Scentrics, "Key Man" and mobile security, oh my

From a story in the Daily Mail today I found this October article in the Evening Standard about security firm Scentrics which has been working with UCL

In technical parlance, Scentrics has patented the IP for “a standards-based, fully automatic, cryptographic key management and distribution protocol for UMTS and TCP/IP”. What that translates as in layman’s language is “one-click privacy”, the pressing of a button to guarantee absolute security.
Where issues of national security are concerned, the ciphers used are all government-approved, which means messages can be accessed if they need to be by the security services. What it also signals in reality is a fortune for Scentrics and its wealthy individual shareholders, who each put in £500,000 to £10 million.
Hmm. That's a fairly vague description - the "government-approved" language makes it look like key escrow, but it's not clear. I was curious about the details, but there didn't seem to be any linked from the stories. Chandrasekaran was also touting this in the Independent in October, and it's not clear why the Mail ran with the story now.

I tried googling around for any previous news from Scentrics. Nada. So I tried "Paran Chandrasekaran" and found him back in 2000 talking about maybe netting £450M from the prospective sale of his company Indicii Salus. I couldn't find any announcements about the sale happening, but it looks like email security firm Comodo acquired the IP from Indicii Salus in March 2006. According to Comodo's press release

The core technology acquired under this acquisition includes Indicii Salus Limited's flagship security solution which, unlike other PKI offerings, is based on server-centric architecture with all information held securely in a central location thus providing a central platform necessary to host and administer central key management solutions.
That's a single-point-of-failure design of course - when your central server is down, you are screwed, and all clients need to be able to authenticate your central server so they all need its current public key or similar signature validation. It's not really world-setting-on-fire, but hey it's 8 years ago.

Then LexisWeb turns up an interesting court case: Indicii Salus Ltd v Chandrasekaran and others with summary "Claimant [Indicii Salus] alleging defendants [Chandrasekaran and others] intending to improperly use its software - Search order being executed against defendants - Defendants applying to discharge order - Action being disposed of by undertakings not to improperly use software"

Where the claimant had brought proceedings against the defendants, alleging that they intended to improperly use its software in a new business, the defendants' application to discharge a search order, permitting a search of the matrimonial home of the first and second defendants, would be dismissed.
The case appears to be fairly widely quoted in discussions of search+seizure litigation. I wonder whether Paran Chandrasekaran was one of the defendants here, or whether they were other family members? There's no indications of what happened subsequently.

How odd. Anyway, here's a sample of the Scentrics patent (USPTO Patent Application 20140082348):

The invention extends to a mobile device configured to:
send to a messaging server, or receive from a messaging server, an electronic message which is encrypted with a messaging key;
encrypt a copy of the message with a monitoring key different from the messaging key; and
send the encrypted copy to a monitoring server remote from the messaging server.
Thus it will be seen by those skilled in the art that, in accordance with the invention, an encrypted copy of a message sent securely from the mobile device, or received securely by it, is generated by the device itself, and is sent to a monitoring server, where it can be decrypted by an authorized third party who has access to a decryption key associated with the monitoring key. In this way, an authorized third party can, when needed, monitor a message without the operator of the messaging server being required to participate in the monitoring process.
Because both the message and its copy are encrypted when in transit to or from the mobile device, unauthorized eavesdropping by malicious parties is still prevented.
This reads to me like "given a message and a target, you encrypt it with a public key whose private key is held by your target and send it to the target as normal, but you also encrypt it with a separate key known to a potential authorized snooper and send it to their server so that they can access if they want to."

WTF? That's really not a world-beating million-dollar idea. Really, really it's not. Am I reading the wrong patent here? Speaking personally, I wouldn't invest in this idea with five quid I found on the street.


The 2038 problem

I was inspired - perhaps that's not quite the right word - by this article on the Year 2038 bug in the Daily Mail:

Will computers be wiped out on 19 January 2038? Outdated PC systems will not be able to cope with time and date, experts warn Psy's Gangnam Style was recently viewed so many times on YouTube that the site had to upgrade the way figures are shown on the site.
  1. The site 'broke' because it runs on a 32-bit system, which uses four-bytes
  2. These systems can only handle a finite number of binary digits
  3. A four-byte format assumes time began on 1 January, 1970, at 12:00:00
  4. At 03:14:07 UTC on Tuesday, 19 January 2038, the maximum number of seconds that a 32-bit system can handle will have passed since this date
  5. This will cause computers to run negative numbers, and dates [sic]
  6. Anomaly could cause software to crash and computers to be wiped out
I've numbered the points for ease of reference. Let's explain to author Victoria Woollaston (Deputy Science and Technology editor) where she went wrong. The starting axiom is that you can represent 4,294,967,296 distinct numbers with 32 binary digits of information.

1. YouTube didn't (as far as I can see) "break".

Here's the original YouTube post on the event on Dec 1st:

We never thought a video would be watched in numbers greater than a 32-bit integer (=2,147,483,647 views), but that was before we met PSY. "Gangnam Style" has been viewed so many times we had to upgrade to a 64-bit integer (9,223,372,036,854,775,808)!
When they say "integer" they mean it in the correct mathematical sense: a whole number which may be negative, 0 or positive. Although 32 bits can represent 4bn+ numbers as noted above, if you need to represent negative numbers as well as positive then you need to reserve one of those bits to represent that information (all readers about to comment about two's complement representation can save themselves the effort, the difference isn't material.) That leaves you just over 2bn positive and 2bn negative numbers. It's a little bit surprising that they chose to use integers rather than unsigned (natural) numbers as negative view counts don't make sense but hey, whatever.
Presumably they saw Gangnam Style reach 2 billion views and decided to pre-emptively upgrade their views field from signed 32 bit to signed 64 bit. This is likely not a trivial change - if you're using a regular database, you'd do it via a schema change that requires reprocessing the entire database, and I'd guess that YouTube's database is quite big but it seemed to be in place by the time we hit the signed 32 bit integer limit.

2. All systems can only handle a finite number of binary digits.

For fuck's sake. We don't have infinite storage anywhere in the world. The problem is that the finite number of binary digits (32) in 4-byte representation is too small. 8 byte representation has twice the number of binary digits (64, which is still finite) and so can represent many more numbers.

3. The number of bytes has no relationship to the information it represents.

Unix computers (Linux, BSD, OS X etc.) represent time as seconds since the epoch. The epoch is defined as 00:00:00 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC - for most purposes, the same as GMT), Thursday, 1 January 1970. The Unix standard was to count those seconds in a 32 bit signed integer. Now it's clear that 03:14:08 UTC on 19 January 2038 will see that number of seconds exceed what can be stored in a 32 bit signed integer, and the counter will wrap around to a negative number. What happens then is anyone's guess and very application dependent, but it's probably not good.
There is a move towards 64-bit computing in the Unix world, which will include migration of these time representations to 64 bit. Because this move is happening now, we have 23 years to complete it before we reach our Armageddon date. I don't expect there to be many 32 bit systems left operating by then - their memory will be rotted, their disk drives stuck. Only emulated systems will be still working, and everyone knows about the 2038 problem.

4. Basically correct, if grammatically poor

5. Who taught you English, headline writer?

As noted above, what will actually happen on the date in question is heavily dependent on how each program using the information behaves. The most likely result is a crash of some form, but you might see corruption of data before that happens. It won't be good. Luckily it's easy to test programs by just advancing the clock forwards and seeing what happens when the time ticks over. Don't try this on a live system, however.

6. Software crash, sure. Computer being "wiped out"? Unlikely

I can see certain circumstances where a negative date could cause a hard drive to be wiped, but I'd expect it to be more common for hard drives to be filled up - if a janitor process is cleaning up old files, it'll look for files with modification time below a certain value (say, all files older than 5 minutes ago). Files created before the positive-to-negative date point won't be cleaned up by janitors running after that point. So we leave those stale files lying around, but files created after that will still be eligible for clean-up - they have a negative time which is less than the janitor's negative measurement point.

I'm sure there will be date-related breakage as we approach 2038 - if a bank system managers 10 year bonds, then we will see breakage as their expiry time goes past january 2038, so the bank will see breakage in 2028. But hey, companies are already selling 50 year bonds so bank systems have had to deal with this problem already.

Thank goodness that I can rely on the Daily Mail journalists' expertise in all the articles that I don't actually know anything about.



Whoda thunk? An actual piece of journalism on the University of Virginia "frat house gang rape" story

It seems as if the wheels are coming off Sabrina Rubin Erdely's story in Rolling Stone of gang rape on the University of Virginia's campus.

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her [my italics] was misplaced. [...] We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
That's certainly a novel way of writing "our unquestioning acceptance of her decidedly dodgy tale" and "had their reputations dragged through the dirt in the national media".

My favourite wonk, Megan McArdle, has a must-read piece on how this happened and how the crazy rush to publish a decidedly dodgy and unverified story has been one of the worst things to happen to real campus rape victims in a long time:

So now the next time a rape victim tells her story to a journalist, they will both be trying to reach an audience that remembers the problems with this article, and the Duke lacrosse case, and wonders if any of these stories are ever true. That inference will be grotesquely false, but it is the predictable result of accepting sensational stories without carefully checking. The greatest damage this article has done is not to journalism, or even to Rolling Stone. It is to the righteous fight for rape victims everywhere.
Go read the whole thing, and despair at the media environment that splashed Erdely's story over the national news but will fail to discuss the points in McArdle's article in anything but the most oblique terms.