TITLE: Computing and Modern Culture AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 22, 2008 8:50 PM DESC: ----- BODY: The recent rescue of hostages in Colombia relied on a strategy familiar to people interested in computer network security: a man-in-the-middle attack.
... for months, in an operation one army officer likened to a "broken telephone," military intelligence had been able to convince Ms. Betancourt's captor, Gerardo Aguilar, a guerrilla known as "Cesar," that he was communicating with his top bosses in the guerrillas' seven-man secretariat. Army intelligence convinced top guerrilla leaders that they were talking to Cesar. In reality, both were talking to army intelligence.
As Bruce Schneier reports in Wired magazine, this strategy is well-known on the internet, both to would-be system crackers and to security experts. The risk of man-in-the-middle attacks is heightened on-line because the primary safeguard against them -- shared social context -- is so often lacking. Schneier describes some of the technical methods available for reducing the risk of such attacks, but his tone is subdued... Even when people have a protection mechanism available, as they do in SSL, they usually don't take advantage of it. Why? Using the mechanism requires work, and most of us are just too lazy. Then again, the probability of being victimized by a man-in-the-middle attack may be small enough that many of us can rationalize that the cost is greater than the benefit. That is a convenient thought, until we are victimized! The problem feature that makes man-in-the-middle attacks possible is unjustified trust. This is not a feature of particular technical systems, but of any social system that relies on mediated communication. One of the neat things about the Colombian hostage story it that shows that some of the problems we study in computer science are relevant in a wider context, and that some of our technical solutions can be relevant, too. A little computer science can amplify the problem solving of almost anyone who deals with "systems", whatever their components. This story shows a potential influence from computing on the wider world. Just so that you know the relationship runs both ways, I point you to Joshua Kerievsky's announcement of "Programming with the Stars", one of the events on the Developer Jam stage at the upcoming Agile 2008 conference. Programming with the Stars adapts the successful formula of Dancing with the Stars, a hit television show, to the world of programming. On the TV show, non-dancers of renown from other popular disciplines pair with professional dancers for a weekly dance competitions. Programming with the Stars will work similarly, only with (pair) programming plugged in for dancing. Rather than competitions involving samba or tango, the competitions will be in categories such as test-driven development of new code and refactoring a code base. As in the show, each pair will include an expert and a non-expert, and there will be a panel of three judges: I've already mentioned Uncle Bob in this blog, even in a humorous vein, and I envision him playing the role of Simon Cowell from "American Idol". How Davies and Hill compare to Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, I don't know. But I expect plenty of sarcasm, gushing praise, and hip lingo from the panel, dog. Computer scientists and software developers can draw inspiration from pop culture and have a little fun along the way. Just don't forget that the ideas we play with are real and serious. Ask those rescued hostages. -----