Archive for Geekery


A year ago today …

GNU Terry Pratchett

Some simple steps to bypass the British government’s new internet spy ring

The British government will shortly be requiring all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to store the browsing history of every single person in the UK for a year.

Why are they doing this? For your own safety, of course. It’s to protect you from all the terrorists and organised crime gangs that they’re allowing into the country to enrich the fabric of society.

If you’re happy for the authorities to have access to your browsing history on demand then you’re not going to be interested in the rest of this post, you should probably get back to those cute kittens that can haz cheezburger. If you do have a problem with the authorities being able to see which political party you’ve taken an interest in, who you bank with, what your sexual preferences are, what religion you follow, who you’re talking to, which news stories you follow, whether you like cute kittens and every other little detail your internet habits can tell someone wanting to build up a picture of your private life to feed into their databases then you can do what the terrorists and organised crime gangs do and bypass big brother with an anonymising service.

I’m going to try and make what follows as simple as possible, partly because I’m not a networking god who knows intimately how this stuff works but mainly because you don’t need to know how it works to use it.


Tor LogoBy far the most widely used anonymising service is Tor which stands for The Onion Router. It’s so named because of the multiple layers of security it provides. It works by bouncing your traffic round the world through a number of proxies to hide where your internet traffic came from. In layman’s terms, instead of your computer contacting the web server where a website is located directly it contacts another computer in the Tor network which itself contacts another computer in the Tor network and after this has happened a few times one of the computers will get the website you wanted and pass it back the way it came. It sounds complicated and behind the scenes it is but you don’t see any of this happen, you just get the website you wanted and the web server thinks you’re in Istanbul or Taiwan or South Africa or some other random location.

The security in this comes from the fact that any computer in the Tor network in that chain only knows about the computer it got the request from and the one it’s sending it to and those two computers don’t know about each other. If criminals or terrorists or government agencies (try not to get them confused, they do much the same job) manage to compromise one of the computers in the chain they’re not going to get a picture of where the request has come from or where it’s going to because the computer they’ve compromised doesn’t know and what it doesn’t know, it can’t tell them. Connections are also encrypted all the way from your computer to the last computer in the Tor network that goes off to the web server to get your website and every time you request a website, your computer picks a different set of computers to go through.

There are some downsides to using Tor which you need to bear in mind. Some bad people use Tor. Hackers, scammers, criminal gangs, terrorists, drug dealers, black market weapons dealers, the US Navy, national intelligence agencies and more. It’s unlikely but one day you might end up with one of them at the start of the chain and that’s where your privacy and security can be compromised. The chances are it won’t happen to you and it is less likely to happen that using the internet in the traditional way but no system is foolproof. It will also be slower than you’re used to and sometimes you might find that a website is blocked in whatever country your request ends up in.

The most common way of using Tor is by downloading the browser bundle which gives you the Tor proxy service and a customised version of Firefox. You can download it from the Tor Project website, run the installer and follow the prompts. All you have to do then is remember to use the Tor browser to access the internet and to think carefully about how much of your privacy you’re giving away voluntarily.

There is also a Tor browser package for Android phones and tablets meaning you can get the same protection while you’re out and about as you do when you’re at home. You can get it from the Play Store and you don’t need to root your device to use it.


Tails ScreenshotTo add an extra layer of security to your browsing you can use Tor in in a secure virtual machine. Tails is a Linux distribution with Tor built in and you can download an ISO image that you can mount in VMWare or VirtualBox or your preferred virtualisation platform. Installation is straightforward and several security and privacy applications are installed with it. As long as you don’t snapshot the virtual machine and you have enough physical memory to run your virtual machine, nothing you do when using it will be saved once you’ve shut the virtual machine down. If you’re looking to avoid being flagged up as a user of anonymising services then it’s a good way of keeping the Tor browser away from insecure applications in Windows (or Windows itself) that can report back the fact that your have it installed. It also means you can continue your casual browsing to generate a browsing history whilst plotting your bloody revolution or looking at pictures of ladies wearing no pants on a browser that can’t be traced back to you.

You can get more information on Tails and download an image from the Tails website. There are far too any variations for me to tell you here how to install a virtual machine but there are lots of websites that will tell you how to do it for your particular operating system.

In conclusion

Following the steps above will give you the same level of security and privacy as the criminal gangs and terrorists that routine spying on our internet browsing history is supposed to protect us from but if you want to take advantage of that security you need to change your habits. If you use social media you have already given away your privacy. It doesn’t matter what you have your privacy setting set to in Facebook or Google+, if they’re issued with a warrant to hand over your data they’ll do it without a second thought. If you use any location-based services you’re creating a record of your whereabouts at any given time and depending on what the service is, you’re probably building up a picture of what you’re doing when you’re there. If you take a selfie in McDonalds and put it on Pinterest you’ve told the world where you are and that you like Big Macs.

You may be happy to share what’s going on in your life and the places you’ve been to – I know I do it a lot – but that doesn’t mean you have to be happy with government agencies, local councils, the police and other statutory bodies having access to your browsing history whether you want them to or not. It doesn’t matter what protections are promised when the legislation is passed, you only have to look at how RIPA, SOCA and anti-terrorism legislation has been abused by the authorities to the extent that you can be locked up for reading the names of dead soldiers at a national war memorial, put under house arrest after being found innocent by a jury and spied on to check you’re in a primary school catchment area.

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety
– Benjamin Franklin

It’s reasonable to assume that anyone associated with an anti-establishment political party or group is on a list and if you’re in a position of any influence you can pretty much guarantee that someone is taking an interest in you. If you want to maintain some privacy then this is a step in the right direction.

Happy Star Wars Day

My the Fourth be with you

Are you enlightened?

Ingress Enlightened

Subway Surf never ending magnet bug

Here’s a gift for the Subway Surf fans out there: I’ve found a bug that will give you a never-ending magnet (at least until you’re caught).

The other night I was lying in bed playing Subway Surf (as you do) and was approaching a jetpack when I accidentlly swiped into a train, allowing the secuity guy to catch me up.  As I was pickig up the jetpack I swiped into a train again, allowing the security guard to catch me.  Except he stayed on the ground while my character flew into the air upside down as if being held up by one leg with magnet in hand.  Capture avoided.

What was interesting though was that after the jetpack ran out my character dropped to the ground again and still had the coin magnet in hand even after the timer bar had run out.  My curiosity got the better of me and I crashed into a barrier to se if I was invincible.  I  wasn’t but was a bit wealthier than I was when I started!

Crowd sourcing mobile phone coverage maps

A colleague showed me an app the other day that helps produce crowd sourced mobile phone coverage and performance maps.

I’m sure everyone’s seen the mobile phone operators’ own coverage maps which are reasonably accurate but are based on maths rather than user experience and Rootmetrics have seen this as a gap that needs filling.

I have no idea how Rootmetrics make money but that’s their problem, not mine.  The company has already mapped much of America and is now mapping the UK.  Their employees have already driven round London and Hull testing the mobile networks and the gaps are being filled by mobile phone users like me who are running the continuous test on the Rootmetric app when travelling to build up coverage and performance data.  The continuous test only works on the Android version of the app, not the iPhone version for some reason (probably a spurious “security” restriction imposed by Apple) and it’s pretty data hungry – the app has used over 750mb in 4 days – so you’ll only want to use it on an unlimited data plan.

Rootmetrics Coverage Map Telford

The tests produced are a good guide for signal strength at least but the data stats are slightly less convincing which makes the Rootmetric score – a combined score based on signal strength and data speeds – a bit misleading.  For instance, if I check my connection speed on the app I can get some blistering speeds for a 3G connection – 9.39mbit/sec one day this week – but the download speed is fairly average using Rootmetrics’ servers giving it a yellow/orange hexagon – which is more a refelection on Rootmetrics’ infrastructure than Three’s.  I tether my tablet to my phone at work and at least one of my colleagues tethers to it in the office because he’s on Vodafone and they’re rubbish and it’s good enough to watch live TV on more than one device using the same connection.

That said, the idea of crowd sourcing mobile phone coverage data is a great one and I’m certainly doing my bit!

High speed mobile services coming to the UK

Orange/T-Mobile are launching a new 4G mobile phone service under the brand Everything Everywhere (EE), the name they gave themselves when the two networks merged.

4G LTEThere’s been a bit of controversy around the 4G roll-out though.  OFCOM, which is responsible for licensing the spectrum that 4G mobile networks will use, has given EE permission to use some of the spectrum it already owns to roll out 4G services ahead of the auction for the rest of the spectrum.  Other mobile phone providers reckon this is a bit unfair as they don’t have any spare spectrum and EE only have spare spectrum because OFCOM gave them a big chunk for free a few years ago.  They thought that was unfair at the time as well but nothing came of it.

Three make a bit of a fuss about the way the 4G auction was going to be run, saying that it gave an unfair advantage to the big four networks who already had lots of spectrum.  They have since done a deal with EE to run their own 4G services over their network.  It’s a logical extension of the mast-sharing deal they currently have with Orange.

The 4G launch will be an Apple-free zone with only Windows 8 and Android phones expected in the first year and although Apple is rumoured to be preparing a 4G version of the iBrick it might not work with EE’s network.

It does seem a little unfair that EE are getting to launch their 4G network early but while it gives them an advantage at the outset being the only 4G provider, they’re going to find themselves running a network on the wrong frequency with a limited set of handsets as a result.  They’ll buy more spectrum in the auction and then spend stupid money running the two alongside each other.  This fragmentation happens in the US and it’s a nightmare – you get entire cities with only one operator because the mobile network has been built non-standard and no other operator’s handsets work.

Whatever happens, the rollout of 4G can only be a good thing.  Fixed line broadband really has had its day – wireless has virtually limitless possibilities and can provide high speed data connections where laying miles of copper wires or fibre optics just aren’t an option.  The only thing that is likely to hold it back is divergence as a result of EE’s early adoption and companies spending stupid money in the spectrum auctions and not having enough cash to invest in building the new networks.

Geek alert … tel: or callto:?

Time for another geek interlude – tel: versus callto:

Taking WAP out of the equation because it’s so old as to be irrelevant, there are two ways to mark up telephone numbers in HTML.  The tel: URI (Universal Resource Indicator – it tells your browser what it can expect to find at the destination of your link) is the official standard for marking up telephone numbers whilst callto: is a proprietary URI made popular by Skype and unsurprisingly, Microsoft.

By marking up a telephone number, it makes it easier for visitors to your website to make phone calls from their phones or computers – click on the link and it launches whichever application is set up to handle phone calls.  But the problem is, which of the two do you accommodate on your website?  Mobile devices are the obvious target because they’re usually going to be mobile phones so tel: would seem to be the obvious choice but it’s not uncommon for people to have Skype phones or another VoIP phone service so callto: support would be useful.

But you can’t have both so which should you use?  Do you encourage standards compliance by using tel: or pander to the embrace and extend ethos of Sky and Microsoft and use callto:?  Do you cater for mobile devices with tel: or desktops with callto:?

With the rapid convergence of internet and phones, we need some standards compliance in the major browsers.  The last thing we need is a VHS/Betamax or Blueray/HD-DVD battle over telephone number markup standards!

Petition the British government (not that it’ll make much difference!)

The British government’s ePetitions site has gone live today and failed spectacularly.  Even this late in the day it’s still crashing more often than not as it’s not been scaled adequately for the feeding frenzy that was inevitable for its launch.  Should have hosted it in a cloud with some other online services that have an annual peak later on in the year and used the latent capacity.

Sorry, should have posted a geek alert.

I’ve signed a few petitions tonight.  Obviously I think they’re all important in one way or another otherwise I wouldn’t have signed them but these are my top three so please sign them too!

  • Britain wants referendum to leave EU
    The Daily Express is crusading to end Britain’s membership of the European Union. We want the Government to arrange for an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU either by means of an enabling referendum or directly so that the British people are once again placed in charge of their own political destiny. We would like this matter debated in parliament.
  • Creation of an English Parliament
    That England be given within the framework of devolution the same national political institutions as Scotland, including the creation of a Parliament, the office of First Minister, of a Government and a dedicated civil service for all of a united England. At present, England has no purely English national political institutions and thereby suffers from unfair treatment within the UK. The creation or revival of a English Parliament will answer the question ‘Who speaks for England?’ and should ensure that the interests of all the people of England are given higher priority and greater care. As John Bright famously said: ‘England is the Mother of all Parliaments’. It is well time that England regained her own Parliament.
  • Reinstate the hereditary peers
    A petition for the reinstatement of the hereditary peers to the house of lords, whos right to sit and vote in the upper chamber was abolished under the house of lords act 1999.

The reasons why we should have a referendum on membership of the EU are obvious.  We’ve given away our sovereignty, our wealth and our resources to the EU.  The sooner we’re out of it the better.

The reasons for an English Parliament are similarly obvious.  It is a travesty that English still doesn’t have a government of its own and a national insult.  England is the last colony of the British Empire, we need to throw off the British yoke and start running our own country for our own benefit.

Reinstating the hereditary peers is something I’ve written about several times.  I have always believed it was a regressive step to abolish hereditary peers and the fact the the House of Lords is now full to bursting with politically appointed peers as reward for donations and services rendered backs that belief up.  Only hereditary peers can give us the randomness and independence of though that is needed in government.

If any of these petitions reach 100,000 signatures then it will be debated in the House of Commons.  100,000 sounds like a lot but the road pricing petition started by Peter Roberts on the old Downing Street petitions website got almost a million signatures and according to the bods that ran that service, the petition did actually get well over 1m signatures but the site couldn’t cope with the demand and they weren’t all counted.  100,000 signatures is a lot for a petition but it’s not a number that can be dismissed easily.

Of course a debate doesn’t mean a change of policy and one MP (I forget who it was and where I read it) said that MPs should “lead on policy” not listen to what the people want.  One thing’s for sure – if they don’t already want to change policy a 100,000 signature online petition certainly isn’t going to make them!

Installing Google Chrome on OpenSuse with KDE desktop

While I am a political animal nowadays, I am, first and foremost, a geek and I’ve been indulging my inner geek this last couple of weeks by installing Linux on a couple of laptops.

I haven’t played with Linux for about 7 or 8 years so I went for one of the most popular distros.  It was going to be Ubuntu but it wouldn’t install on Mrs Sane’s laptop – a common problem with Ubuntu not liking the graphics card – so I plumped for OpenSuse instead and the KDE desktop.

The OpenSuse install went like a dream.  The Partition Manager wasn’t the easiest to understand but that’s largely down to me not really thinking about what I was doing properly so I ended up only partitioning half the drive (note to self: remember to resize the partition on the laptop).  The second install I did I did it properly – delete the Windows partitions, rescan the disk and go with the recommendations.

I encountered a couple of problems once I’d got OpenSuse and KDE installed which I’ll walk through below for the benefit of anyone else installing OpenSuse for the first time.

Changing your hostname

Figuring out how to change the hostname on KDE was the first thing that posed me a challenge but I found it eventually.  The hostname is the name of your computer as it appears on the network and OpenSuse randomly generates one for you.

Here’s how to change it:

Click on the Application Launcher button (where the Start button is in Windows).  Hover over the Computer icon at the bottom and then click on Yast.  You will need to provide your root password for Yast.  Select Network Devices on the left hand list and then Network Settings on the right.  You’ll get a message saying that the network is controlled by NetworkManager – just click ok.  Select the Hostname/DNS tab and put the new computer name in the Hostname box.  If your computer is part of a domain, put the domain name here, otherwise whatever you enter will be the workgroup your computer is a member of.  You may need to log off and back on again for the changes to take effect.

Installing Google Chrome

The other thing that gave me a headache was installing Google Chrome.  This one wasn’t as easy to resolve as the hostname thing but I got it figured out in the end.  If Google want to increase the take-up of Chrome on Linux then they really need to improve the installation process because it just doesn’t work on OpenSuse with KDE.  Here’s how to do it:

Go to and download Chrome.  Make sure you choose the correct installer – you want an rpm package.  Once the package is downloaded, open a Terminal window.  You need to be logged in as root to install Google Chrome so type in su – root, press enter and provide your root password.  The installer package will be downloaded to /tmp so type in cd /tmp.  Now you need to install the package – type in zypper – install google-chrome-stable_current_i386.rpm.

During the install you may be prompted for your root password and permission to install a number of packages – enter your password  and agree to the other packages.  Strangely, the installation package doesn’t actually install everything Google Chrome needs – without the png library, Chrome will load and then shut down without even displaying anything on the screen.  To install the png library, you need to run zypper -install pnglib12-0.