TCP/IP over LoRa radios

As I wrote yesterday, I have been experimenting with LoRa radios. Today, I got TCP/IP working over them!

The AX.25 protocol did indeed turn out to be well-suited to this. It’s simple and works. The performance is, predictably, terrible; ping times around 500-600ms, but it does work. I fired up ssh, ran emacs, did a bit with bash, and — yep! Very cool. I tried mosh as well, thinking it would be great for this, but for some reason it just flooded the link with endless packets and was actually rather terrible.

I wrote up how to use it. It’s not even all that hard!

Pretty satisfying seeing this work.

Long-Range Radios: A Perfect Match for Unix Protocols From The 70s

It seems I’ve been on a bit of a vintage computing kick lately. After connecting an original DEC vt420 to Linux and resurrecting some old operating systems, I dove into UUCP.

In fact, it so happened that earlier in the week, my used copy of Managing UUCP & Usenet by none other than Tim O’Reilly arrived. I was reading about the challenges of networking in the 70s: half-duplex lines, slow transmission rates, and modems that had separate dialers. And then I stumbled upon long-distance radio. It turns out that a lot of modern long-distance radio has much in common with the challenges of communication in the 1970s – 1990s, and some of our old protocols might be particularly well-suited for it. Let me explain — I’ll start with the old software, and then talk about the really cool stuff going on in hardware (some radios that can send a signal for 10-20km or more with very little power!), and finally discuss how to bring it all together.

UUCP

UUCP, for those of you that may literally have been born after it faded in popularity, is a batch system for exchanging files and doing remote execution. For users, the uucp command copies files to or from a remote system, and uux executes commands on a remote system. In practical terms, the most popular use of this was to use uux to execute rmail on the remote system, which would receive an email message on stdin and inject it into the system’s mail queue. All UUCP commands are queued up and transmitted when a “call” occurs — over a modem, TCP, ssh pipe, whatever.

UUCP had to deal with all sorts of line conditions: very slow lines (300bps), half-duplex lines, noisy and error-prone communication, poor or nonexistent flow control, even 7-bit communication. It supports a number of different transport protocols that can accommodate these varying conditions. It turns out that these mesh fairly perfectly with some properties of modern long-distance radio.

AX.25

The AX.25 stack is a frame-based protocol used by amateur radio folks. Its air speed is 300bps, 1200bps, or (rarely) 9600bps. The Linux kernel has support for the AX.25 protocol and it is quite possible to run TCP/IP atop it. I have personally used AX.25 to telnet to a Linux box 15 miles away over a 1200bps air speed, and have also connected all the way from Kansas to Texas and Indiana using 300bps AX.25 using atmospheric skip. AX.25 has “connected” packets (as TCP) and unconnected/broadcast ones (similar to UDP) and is a error-detected protocol with retransmit. The radios generally used with AX.25 are always half-duplex and some of them have iffy carrier detection (which means collision is frequent). Although the whole AX.25 stack has grown rare in recent years, a subset of it is still in wide use as the basis for APRS.

A lot of this is achieved using equipment that’s not particularly portable: antennas on poles, radios that transmit with anywhere from 1W to 100W of power (even 1W is far more than small portable devices normally use), etc. Also, under the regulations of the amateur radio service, transmitters must be managed by a licensed operator and cannot be encrypted.

Nevertheless, AX.25 is just a protocol and it could, of course, run on other kinds of carriers than traditional amateur radios.

Long-range low-power radios

There is a lot being done with radios these days, much of which I’m not going to discuss. I’m not covering very short-range links such as Bluetooth, ZigBee, etc. Nor am I covering longer-range links that require large and highly-directional antennas (such as some are doing in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands). What I’m covering is long-range links that can be used by portable devices.

There is always a compromise in radios, and if we are going to achieve long-range links with poor antennas and low power, the compromise is going to be in bitrate. These technologies may scale down to as low at 300bps or up to around 115200bps. They can, as a side bonus, often be quite cheap.

HC-12 radios

HC-12 is a radio board, commonly used with Arduino, that sports 500bps to 115200bps communication. According to the vendor, in 500bps mode, the range is 1800m or 0.9mi, while at 115200bps, the range is 100m or 328ft. They’re very cheap, at around $5 each.

There are a few downsides to HC-12. One is that the lowest air bitrate is 500bps, but the lowest UART bitrate is 1200bps, and they have no flow control. So, if you are running in long-range mode, “only small packets can be sent: max 60 bytes with the interval of 2 seconds.” This would pose a challenge in many scenarios: though not much for UUCP, which can be perfectly well configured to have a 60-byte packet size and a window size of 1, which would wait for a remote ACK before proceeding.

Also, they operate over 433.4-473.0 MHz which appears to fall outside the license-free bands. It seems that many people using HC-12 are doing so illegally. With care, it would be possible to operate it under amateur radio rules, since this range is mostly within the 70cm allocation, but then it must follow amateur radio restrictions.

LoRa radios

LoRa is a set of standards for long range radios, which are advertised as having a range of 15km (9mi) or more in rural areas, and several km in cities.

LoRa can be done in several ways: the main LoRa protocol, and LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN expects to use an Internet gateway, which will tell each node what frequency to use, how much power to use, etc. LoRa is such that a commercial operator could set up roughly one LoRaWAN gateway per city due to the large coverage area, and some areas have good LoRa coverage due to just such operators. The difference between the two is roughly analogous to the difference between connecting two machines with an Ethernet crossover cable, and a connection over the Internet; LoRaWAN includes more protocol layers atop the basic LoRa. I have yet to learn much about LoRaWAN; I’ll follow up later on that point.

The speed of LoRa ranges from (and different people will say different things here) about 500bps to about 20000bps. LoRa is a packetized protocol, and the maximum packet size depends

LoRa sensors often advertise battery life in the months or years, and can be quite small. The protocol makes an excellent choice for sensors in remote or widely dispersed areas. LoRa transceiver boards for Arduino can be found for under $15 from places like Mouser.

I wound up purchasing two LoStik USB LoRa radios from Amazon. With some experimentation, with even very bad RF conditions (tiny antennas, one of them in the house, the other in a car), I was able to successfully decode LoRa packets from 2 miles away! And these aren’t even the most powerful transmitters available.

Talking UUCP over LoRa

In order to make this all work, I needed to write interface software; the LoRa radios don’t just transmit things straight out. So I wrote lorapipe. I have successfully transmitted files across this UUCP link!

Developing lorapipe was somewhat more challenging than I expected. For one, the LoRa modem raw protocol isn’t well-suited to rapid fire packet transmission; after receiving each packet, the modem exits receive mode and must be told to receive again. Collisions with protocols that ACKd data and had a receive window — which are many — were a problem so bad that it rendered some of the protocols unusable. I wound up adding a “expect more data after this packet” byte to every transmission, and have the receiver not transmit until it believes the sender is finished. This dramatically improved things. There’s more detail on this in my lorapipe documentation.

So far, I have successfully communicated over LoRa using UUCP, kermit, and YMODEM. KISS support will be coming next.

I am also hoping to discover the range I can get from this thing if I use more proper antennas (outdoor) and transmitters capable of transmitting with more power.

All in all, a fun project so far.

Resurrecting Ancient Operating Systems on Debian, Raspberry Pi, and Docker

I wrote recently about my son playing Zork on a serial terminal hooked up to a PDP-11, and how I eventually bought a vt420 (ok, some vt420s and vt510s, I couldn’t stop at one) and hooked it up to a Raspberry Pi.

This led me down another path: there is a whole set of hardware and software that I’ve never used. For some, it fell out of favor before I could read (and for others, before I was even born).

The thing is – so many of these old systems have a legacy that we live in today. So much so, in fact, that we are now seeing articles about how modern CPUs are fast PDP-11 emulators in a sense. The PDP-11, and its close association with early Unix, lives on in the sense that its design influenced microprocessors and operating systems to this day. The DEC vt100 terminal is, nowadays, known far better as that thing that is emulated, but it was, in fact, a physical thing. Some goes back into even mistier times; Emacs, for instance, grew out of the MIT ITS project but was later ported to TOPS-20 before being associated with Unix. vi grew up in 2BSD, and according to wikipedia, was so large it could barely fit in the memory of a PDP-11/70. Also in 2BSD, a buggy version of Zork appeared — so buggy, in fact, that the save game option was broken. All of this happened in the late 70s.

When we think about the major developments in computing, we often hear of companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Apple. Of course their contributions are undeniable, and emulators for old versions of DOS are easily available for every major operating system, plus many phones and tablets. But as the world is moving heavily towards Unix-based systems, the Unix heritage is far more difficult to access.

My plan with purchasing and setting up an old vt420 wasn’t just to do that and then leave. It was to make it useful for modern software, and also to run some of these old systems under emulation.

To that end, I have released my vintage computing collection – both a script for setting up on a system, and a docker image. You can run Emacs and TECO on TOPS-20, zork and vi on 2BSD, even Unix versions 5, 6, and 7 on a PDP-11. And for something particularly rare, RDOS on a Data General Nova. I threw in some old software compiled for modern systems: Zork, Colossal Cave, and Gopher among them. The bsdgames collection and some others are included as well.

I hope you enjoy playing with the emulated big-iron systems of the 70s and 80s. And in a dramatic turnabout of scale and cost, those machines which used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can now be run far faster under emulation on a $35 Raspberry Pi.

Connecting A Physical DEC vt420 to Linux

John and Oliver trip to Vintage Computer Festival Midwest 2019. Oliver playing Zork on the Micro PDP-11

Inspired by a weekend visit to Vintage Computer Festival Midwest at which my son got to play Zork on an amber console hooked up to a MicroPDP-11 running 2BSD, I decided it was time to act on my long-held plan to get a real old serial console hooked up to Linux.

Not being satisfied with just doing it for the kicks, I wanted to make it actually usable. 30-year-old DEC hardware meets Raspberry Pi. I thought this would be pretty easy, but it turns out is was a lot more complicated than I realized, involving everything from nonstandard serial connectors to long-standing kernel bugs!

Selecting a Terminal — And Finding Parts

I wanted something in amber for that old-school feel. Sadly I didn’t have the forethought to save any back in the 90s when they were all being thrown out, because now they’re rare and can be expensive. Search eBay and pretty soon you find a scattering of DEC terminals, the odd Bull or Honeywell, some Sperrys, and assorted oddballs that don’t speak any kind of standard protocol. I figured, might as well get a vt, since we’re still all emulating them now, 40+ years later. Plus, my old boss from my university days always had stories about DEC. I wish he were still around to see this.

I selected the vt420 because I was able to find them, and it has several options for font size, letting more than 24 lines fit on a screen.

Now comes the challenge: most of the vt420s never had a DB25 RS-232 port. The VT420-J, an apparently-rare international model, did, but it is exceptionally rare. The rest use a DEC-specific port called the MMJ. Thankfully, it is electrically compatible with RS-232, and I managed to find the DEC H8571-J adapter as well as a BC16E MMJ cable that I need.

I also found a vt510 (with “paperwhite” instead of amber) in unknown condition. I purchased it, and thankfully it is also working. The vt510 is an interesting device; for that model, they switched to using a PS/2 keyboard connector, and it can accept either a DEC VT keyboard or a PC keyboard. It also supports full key remapping, so Control can be left of A as nature intended. However, there’s something about amber that is just so amazing to use again.

Preparing the Linux System

I thought I would use a Raspberry Pi as a gateway for this. With built-in wifi, that would let me ssh to other machines in my house without needing to plug in a serial cable – I could put the terminal wherever. Alternatively, I can plug in a USB-to-serial adapter to my laptop and just plug the terminal into it when I want. I wound up with a Raspberry Pi 4 kit that included some heatsinks.

I had two USB-to-serial adapters laying around: a Keyspan USA-19HS and a Digi I/O Edgeport/1. I started with the Keyspan on a Raspberry Pi 4 on the grounds that I didn’t have the needed Edgeport/1 firmware file laying about already. The Raspberry Pi does have serial capability integrated, but it doesn’t use RS-232 voltages and there have been reports of it dropping characters sometimes, so I figured the easy path would be a USB adapter. That turned out to be only partially right.

Serial Terminals with systemd

I have never set up a serial getty with systemd — it has, in fact, been quite a long while since I’ve done anything involving serial other than the occasional serial console (which is a bit different purpose).

It would have taken a LONG time to figure this out, but thanks to an article about the topic, it was actually pretty easy in the end. I didn’t set it up as a serial console, but spawning a serial getty did the trick. I wound up modifying the command like this:

ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty -8 -o '-p -- \\u' %I 19200 vt420

The vt420 supports speeds up to 38400 and the vt510 supports up to 115200bps. However, neither can process plain text at faster than 19200 so there is no point to higher speeds. And, as you are about to see, they can’t necessarily even muster 19200 all the time.

Flow Control: Oh My

The unfortunate reality with these old terminals is that the processor in them isn’t actually able to keep up with line speeds. Any speed above 4800bps can exceed processor capabilities when “expensive” escape sequences are sent. That means that proper flow control is a must. Unfortunately, the vt420 doesn’t support any form of hardware flow control. XON/XOFF is all it’ll do. Yeah, that stinks.

So I hooked the thing up to my desktop PC with a null-modem cable, and started to tinker. I should be able to send a Ctrl-S down the line and the output from the pi should immediately stop. It didn’t. Huh. I verified it was indeed seeing the Ctrl-S (open emacs, send Ctrl-S, and it goes into search mode). So something, somehow, was interfering.

After a considerable amount of head scratching, I finally busted out the kernel source. I discovered that the XON/XOFF support is part of the serial driver in Linux, and that — ugh — the keyspan serial driver never actually got around to implementing it. Oops. That’s a wee bit of a bug. I plugged in the Edgeport/1 instead of the Keyspan and magically XON/XOFF started working.

Well, for a bit.

You see, flow control is a property of the terminal that can be altered by programs on a running system. It turns out that a lot of programs have opinions about it, and those opinions generally run along the lines of “nobody could possibly be using XON/XOFF, so I’m going to turn it off.” Emacs is an offender here, but it can be configured. Unfortunately, the most nasty offender here is ssh, which contains this code that is ALWAYS run when using a pty to connect to a remote system (which is for every interactive session):

tio.c_iflag &= ~(ISTRIP | INLCR | IGNCR | ICRNL | IXON | IXANY | IXOFF);

Yes, so when you use ssh, your local terminal no longer does flow control. If you are particularly lucky, the remote end may recognize your XON/XOFF characters and process them. Unfortunately, the added latency and buffering in going through ssh and the network is likely to cause bursts of text to exceed the vt420’s measly 100-ish-byte buffer. You just can’t let the remote end handle flow control with ssh. I managed to solve this via GNU Screen; more on that later.

The vt510 supports hardware flow control! Unfortunately, it doesn’t use CTS/RTS pins, but rather DTR/DSR. This was a reasonably common method in the day, but appears to be totally unsupported in Linux. Bother. I see some mentions that FreeBSD supports DTR/DSR flow (dtrflow and dsrflow in stty outputs). It definitely looks like the Linux kernel has never plumbed out the reaches of RS-232 very well. It should be possible to build a cable to swap DTR/DSR over to CTS/RTS, but since the vt420 doesn’t support any of this anyhow, I haven’t bothered.

Character Sets

Back when the vt420 was made, it was pretty hot stuff that it was one of the first systems to support the new ISO-8859-1 standard. DEC was rather proud of this. It goes without saying that the terminal knows nothing of UTF-8.

Nowadays, of course, we live in a Unicode world. A lot of software crashes on ISO-8859-1 input (I’m looking at you, Python 3). Although I have old files from old systems that have ISO-8859-1 encoding, they are few and far between, and UTF-8 rules the roost now.

I can, of course, just set LANG=en_US and that will do — well, something. man, for instance, renders using ISO-8859-1 characters. But that setting doesn’t imply that any layer of the tty system actually converts output from UTF-8 to ISO-8859-1. For instance, if I have a file with a German character in it and use ls, nothing is going to convert it from UTF-8 to ISO-8859-1.

GNU Screen also, as it happens, mostly solves this.

GNU Screen to the rescue, somewhat

It turns out that GNU Screen has features that can address both of these issues. Here’s how I used it.

First, in my .bashrc, I set this:


if [ `tty` = "/dev/ttyUSB0" ]; then
stty -iutf8
export LANG=en_US
export MANOPT="-E ascii"
fi

Then, in my .screenrc, I put this:


defflow on
defencoding UTF-8

This tells screen that the default flow control mode is on, and that the default encoding for the pty that screen creates is UTF-8. It determines the encoding for the physical terminal for the environment, and correctly figures it to be ISO-8859-1. It then maps between the two! Yes!

My little ssh connecting script then does just this:

exec screen ssh "$@"

Which nicely takes care of the flow control issue and (most of) the encoding issue. I say “most” because now things like man will try to render with fancy em-dashes and the like, which have no representation in iso8859-1, so they come out as question marks. (Setting MANOPT=”-E ascii” fixes this) But no matter, it works to ssh to my workstation and read my email! (mu4e in emacs)

What screen doesn’t help with are things that have no ISO-8859-1 versions; em-dashes are the most frequent problems, and are replaced with unsightly question marks.

termcaps, terminfos, and weird things

So pretty soon you start diving down the terminal rabbit hole, and you realize there’s a lot of weird stuff out there. For instance, one solution to the problem of slow processors in terminals was padding: ncurses would know how long it would take the terminal to execute some commands, and would send it NULLs for that amount of time. That calculation, of course, requires knowledge of line speed, which one wouldn’t have in this era of ssh. Thankfully the vt420 doesn’t fall into that category.

But it does have a ton of modes. The Emacs On Terminal page discusses some of the interesting bits: 7-bit or 8-bit control characters, no ESC key, Alt key not working, etc, etc. I believe some of these are addressed by the vt510 (at least in PC mode). I wonder whether Emacs or vim keybindings would be best here…

Helpful Resources

Alas, Poor PGP

Over in The PGP Problem, there’s an extended critique of PGP (and also specifics of the GnuPG implementation) in a modern context. Robert J. Hansen, one of the core GnuPG developers, has an interesting response:

First, RFC4880bis06 (the latest version) does a pretty good job of bringing the crypto angle to a more modern level. There’s a massive installed base of clients that aren’t aware of bis06, and if you have to interoperate with them you’re kind of screwed: but there’s also absolutely nothing prohibiting you from saying “I’m going to only implement a subset of bis06, the good modern subset, and if you need older stuff then I’m just not going to comply.” Sequoia is more or less taking this route — more power to them.

Second, the author makes a couple of mistakes about the default ciphers. GnuPG has defaulted to AES for many years now: CAST5 is supported for legacy reasons (and I’d like to see it dropped entirely: see above, etc.).

Third, a couple of times the author conflates what the OpenPGP spec requires with what it permits, and with how GnuPG implements it. Cleaner delineation would’ve made the criticisms better, I think.

But all in all? It’s a good criticism.

The problem is, where does that leave us? I found the suggestions in the original author’s article (mainly around using IM apps such as Signal) to be unworkable in a number of situations.

The Problems With PGP

Before moving on, let’s tackle some of the problems identified.

The first is an assertion that email is inherently insecure and can’t be made secure. There are some fairly convincing arguments to be made on that score; as it currently stands, there is little ability to hide metadata from prying eyes. And any format that is capable of talking on the network — as HTML is — is just begging for vulnerabilities like EFAIL.

But PGP isn’t used just for this. In fact, one could argue that sending a binary PGP message as an attachment gets around a lot of that email clunkiness — and would be right, at the expense of potentially more clunkiness (and forgetfulness).

What about the web-of-trust issues? I’m in agreement. I have never really used WoT to authenticate a key, only in rare instances trusting an introducer I know personally and from personal experience understand how stringent they are in signing keys. But this is hardly a problem for PGP alone. Every encryption tool mentioned has the problem of validating keys. The author suggests Signal. Signal has some very strong encryption, but you have to have a phone number and a smartphone to use it. Signal’s strength when setting up a remote contact is as strong as SMS. Let that disheartening reality sink in for a bit. (A little social engineering could probably get many contacts to accept a hijacked SIM in Signal as well.)

How about forward secrecy? This is protection against a private key that gets compromised in the future, because an ephemeral session key (or more than one) is negotiated on each communication, and the secret key is never stored. This is a great plan, but it really requires synchronous communication (or something approaching it) between the sender and the recipient. It can’t be used if I want to, for instance, burn a backup onto a Bluray and give it to a friend for offsite storage without giving the friend access to its contents. There are many, many situations where synchronous key negotiation is impossible, so although forward secrecy is great and a nice enhancement, we should assume it to be always applicable.

The saltpack folks have a more targeted list of PGP message format problems. Both they, and the article I link above, complain about the gpg implementation of PGP. There is no doubt truth to these. Among them is a complaint that gpg can emit unverified data. Well sure, because it has a streaming mode. It exits with a proper error code and warnings if a verification fails at the end — just as gzcat does. This is a part of the API that the caller needs to be aware of. It sounds like some callers weren’t handling this properly, but it’s just a function of a streaming tool.

Suggested Solutions

The Signal suggestion is perfectly reasonable in a lot of cases. But the suggestion to use WhatsApp — a proprietary application from a corporation known to brazenly lie about privacy — is suspect. It may have great crypto, but if it uploads your address book to a suspicious company, is it a great app?

Magic Wormhole is a pretty neat program I hadn’t heard of before. But it should be noted it’s written in Python, so it’s probably unlikely to be using locked memory.

How about backup encryption? Backups are a lot more than just filesystem; maybe somebody has a 100GB MySQL or zfs send stream. How should this be encrypted?

My current estimate is that there’s no magic solution right now. The Sequoia PGP folks seem to have a good thing going, as does Saltpack. Both projects are early in development, so as a privacy-concerned person, should you trust them more than GPG with appropriate options? That’s really hard to say.

Additional Discussions

The Desktop Security Nightmare

Back in 1995 or so, pretty much everyone with a PC did all their work as root. We ran graphics editors, word processors, everything as root. Well, not literally an account named “root”, but the most common DOS, Windows, and Mac operating systems of the day had no effective reduced privilege account.

It was that year that I tried my first Unix. “Wow!” A virus can’t take over my system. My programs are safe!

That turned out to be a little short-sighted.

The fundamental problem we have is that we’d like to give users of a computer more access than we would like to give the computer itself.

Many of us have extremely sensitive data on our systems. Emails to family, medical or bank records, Bitcoin wallets, browsing history, the list goes on. Although we have isolation between our user account and root, we have no isolation between applications that run as our user account. We still, in effect, have to be careful about what attachments we open in email.

Only now it’s worse. You might “npm install hello-world”, and audit hello-world itself, but get some totally malicious code as well. How many times do we see instructions to gem install this, pip install that, go get the other, and even curl | sh? Nowadays our risky click isn’t an email attachment. It’s hosted on Github with a README.md.

Not only that, but my /usr/bin has over 4000 binaries. Have every one been carefully audited? Certainly not, and this is from a distro with some of the highest quality control around. What about the PPAs that people add? The debs or rpms that are installed from the Internet? Are you sure that the postinst scripts — which run as root — aren’t doing anything malicious when you install Oracle Virtualbox?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could, say, deny access to everything in ~/.ssh or ~/bankstatements except for trusted programs when we want it? On mobile, this happens, to an extent. But we have both a legacy of a different API on desktop, and a much more demanding set of requirements.

It feels like our ecosystem is on the cusp of being able to do this, but none of the options I’ve looked at quite get us there. Let’s take a look at some.

AppArmor

AppArmor falls into the “first line of defense — better than nothing” category. It works by imposing mandatory access controls on a per-executable basis. This starts out as a pretty good idea: we can go after some high-risk targets (Firefox, Chromium, etc) and lock them down. Great! Although it’s not exactly intuitive, with a little configuration, you can prevent them from accessing sensitive areas on disk.

But there’s a problem. Actually, several. To start with, AppArmor does nothing by default. On my system, aa-unconfined --paranoid lists 171 processes that have no policies on them. Among them are Firefox, Apache, ssh, a ton of Pythons, and some stuff I don’t even recognize (/usr/lib/geoclue-2.0/demos/agent? What’s this craziness?)

Worse, since AppArmor matches on executable, all shell scripts would match the /bin/bash profile, all Python programs the Python profile, etc. It’s not so useful for them. While AppArmor does technically have a way to set a default profile, it’s not as useful as you might think.

Then you’re still left with problems like: a PDF viewer should not ordinarily have access to my sensitive files — except when I want to see an old bank statement. This can’t really be expressed in AppArmor.

SELinux

From its documentation, it sounds like SELinux might fit the bill well. It allows transitions into different roles after logging in, which is nice. The problem is complexity. The “notebook” for SELinux is 395 pages. The SELinux homepage has a wiki, which says it’s outdated and replaced by a github link with substantially less information. The Debian wiki page on it is enough to be scary in itself: you need to have various filesystem support, even backups are complicated. Ted T’so had a famous comment about never getting some of his life back, and the Debian wiki also warns that it’s not really tested on desktop systems.

We have certainly learned that complexity is an enemy of good security, leading users to just bypass it. I’m not sure we can rely on it.

Mount Tricks

One thing a person could do would be to keep the sensitive data on a separate, ideally encrypted, filesystem. (Maybe even a fuse one such as gocryptfs.) Then, at least, it could be unavailable for most of the time the system is on.

Of course, the downside here is that it’s still going to be available to everything when it is mounted, and there’s the hassle of mounting, remembering to unmount, password typing, etc. Not exactly transparent.

I wondered if mount namespaces might be an answer here. A filesystem could be mounted but left pretty much unavailable to processes unless a proper mount namespace is joined. Indeed that might be a solution. It is somewhat complicated, though, since nsenter requires root to work. Enter sudo, and dropping privileges back to a particular user — a not particularly ideal situation, and complex as well.

Still, it might well have some promise for some of these things.

Firejail

Firejail is a great idea, but suffers from a lot of the problems that AppArmor does: things must explicitly be selected to run within it.

AppImage and related tools

So now there’s your host distro and your bundled distro, each with libraries that may or may not be secure, both with general access to your home directory. I think this is a recipe for worse security, not better. Add to that the difficulty of making those things work; I know that the Digikam people have been working for months to get sound to work reliably in their AppImage.

Others?

What other ideas are out there? I’ve occasionally created a separate user on the system for running suspicious-ish code, or even a VM or container. That’s a fair bit of work, and provides incomplete protection, but has some benefits. Still, it’s again not going to work for everything.

I hope to play around with many of these tools, especially SELinux, before too long and report back how I’ve found them to be.

Finally, I would like to be really clear that I don’t believe this issue is limited to Debian, or even to Linux. It impacts every desktop platform in wide use today. Actually, I think we’re in a better position to address it than some, but it won’t be easy for anyone.

Tips for Upgrading to, And Securing, Debian Buster

Wow.  Once again, a Debian release impresses me — a guy that’s been using Debian for more than 20 years.  For the first time I can ever recall, buster not only supported suspend-to-disk out of the box on my laptop, but it did so on an encrypted volume atop LVM.  Very impressive!

For those upgrading from previous releases, I have a few tips to enhance the experience with buster.

AppArmor

AppArmor is a new line of defense against malicious software.  The release notes indicate it’s now enabled by default in buster.  For desktops, I recommend installing apparmor-profiles-extra apparmor-notify.  The latter will provide an immediate GUI indication when something is blocked by AppArmor, so you can diagnose strange behavior.  You may also need to add userself to the adm group with adduser username adm.

Security

I recommend installing these packages and taking note of these items, some of which are different in buster:

  • unattended-upgrades will automatically install security updates for you.  New in buster, the default config file will also apply stable updates in addition to security updates.
  • needrestart will detect what processes need a restart after a library update and, optionally, restart them. Beginning in buster, it will not automatically restart them when in noninteractive (unattended-upgrades) mode. This can be changed by editing /etc/needrestart/needrestart.conf (or, better, putting a .conf file in /etc/needrestart/conf.d) and setting $nrconf{restart} = 'a'. Edit: If you have an Intel CPU, installing iucode-tool intel-microcode will let needrestart also check on your CPU microcode.
  • debian-security-support will warn you of gaps in security support for packages you are installing or running.
  • package-update-indicator is useful for desktops that won’t be running unattended-upgrades. I believe Gnome 3 has this built in, but for other desktops, this adds an icon when updates are available.
  • You can harden apt with seccomp.
  • You can enable UEFI secure boot.

Tuning

If you hadn’t noticed, many of these items are links into the buster release notes. It’s a good document to read over, even for a new buster install.

Treasuring Moments

“Treasure the moments you have. Savor them for as long as you can, for they will never come back again.”

– J. Michael Straczynski

This quote sits on a post-it note on my desk. Here are some moments of our fast-changing little girl that I’m remembering today — she’s almost 2!

Brothers & Sister

Martha loves to play with her siblings. She has names for them — Jacob is “beedoh” and Oliver is “ah-wah”. When she sees them come home, she gets a huge smile and will screech with excitement. Then she will ask them to play with her.

She loves to go down the slide with Jacob. “Beedoh sigh?” (Jacob slide) — that’s her request. He helps her up, then they go down together. She likes to swing side-by-side with Oliver. “Ahwah sing” (Oliver swing) when she wants him to get on the swing next to her. The boys enjoy teaching her new words and games.

[Video: Martha and Jacob on the slide]

Music

Martha loves music! To her, “sing” is a generic word for music. If we’re near a blue speaker, she’ll say “boo sing” (blue sing) and ask for it to play music.

But her favorite request is “daddy sing.” It doesn’t mean she wants me to sing. No, she wants me to play my xaphoon (a sax-like instrument). She’ll start jumping, clapping, and bopping her head to the music. Her favorite spot to do this is a set of soft climbing steps by the piano.

But that’s not enough — next she pulls out our hymnbooks and music books and pretends to sing along. “Wawawawawawa the end!”

If I decide to stop playing, that is most definitely not allowed. “Daddy sing!” And if I don’t comply, she gets louder and more insistent: “DADDY SING.”

[Videos: Martha singing and reading from hymn books, singing her ABCs]

Airplanes

Martha loves airplanes. She started to be able to say “airplane” — first “peen”, then “airpeen”, and now “airpane!” When we’re outside and she hears any kind of buzzing that might possibly be a plane, I’m supposed to instantly pick her up and carry her past our trees so we can look for it. “AIRPANE! AIRPANE! Ho me?” (hold me) Then when we actually see a plane, it’s “Airpane! Hi airpane!” And as it flies off, “Bye-bye airpane. Bye-bye. [sadly] Airpane all done.”

One day, Martha was trying to see airplanes, but it was cloudy. I bundled her up and we went to our local GA airport and stood in the grass watching planes. Now that was a hit! Now anytime Martha sees warehouse-type buildings, she thinks they are hangars, and begs to go to the airport. She loves to touch the airplane, climb inside it, and look at the airport beacon — even if we won’t be flying that day.

[Video: Hi big plane!]

Martha getting ready for a flight

This year, for Mother’s Day, we were going to fly to a nearby airport with a restaurant on the field. I took a photo of our family by the plane before we left. All were excited!

Mother’s Day photo

Mornings

We generally don’t let Martha watch TV, but make a few exceptions for watching a few videos and looking at family pictures. Awhile back, Martha made asked to play with me while I was getting ready for the day. “Martha, I have to get dressed first. Then I’ll play with you.” “OK,” she said.

She ran off into the closet, and came back with what she could reach of my clothing – a dirty shirt, and handed it up to me to wear. I now make sure to give her the chance to bring me socks, shirts, etc. And especially shoes. She really likes to bring me shoes.

Then we go downstairs. Sometimes she sits on my lap in the office and we watch Youtube videos of owls or fish. Or sometimes we go downstairs and start watching One Six Right, a wonderful aviation documentary. She and I jabber about what we see — she can identify the beacon (“bee”), big hangar door (“bih doh”), airplanes of different colors (“yellow one”), etc. She loves to see a little Piper Cub fly over some cows, and her favorite shot is a plane that flies behind the control tower at sunset. She’ll lean over and look for it as if it’s going around a corner.

Sometimes we look at family pictures and videos. Her favorite is a video of herself in a plane, jabbering and smiling. She’ll ask to watch it again and again.

Bedtime

Part of our bedtime routine is that I read a story to Martha. For a long time, I read her The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. She loved that book, and one night said “geecko” for pickle. She noticed I clapped for it, and so after that she always got excited for the geeckos and would clap for them.

Lately, though, she wants the “airpane book” – Clair Bear’s First Solo. We read through that book, she looks at the airplanes that fly, and always has an eye out for the “yellow one” and “boo one” (blue plane). At the end, she requests “more pane? More pane?”

After that, I wave goodnight to her. She used to wave back, but now she says “Goodnight, daddy!” and heads on up the stairs.

The Rightward, Establishment Bias of Lazy Journalism

Note: I also posted this post on medium.

I remember clearly the moment I’d had enough of NPR for the day. It was early morning January 25 of this year, still pretty dark outside. An NPR anchor was interviewing an NPR reporter — they seem to do that a lot these days — and asked the following simple but important question:

“So if we know that Roger Stone was in communications with WikiLeaks and we know U.S. intelligence agencies have said WikiLeaks was operating at the behest of Russia, does that mean that Roger Stone has been now connected directly to Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. election?”

The factual answer, based on both data and logic, would have been “yes”. NPR, in fact, had spent much airtime covering this; for instance, a June 2018 story goes into detail about Stone’s interactions with WikiLeaks, and less than a week before Stone’s arrest, NPR referred to “internal emails stolen by Russian hackers and posted to Wikileaks.” In November of 2018, The Atlantic wrote, “Russia used WikiLeaks as a conduit — witting or unwitting — and WikiLeaks, in turn, appears to have been in touch with Trump allies.”

Why, then, did the NPR reporter begin her answer with “well,” proceed to hedge, repeat denials from Stone and WikiLeaks, and then wind up saying “authorities seem to have some evidence” without directly answering the question? And what does this mean for bias in the media?


Let us begin with a simple principle: facts do not have a political bias. Telling me that “the sky is blue” no more reflects a Democratic bias than saying “3+3=6” reflects a Republican bias. In an ideal world, politics would shape themselves around facts; ideas most in agreement with the data would win. There are not two equally-legitimate sides to questions of fact. There is no credible argument against “the earth is round”, “climate change is real,” or “Donald Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator in crimes for which jail sentences have been given.” These are factual, not political, statements. If you feel, as I do, a bit of a quickening pulse and escalating tension as you read through these examples, then you too have felt the forces that wish you to be uncomfortable with unarguable reality.

That we perceive some factual questions as political is a sign of a deep dysfunction in our society. It’s a sign that our policies are not always guided by fact, but that a sustained effort exists to cause our facts to be guided by policy.

Facts do not have a political bias. There are not two equally-legitimate sides to questions of fact. “Climate change is real” is a factual, not a political, statement. Our policies are not always guided by fact; a sustained effort exists to cause our facts to be guided by policy.

Why did I say right-wing bias, then? Because at this particular moment in time, it is the political right that is more engaged in the effort to shape facts to policy. Whether it is denying the obvious lies of the President, the clear consensus on climate change, or the contours of various investigations, it is clear that they desire to confuse and mislead in order to shape facts to their whim.


It’s not always so consequential when the media gets it wrong. When CNN breathlessly highlights its developing story — that an airplane “will struggle to maintain altitude once the fuel tanks are empty” —it gives us room to critique the utility of 24/7 media, but not necessarily a political angle.

But ask yourself: who benefits when the media is afraid to report a simple fact about an investigation with political connotations? The obvious answer, in the NPR example I gave, is that Republicans benefit. They want the President to appear innocent, so every hedge on known facts about illegal activities of those in Trump’s orbit is a gift to the right. Every time a reporter gives equal time to climate change deniers is a gift to the right and a blow to informed discussion in a democracy.

Not only is there a rightward bias, but there is also an establishment bias that goes hand-in-hand. Consider this CNN report about Facebook’s “pivot to privacy”, in which CEO Zuckerberg is credited with “changing his tune somewhat”. To the extent to which that article highlights “problems” with this, they take Zuckerberg at face-value and start to wonder if it will be harder to clamp down on fake news in the news feed if there’s more privacy. That is a total misunderstanding of what was being proposed; a more careful reading of the situation was done by numerous outlets, resulting in headlines such as this one in The Intercept: “Mark Zuckerberg Is Trying to Play You — Again.” They correctly point out the only change actually mentioned pertained only to instant messages, not to the news feed that CNN was talking about, and even that had a vague promise to happen “over the next few years.” Who benefited from CNN’s failure to read a press release closely? The established powers — Facebook.


Pay attention to the media and you’ll notice that journalists trip all over themselves to report a new dot in a story, but they run away scared from being the first to connect the dots. Much has been written about the “media narrative,” often critical, with good reason. Back in November of 2018, an excellent article on “The Ubearable Rightness of Seth Abramson” covered one particular case in delightful detail.

Journalists trip all over themselves to report a new dot in a story, but they run away scared from being the first to connect the dots.

Seth Abramson himself wrote, “Trump-Russia is too complex to report. We need a new kind of journalism.” He argues the culprit is not laziness, but rather that “archive of prior relevant reporting that any reporter could review before they publish their own research is now so large and far-flung that more and more articles are frustratingly incomplete or even accidentally erroneous than was the case when there were fewer media outlets, a smaller and more readily navigable archive of past reporting for reporters to sift through, and a less internationalized media landscape.” Whether laziness or not, the effect is the same: a failure to properly contextualize facts leading to misrepresented or outright wrong outcomes that, at present, have a distinct bias towards right-wing and establishment interests.


Yes, the many scandals in Trumpland are extraordinarily complex, and in this age of shrinking newsroom budgets, it’s no wonder that reporters have trouble keeping up. Highly-paid executives like Zuckerberg and politicians in Congress have years of practice with obfuscation, and it takes skill to find the truth (if there even is any) behind a corporate press release or political talking point. One would hope, though, that reporters would be less quick to opine if they lack those skills or the necessary time to dig in.

There’s not just laziness; there’s also, no doubt, a confusion about what it means to be a balanced journalist. It is clear that there are two sides to a debate over, say, whether to give a state’s lottery money to the elementary schools or the universities. When there is the appearance of a political debate over facts, shouldn’t that also receive equal time for each side? I argue no. In fact, politicians making claims that contradict establish fact should be exposed by journalists, not covered by them.

And some of it is, no doubt, fear. Fear that if they come out and say “yes, this implicates Stone with Russian hacking” that the Fox News crowd will attack them as biased. Of course this will happen, but that attack will be wrong. The right has done an excellent job of convincing both reporters and the public that there’s a big left-leaning bias that needs to be corrected, by yelling about it every time a fact is mentioned that they don’t like. The unfortunate result is that the fact-leaning bias in the media is being whittled away.

Politicians making claims that contradict establish fact should be exposed by journalists, not covered by them. The fact-leaning bias in the media is being whittled away.

Regardless of the cause, media organizations and their reporters need to be cognizant of the biases actors of all stripes wish them to display, and refuse to play along. They need to be cognizant of the demands they put on their own reporters, and give them space to understand the context of a story before explaining it. They need to stand up to those that try to diminish facts, to those that would like them to be uninformed.

A world in which reporters know the context of their stories and boldly state facts as facts, come what may, is a world in which reporters strengthen the earth’s democracies. And, by extension, its people.

Goodbye to a 15-year-old Debian server

It was October of 2003 that the server I’ve called “glockenspiel” was born. It was the early days of Linux-based VM hosting, using a VPS provider called memset, running under, of all things, User Mode Linux. Over the years, it has been migrated around, sometimes running on the metal and sometimes in a VM. The operating system has been upgraded in-place using standard Debian upgrades over the years, and is now happily current on stretch (albeit with a 32-bit userland). But it has never been reinstalled. When I’d migrate hosting providers, I’d use tar or rsync to stream glockenspiel across the Internet to its new home.

A lot of people reinstall an OS when a new version comes out. I’ve been doing Debian upgrades with apt for ages, and this one is a case in point. It lingers.

Root’s .profile was last modified in November 2004, and its .bashrc was last modified in December 2004. My own home directory still has a .pinerc, .gopherrc, and .arch-params file. I last edited my .vimrc in 2003 and my .emacs dates back to 2002 (having been copied over from a pre-glockenspiel FreeBSD server).

drwxr-xr-x  3 jgoerzen jgoerzen      4096 Dec  3  2003 irclogs
-rw-r--r--  1 jgoerzen jgoerzen       373 Dec  3  2003 .vimrc
-rw-r--r--  1 jgoerzen jgoerzen       651 Nov 27  2003 .reportbugrc
drwx------  3 jgoerzen jgoerzen      4096 Sep  2  2003 .arch-params
-rw-r--r--  1 jgoerzen jgoerzen      1115 Aug 23  2003 .gopherrc
drwxr-xr-x  3 jgoerzen jgoerzen      4096 Jul 18  2003 .subversion
-rw-r--r--  1 jgoerzen jgoerzen     15317 Jun 21  2003 .pinerc

Poking around /etc on glockenspiel is like a trip back in time. Various apache sites still have configuration files around, but have long since been disabled. Over the years, glockenspiel has hosted source code repositories using Subversion, arch, tla, darcs, mercurial and git. It’s hosted websites using Drupal, WordPress, Serendipity, and so forth. It’s hosted gopher sites, websites or mailing lists for various Free Software projects (such as Freeciv), and any number of local charitable organizations. Remnants of an FTP configuration still exist, when people used web design software to build websites for those organizations on their PCs and then upload them to glockenspiel.

-rw-r--r--   1 root  root                      268 Dec 25  2005 libnet.cfg
-rw-r-----   1 root  root                     1305 Nov 11  2004 mrtg.cfg
-rw-r--r--   1 root  root                      552 Jul 31  2004 pam.conf

All this has been replaced by a set of Docker containers running my docker-debian-base software. They’re all in git, I can rebuild one of the containers in a few seconds or a few minutes by typing “make”, and there is no cruft from 2002. There are a lot of benefits to this.

And yet, there is a part of me that feels it’s all so… cold. Servers having “personalities” was always a distinctly dubious thing, but these days as we work through more and more layers of virtualization and indirection and become more distant from the hardware, we lose an appreciation for what we have and the many shoulders of giants upon which we stand.

And, so with that, the final farewell to this server that’s been running since 2003:

glockenspiel:/etc# shutdown -P now
Shared connection to glockenspiel.complete.org closed.