All posts by John Band

Hacking mobile phones is hard to do

This Wired piece about some techies who discovered a major flaw in the DNS systems that underpin the Internet, and co-ordinated a mass surreptitious effort to fix it, is worth reading if you like That Sort Of Thing.

However, there’s one aspect of it which strikes me as utterly bizarre:

“The first thing I want to say to you,” Vixie told Kaminsky, trying to contain the flood of feeling, “is never, ever repeat what you just told me over a cell phone.”

Vixie knew how easy it was to eavesdrop on a cell signal, and he had heard enough to know that he was facing a problem of global significance. If the information were intercepted by the wrong people, the wired world could be held ransom. Hackers could wreak havoc. Billions of dollars were at stake, and Vixie wasn’t going to take any risks.

And later:

Andreas Gustafsson knew something was seriously wrong. Vixie had emailed the 43-year-old DNS researcher in Espoo, Finland, asking to talk at 7 pm on a hardwired line. No cell phones.

Gustafsson hurried into the freezing March evening—his only landline was the fax in his office a brisk mile walk away.

But mobile phones are protected by fairly hardcore encryption. While it’s theoretically possible to break GSM encryption, there’s no evidence of anyone actually having done so outside the lab, and the effort required to do so would be immense – while criminal gangs could muster the technology and expertise required, it’s extremely unlikely anyone in advance would realise the commercial importance of a few geeks calling each other up. CDMA encryption is harder still to break. On the other hand, tapping or bugging a landline is a trivial effort.

I know first-generation, analogue, mobile phones were easily intercepted (as Princess Diana discovered), but nobody uses them anymore, even in the US, and the events in the Wired article all took place this year. Now, Paul Vixie is a long way from an idiot when it comes to tech security issues – so is this a sign of encroaching senility on his part, with the other players indulging his whim, or are there some substantive concerns that I’m missing?

(and yes, this post should probably just have taken the format of ‘email to Alex Harrowell’…)

Save, borrow, whatever

So the fairly essential cuts in interest rates are hitting savers. As a net saver, I can only say this is a good thing.

There are approximately four sorts of people in the UK, financially speaking:
1) people with no assets or liabilities. “The poor”.
2) people with houses and mortgages. “Hard-working families”.
3) people with some savings, no house and no mortgage. “People who noticed there was a bloody great house price bubble”.
4) people with houses, savings, and no mortgages. “Jammy sods”.

Cutting the interest rate benefits people in group 2, at the expense of groups 3 and 4. But the house price crash has massively disbenefited people in group 2, to the benefit (either now or at some point in the next couple of years) of people in group 3. The fact that we’ll lose out on interest in the short run is more or less irrelevant, since by next year our cash will be worth about 1.5x what it was in 2007 in terms of “how much house can you get?”. So it’d be churlish for people in group 3 to worry too much about bailing out the poor buggers in group 2 – we’ll just buy their houses for next-to-nothing…

People in group 4 are unequivocally hit both by the house price crash and by the interest rate cut. But since their net worth is enormous by comparison with everyone else, even after both these adverse events, and since they’re the ones who benefited from 40 years of house price inflation and the enormous wealth transfer from the young to the old that this entailed, their plight is pretty much inconsequential.

And the poor? Well, they’re pretty much still poor, just as they were during the boom.

Constitutional clarification

Parliamentary privilege, as traditionally viewed in the UK constitution, grants MPs freedom of speech on what they say within the House of Commons. It doesn’t:

a) give them the right to run spies in the civil service; or
b) cover what they say or do outside of the House of Commons.

Its relevance to the Damian Green case, therefore, is rather limited.

Update Dec 3: Sam Coates at the Times has been doing some digging, and has found that – of course – my interpretation is correct:

Parliamentary privilege is a narrow beast. Article IX of the 1689 Bill of Rights guarantees that “Parliamentary proceedings” – anything said on the floor of the Chamber or published in Hansard – cannot be used in evidence against MPs during a prosecution. But, citing a 1999 committee report, it says Parliamentary privilege “does not embrace and protect the activities of individuals, whether members or non-members, simply because they take place within the precincts of Parliament.”

The report cites the precedent of Lord Cochrane, who was arrested in 1815 while sitting on the Government front bench in the Chamber, having escaped from prison. The arrest took place before the sitting of the of the House, and the Committee of Privileges concluded that no breach of privilege had taken place.

Always follow the Herring Convention

Richard Herring has come up with an excellent solution to the problem of ‘person in your way, what to do?’, and backed it up with impeccable Science and Logic. In short – go left, and slate anyone who doesn’t, and all will be mathematically fine.

Now, if Mr Herring can also solve the issue of corrievorrie, he’ll be elected a god amongst men. Relatedly – blimey, you can get the entire Meaning of Liff online. This is the best thing ever (except for sellers of books to keep in one’s toilet, who’ll presumably lose out slightly. And John Lloyd, but I’m fairly sure his invention of QI is keeping him fairly sorted in the lavatorial book market…)

Terror police, arrest this man

In case anyone’s wondering why Damian Green was arrested by ‘anti-terror’ police – it’s because all investigations involving potential breaches of the Official Secrets Act are dealt with by Special Branch, which was renamed to Counter Terrorism Command when it was merged with the Met’s Anti-Terrorism Branch in 2006.

As with the freezing of Landsbanki’s UK assets, it has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism at all – neither in terms of the crimes that Mr Green is accused of committing, nor in terms of the laws under which he was arrested.

Rather, the media have picked up that one of the other functions of the legislation (for Landsbanki)/police force (for Mr Green) in question is terrorism, and jumped to entirely ridiculous ‘MP Arrested Under Terror Laws / Brown Brands Iceland Nation Of Terrorists’ conclusions.

World of Chutzpah

BBC City Diarist ‘Stephen’:

During the chancellor’s pre-Budget report and the opposition’s response, there were alternate gasps of disbelief and jeers of contempt across our trading floor. It’s utterly bewildering how our political system has managed to put such innumerates, however well-meaning, in charge of our economy.

Hmm. Perhaps, after you – not the politicians at all – were directly responsible for screwing the economy, you might lay off on jeering at them for trying to clean up the mess you created? And given your complete inability to price or understand liquidity risk, perhaps ‘innumeracy’ jibes might be considered especially inappropriate?

As ever, Dan Davies has the sensible economist’s take on things: viz, it’s all to the good but probably won’t be enough. And prophet of doom Willem Buiters is as terrifying, well-argued and appallingly badly written as ever.

Generic response to generic ‘oh no, the trains are so expensive’ wittering

Inspired specifically by this piece, but more generally by the dozens of such pieces, left and right, which perpetuate ludicrous myths about the cost of travelling on the trains.

The fact is, in Great Britain, train fares rise at a couple of percentage points above inflation every year. This isn’t surprising – most of the cost of running a railway is that of paying people, and (at least when the economy’s growing, as it was for the last 10 years) people like to be given pay rises above inflation every year too.

So every year, trains get slightly more affordable to the average person (because the average person’s income rises by 2-3% above inflation), but slightly more expensive in cash terms, than they were the year before. Like sandwiches, or pies, or haircuts, or pretty much any other consumer service that can’t be imported from China.

(since such stories are rarely complete without a questionably chosen anecdote about outrageous prices – I went from London to Birmingham and back at the weekend, heading out in the Friday rush hour, with a £30 return ticket bought on the day. That works for me…)

‘How Racist Are The BNP?’

BNP apologists frequently claim that supporters of the group aren’t necessarily racist, they’re just misguided working-class souls who’ve been abandoned by the mainstream parties and feel the BNP speaks for them. Non-apologists suggest, with equal frequency, that perhaps if people weren’t racist then they wouldn’t vote for a party whose primary feature was racism, even if it did better match their views on employment policy.

As Alex Hilton points out, the leaking of the BNP membership list, including several thousand email addresses, provides an excellent opportunity to answer these questions: send out a surveymonkey to the people on the list, asking them to rate how racist they are on a scale of 1-10. Problem solved…

Traditional ‘where’s your grammar?’ line

(“in t’front room watching telly, what’s it to you?”)

An apparently valid study has shown that 25-34 year olds are best at using apostrophes correctly, while over-55s are worst. While this doesn’t fit with the traditional narrative of ‘it’s all gone to the dogs since trendy liberals took over teaching’, it does fit with the available evidence on functional literacy rates: it’s clear that the comprehensive system has provided its alumni with a more effective education than the grammar and secondary modern system did.

I’m aware that ‘bring back grammar schools’ is a dogmatic, rather than an evidence-based, position – but one might have thought the fact that older people are demonstrably worse-educated than younger people might impinge on their consciousness somewhere down the line…