IoT Isn’t Even Close To Trustworthy

I have already beefed about the current version of the Internet of Things, which is of dubious value and badly engineered, to boot. <<link?>> (Here, here, here, here, here, here)

The most visible face of these developments are the network connected home “Assistants”, such as Alexa, Siri, Google Home, and so on.  Aside from the extremely questionable rationale (Why do I need a voice interface to my refrigerator?  Why do I need my refrigerator to connect to the entire freaking Internet?) there are famous cases that illustrate that these beasts are deeply invasive.

Last fall, Hyunji Chung and colleages at US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) wrote about the trustworthiness of these systems.

[S]uch interactions should be solely between you and the device assisting you. But are they? How do you know for sure?” (p. 100)

These are complicated, network connected systems which are not trivial to understand and evaluate.  But they are in our homes, so everyone needs to know just how far to trust them.

The researchers sketch the “ecosystem” of network connected components and services.  The very fact that they are complex enough to warrant the term, “ecosystem”, is the fundamental problem.

[W]e performed cloud-native artifact analysis, packet analysis, voice-command tests, application analysis, and firmware analysis” (p. 101)

Uh, oh. Does anyone besides me see a problem with deploying such a system unsupervised in private homes?

The threat envelope is huge. The basic logic of the assitant is implemented mainly in “the cloud”, with components on local devices that communicate with the cloud. Many assistants have third party apps as well.  They report that the Alexa “Skill Store” has 10,000 such voice-actuated apps.

The point of the analysis is, of course, risk assessment. They identify many, many risks—basically, everything that might threaten the Internet.

  • Wiretapping
  • Compromises devices
  • Malicious voice commands
  • Eavesdropping

Wireless communication is, of course, a weakness. The researchers report the appalling fact that not all the communications are encrypted. Even when encrypted, traffic sniffing can still reveal considerable information about the devices and users.

Obviously, devices may be hacked.  In this case, there is no expert IT department to defend the network, detect intrusions, or patch bugs. One has to think that home devices are relatively defenseless, and certain to be cracked over time.

One reason I don’t like voice commands is that they are hard to secure. Even the best voice recognition systems are vulnerable to mistakes, and low-cost, consumer-maintained systems probably aren’t top of the line. (And who wants your Alexa to reject commands because it isn’t certain that you are really you.)

And, of course, every link is a potential channel for someone to listen in on your life.

This article makes clear that these systems have a lot of potential issues, even if they are configured correctly and work as designed. Unfortunately, personal and home devices are not likely to be carefully configured or monitored. I have a PhD in computer science and have done my share of sysadmin, and I have not the remotest clue how to set up and keep one of these systems.

These researchers carefully don’t answer the question, “can I trust you?”  But it is very clear that the answer is “no”.

I’m afraid that people are taking these devices on faith. They are sold as appliances, and the look like appliances, so they must be as safe as a consumer appliance, right?

Well, no.

This is a really great article, and everyone should read it before turning on any cloud service, let alone installing an “assistant” in their home.

And if you don’t understand what this article says, then you definitely shouldn’t install one of these assistants in your home.

  1. Hyunji Chung, Michaela Iorga, Jeffrey Voas, and Sangjin Lee, “Alexa, Can I Trust You?”. Computer, 50 (9):100-104, 2017.

“Wearable” Sensors for Plants

I saw the headline about “wearable sensors for plants”, so I had to have a look.

Of course, the word “wearable” is kind of dumb here.

However, the technology is actually pretty cool: “a simple and versatile method for patterning and transferring graphene-based nanomaterials onto various types of tape to realize flexible microscale sensors.” [2]

Printing various patterns on tape can create sensors that measure strain, pressure, or moisture, for instance.  The sticky tape can attach to anything, including leaves of plants.  This is a cheap way to whip up and add sensors to the real world, including agricultural crops.

Pretty cool, even if plants don’t actually “wear” them.

  1. Liang Dong, Engineers make wearable sensors for plants, enabling measurements of water use in crops, in Iowa State University – News Service. 2018.
  2. Seval Oren, Halil Ceylan, Patrick S. Schnable, and Liang Dong, High-Resolution Patterning and Transferring of Graphene-Based Nanomaterials onto Tape toward Roll-to-Roll Production of Tape-Based Wearable Sensors. Advanced Materials Technologies, 2 (12):1700223-n/a, 2017.


Dark Energy Survey Data Available

If the fate of the Antarctic ice is the single most important question about our own planet, looking outward, the most important question surely must be “What is Dark Energy?

For the past decade, the Dark Energy Survey has begun to measure fast swaths of the visible sky, with the goal to better understand DE.  The DES is an awesome project, and a world-wide collaboration: the paper that ‘splains the data dump has 200 authors listed.

I’m particularly fond of this project not only because of the shear romantic appeal (we basically have no idea about the physics 95% of our universe), but also because the data is collected every night in Chile, and shot up the spine of the Americas to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, my old institution. (I used to have an office just down the hall from the team who built that part of the data system.)

After the first three years of data collection, the DES has just dropped a huge public “Data Release 1”.  Come and get it!

I haven’t really looked at the data in any detail, though I can confirm that it is definitely open to the public.

I’ll note that this is yet another example of the challenges of “citizen science”. Anyone can have this data, and can do whatever they want with it.  Should we expect a flood of cool discoveries from the Internet “crowd”?  I wouldn’t bet on it.

The data is not pretty pictures, and doing science with it requires quite a bit of technical knowledge.  In fact, just understanding how the data was created requires a ton of background. The researchers have gone to a lot of work to create solid, useful data [1].

This just goes to show that real science (as opposed to Hollywood or Washington science) isn’t just looking at a screen and saying, “aha”.  Making data available is great, but it neither makes scientists redundant, nor necessarily generates more knowledge.

  1. T. M. C. Abbott, F. B. Abdalla, S. Allam, A. Amara, J. Annis, J. Asorey, S. Avila, O. Ballester, M. Banerji, W. Barkhouse, L. Baruah, M. Baumer, K. Bechtol, M . R. Becker, A. Benoit-Lévy, G. M. Bernstein, E. Bertin, J. Blazek, S. Bocquet, D. Brooks, D. Brout, E. Buckley-Geer, D. L. Burke, V. Busti, R. Campisano, L. Cardiel-Sas, A. C arnero Rosell, M. Carrasco Kind, J. Carretero, F. J. Castander, R. Cawthon, C. Chang, C. Conselice, G. Costa, M. Crocce, C. E. Cunha, C. B. D’Andrea, L. N. da Costa, R. Das, G. Daues, T. M. Davis, C. Davis, J. De Vicente, D. L. DePoy, J. DeRose, S. Desai, H. T. Diehl, J. P. Dietrich, S. Dodelson, P. Doel, A. Drlica-Wagner, T. F. Eifler, A. E. Elliott, A. E. Evrard, A. Farahi, A. Fausti Neto, E. Fernandez, D. A. Finley, M. Fitzpatrick, B. Flaugher, R. J. Foley, P. Fosalba, D. N. Friedel, J. Frieman, J. García-Bellido, E. Gaz tanaga, D. W. Gerdes, T. Giannantonio, M. S. S. Gill, K. Glazebrook, D. A. Goldstein, M. Gower, D. Gruen, R. A. Gruendl, J. Gschwend, R. R. Gupta, G. Gutierrez, S. Hamilton, W. G. Hartley, S. R. Hinton, J. M. Hislop, D. Hollowood, K. Honscheid, B. Hoyle, D. Huterer, B. Jain, D. J. James, T. Jeltema, M. W. G. Johnson, M. D. Johnson, S. Juneau, T. Kacpr zak, S. Kent, G. Khullar, M. Klein, A. Kovacs, A. M. G. Koziol, E. Krause, A. Kremin, R. Kron, K. Kuehn, S. Kuhlmann, N. Kuropatkin, O. Lahav, J. Lasker, T. S. Li, R. T. Li, A. R. Liddle, M. Lima, H. Lin, P. López-Reyes, N. MacCrann, M. A. G. Maia, J. D. Maloney, M. Manera, M. March, J. Marriner, J. L. Marshall, P. Martini, T. McClintock, T. McKay, R . G. McMahon, P. Melchior, F. Menanteau, C. J. Miller, R. Miquel, J. J. Mohr, E. Morganson, J. Mould, E. Neilsen, R. C. Nichol, D. Nidever, R. Nikutta, F. Nogueira, B. Nord, P. Nugent, L. Nunes, R. L. C. Ogando, L. Old, K. Olsen, A. B. Pace, A. Palmese, F. Paz-Chinchón, H. V. Peiris, W. J. Percival, D. Petravick, A. A. Plazas, J. Poh, C. Pond, A. Por redon, A. Pujol, A. Refregier, K. Reil, P. M. Ricker, R. P. Rollins, A. K. Romer, A. Roodman, P. Rooney, A. J. Ross, E. S. Rykoff, M. Sako, E. Sanchez, M. L. Sanchez, B. Santiago, A. Saro, V. Scarpine, D. Scolnic, A. Scott, S. Serrano, I. Sevilla-Noarbe, E. Sheldon, N. Shipp, M.L. Silveira, R. C. Smith, J. A. Smith, M. Smith, M. Soares-Santos, F. Sobre ira, J. Song, A. Stebbins, E. Suchyta, M. Sullivan, M. E. C. Swanson, G. Tarle, J. Thaler, D. Thomas, R. C. Thomas, M. A. Troxel, D. L. Tucker, V. Vikram, A. K. Vivas, A. R. Wal ker, R. H. Wechsler, J. Weller, W. Wester, R. C. Wolf, H. Wu, B. Yanny, A. Zenteno, Y. Zhang and J. Zuntz, The Dark Energy Survey Data Release 1. The DES Collaboration, 2018.



Book Review: “Quillifer” by Walter Jon Williams

Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams

Williams new novel is labeled “Book One”, and as expected, the story introduces a new character, Quillifer (only one name), and a new fantasy world. There will surely be sequels.

The fantasy world has horse-and-gunpowder technology plus magic, a variety of interesting religions and institutions, intriguing architecture, and the country has just entered a civil war. Williams describes the economy in some detail, including a charmingly elaborate guild system.  There is also naval and land combat, in considerable detail.

The world is worked out in juicy detail. The buildings and cities are described in such detail, that I suspect he has built them in a computer simulation.  The same goes for the garments.

Quillifer himself is a bit of a rogue, though he’s good hearted and generally nice.  (Bearing in mind that this is a first person narrative.) His pleasant small town life is overturned by war, and he goes out into the world.  Stuff happens, more stuff happens, and so on.  By the end of “Book One”, he has garnered some fame and fortune, but we aren’t in any way sure what is going to happen next.

Quillifer has a smart mouth. This leads to fun and trouble, especially when he crosses paths with rich powerful men.

Quillifer really likes women, and they seem to like him. This leads to fun and trouble, especially when he attracts the attentions of rich and powerful women.

Williams is a really good writer, and this meets our expectations.   Overall, I liked this book a lot and look forward to more of Quillifer in the future.

  1. Walter Jon Williams, Quillifer, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Ada’s Algorithm” by James Essinger

Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger

This is a wonderful little biography of Ada Lovelace, contemporary of Charles Babbage, a Victorian pioneer of computer software.  Indeed, she is recognized now as the Founding Mother of computer software, for very good reason.

Much of the book is a defense of Ada’s genius, which has been disparaged by some (male) commentators.  The defense should not be needed, but Essinger is motivated to make very, very clear that Ada really, really got it.  In particular, she got software.

Given that the hardware was not even built, and even Babbage himself didn’t get it the same way, the way that she groks software is hair-raisingly awesome!

What she got is that computing is not just numbers, it can be any symbols, including letters or music, and the computation can be arithmetic, algorithmic, or symbolic.  She also groked how computing logically separates operations and the objects that are operated upon—which is the essence of software, and one of computer science’s profound contributions to human knowledge.

Ada is taken by many as the patron saint of software, and there is good reason to venerate her and her accomplishments.


Essenger writes about Ada’s intense attraction to Babbage’s invention, we can see the experience of many of us in the late twentieth century (150 years Post Ada).  Babbage saw the promise of computers, but Ada, oh, Ada, Ada, Ada! She saw the promise of all that software could become.

Like many of us, Ada saw the vast vista of computation, must also have experienced the thrill of building something real, but something completely new, doing something that had never been done before.

As Essneger puts it, “She was one of us” (p. 177)

Many of us recall a moment when we suddenly got it. Computer programming is not just a bunch of fiddly details, it is a deep and profound way of seeing and manipulating the universe.

This understanding is intensely exciting, empowering, liberating.  It is the pure white powder, life changing, addictive. It makes us feel like gods.

(I once boasted to my late father “give me source code and a place to stand, and I can move the world”.  Lever, shmever.  Suck it, Archimedes.)

It’s not just that Ada grasped things we now understand, or that she saw them first.  Her genius was to see what was possible, even though they hadn’t been built yet, and only a handful of people even understood what she was talking about.

We may say most aptly, that the Analytic Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.” (p. 149 quoting from Lovelace (1843))

Profound, and beautiful.

  1. James Essinger, Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, Brooklyn, Melville House, 2014.
  2. Luigi Federico  Menabrea and Ada Lovelace, Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage… with notes by the translator. Scientific Memoirs, 3: 666–731, 1843.


Sunday Book Reviews

El Nino Is Melting Antarctica Ice

Is Antarctica melting?

This may be the most important scientific question facing humanity.  If (when) the southern ice cap melts, it’s pretty much all over for human civilization.

So, there is a lot of attention to measuring and modelling Antarctica these days.

One of the outstanding questions is the effects of warmer climate. Warmer oceans and air generally mean more precipitation, which means more snow in Antarctica.  At the same time, warmer water and air melts sea ice and glaciers along coasts, which means less ice in Antarctica.  In addition, there are relatively short term changes, such as the El Nino cycles, which warm and cool in different years.

In short, there are plusses and minuses to the snow and ice every year, and Antarctica is a big place, where more than one thing happens.  What is the overall trend of the ice cover?

There is only one way to find out, and that is to actually measure the ice and snow. And the only reasonable way to measure a whole continent is with Earth observing satellites.

This winter a team of scientists working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and other institutions report on a study that combined data from four ESA satellites to create a record of the ice depth in West Antarctica for the last 23 years. These measurements are from radar on the orbital satellite, which, in combination with careful measurement of the satellite position, gives a measure of the top of the ice.

Diagram of Cryosat-2 Instruments

The research team further adjusts the measurements for atmospheric pressure and buoyancy, to derive as accurate a measure as possible for 30 x 30 km patches over the period 1994 – 2017.  These measures are correlated with other data representing the wind, ocean, and other weather.

The research finds that, over the period of the study, the ice has been steadily thinning, likely due to incursions of warmer ocean water under the ice shelf.  Accounting for the general trend, the study examined the effects of the El Nino and Southern Oscillation.  These periodic events intensify surface snow accumulation and ocean-driven basal melting.  The combined result is “an overall height increase, but net mass loss”, because the basal ice lost is denser than the fresh snow.

In El Nino years, this effect adds to the long term trend, and in El Nina years, there is a slowing of ice loss.  If such oscillations become more frequent, intense, or longer, there could be profound effects on the West Antarctic Ice.

The researchers note that these multi year trends can only be observed by continuous satellite coverage, i.e., a series of missions lasting decades.  Unfortunately, the US has dropped its coverage, and ESA’s Cryosat-2 will end in a couple of years.  We are going blind to what is happening in this crucial part of the world.

  1. Jonathan Amos, El Nino’s long reach to Antarctic ice, in BBC News – Science. 2018.
  2. F. S. Paolo., L. Padman, H. A. Fricker, S. Adusumilli, S. Howard, and M. R. Siegfried, Response of Pacific-sector Antarctic ice shelves to the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Nature Geoscience, 2018/01/08 2018.


Space Saturday


Liz Elam on the Future of Coworking

Liz Elam is the visible face of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, and a major advocate for the coworking “industry”.  This fall she wrote about Coworking Megatrends for 2018.

Sensei Elam makes some interesting observations.  She gives four trends:

  • Demand (especially, large corporations)
  • WeWork (is expanding and diversifying and aggressively marketing)
  • Scarcity of Resources (especially, community leaders)
  • Health (wellness and loneliness)

Elam is excited that “15% of the SP 500 have entered the coworking world”, though I’m not really sure what all “enter” means.  One thing it means is investment in coworking in a variety of permutations, “with more brands adding in coliving, coffee shops, retail and build to suit arrangements”.

WeWork has been aggressively expanding, underselling competitors, and generally being bad neighbors.  Elam comments that they are also diversifying and “losing focus on the original workspace vision”. (I have never heard her criticize any coworking operation before this.)

She sees a “scarcity of resources”, by which she means that investors are finding a dearth of investments, “they’re not finding enough operators that are willing, and able to scale.”  (Conversely, this means that there is a glut of money available.)  The most critical resource of all is community leadership, and experienced people are “in great demand and hard to retain”.

Finally, Elam continues to emphasize wellness. She echoes the growing concern about loneliness (which, by the way, has been a problem since the invention of cities).  She points out that “Coworking is the solution” to loneliness.

In a follow up with Sensei Cat Johnson, Elam emphasizes that health is at the end because it is the most important trend. This is a trendy topic, and who isn’t in favor of “healthy”?  But she emphasizes that there needs to be a serious commitment, not just boxes checked. Operators need “to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space”.

Elam also has frank words for coworking operators who face fatal competition from WeWork.

When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community…We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.

This is a somewhat apocalyptic vision, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this contradicts her own rosy conclusion “that Coworking will continue to thrive, evolve and take over the world.

Elam is usually a loud advocate for the coworking industry, so it is very interesting to see her rather tough critiques of the industry. Despite her often corp-speak rhetoric, she seems to understand the original and true innovation of coworking is community, community, community.

I hold that coworking was invented to deal with the isolation of independent workers, and when it works well, it probably is a “cure” for loneliness.  Implied but unsaid by Elam is the question whether piles of corporate money, branding, and diverse “services” are likely to deliver community and happiness.

My own view is that they are antithetical to authentic community, and Elam’s comments about “a more meaningful and smaller community” is telling.  So is her use of the word “We” in the next sentence.  She seems to think so, too.

One wonders what may unfold at the 2018 GCUC meeting.  Elam promises a “really frank discussion” of the WeWork threat.  But will the rest of the meeting be about authentic community, or about how to clone WeWork?

  1. Liz Elam, The Coworking Megatrends for 2018, in LinkedIn – Pulse. 2017.
  2. Cat Johnson, Digging Deeper Into The Coworking Megatrends Of 2018: A Q&A With Liz Elam, in AllWork. 2017.
  3. Cat Johnson, The Evolution of the Shared Workspace Industry (and Where We’re Going Next), in Cat Johnson content. 2018.


What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

A personal blog.

%d bloggers like this: