Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The crime of the 21st century

They said it was the perfect crime, except it wasn't. The gang would have gotten away with it were it not for greed, criminal stupidity, and the frigid obstinacy of a Boston winter.

The Great Brink's Robbery occurred on this date in 1950. The heist took two years to plan and was at the time the largest bank robbery in United States history, pulling in $2.775 million USD ($28.2 million USD today.) The robbers, who wore uniforms similar to those of Brink's employees and Halloween masks, left but three clues, none of which was helpful in their capture. (DNA evidence was not used in forensics until 1986, otherwise the chauffeur's cap left behind by one of the robbers may have given him up sooner.)

Brink's attempted some prehistoric crowdsourcing in seeking information about the crime, offering $100,000 USD for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. No internet was needed to receive hundreds of dead ends and conspiracy theories, as any kook with a phone seemed to have a "tip." Police rounded up the usual suspects around Beantown, but it was a long list of hoodlums and hooligans.

Since the robbery had occurred in the dead of winter, the Boston ground was thoroughly frozen. Despite the careful planning of the thieves, it seems they had not considered winter's wrath, as they surely would have buried the cut up pieces of the getaway truck had the ground been receptive to a shovel. Instead, bags of the cut up truck meant for interment were discovered by police two months after the heist. Having learned through interviews that witnesses had seen a green truck outside the bank that day, the discovery of parts of a truck matching that description proved to be a break in the case. Two of the suspects lived in the neighborhood where the parts were discovered, bringing closer scrutiny upon them.

But it would be years before any arrests could be made; in fact, the gang were arrested a mere five days before the statute of limitations ran out, five days shy of the six year mark that would have put them in the clear forever.

In the meantime, two of the gang members went to prison for another burglary. Another went to prison for tax evasion. One had to fight deportation. A fifth spent time in prison for parole violations. One died. The robbers had agreed not to touch the money until the statute of limitations had expired, but all of this legal trouble left some of them in need of the loot before then. One kidnapped another for ransom, then was shot and wounded by a hitman. In the end, he was the one who confessed, imagining his associates living life in luxury while he spent his remaining years in prison for another crime. The gang ended up getting eight to ten years in prison, and half of the money was never recovered.

Over the years, many bigger bank heists made the nearly $3 million from Brink's seem like small potatoes. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the robbery of the Banco Central in Fortaleza, Brazil as the largest physical bank heist in history. They made off with about $160 million USD. Some of the thieves have been arrested; most have not. Some ended up dead. Only $20 million USD have been recovered to date.

These days, you need not suffer the physical labor of robbing a bank or risk getting backstabbed, kidnapped, or murdered by your co-conspirators.  Now you can rob away from the comfort of your living room all alone. All you need is a decent internet connection, some hacking skills, and a secure place to change the money into something usable and untraceable.

The first online bank robbery happened in 1994, when much of the world had never heard of the internet, the FBI had no cybercrime team, and Nigerian princes had yet to ask you to help them save their funds. A group of criminals on mulitiple continents, led by a Russian programmer named Vladimir Levin, hacked into Citibank and began to steal money, adding up to more than $10 million USD. (The more things change, the more they stay the same?) He was eventually convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, with all but $400,000 USD recovered.

Today, a major target for virtual bank robbers is Swift, the international monetary transfer system. Perhaps the largest of these robberies involved the Bangladesh Bank, when hackers made off with more than $80 million USD. It is thought that at least ten similar, albeit smaller attacks, have hit Swift.

Card cloning is another new development in the world of bank robbery. One group took $45 million USD from ATMs in a matter of hours. Hackers can get your card information when you use it online.

Phishing and malware are a favorite tool of the nouveau bank robber. You can protect yourself by reciting this mantra: if it's spamming that you think, don't you dare click that link. Or just follow this advice:

Global financial institutions suffer tens of thousands of cyberattacks every minute. Hackers would love to get their hands on your financial information - account numbers, your address, the routing number that would allow them to transfer your funds into an account of their choosing... Yet too many of the world's banks don't realize the extent of their cybersecurity problems. One macrocosmic solution to the problem is to introduce regulatory legislation that requires financial institutions to take greater cybersecurity precautions. At the very least, you can ask your bank to do so.

Of course, physical bank robberies still happen. In 2016 in the United States alone, more than 4,000 bank robberies took place. But there's a new twist on the physical robbery - thieves are posing as IT support and installing devices to siphon off cash electronically. What's more, criminals can use DDoS attacks to take CCTV offline long enough for them to pull off a traditional mask-on, hands-up bank robbery. Technology can make our lives easier, even for those of us with criminal proclivities.

One aside: several films were made about the Great Brink's Heist, including 1978's The Brink's Job. In August of that year, 15 unedited reels of the film were stolen at gunpoint by robbers demanding a $1 million USD ransom. The joke was on them, however, as positive prints of the negatives existed elsewhere, and nothing was lost, proving, once again, that crime doesn't pay in the end.

All is not lost. Take steps to protect yourself from virtual bank robbers using VPN encryption. Get it here:

Monday, 15 January 2018

Let's talk about surveillance on Martin Luther King Day

Last November, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation released some previously classified files related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The contents of the files were largely unsurprising and already known. A 20-page document on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. included in the files painted a picture of the famed civil rights activist and Nobel Prize recipient as something straight out of a book on paranoia.

The FBI did its best to tag King as a communist, as it did to everyone who didn't toe the white, flag-waving, military industrialist line of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and ilk. It's no secret that the FBI under Hoover was obsessed with communism, nor is it a secret that Hoover loathed King and surveilled him extensively. It all began when the FBI was informed about Dr. King's connection to Stanley Levison, once a financier of the Communist Party USA. (Full background here.)

The most outlandish thing about the FBI's attempts to discredit King by labeling him a communist may be that they knew he was not a communist. They knew he wanted to distance himself from communism. They knew, because they had unwarranted wiretaps of him saying he wanted to distance himself from communism. They also knew Stanley Levison had severed ties with the Communist Party USA because they had tapped his phone, too. The FBI used wiretaps, bugs, and informants because the United States government was afraid of peaceful activism for civil liberties that would disrupt existing power structures.

Now, King was just one of many people the FBI wiretapped; it was common for people of color to be surveilled in America throughout its history. It is still common today, as we learned from Edward Snowden and continue to discover. The US Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the civil rights activist group Black Lives Matter since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. (The DHS even monitored a walk to end breast cancer; it seems no cause is out of reach of the profane arms of government surveillance.) Unlike in King's time, US law enforcement can now legally wiretap without a court order under the expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which is used to spy on American citizens.

Dr. King lived in pre-internet times, before cameras were on every corner and facial recognition software made it impossible to walk down a street unknown. Wiretaps and mini spy cameras that seem quaint in a day when we all carry a camera in our pockets were the available technology of his day. Imagine if he had lived in our time, when governments, corporations, and cybercriminals work hard to monitor our internet activity and steal our data. Imagine law enforcement trying to crack the encryption on his phone while he sat in a Birmingham jail. Imagine the government requests to Google and Facebook for access to his accounts. Imagine DHS using location and social media tracking to map the Selma march as they did for a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC. Imagine those things, as they would have happened to King were he active today, because they happen to others now.

The excuses vary from country to time period. National security is usually the reason given by the Americans, but some form of that excuse is used across the globe. In our current time and too often, governments use "terrorism" as the excuse to monitor their citizens, when in reality all they want is power and control. From Hoover to Trump to Sisi to African dictators to the mullahs of Iran, no country is immune to such fearmongering. Telecoms corporations are frequently all too complicit in this government surveillance as well. It's a match made in that hot place that preachers talk about. The word paranoia comes from the Greek παράνοια (paranoia), "madness", and that from παρά (para), "beside, by" and νόος (noos), "mind". Suffice it to say that is the true motivation for much if not most surveillance. Most people just want to live their private lives in peace.

We all have a dream to end the overzealous, Orwellian surveillance of the paranoid state. But like King's dream of a colorblind world, our dream, too, is far from reality. That's why we have created encryption tools to avoid surveillance. Privacy is a human right.

Protect yourself from the watchful eyes of Big Brother with our VPN, messenger, and file transfer app. Get them here:

Monday, 8 January 2018

"They ate dust."

Today marks the 116th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress (ANC) under the original name South African Native National Congress. Like any aspect of life, the history of the ANC is full of contradictions, with noble goals and atrocious antics and hope and despair and good and evil all wrapped into one black, green, and gold flag.

The party was founded to defend the rights of black South Africans and until the 1960s practiced non-violent resistance. Dark days tormented the divided country when the ANC turned to violence, which lasted three decades and saw some of the worst atrocities human beings can commit. The South African military responded with equal brutality, none worse than the Sharpeville Massacre that resulted in 69 deaths and 180 injured, according to official statistics. The apartheid government banned the ANC and designated it as a terrorist organization with some Western countries following suit. As in so many other places in the world, South Africa became a proxy battlefield for the Cold War, where the ANC was supported and funded by the USSR and the apartheid government was backed by Western powers until the fall of the Soviet Union made it impossible for the West to justify backing the racist regime any longer.

As expected, the ANC won the 1994 elections in a landslide. But governing and wanting the opportunity to govern are different animals. Fighting for rights is a noble goal, fueled by passion, the pursuit of justice, and a desire to change the world. Governing, however is an exercise in the mundane and is filled with the temptations that power brings. Let's face it. Governing can be BORING. One can be mired in the swamp of legalese and procedure, drowning in the problems of the people, such that one may intend to do something just so something - anything - is done. That often results in bad or unnecessary policy. Take internet policy, for example.

It's no secret that South Africa wants to play a leading role in shaping telecommunications policy and regulation in Africa, having supported the Constitution and Convention of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) and the Final Acts of the Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Across the continent, citizens are feeling the crushing blows that regimes are dealing to their digital rights, with 30 of 54 African countries violating internet freedom in 2016. The ANC, not content to let all the other regimes have all the fun, proposed its own inimical internet policy in 2015 then known as the Draft Online Regulation Policy of the Film and Publications Board and becoming the Film and Publications Amendment Bill [B 37-2015]. The draft bill was widely condemned by internet freedom experts in South Africa and across the globe, but the ANC-led government pushed forward anyway. The bill was amended in November 2017 and sits before committee in 2018. We shall see what happens.

The Films and Publications law was originally passed after the fall of the apartheid regime with the intent to prevent the spread of propaganda in films and publications that advocated hatred and violence based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. When trying to rebuild a state after decades of such violence, sometimes censorship is necessary for stability. But it was never meant to be expanded to cover the day-to-day communications of South African citizens. Of course, no one could have anticipated the way we use the internet today. This bill would give the government sweeping powers to control content on the internet, where every person has the ability to publish his thoughts and ideas or lack thereof. All it takes is one corrupt, power-hungry official to use the law to curb opposition speech. Like this blog post, for example.

Former state security minister David Malobo (and current energy minister after a round of musical chairs) justified online content regulation by citing "fake news" and scams as evidence of a need for tighter control of the internet. His replacement, Bonjani Bongo, is busy bribing officials and hasn't said much about it. But corruption in the ANC is nothing new. In fact, the ANC became so corrupt and incompetent that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, sometimes described as the conscience of South Africa, wrote in 2013 that he would not vote for it, that it was "worse than the apartheid government." Tutu has been a vocal critic of the ANC for a while - in 2009 he condemned the greed and corruption that pervaded it, and in 2011, after the ANC-led government failed to give the Dalai Lama a visa, he said, "We will pray as we prayed for the downfall of apartheid government, we will pray for downfall of a government that represents us."

A fish rots from the head down, and that fish started to rot years ago. That a bill continued to progress through the legislative system despite the public's disapproval leaves only the question, Cui bono? It certainly isn't the people.

The ANC was good once. Ousting President Jacob Zuma as leader was a good start to reforming the party. Listening to the people would be another big step in the right direction. Putting human rights - the purpose of the party's founding - at the forefront of legislation is another big step. Adapting to the changing times is the only way to survive, and internet freedom has to be a part of that. A generation of digital natives has come of age and are ready to govern. But they need to have the freedom to do so.

"The Nationalists had a huge majority. They ate dust," Tutu once said while shaking his finger. Let that be a lesson from which we all can learn.

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Moral Order

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, United States President, 6 January, 1941

Norman Rockwell's depiction of the four freedoms
Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech in his annual address to the U.S. Congress prior to American entry into World War II. The war had already raged on in Europe for sixteen months; F.D.R wanted to justify the provision of military aid to American allies and to convince citizens who favored isolationism to support the war efforts. Roosevelt sought to garner this support by reminding the American people that their very existence was threatened by foreign aggression and that the values on which the country was founded were in peril. But the speech was not the first time the president had discussed the freedoms.

In July 1940, six months before the address, Roosevelt called reporters into his home to announce his new presidential library. It was an election year; there was speculation that he would run for an unprecedented third term, but other indicators pointed to his retirement. Discussions turned to the war in Europe and raised anxiety in the room.

"You might say there are certain freedoms," Roosevelt told the reporters. “The first I would call ‘freedom of information,’ which is terribly important. It is a much better phrase than ‘freedom of the press,’ because there are all kinds of information so that the inhabitants of a country can get news of what is going on in every part of the country and in every part of the world without censorship and through many forms of communication.”

He went on to talk about the second freedom - freedom of religion - before saying, "Then, a third freedom is the freedom to express one's self as long as you don't advocate the overthrow of Government. That is a different thing. In other words, the kind of expression that we certainly have in this country, and that they have in most democracies. That, I think, is an essential of peace-I mean permanent peace."

The fourth freedom mentioned in that press conference was freedom from fear. A reporter then asked him about what would be the third freedom in his address to Congress. The president responded, "I had that in mind but forgot it. Freedom from want—in other words, the removal of certain barriers between nations, cultural in the first place and commercial in the second place. That is the fifth, very definitely."

He eventually did run for a third term and won, paving the way for his famous address to Congress. His initial "freedom of information" was subsumed in the address as "freedom of speech and expression," an understanding which is as common today as it was then. In Roosevelt's time, the term "freedom of information" was relatively new, though the concept was not. It seemed the term was a buzzword that was making its way around policy circles. Indeed, when the new term "freedom of information" was en vogue in the United Nations, it covered "freedom of expression," but the approach has been inverted so that "freedom of expression" includes "freedom of information," just as Roosevelt had done in 1941.

Now, America was as complicated a place then as it is today, and some of what ended up in Roosevelt's address to Congress had political implications that ran along ideological lines. But his fundamental points were universal - and universally opposed by tyrants and tycoons alike.  

Tyrants across the planet continue to oppose such freedoms. As there was no free press in Nazi Germany and no truth in the press that was still operating there (even the Associated Press was duped into posting Nazi propaganda in a secret deal over photographs), the poster child for modern dictatorship would certainly have censored the internet like they now do in oppressive countries around the world. He would have loved the ease at which he and his fellow petty demons could post fake news and propaganda as today's tyrants do. He may have taken to Twitter to post outrageous statements and start diplomatic rows. Whatever he would have done in the internet age, without a doubt it would have violated basic human rights. Freedom of speech, expression, and information have no place in countries where human dignity is not valued.

F.D.R. concluded the remarks with "The question really comes down to whether we are going to continue to seek those freedoms or whether we are going to give up." 

It's the people who can change things. We see brave Iranians who are fed up with being denied those four freedoms taking to the streets to express their disapproval despite the dangerous consequences. We see journalists, bloggers, and activists being arrested seemingly daily for their expressions online. We see advocate organizations like EFF, Access Now, CIPESA, Bolo Bhi, and SMEX pushing the ideals that we consider basic human rights.

They haven't given up. We're not giving up. Are you with us? 


Take back your freedom. Get encryption here and get a better kind of free speech.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

This Day in History - January 3

In this month named for Janus, the two faced Roman god who looked to the past and the future at the same time, so, too, do we look to the past and the future. Three rather meaningful events that relate to our work happened on this day.

🎂 1749 - Denmark's oldest continually operating newspaper, Berlingske, published its first issue.

Millennials probably don't remember when newspapers were a thing, but they were. Kind of fun to imagine what the founders of Berlingske would think if they saw their paper online today. They surely wouldn't be happy that journalists are too often targets for opponents of the pursuit of truth.

The first Apple computer with a homemade case.
🍎 1977 - Apple Computer, Inc. incorporated.

In the pre-pretty days of computers.

💰 2009 - Satoshi Nakamoto established the first block of Bitcoin.

Who Nakamoto really is remains a mystery. When the Bitcoin bubble will burst is also a mystery.

Do you think you could buy a subscription to Berlingske using Bitcoin on an Apple I? LOL. Well, no, those ancient computers didn't have enough RAM to run a dial-up modem. They only had 4 KB of memory.

As for the future, encryption is part of it. Presently, you can get it here.