Do we owe anything to the released Guantanamo innocents?

January 28th, 2011 by gnu

Speaking of rights and remedies, let’s talk about the hundreds of people who have been released from Guantanamo over the years.  No credible judge or court has ever cleared them of the US Government’s allegations that they were “the worst of the worst” or that they “returned to the battle”.  None of them have, so far, been able to get even a declaration that their captors have wronged them — let alone any apologies or damages.  None of the US or foreign personnel who seized these innocents and imprisoned them for years, outside the fundamental protections of US and foreign legal traditions, have suffered anything but the pangs of their own consciences.  The designers of the Guantanamo regime deliberately strategized to escape a legal reckoning, and have so far succeeded.  When there is zero accountability for error, similar errors are likely to recur, harming further innocents, and harming centuries of painstakingly built legal protection cherished by every person who hasn’t yet been thrown into prison without hope, mercy, or reason.  There may be real terrorists in Guantanamo, and we can argue about whether those people deserved the treatment we’ve given them.  But it is undisputed that there are hundreds there who suffered, and yet were and are not terrorists.

What do we as a people owe to the innocent victims of our spasm of rage after 9/11?  An apology.

And we owe them what comes after a heartfelt apology:  restitution, and a commitment to not repeat the error.

My corrupt government refuses to admit error, apologize, or make these people whole.  Canada showed more honor.  But America is not merely our government.  America is a people and a society.  And frequently the American people uphold higher honor and morals than the American government.  The American people can do what their government won’t.

The American private legal profession has stepped forward and ably represented every prisoner in Guantanamo, for free, for years.  They came forward at a time when everyone else was drawing away.  These lawyers are among our proudest patriots.  If we have any remnant of rule of law rather than fiat dictatorship, it is because these people heeded their instinct to rise up in defense of the detainees.  But legal defense is only part of what the victims of Guantanamo need.

Many released former detainees are living in primitive conditions, in countries where they have no friends, no family, and frequently don’t even speak local languages.  Through coordination with their lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, I have provided university scholarships to a few such detainees.  Universities provide a haven where you can focus your energies on the future rather than the past; where many people are newcomers and foreigners; where your time can profitably be spent in improving the remainder of your life.  Colleges come with social services and opportunities that are much better than sitting at home contemplating your mental illness, or morosely working at a menial job in a culture not your own.  But there are hundreds more detainees who nobody is sponsoring, who could use that apology and that restitution today.

If you or your readers believe that error has been done at Guantanamo, don’t wait for a statesman to show up and fix it.  The generous spirit of American philanthropy can go a long way to salve the wounds that official action has opened.  And it’s cheap.  You, yourself, can afford to support an undergraduate student in a third world country for a few years.  (Even the student who attended the London School of Economics only required a few thousand pounds per year from me.)  Ignore political stalemate.  Bypass quisling judges and spineless orators.  Transcend official secrecy, scumbag DOJ lawyers, and complicity in torture.  You can take a simple personal action to heal the ugliness of Guantanamo.  Donate to a former detainee’s education or living expenses today.

On political education and international travel

January 14th, 2011 by gnu

I suggest that any of you readers who have never actually traveled internationally, do so.  I’ve been surprised at the naivete of commenters on issues such as how Wikileaks volunteer Jake Appelbaum was treated at US Customs.

Not only will you learn how airports are physically arranged to control the movements of international travelers and their luggage.  You’ll learn how cellphone frequencies are jammed by the government in the customs area so your phone won’t work (but not out on the tarmac after the plane lands — so call or text your friends or relatives before getting off the plane, so they’ll know you landed). You’ll discover that the constitutional rights you expect inside the US do not work at the US border; you can’t just leave, or phone your lawyer, or not be searched.  There is more variety to life than the part you’ve experienced so far.

You’ll also get some experience transiting the borders of various countries, US and others.  If you’re a US citizen living in the US, you’ll encounter US customs more often than any other - every time you come home.

In my experience, and the experience of many others I have known, the US is the worst border in the world that I’ve crossed.  And I’m a citizen!  Try flying in to San Francisco from Amsterdam (because you like the service on th airline KLM, or because Schiphol airport is one of the best-organized in Europe).  You’ll discover that the incredibly intelligent people in Customs always presume you’re secretly smuggling hashish — as if there wasn’t 60x as much hashish in California as in the Netherlands, and at better prices, too.

The vast majority of border crossings in the world involve little or no paperwork, very few searches.  You are typically waved right through without even a question.  They stamp your passport and maybe collect a little squeeze (”departure tax”) and you’re on your way.  One big difference between the US and most countries is that in the US, you have more rights in theory; in the other countries, the governments have more power to harass you.  But in practice, US officials often harass you right up to the border of their power and beyond (pushing the limit), while most countries harass you far, far less than they theoretically could.  There’s something in the attitude and training of US cops/guards/etc that makes them much pushier, more robotic, more nasty, and less human than the cops in most countries.

I’ve visited at least 20 countries, on both business and vacation, and nobody took my luggage apart down to the individual items in the first-aid kit.  Nobody tried to strip-search me.  Nobody took away my innocuous water-bottle (until the US started demanding it of them).  Nobody recorded in their database about me what books I was carrying and what answers I’d made to their “idle” questions.  Nobody searched me fifty miles from the border, inside the country.  Except the Americans.

No government is 100% honest, just like no person or business is 100% honest.  Power corrupts.  You can often tell how honest a country’s government is by looking at how accountable government employees and politicians are.  Do they lose their jobs and get prosecuted, perhaps going to jail, when they screw up in a big way?  When they torture innocents (or even when they torture the guilty)?  Are they voted out of office when they start wars of aggression and bankrupt the country?  Do they go on to prestigious law school jobs after leaving their government job of advising the leaders that they can commit any crime and break any provision of the constitution because they’re the president?  Are there any viable political parties who actually disagree with each other on anything substantive (like the above issues)?  When the closer you get to the seat of executive power, the more corrupt and unaccountable everyone is, you start to get a clue about what degree of honesty is present in your government.

Every country has a different system for dealing with this sort of issues, and in case you hadn’t figured it out, the system in the United States is not automatically “the best”.  You actually have to look at, discuss, or live under the different systems, and compare them in your own mind to determine which is best.  (PS:  Don’t fret at your naivete; everybody is born ignorant and every country tells its citizens that it’s the best country.  Just get out of your country to somewhere else and see what you actually believe after you have some evidence.)

US is reaping what it sows in Pakistan

January 11th, 2011 by gnu

The death of a moderate politician, murdered by his own government security service, is part and parcel of what the US Government has been teaching Pakistan.  The lessons are pretty easy:  Lie, cheat, murder, and you’ll get away with it.

What made that politician moderate is that he supported “not killing” people who disagree with the tenets of Islam.

This is not how the US treats people in Pakistan who disagree with it, however.  We are not at war with Pakistan, and under the rules of war, the US can’t just go around killing people there.  Yet that’s the main activity of the US Government in Pakistan.  People who are not killed outright by unaccountable spooks flying unmanned drone airplanes, are permanently imprisoned on mere suspicion.  They are stuffed into covert prisons or Guantanamo, and never permitted to actually see a real judge or any real justice.

As long as the US continues its policies of lying (about the extrajudicial murdering it does every week in Pakistan) and indefinite imprisonment without trial, the US isn’t capable of teaching the Pakistani populace anything about how to run an honest government or a free society.  No wonder the extremists in their security services have learned to kill their perceived enemies first and deal with the legal issues later.  They’re doing exactly what George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld did, and nobody has even begun an investigation or prosecution of those war criminals.

Brief shell hack makes “/dev/ones” for erasing USB flash

January 5th, 2011 by gnu

Since USB flash devices don’t support Secure Erase yet, I’ve been doing what I think is the next best thing: overwriting every block in them with all 1’s.  I think it’s better to write ones rather than zeros, because flash memory devices traditionally erase to ones and then subsequent writes turn some of those ones to zeroes.  (It would’ve been simpler if the first guy to implement flash devices just put an inverter in there, so that the erased state would be zeroes, but they didn’t.)  By erasing to ones rather than zeroes, I try to lengthen the lifetime of the flash memory cells in the device.

So the problem is how to quickly gin up a large supply of ones (byte values of 0xFF) when I need to copy them, e.g. to a USB memory stick.  For an infinite supply of zeroes we have /dev/zero, but nobody has bothered to create /dev/ones.  Here’s the quick Bash shell command hack that I use:

echo $'xFF' | dd bs=1 count=1  >/tmp/ones cat /tmp/ones{,,,,,,,} >/tmp/o2; mv /tmp/o2 /tmp/ones; ls -sh /tmp/ones

Then repeat the previous command as many times as needed, until you have enough ones.The first command makes a 1-byte file containing the 0xFF byte value, using the Bash $’string’ extension.  The next command concatenates that 8 times (using Bash {}-expansion} in a second file, then moves that file back to the original name, and prints out how big it is.  Do that the first time, you get an 8-byte file.  The second, a 64-byte file.  Third, 512.  A few more times, and due to the power of exponential growth, you’re up to a billion-byte file.

Then at the end, I do a little trick to avoid needing quite as much disk space or time.  When e.g. erasing a 16GB USB memory, I repeat the above until it shows me that I have a 1GB file, then I do:

cat /tmp/ones{,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,} | dd bs=64M of=/dev/whatever

This concatenates 16 copies of that 1GB file and, without writing the result to the hard drive, feeds them to “dd” to write them directly to the USB device.  I use a 64-megabyte block size so that the writes to flash don’t get done 512 bytes at a time, which would be incredibly slow.  After a long pause, dd complains about “No space left on device”, and I know it’s done.  (There’s no space because a “16GB” memory stick is 16.0 billion bytes, which is shorter than the 16 mebibytes that I wrote to it.  The binary doubling strategy produced mebibytes, not decimal megabytes.)  Then I have a nice empty flash drive; I can put it in my pocket empty, or reformat the filesystem on that drive and I’m done.

I would be interested in test results (from probing the flash chips) to see how much data is left after this sequence.  I’m also interested in finding out whether my zeroes-vs-ones supposition has any practical value.

PS:  If the USB drive was previously mounted, don’t forget to unmount /dev/whatever before scribbling all over its filesystem.

Chaos Communication Congress Gathers In Berlin

December 27th, 2010 by anna

So good to be back in Berlin, a place that respects hacker culture. Tickets are sold out here for this year’s Chaos Communications Congress (CCC), the annual hacker gathering where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange announced the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (Immi) last year. Launched by Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, Immi is a collection of source-protection, freedom of information and transparency laws that would make Iceland a legal base for the coming wave of Wikileaks-like organizations. Iceland appreciates Wikileaks because it revealed the corrupt loans that destroyed the country’s largest bank, an act of vast corruption that strapped Iceland with $128 billion in debt - about $400,000 per capita.

The opening speaker at the CCC this morning was Rop Gonggrijp, who helped to write Immi and played a central role this year in uncovering flawed electronic voting machines in India and Brazil. Gonggrijp reminded CCC attendees that they’re a community that supports free speech. He condemned efforts by Anonymous to attack Paypal and other sites that cut off Wikileaks. “Yes we could do damage to Paypal,” said Gonggrijp, “but we understand that no good comes of that.” Gonggrijp noted that that the CCC motto is “we come in peace,” and that during a time of financial crisis when politicians were “quietly pocketing the silverware and making their way to the lifeboats,” there is increasing need for people who know how to reverse engineer and reengineer and do more with less.

Gonggrijp still he stands behind his 2005 CCC pronouncement that the war for privacy has been lost, an position which he says was spawned in the grump of a midlife crisis. I don’t agree with Gonggrijp that this battle is over. But I do share his following observation that due to mass use of antidepressants, we are below the threshold on smart, resourceful, unhappy people that harness their dissatisfaction to push for reforms that are painful or costly, but healthy in the long run. While no one should deny pharmaceuticals to people who suffer, Gonggrijp observes that unhappiness has become socially unacceptable at just the time when we need a bit more righteous anger.

Here in Berlin this evening, there’s no lack of focused, purposeful response to a world in need of more transparency. A hacker sitting nearby just handed me a map of a tag cloud that lets you search the Wikileaks cables by geographic location. Next she’s working on a searchable database of critical and creative responses to the cables. “If someone wants to create epic poetry or science fiction from this data, we should know,” she said. “This is a first Amendment test, I want to see what people actually do next.”

USB storage can never be securely erased

December 25th, 2010 by gnu

USB devices that implement the Mass Storage command set don’t provide a standard way to securely erase the contents of the storage. People often want to do this, for example before giving the storage device to someone else (without compromising your personal or business records that used to be on it), or before crossing an international border where normal legal protections against intrusive searches or “fishing expeditions” do not apply.

The lack of a standard command for this prevents USB-attached disk drives from being erased using the ATA Secure Erase command. (Sometimes you can open the plastic, extract the SATA drive from inside the USB disk drive case, attach that drive to a computer via SATA, and then erase it securely, but this is painful). It also means that there’s no reliable way to remove information from a USB flash memory stick, which is more serious.

If you merely delete a file from such a memory stick, its contents probably still exist in the flash chips, and it can be read out by anyone who pops open the plastic and connects to the flash chip itself. An upcoming paper from the USENIX FAST conference details how 14 different conventional attempts to securely erase a file all failed to erase the contents of the file from a variety of USB memory sticks. (See the slides.)

Clearly this oversight in the USB Storage command set should be remedied. Who knows somebody who’s on the relevant standards committee?