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[liberationtech] Medill online Digital Safety Guide

Eleanor Saitta ella at
Sat Jun 1 07:42:58 PDT 2013

Hash: SHA256

I'm going to step into this thread just once (and try to stick to
that); apologies for top-posting this.

I come from the security community.  I understand very well many of
the arguments you're making and even agree at a technical level with
most of them.  However, let's talk about human outcomes.

Human outcomes are the only thing that matter even a little bit in
security -- not "could you be owned", but "were you actually owned,
and did that mean you didn't get out in time/accomplish your
objective".  Nothing else matters.

You cannot force people to adopt "proper" security procedures.  You
cannot scare people into adopting them -- you can't scare people into
doing anything.  It's useful for us to understand where we'd like
people to end up, but we have to start with where people are and deal
with the fact that they have limited time, limited capability to
adapt, and limited resources.

This means that many people will be owned, and many people will get
hurt.  Our goal, our only real goal, in doing security work in this
context, can be to *statistically* reduce the number of people who get
hurt and *statistically* increase the number of people who achieve
their objectives.

Yes, I don't like the current set of trends we're seeing in computer
architectures, and I've got my own projects that are fighting them,
but we also have to work within those trends, because computing is a
social practice and if you aren't were the users are, you're crying
alone in a corner.

Asking people whose job is to be a professional journalist to go use a
text-based mail client means you lose, because they're not going to.
You *might* get them to give up the power and convenience of gmail to
switch to a thick-client, but more than that?  Forget it.  You might
get someone who's a writer to switch to a linux box, but asking a
professional photographer to ditch Lightroom and switch their whole
workflow around?  Forget it.  You might even get your journalists to
adopt a nice hardened workflow for document intake that keeps them
safe from almost all of the malware that people try to pass them, but
you have to understand that they will jump around the edge of that
system sometimes when things are blowing up, and *THIS IS FINE*.
Their job isn't to be secure, it's to get the story out.  Sometimes
this means they go to jail.  It's ok.  They signed up for it.  It
sucks, and we want to help them reduce the chances, we want to make
sure they understand the risks of their actions, but in the end, it's
their call.

The point of humanitarian technology is to empower people, and that
means empowering people to take risks and make decisions that we
consider completely insane.  It's ok.

Yes, in some situations, all we can do is tell people "either you do
all of this of you're going to be owned".  That's fine.  Our job for
those situations is to see how much we can lower that bar, based on
where the users are, what they need, and what we can do.  Lowering the
bar for other hackers doesn't help normal users, although in some
cases it may be a prerequisite.

I could go on for a while longer -- one of the things we need to think
more about is how we can go from defense in depth to a more
epidemiological approach to security, and how we can use the most
sophisticated pattern-and-behavior matching processor we've ever
invented and that we've been ignoring for years (the user), but I'll
stop here.

The bottom line: meet the user where they are, think about outcomes,
not ideals, and understand that you're going to fail, most of the
time, and that that's maybe ok.


On 2013.06.01 07.40, Rich Kulawiec wrote:
> On Wed, May 29, 2013 at 03:21:45PM -0700,
> frank at wrote:
>> I appreciate your feedback and your bluntness, Rich.
>> But you are providing far more guidance about what to avoid than
>> what to use. If journalists and other users should avoid all
>> commercial based operating systems including Macs, or any system
>> requiring anti-virus software, then what operating system should
>> they use? Linux maybe? Or something else?
>> Similarly, if they shouldn't use GUI-based email clients, what
>> email should they use?
> See below, I'll try to address these questions.
> That's actually not my blunt voice.  That's my exasperated voice, 
> because I've grown exceedingly weary of listening to people
> explain how to secure a closed-source OS/application environment.
> Can't. Be. Done.
> The evidence supporting that statement is already piled so high
> that one could spend a lifetime examining it and not finish.  And
> more arrives all day, every day.  Yet there are STILL people trying
> to claim that yes, you can secure your Windows desktop if only you
> use anti-spyware anti-virus anti-malware anti-anti-anti-whatever.
> If only you spend enough money.  If only you use
> IDS/IPS/firewalls/yadda yadda yadda.
> No, you can't.
> Not for any reasonable value of "secure".  (Yes, yes, I'm well 
> aware that nothing is absolutely secure, I'm using the term in
> sense of "adequate to stop attacks it might plausibly face".) 
> People do all those things and spend ferocious amounts of money on 
> them and yet they are STILL routinely 0wned.  It never seems to 
> occur to them to step back and consider that they're doing
> something fundamentally wrong; it always seems to occur to them
> that throwing more money at the problem will fix it.  It won't.
> And for your use case, where we can presume that the users'
> systems will come under scrutiny from governments, criminal gangs,
> and other unsavory people with substantial resources, including
> possibly the implied or overt threat of physical force, it's absurd
> to even consider that approach.  You need to discard it entirely
> and try something that has an appreciable chance of working -- NOT
> something that's guaranteed, as I don't think that exists, but
> something that at least gets you into the game and gives you a
> fighting chance.
> Is Linux the best choice?  Maybe.  Maybe FreeBSD is.  Maybe
> something else.  We could argue (and we *have* argued, for many
> years) about their relative merits and drawbacks.  I'll propose
> that for this purpose it may well be entirely reasonable to create
> a custom Linux or BSD distribution that has only the essentials
> required for reporters/editors in the field to do their jobs.
> Perhaps it should be based on something that already exists, e.g.,
> Tails.  But what all of those alternatives have in common is that
> they raise your probability of success from zero to something
> non-zero.
> That's not enough, of course.  Reasonably secure software
> environments only stay that way if they're used appropriately:
> procedures are as important as code.  So if someone equipped with
> one of those is so insanely stupid as to log onto Facebook [1] or
> some other scam site, then they're probably neatly undercut
> themselves.  Using these tools properly takes discipline, restraint
> and thoughtfulness.
> For example: users need to actually look at URLs before they
> follow them and they need to know enough to realize that
> is probably not Google and that CIT1BANK.COM is
> probably not CitiBank. [2]
> Yes, that's tedious.  Sorry.  But it's not as tedious as being 
> locked in a cell for six years while the State Department tries to
> negotiate your release.
> Anyway, my point is that a judicious combination of careful
> procedures and minimal software applications on a robust operating
> system will yield something that has a much higher level of
> operational security than anything you can build around a
> closed-source base. Or to put it another way, all the
> discipline/restraint/thoughtfulness in the world will not help you
> if you insist on using Adobe Acrobat, thus making yourself a member
> of the Ginormous Acrobat Security Hole of the Month Victim's Club.
> [3]  Or if you choose to use Outlook instead of mutt (see
>, which is a pretty robust full-featured email
> client that trained users can use far more efficiently than many
> others.
> So a constructive approach to this might be ("might be"):
> 1. Write a functional specification.  What computing tasks do
> reporters/editors/etc. in the field have to do?
> 2. Determine what applications can perform those tasks.
> 3. Figure out which OS those applications will run on.
> 4. Figure out what the minimal installation looks like. (No point
> in having FrozzleBlah 1.7 installed if it isn't used. Less software
> = less attack surface, to a first approximation.)
> 5. Set the onboard firewall to bidirectional default deny. Then
> start figuring out what holes need to be punched in it to make (2)
> feasible.
> 6. Think about network services, VPNs, encryption.  Revisit (5).
> 7. Build an alpha release and give it, plus some training, to a
> dozen working journalists.  It will break horribly. That's a good
> thing.
> 8. Revisit 1-6 and built a beta release.  Repeat step 7.
> 9. Get someone (or better, a group of someones) with devious and
> ingenious minds to attack it.  It will break horribly. That's still
> a good thing.
> 10. Revisit 1-8 and repeat 9 until either (a) sufficient confidence
> exists that a serviceable product has been created or (b) it
> becomes apparent that something about the approach is irrevocably
> wrong and can't be fixed without starting over. If (a), then move
> on.  If (b), start over.  (I'm a huge fan of the development
> philosophy that you should always write one to throw away.
> Sometimes two.  Development efforts that aren't willing to do that
> often don't survive well in the field.)
> I submit that this outline, crude and incomplete as it is, has a
> much higher probability of generating success than anything one
> could possibly do using closed-source software.
> Yes, it's a lot of work.  Sorry.  There's no shortcut.  As
> tempting as it is to take something like MacOS and adapt it: you
> can't.  It's like trying to turn a 1975 Ford Pinto into a tank by
> bolting armor plate onto it.  Yeah, it kinda sorta vaguely looks
> like a tank, but it's still a Pinto and always will be...and you
> would not do well in battle with it.
> As to the one of your remarks that I elided, in re electronic 
> communications in general:
> I certainly think that they should make *every* effort to minimize 
> their footprint.  E.g., if their laptop can be switched off: it
> should be. If it can be disconnected from the wireless network via
> the hardware switch: it should be.  If their mobile phone can be
> turned off and the battery removed: it should be.  Every minute
> that these devices are connected provides potentially actionable
> intelligence to the adversary, so I think it's sensible to minimize
> those minutes. (And of course, VPNs, encryption, and other
> techniques should be used to reduce the quantity and quality of
> information available to an adversary.)
> ---rsk
> [1] Some people may not consider this insanely stupid.  Okay.
> Fair enough.  If you're one of those people, please explain to me
> EXACTLY why you think that Facebook (or one of its freelancing
> employees) would not cheerfully sell every scrap of data they have
> on you to country X's intelligence service/secret police or to one
> of country Y's indigenous criminal organizations.  To borrow a line
> from Feynman, what is the source of this fantastic faith in the
> machinery?
> Once you've finished that explanation, please also explain to me
> EXACTLY why you think that an operation with a long, long history
> of massive security holes has now managed to close the last one,
> thereby rendering itself impervious to attackers -- even though
> that same organization has almost no motivation to do so.  It's not
> *their* data, after all.
> [2] I say "probably" because it's possible the real operations
> have acquired those typosquatted domains by now.
> [3] I see that Adobe is shifting PhotoShop to "the cloud".  How
> very nice. Now when some tinpot dictator wants to see if there are
> any incriminating photos being prepped for publication, it's not
> necessary to break into laptops and desktops and such; just break
> into Adobe's cloud (or, perhaps more readily, pay off an Adobe
> employee) and it's one-stop shopping. I suppose Adobe wasn't
> content with merely having one massive security hole a month and
> wanted to create something whose very existence is a massive,
> ongoing, perpetual security hole. -- Too many emails? Unsubscribe,
> change to digest, or change password by emailing moderator at
> companys at or changing your settings at

- -- 
Ideas are my favorite toys.
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