RFID: Your privacy is up for grabs

Katherine Albrecht, co-author of “Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID“, has written an article for Scientific American explaining how we inadvertently consent to lose our privacy and what’s being done about it on a federal level in the US and EU.

If you live in a state bordering Canada or Mexico, you may soon be given an opportunity to carry a very high tech item: a remotely readable driver’s license. Designed to identify U.S. citizens as they approach the nation’s borders, the cards are being promoted by the Department of Homeland Security as a way to save time and simplify border crossings. But if you care about your safety and privacy as much as convenience, you might want to think twice before signing up.

The new licenses come equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be read right through a wallet, pocket or purse from as far away as 30 feet. Each tag incorporates a tiny microchip encoded with a unique identification number. As the bearer approaches a border station, radio energy broadcast by a reader device is picked up by an antenna connected to the chip, causing it to emit the ID number. By the time the license holder reaches the border agent, the number has already been fed into a Homeland Security database, and the traveler’s photograph and other details are displayed on the agent’s screen.

Although such “enhanced” driver’s licenses remain voluntary in the states that offer them, privacy and security experts are concerned that those who sign up for the cards are unaware of the risk: anyone with a readily available reader device””unscrupulous marketers, government agents, stalkers, thieves and just plain snoops””can also access the data on the licenses to remotely track people without their knowledge or consent. What is more, once the tag’s ID number is associated with an individual’s identity””for example, when the person carrying the license makes a credit-card transaction””the radio tag becomes a proxy for that individual. And the driver’s licenses are just the latest addition to a growing array of “tagged” items that consumers might be wearing or carrying around, such as transit and toll passes, office key cards, school IDs, “contactless” credit cards, clothing, phones and even groceries.

Speaking of “contactless” credit cards, the Discovery cable TV channel recently scuttled an episode of “Mythbusters” (where a team of scientists explore the veracity of stories sent in by viewers) which exposes how insecure RFID tags are. Boing Boing describes the clip thusly, “Mythbusters’ Adam Savage told the folks at the HOPE hackercon about how the Discovery Channel was bullied by big credit-card companies out of airing a program about how crappy the security in RFID tags is.”.

Years ago a university research team exposed the same story showing that by merely sitting in close proximity to someone with a Mobil SpeedPass gas keychain fob you can copy the information encoded on that device through the air (the “R” in “RFID” stands for radio) and replay that information at a Mobil gas station to get gas by posing as the SpeedPass owner. It would appear that credit card companies’ lawyers are more sensitive to bad public perception than Mobil is.

Update (2008 September 8): Adam Savage now says that Discovery Channel didn’t kill the RFID episode of “Mythbusters”, the show’s production company did. CNet news quotes a statement from Savage:

“There’s been a lot of talk about this RFID thing, and I have to admit that I got some of my facts wrong, as I wasn’t on that story, and as I said on the video, I wasn’t actually in on the call,” Savage said in the statement. “Texas Instruments’ account of their call with Grant and our producer is factually correct. If I went into the detail of exactly why this story didn’t get filmed, it’s so bizarre and convoluted that no one would believe me, but suffice to say…the decision not to continue on with the RFID story was made by our production company, Beyond Productions, and had nothing to do with Discovery, or their ad sales department.”

But this doesn’t really change the story in a significant way; no matter what group of people decided to kill the RFID Mythbusters episode, it appears that that episode won’t air. Trying to keep the lid on bad decisions about how to deploy RFID technology is futile and in no way benefits the public. The public is no more secure for the silence from Mythbusters and RFID “contactless” credit cards are out there with more on the way. So ask yourself: who does benefit?

Happy 25th Birthday, GNU!

The GNU operating system is 25 years old this year! Stephen Fry has a celebratory video where he explains software freedom in a very non-technical and accessible way. The video is licensed to share and available in multiple free formats, of course. The GNU webpage where you can find copies of the movie already has a French translation and subtitled versions available, no doubt as a result of these freedoms.

I run gNewSense GNU/Linux on my computers and I also run a Fedora GNU/Linux system with a free software kernel. I only install free software on my computers. I hope to write a document to help make it easier for novices to install a completely free software Linux kernel on their Fedora GNU/Linux systems. For now, if you’re interested in installing Fedora GNU/Linux and using a completely free software kernel, write me and I’ll help you get that set up.

gNewSense comes with nothing but free software right out of the box (so to speak), so no modifications are needed to preserve your software freedom. Just boot a live CD (to try the OS before you install it), run the installer program on the desktop, and run your computer in freedom.

If you can’t get the video from any of the mirrors on the GNU website, feel free to grab copies from this website:

Movie files

In English

En Français

Audio-only files

In English

gNewSense GNU/Linux deltah 2.1 is out

Download and try gNewSense GNU/Linux, an operating system that contains nothing but free software! Even the drivers for all the devices this system supports are free software. You can test drive gNewSense before you install it and see what a completely free computer operating system can do for you. This CD is an updated version of the gNewSense GNU/Linux system I discussed before.

How do I burn the CD image file to a CD so I can try it out?

You can read Ubuntu GNU/Linux’s handy reference on how to burn an ISO file (keep in mind that the process is the same for burning a CD except you use a blank CD-R instead of a blank DVD).

Then put the burned CD back in your computer, reboot your computer, and you’ll most likely boot straight into gNewSense GNU/Linux on a trial basis—nothing on your computer is modified—so you can test out gNewSense GNU/Linux before you decide to install it.

To install gNewSense GNU/Linux, simply double-click the “install” icon on the screen and follow the on-screen directions.

Where do I get the ISO file I need to burn?

Count on unaccountabillity

The American public is said to have a taste for mild rebukes like “Goodnight Bush” but there’s no strong outcry for principled action which require holding people’s feet to the fire: real investigation, trial, and punishment beginning with impeachment. There is little organized challenge aimed at elected leaders on issues you’d think would merit at least voting reconsideration and pointed questions. Where’s the outrage?

Obama is quite a hawk, voting for war funding and now Obama supports telecom immunity for what used to be considered illegal domestic spying. An Obama presidency means more war is on the horizon: The Chicago Tribune quoted him on his hawkishness toward Iran. Despite this he’s still getting campaign funding from ordinary people.

There’s no clear indication that Bush, Cheney, and the rest will suffer any sort of investigation, trial, and punishment for warrantless spying, lying to the public about the justification for the War on Terror (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran is next), or any of the other things people hate them for. Obama never favored impeachment because it would be a dysfunctional distraction (“I think you reserve impeachment for grave, grave breeches, and intentional breeches of the president’s authority,” [and,] “I believe if we began impeachment proceedings we will be engulfed in more of the politics that has made Washington dysfunction,” he added. “We would once again, rather than attending to the people’s business, be engaged in a tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, nonstop circus.”) and the US public isn’t holding him to account for that telling him that accountability and the rule of law are in no way a dysfunction. Obama and McCain are running neck-and-neck in a corporate-managed election that is designed to leave out third parties and independents with varying dissident views.

The so-called anti-war movement in the US is dead. Its continued inaction builds on a pattern of shutting down to make way for the latest pro-war Democrat: not a peep during Sen. Kerry’s run, no serious criticism for Rep. Pelosi (“impeachment is off the table“), and now not a peep during Sen. Obama’s campaign.

The nation is sowing unaccountability. Nothing good will come from that.

Changing management won’t fix an unethical system

The BBC brings us the latest essay from Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, with “It’s not the Gates, it’s the bars“. Stallman explains why it’s a mistake to focus on any particular proprietor (individual or organization) rather than focusing on the unethical system of proprietary software.

Recently the One Laptop per Child project announced they will switch to using Microsoft Windows on the XO laptop. I understand the plan will be gradual: New XOs will offer either the current Fedora GNU/Linux-based system or Microsoft Windows XP. Later only Microsoft Windows XP will be offered by default. This is a remarkably bad move for anyone who took the OLPC’s initial educational mission seriously—even if the Microsoft Windows-based XO has some free software running on it, the switch is a net reduction in user’s freedoms. Users running the current GNU/Linux system have are free to fully inspect, run, share, and modify their system (with the exception of one non-free program to control the wireless device). These freedoms are why the software is referred to as “free”, the use of the word free in this context is not a reference to price. By contrast, under Microsoft Windows far more of the operating system will remain off-limits to users. No proprietor would reject an opportunity to hook anyone, even the poorest people in the world, into dependency.

Users would prefer to not be spied on without their consent. But some proprietary software programs spy on their users (including KaZaA, RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and Microsoft Windows) reporting back to its owner. Users shouldn’t have to sacrifice their privacy to talk to one another. But Skype, a popular proprietary program which lets users make telephone calls over the Internet, routes all calls through a central switchboard run by the proprietor thus allowing the proprietor to record the calls. Because Skype is proprietary, users cannot improve the program to include free software encryption which would render such recordings useless, or use a different switchboard server to bypass Skype’s switchboard entirely. Users would also prefer not to get a downgrade when they believe they are upgrading to the latest version of a program. Yet Apple did just that with iTunes effectively reducing the usefulness of the program. One so-called upgrade resulted in users losing music they purchased through the iTunes music service. No iTunes user, even skilled programmers, had the option of improving the program and publishing their improved iTunes so other users could avoid losing their purchased tracks.

As Stallman told the Boston Review:

The remedy is to give the users more control, not less. We must insist on free/libre software, software that the users are free to change and redistribute. Free/libre software develops under the control of its users: if they don’t like its features, for whatever reason, they can change them. If you’re not a programmer, you still get the benefit of control by the users. A programmer can make the improvements you would like, and publish the changed version. Then you can use it too.

The free software movement presents the only principled challenge to proprietary software. Society must ensure that users are free to organize to help themselves and one another according to their own goals—social solidarity.

Cindy Sheehan connects the dots: progressives should vote for those who support their values.

Cindy Sheehan writes clearly and without reservation—if you truly oppose war, you don’t vote for more war. The Democrats have a strong history of starting war, and there’s no reason to vote for them when they’re willing to help enable the Republicans continue occupation and kill. Sheehan is also continuing to stand by her promise not to support pro-war politicians.

First of all, we allow “anti-war” groups like MoveOn.org to set the dialogue and discourse. MoveOn.org is not so much “anti-war” as they are “pro-Democrat.” Tactics that MoveOn.org found outrageous under the Republican Congress, they find “frustrating” but understandable under Democratic leadership.

The “anti-war” issue is non-partisan in its scope by the very name “anti-war.” The Democrats are responsible for every war in the last 108 years, excluding the two Bush wars and the Reagan Grenada farce. Democrats are responsible for dropping, not one, but two atomic bombs on the innocent citizens of Japan. Democrats deserve no slack, and should be given none.

Secondly, during elections the “anti-war” movement loses its focus and works for candidates that promise peace or change, but previous actions, votes, or rhetoric do not match the campaign rhetoric. From Obliteration to Redeployment to Hundred Years, none of the duopoly candidates are promising anything different than BushCo.

After almost eight years of two-party collaboration that has undermined freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity, one would think that the US electorate would have developed some kind of sophistication regarding the throttlehold of sameness that the Republicrats or Demopublicans offer.

And then she names two clearly anti-war candidates:

We have a clear choice instead of the “lesser of two evils” politics. There are at least two candidates for President that present a clear alternative to violence and corporate oppression: Cynthia McKinney (Green Party and Power to the People Party) and Ralph Nader (Ind.).

Do you want someone who is a smidgeon less evil at the helm of our country, or do you want someone who is committed to true peace and true mastery over the corporations and true environmental integrity?

In 2004 we were told that we were seeing the most important election—the Democrat-supporting (pro-war, even if they didn’t want to admit it) Left wanted George W. Bush out of office and thought that it was wise and proper to join a candidate who merely offered better war management. No major anti-war protests were held in which one could present any organized opportunity to challenge Democratic Sen. John Kerry on the issues of continued war, no single-payer universal health care, and increasing separation between the richest and the poorest.

In 2008 there are more dead from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, more poverty, more displacement, more homelessness, and more uninsured and under-insured (with no real universal single-payer health care in sight). Yet where’s the outrage, the cries of how critical the 2008 election is? By these standards, we ought to understand what folly it is to call any US Presidential election the most important because as things get worse every election is more important than the last.

One would hope more people could come to connect policy and politics in the way Sheehan has without suffering Sheehan’s loss. One would hope that things don’t have to get worse before the folks who call themselves “progressive” dare to support politicians who agree with their take on the issues of the day.

Big Buck Bunny is out

The folks behind “Elephant’s Dream” have released “Big Buck Bunny“, a 10 minute animated short. According to the BBB website, everything on the 2-DVD set is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 so you can share and build upon anything you find on the discs.

The movie is very well done and the outtakes are quite funny. You can also get a copy of the latest Blender animation software and all the art used in the movie so you can build on it and make something else. This 2-disc set is well worth the money. As soon as they start collecting for the next movie, I’m on board to buy early and get an entry in the credits.

Download the complete DVD containing the movie and lots of extras

NTSC DVD ISO (MD5SUM: 966758b02da2c5c183ab7de2e0a5e96b)—If you watch this in the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, or Taiwan, you probably want the NTSC DVD image file.
Get it from the Internet Archive
PAL DVD ISO (MD5SUM: cb67e9bc8e97b9d625e7cd7ee0d85e08)—If you watch this in Europe, China, or Australia, you probably want the PAL DVD image file.
Get it from the Internet Archive

Download the movie for your computer

Which DVD image file should I download?

See a map of which countries use which television broadcast standard:
Map of the world highlighting which regions use which video encoding standard.

How do I burn the DVD image file to a DVD so I can watch it on my TV?

You can read Ubuntu GNU/Linux’s handy reference on how to burn a DVD then watch your DVD on any DVD player. The way you burn the movie file with most graphical burning programs is substantially similar to how you burn data DVD discs.

You can also watch the movie without burning a DVD using mplayer, VideoLAN Client, and some other movie players. VideoLAN Client will read any of the files above, whether it’s a DVD image file or an Ogg Vorbis+Theora movie file. VideoLAN Client comes with the DVD image file and runs on most modern operating systems.

All corporate presidential candidates enable more war

Whether passively or actively, all three of the US presidential candidates (the only candidates the mainstream media will let you hear) pay for more war. From the way people talk about Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), you might be surprised to know that this is merely more of the same—an unbroken line of war support for him.

From today’s Democracy Now! (headline, small audio, high-quality audio, video): (emphasis mine)

The Senate has approved a new war funding bill allocating $165 billion for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In a challenge to President Bush, the measure also includes billions in domestic spending, including $51 billion dollars for veterans’ education. Republican presidential candidate John McCain had opposed the domestic provisions, but did not interrupt his campaign schedule to return to Capitol Hill for the vote. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both voted in favor of the measure.

How long until a signing statement takes away any funding not directly aimed at continuing occupation and oppression?

How long until the public votes to say no more war?

How many more people have to die before you’ll decide that the Democrats aren’t the way to justice?

Critically important viewing: The World According to Monsanto

Marie-Monique Robin’s “The World According to Monsanto” is one of the most important recent documentaries because it exposes one of the most well-organized and dangerous corporations and because of Robin’s clearly conveyed research.

This documentary aired in France on 11 March 2008 but I doubt it will show up in the US. Monsanto advertises widely so they have the ear of a lot of media corporations which control the vast majority of what shows up on American television and movie theaters.

Viewers of another favorite documentary, “The Corporation”, will recognize a few of the faces and names in “The World According to Monsanto”.

“The World According to Monsanto” impresses upon you (and expertly defends) that this is a fight for control of the world’s population through controlling its food. As Vandana Shiva says, Monsanto’s effort is more powerful than bombs. Farmers around the world see a future where they can’t afford the patent licensing bill because they can’t avoid the GMO seed. The public (whether unknowingly or with no other viable option) eats the GMO food that raises one’s risk of a host of health problems including cancer.

Monsanto refused Robin an interview but their framing of the issue is heard clearly throughout the film. Robin uses Monsanto’s website to explain what things are, illustrates her points with citations from Monsanto’s internal documents (liberated by court order), and does the investigative reporting legwork to clearly explain to us how world domination through patent law and genomic manipulation is not at all far-fetched. The stakes are enormously high. I highly recommend seeing this documentary.