between an Echo, which has to get plugged into the house, and a battery-operated Dot, which could get carried around.
Concerned that the bad guys are spying on the protagonist using her home-based system, the electronic girlfriend suggests to the protagonist that he delete her home-based system and only keep the Emanator version – but, she warns, he has to be really careful not to let the Emanator get destroyed, or she’d get destroyed, with no backup. Naturally, with a Chekhov’s-gun foreshadowing like that, in two shakes of a lamb’s tail we’re seeing the Emanator crunched under the antagonist’s boot and the hologram is never to be seen again. Apparently backing up the Emanator itself wasn’t an option.
And in a final example of art imitating life – even before ripped-from-the-headlines — one character kills another character, then uses one of her dead body parts to get through the biometric security system on her computer. Just a couple of weeks ago, the FBI was criticized for not acting soon enough to use the fingerprints of alleged Texas shooter Devin Kelley to unlock his iPhone. It turns out that it needed to be done within 48 hours – not because the fingerprints started to decay or anything, but because Apple locks out the system after 48 hours with no contact, and requires a password.
“Touch ID allows the owner to set a fingerprint to open the device,” write Elizabeth Weise and Kevin Johnson in USA Today. “However, Touch ID stops working if the phone hasn’t been unlocked for more than 48 hours — at that point the user must type in the passcode, according to Apple’s website. Too many unsuccessful attempts to unlock a passcode can lock down a phone permanently. If the phone had been set up to accept a fingerprint, the FBI could have used Kelley’s finger to open the phone during that 48 hour window, if he had recently unlocked it. Apple’s Touch ID feature can be engaged with a dead person’s finger,” they assure us.
Eww. (Why would Apple put in that feature?. Surely they don’t expect a rash of bad guys sawing off the fingers of their victims after 48 hours to get into their phones?)
In any event, who knows. Maybe the next Blade Runner movie will be about disaster recovery.
LPT (Life Pro Tip): When you move from an apartment, take your child pornography with you.
Carpet installers in an apartment in Beaumont, Texas, found three SD cards in an empty closet. “As they started carpeting a bedroom in the vacant apartment on June 5, 2013, workers found something odd tucked away at the top of a door frame. There were three SD cards that belonged in a camera — and it looked like they had been hidden in the room.”
(One could wonder why people installing carpet were looking at the top of a door frame in the first place.)
And of course they promptly did what you’re not supposed to do: Stuck them into one of their devices to see what was on them.
When they looked at the SD cards, they discovered they had child pornography on them, so they called the cops and reported it (and fortunately weren’t arrested themselves in the process). “The cards contained 97 images of child pornography, prosecutors say, as well as 222 images of child erotica,” writes Jared Gilmour of the McLatchey newspapers. “Those images showed a girl younger than 10 engaging in sex with an adult man,” who has since been arrested and sentenced after being identified in the pictures.
This was in the mainstream media, so technical details are admittedly sketchy. Newspaper articles reference discoveries made through “computer forensics,” which in this particular case could simply be a matter of looking at the directory on the SD card. For example, “Police were also able to prove, using digital forensics, that the cards were last accessed during the time period when Hawkins was leasing the unit” – in other words, the “date modified” field in a directory. (Reminds me of when some of my reporter friends would explain that they had found a piece of information by the “careful application of journalistic principles,” which meant they asked somebody.)
In addition, none of the articles mentioned anything about a password or encryption, so it would appear that the photos were readily visible to the casual observer. The articles indicated that the memory card “belonged in a camera,” but many cameras in this day and age can use the same kind of SD cards as a smartphone, so it isn’t clear how it was determined that thememory card came from a camera specifically. Consequently, it also isn’t clear whether he was using a device that could have encrypted the photos, such as a smartphone. If it isn’t actually possible to encrypt photos on a camera, as opposed to a smartphone, that seems like it would be an interesting security hole.
The upshot is that, four years after the carpet installers discovered the SD cards, Charles Henry Hawkins, 57, was convicted for possessing child pornography, a third-degree felony. He was sentenced to ten years in prison – the maximum sentence — as well as having to pay a $10,000 fine and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He probably will also be a lot better about taking his SD cards with him in the future.
We’ve written before about the dangers of USB sticks and why it’s not a good idea to poke ones that you find lying around into your computer. But here’s a story that’s different: An unemployed guy found a USB stick in a pile of leaves in the street, plugged it into a computer in the library – bad human! Bad! – and it turned out to be the security plans for when Queen Elizabeth visits Heathrow Airport.
According to the Mirror, which broke the story after the unemployed guy took the USB stick to them, the device contained 76 folders with 174 files totaling 2.5 GB, which were neither encrypted nor password-protected. “It revealed:
- The exact route the Queen takes when using the airport and security measures used to protect her
- Files disclosing every type of ID needed – even those used by covert cops – to access restricted areas
- A timetable of patrols that was used to guard the site against suicide bombers and terror attacks
- Maps pinpointing CCTV cameras and a network of tunnels and escape shafts linked to the Heathrow Express
- Routes and safeguards for Cabinet ministers and foreign dignitaries
- Details of the ultrasound radar system used to scan runways and the perimeter fence”
So there’s three main issues here.
First, how did the files get onto a USB stick in the first place? Are they the actual files used by Heathrow Airport? If that’s the case, they’d better start locking down their security procedures (even though airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye assured members of Parliament that the airport was “completely secure”). For example:
- Which of their computers have unsecured USB ports that support a USB stick?
- How many people have access to those files?
- How many of the people with access have authorization to download those files without it being logged?
- How many people can leave the facility with a USB stick without it being detected?
- If this was an authorized download, why wasn’t it encrypted?
If they aren’t the actual files used by the organization, what are they? Notes? Someone else’s actual files? The provenance of the data needs to be ascertained. “Given the location of the find, close to Heathrow, it is thought more likely that an airport worker had accessed the data and inadvertently lost the USB drive,” writes Simon Calder for the Independent. “But it is believed more likely that whoever lost the memory stick had security clearance to access the data, if not necessarily to take the information away from Heathrow on a portable drive.” He didn’t say, however, who thought and believed this or where he got this information.
- Do we have a careless worker who dropped the files they were taking home to work on?
- A careless terrorist who was supposed to bring them to a meeting? “Oops, my bad.”
- A careless spy who dropped the files they were planning to sell to someone?
- Someone discarding the files after they had already made copies or sold them to someone?
- An attempt to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt by revealing that the information was out in the world, thus making people afraid to visit Heathrow, or even London itself, for fear of a terrorist attack? As far as terrorism goes, fear of an attack – especially just before the busy holiday season — is almost as good as an actual attack, and it isn’t nearly as dangerous and doesn’t hurt people.
And if it was somebody being careless, they were doubly careless not to encrypt the files – though we know that, despite governments’ insistence that encryption is a tool for terrorists and child pornographers, terrorists often don’t encrypt their own files. On the other hand, if the release of the information was the goal, it would be important not to encrypt them, because otherwise how would people know to be afraid that the information was released?
Third, how did the files come to be on a USB stick on that street?
- Were they dropped?
- Were they deliberately placed there? Was it a dead drop of some sort?
- Were they intended to be found by that person? Or by someone else and this other person picked them up? (We’ve been binging on The Americans lately; can you tell?)
- How many other such USB sticks with the Queen’s security plans are out there? Where else might copies of that data be?
One thing is for sure: People are going to be seriously scanning the ground for USB sticks in England for a while. Hopefully they’ll take them to the police rather than poking them into their computers – because, you know, that’s still a bad thing to do.