Science for the People: Secure Communications

sftp-square-fistonly-whitebgThis week, Science for the People is looking at technology for keeping secrets safe from prying eyes and ears. We’re joined by Dan Younger, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Waterloo, to discuss the remarkable work of his colleague Bill Tutte, who broke the German Lorenz Code during World War II. We’ll also discuss the cutting edge of quantum security with Physics and Computer Science Professor Shohini Ghose.

*Josh provides research & social media help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Reset the Net

We here at The Finch & Pea are supporters of freedom, privacy, and the open exchange of ideas. We do our best to respect your privacy and the rights of those who produce creative content.

To those ends, we have, from the beginning published under Creative Commons licenses and have joined in advocacy to oppose government mass surveillance. Today, we are joining a multitude in the Reset the Net campaign to take steps to provide a secure Internet, because our governments will not act to respect our basic freedoms. As security expert Bruce Schneier has noted, organizations like the NSA have chosen to work to make the Internet less secure for all of us, in order to make it easier for them to attack those they perceive as threats.

As a WordPress.com hosted site, we cannot directly affect the addition of security features as recommended by the Reset the Net campaign. Fortunately, we don’t need to. Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com has announced that it will be implementing the Reset the Net recommendations by implementing SSL on all its subdomains. They have also created an easy to implement Internet Defense League widget you can put on your own WordPress.com site to help spread the word.

We would also encourage you to click the banner at the bottom of the page or the Reset the Net logo to get information about taking back your privacy and helping to make the Internet secure.

Only if I get superpowers

Next month I will be boarding a flight at Dulles International Airport. The last flight I took was also out of Dulles and I became familiar with their security screening; almost every security line passes through one of the backscatter x-ray scanning machines. Normally, I’m pretty cavalier about most things but when agreeing to undergo a whole body x-ray, outside a hospital, I’d like to know the risks. In 2010, a group of scientists at UCSF, including a biophysicist and an oncologist, wrote a letter to the Assistant of Science and Technology reporting directly to the president, voicing their serious concerns about the safety of these devices. They felt that the data presented by the manufacturer was misleading and did not appropriately address whether this high dose of x-rays into the skin was truly safe. Fellow blogger Mike addressed this issue back in 2010. Since the time of the letter, there has been little research done on actual scanners because “security concerns” prevent the TSA from allowing scanners into public hands.

Several radiologists have stated that these scanners are probably not harmful to those who travel just a few times per  year. It is possible that older people, children and pregnant women are at a greater risk of DNA damage from ionizing radiation. It is also a public health concern when a large population of Americans who travel frequently or work in airports, are screened very often.  A recent scientific study shows evidence that these x-rays delivered at the specification of the scanning machine, can deliver radiation to internal organs.  These specifications also assume that the scanning machine is operating properly. Between May 2010 and May 2011 there were 3,778 service calls made about mechanical issues with back-scatter machines.

But why expose people to x-rays at all? Fellow blogger Josh has written about the cost benefit ratio involved in deciding whether risk of x-ray exposure is worth the potential to stop a terrorist. If there is a technology which can also detect non-metallic objects without delivering ionizing radiation, then its use should be promoted. An alternative to the backscatter x-ray is the millimeter wave scanning technology, which many airports already use. This method eliminates the worry that there may be potential side effects of screening all passengers and screening some passengers a great number of times.

For now, my choice is x-ray induced superpowers or a TSA pat-down. I’ve always wanted a superpower.