A happy Silk Road customer enjoys his new package.
Programmer Glen Chiacchieri has released a curious new app with an interesting goal: to humanize numbers.
Randall Monroe explained why he took a shine to the project:
I don’t like large numbers without context. Phrases like “they called for a $21 billion budget cut” or “the probe will travel 60 billion miles” or “a 150,000-ton ship ran aground” don’t mean very much to me on their own. Is that a large ship? Does 60 billion miles take you outside the Solar System? How much is $21 billion compared to the overall budget? (That last question is why I made my money chart.)
The solution: build a Chrome extension that converts raw numbers into something a human can understand.
- A 300,000 acre forest fire is about the size of Hong Kong.
- A $21 billion budget cut to NASA is about the net worth of Larry Page or Sergey Brin of Google. It’s also the size of the American video game industry.
- 3,000 people killed is about the population of the Falkland Islands.
It’s a really interesting tool that might be worth giving a try. I’m going to give it a grace period to get used to it and see what use I really get out of it. So far, I’ve been loving the search feature. Being able to easily obtain context like that is very useful.
The other two features – entering numbers directly onto websites and giving suggestions during writing — both feel seriously obtrusive.
The extension can even be surprisingly funny, like when it seems to be making an oblique suggestion for how to solve a problem—e.g. “The telescope has been criticized for its budget of [≈ Mitt Romney assets in 2011].” It can also come across as unexpectedly judgmental. Glen told me about complaint he got from a user: “I installed your extension and then forgot about it … until I logged into my bank account. Apparently my total balance is equal to the cost of a low-end bicycle. Thanks.”
You can grab the extension here.
I’m happy to see people still reading this site.
Many of you came to the site to read articles about the deep web and strange happenings on the internet. You may be wondering why those articles stopped coming and what to make of these recent video game reviews.
Weirder Web will continue to produce content about the deep web and all the subject matters that made it popular in the first place. You’ll begin to see most of that type of material return next week. In addition to that, I’ll dabble in the gaming world. Recent posts (What to play today) have been recommending good games. I’ll also be interviewing indie developers.
On top of all of that, I’m hoping to include more and more strange stuff from around the web. The hope is that the content can be diverse. WW will be establishing a regular interview series and I hope you give it a chance. You’ll catch that next week as well.
That’s all coming up very soon. How long will it last? That’s for the big guy upstairs to know. Right now, though, I’m having fun posting about fun video games. I hope you can enjoy a few!
If you have any suggestions or questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me in private.
Thanks for sticking around. Talk to you all soon.
Black Market Reloaded, the most visible competitor to Silk Road in the world of Tor marketplaces, grew to almost $400,000 in sales this month according to statistics released by founder backopy. This follows last month’s high of 16,000 new registrations, a number that fell slightly this month. There are 6,889 items publicly available on BMR at this moment, compared to 5,514 last month.
To compare, Silk Road has 11,635 items publicly on sale right now. A month ago, that number was only 3,391. The amount of money changing hands each month on Silk Road is considerably higher than on BMR but Dread Pirate Roberts releases no statistics and has actively fought attempts to extract data from the site.
In 1986, Cliff Stoll noticed a $0.75 accounting error on the computers he managed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Another manager might have shrugged off the three quarters and even paid the bill with his own spare change. For Cliff, the $0.75 error — that was nine seconds of computer time — was the beginning of a trail that slowly led to a faceless hacker breaking into Cliff’s systems and, from there, breaking into computer systems around the United States.
Cuckoo’s Egg tells the story of Cliff Stoll’s strange and accidental turn to counterespionage. First suspecting a smart ass local high school kid or a prankster university student, the gravity of the situation slowly dawned on Cliff as the hacker continued his break-ins on a daily basis with the kid of drive, discipline and stamina that no student hacking on a whim would possess.
The FBI, CIA, NSA and Air Force all initially passed the buck when Cliff called alerting them to the hacker, unsure of jurisdiction, whether the crime was even worth pursing or how to even speak to one another.
“These were the facts of life in dealing with a bureaucracy: everyone wanted to know what we discovered, but nobody would take responsibility.”
This made Cliff, a liberal academic (described as “an ex-hippie, long hair, rumpled clothes, jeans, bicycles, sleeping under his desk”) at the famously leftist Berkeley, something very close to an intelligence agent — a spook, a spy — himself.
Much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Martha, Cliff spent weeks and then months sleeping in his lab, tracking the movements of the mysterious hacker. In the beginning, he wondered if the man on the other end was perhaps just another leftist from Berkeley with sympathetic goals. Martha expressed trepidation about his cooperating with so many black suit-wearing cops and state authority figures. Soon, however, it became clear that the hacker was not from Berkeley and was much less than sympathetic.
In an interview with C-Span, Stoll explained:
And what he was doing when he got into my computer was not reading my astronomy texts. He wasn’t reading about the structure of the galaxy and Orion. He wasn’t reading scientific things he was using my computer in Berkeley to search out over the computer networks to go into military computers. One after another after another. He’d break into military computers in Alabama and California in the Pentagon in Okinawa. He’d systemically reach out over the milnet — the computer network connecting military computers together — and into universities as well and try to break into them. When he’s succeed an break into a military computer he’d search. I would watch him. I watch him search for words like SDI like NORAD … systematically trying to get information about nuclear preparedness. And I’d watch him get information from a Pentagon computer about chemical and biological warfare plans for Central Europe.
Cuckoo’s Egg is more than just a supremely gripping tech thriller. It was one of the very first nonfiction tech thrillers. Published in 1989, there were worries that only 600 people in the world would ever care to read a book about a hacker breaking into various computer systems around the country, even if those systems were of importance to national security. There was little to no conception that computer security would become a topic of great interest for millions of people or that the book — even with the surprisingly lucid descriptions of Unix operating systems, international telecommunications systems and the occasional legalese — was transparently great. No one could fathom that Cuckoo’s Egg would help to inspire a new genre.
The New York Time’s 1989 review talks about some of the main characters in the book:
The central figures in ”The Cuckoo’s Egg” are the computer networks (like Internet, Tymnet and the Defense Data Network) themselves, data highways that carry millions of messages each day among computers all over the world – ”like a post office running at the speed of light.” Mr. Stoll and his fellow wizards see each network as ”a brain with neurons extending around the world.” These networks are programmed to adapt to changes in traffic volume and to failures in any of the thousands of on-line computers. On their own, the networks are able to create new communications paths and respond to requests for special services. As computers become smaller, faster and cheaper, networks are becoming pervasive – and merging, eventually to form a single global supernetwork. Networks can carry pictures, documents, software and a variety of other information. They can deliver messages almost instantaneously, so they lend themselves to conversations among almost any number of participants, conversations that can go on for weeks or even months. And networks can also be the theater of a worldwide information war.
In the fields of technology, hacking, law enforcement and even military history, Cuckoo’s Egg is an important read for anyone hoping to fully grasp the fundamentals of the war for information that has only greatly expanded into today.
The New York Times and insightful readers in 1989 saw Cuckoo’s Egg as a unique look at already-important communities and technology “that will play a major role in our future.” Now, as data transferred in bits and bytes continues to increase in importance, the book is still a prescient look forward as well as an invaluable look back. This is a classic worth reading today.
Check out Cuckoo’s Egg on Amazon.
Vice’s Motherboard blog recently pushed out a great documentary called Internet Scamming in West Africa about “a thriving underground economy” of fraud known as Sakawa in the west African nation of Ghana. It’s not just old fashioned fraud — it’s an entire subculture meshing old Africa with 21st century technology.
An old Vice article lays out the hook:
Taking a page from cyberpunk, traditional West African Juju priests adapted their services to the needs of the information age and started leading down-on-their-luck internet scammers through strange and costly rituals designed to increase their powers of persuasion and make their emails irresistible to greedy Americans. And so “Sakawa” was born.
It’s a strange and fascinating story. Young Ghanaians who are unable to find legal work turn to the net and suddenly have cash. It’s a game where “the scammer is both the victim and villain.”
This is well worth watching:
Fishing involves throwing a baited hook into the ocean and waiting for any delicious fish that happens by to be caught in the trap. It’s dinner for me whether it’s a tuna or salmon.
Phishing is much the same. When the attacks become targeted against specific people, it transcends phishing. It becomes espionage.
Bruce Schneier examined the evolution of cyber-espionage (what he calls “very good phishing”) in a post that ought to carry this title: “Amateurs attack machines; professionals target people.” He goes over targeted Chinese attacks on Coca Cola as well as American officials and comes away with this:
This is the problem. Against a sufficiently skilled, funded, and motivated adversary, no network is secure. Period. Attack is much easier than defense, and the reason we’ve been doing so well for so long is that most attackers are content to attack the most insecure networks and leave the rest alone.
It’s a matter of motive. To a criminal, all files of credit card numbers are equally good, so your security depends in part on how much better or worse you are than those around you. If the attacker wants you specifically — as in the examples above — relative security is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not your security is better than the attackers’ skill. And so often it’s not.
I am reminded of this great quote from former NSA Information Assurance Director Brian Snow: “Your cyber systems continue to function and serve you not due to the expertise of your security staff but solely due to the sufferance of your opponents.”
Read Schneier’s whole post here.
So far, 2013 has brought with it an avalanche of major hacking headlines. Most prominent are the accusations leveled at the Chinese government for allegedly breaking into the computer systems of Coca Cola, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other large American firms. Of course, the phenomenon extends to other countries. Mandiant, an American computer security firm, just released a 60-page study on what it says is one of the Chinese Army’s greatest hacking units: P.L.A. Unit 61398. This prompted China to note that they suffer attacks from the United States on a regular basis.
Ah, there once was a simpler time. Take, for example, Kevin Mitnick.
Mitnick is a famous ex-hacker who gained unauthorized access to dozens of networks in the 1990s, a time before cyberwar was in the daily headlines of every newspaper. Mitnick’s 2011 book, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker, details his digital exploits.
Ghost is an interesting and easily readable book that went on to become a best seller on release. The meat of the text focuses primarily on the human drama and less on the ones and zeroes of hacking multinational corporations. Social engineering – i.e., the art of manipulating people into divulging information or performing actions — was Mitnick’s chief talent. It opened at least as many doors as his vast knowledge of computer and phone systems did. Readers gain front row seats to dozens of impressive acts of infiltration in which Kevin’s two most powerful weapons are background research and a way with words. With a bit of confidence, he repeatedly tricks targeted employees into sacrificing their own security and handing over whatever information he desires.
Here’s the catch. There was no nascent superpower sponsoring Kevin Mitnick’s actions. There was no criminal cartel behind his work and he was not building a mountain of individual wealth. Hacking was a challenge for Mitnick above all else. Incredibly, he didn’t become the focus of FBI manhunts by making any money despite hacking into billions of dollars worth of trade secrets. His childhood love of magic tricks had grown into an adult love of hacking for many of the same reasons. For him, the thrill of an intellectual battle won was enough.