Rupert Goodwins' Diary

In which Christmas madness prompts both a trip to Claridges and the local seedy pub, along with dreams of unbreakable encryption

Monday 15/12/2003
There's an increasing buzz about voice over IP: not only are previously diehard opponents like BT getting in on the act, as we reported last week, but the quality of the alternatives is getting better. One program that's attracting a lot of interest is Skype (rhymes with tripe), which is a peer-to-peer telephony package written by the people behind Kazaa. Today, with a brain rendered numb by the approaching festivities, I finally download the thing and have a play (my ID is rupertgo -- if you see me on, gissa tinkle).

It looks on the surface like an instant messenger client with telephony built in, an idea that's hardly new, but it has a long list of nice features like decent call management, directories and logging. Oh, and encryption.

Encryption is the really interesting part. Although it's still illegal for people to tap phone calls without a warrant, at least in the UK, practically every other aspect of personal electronic communication is fair game. Your ISP has to store your Web sites, emails and other details of your online sessions for delivery to the forces of law and order; your mobile phone network is equally accommodating. With good encryption, at least in theory, you can have a conversation with anyone in the world and nobody else can find out what you said -- even with authority to tap. PC voice over IP may be the only way to do this, soon.

So is Skype's encryption good? Hard to say. It's supposedly the US government standard AES, which is designed to be uncrackable by anyone other than, er, the US government -- and even they'll have problems. But since Skype is closed code, one has to take their word for it: until the code itself or a third party security analysis becomes available, it can't be trusted.

There is an alternative, which I'm amazed nobody's done yet -- voice encryption using huge one-time pads of random numbers. Make a DVD full of true random data, give a copy to your pal and use it to encrypt your voice. In the words of Bruce Sterling, this is encryption that God himself couldn't break: once you've run out of DVD, which should take a month or so, toss it on the fire and that's that. Your conversations are part of the heat noise of the universe.

All that the spooks and bad guys can do is prove you had a conversation. Even that can be disguised -- use a server that mixes your conversation with that of forty-nine others and sends all fifty to all fifty. Or set up peer-to-peer links that relay through a few other clients, who throw in their data. You can only decrypt yours, of course, but nobody looking at your data can tell which that is. All you'll need is a DVD writer and broadband, which are two things that will be pretty well universal.

Next year, perhaps, we'll see the tide of privacy turn in our favour.

Tuesday 16/12/2003
Living as I do in one of the livelier parts of London, I've become inured to a certain level of sordidness. After a while, you stop being worried by the ladies of negotiable intimacy and the neurochemically altered street denizens that cluster around King's Cross, and shortly after that you stop seeing them altogether. And besides, if I answered the request "want some business, love?" with "yes, fancy a white paper on the mobile-phone market at my daily consultancy rate?", I doubt I'd get much satisfaction.

However, there are some areas I still actively avoid. One is The Flying Scotsman, a fabulously forbidding pub next to the station whose sooty aspect is only enhanced by blacked-out windows covered in psychedelic scribble. I walk past it regularly, but have never even dared to peer inside. However, this week it suddenly sprouted a sign: "No mobile phones allowed inside." What on earth was going on in there that could be threatened by a phone call?

I had to give in to curiosity so, uttering a prayer to whatever deity was on duty today, I pushed open the door and looked in. Sitting at the bar was a woman in a white basque, counting through a pile of small change. Blimey! And there was another exotic lady, fag in mouth, in her undies, chatting to the barman. She stopped for a second and gave me an incurious glance, then got back to her gossiping.

Ahhhh. All became clear. The establishment is one of the last outposts of that peculiar entertainment, the pub stripper. Last time I came across this, so to speak, was when I worked in Docklands in the 80s, where a similarly uninviting place called The Vulcan advertised lunchtime ecdysis for the connoisseur. But that's long closed, and I assumed the genre was history.

It very clearly was no such thing. I nodded at the ladies, put on my best "sorry, I thought this was Platform 8" look, turned tail and fled.

Whether this is in any way connected with the MP who got thrown out of the debating chamber in the House of Commons this week for using a mobile camera phone, I cannot say. One would like to think so.

Wednesday 17/12/2003
Fancy a new operating system? You can wait three years for Longhorn, which will have all sorts of fab things you never knew you wanted, or you can download the brand-new release of the Linux kernel, 2.6.0, which became available today. That darn open source won't go away, and with Red Hat announcing healthy revenue growth, Novell's acquisition of SuSE seen as a very positive move, and a report from the Institute for Software Research saying open source is often a better way to produce fine code than closed proprietary methods, it's full steam ahead. The Standard Industry Naysayers at Microsoft and SCO grumble away about the GPL being cancerous and even against the US Constitution, but everyone else is too busy making money and having a good time to do more than pause, point, laugh and move on.

This has been a year in which open source really has proved itself capable of weathering concerted attacks by the increasingly desperate old guard. On every front -- technical, legal, even cultural -- it's stronger than ever. The true strength is exemplified by the Linux kernel, which has added lots of really useful features -- more 64-bit support, Bluetooth, extensive multiprocessor capabilities, hyperthreading, better networking. Tons of stuff. And because the development has been out in the open, the big Linux vendors are already familiar with all the new features: anybody else's major dot-zero release would need a long period of qualification and testing after it became available. There'll be a bit of that, of course, but in general Linux has lived up to every claim.

Thursday 18/12/2003
To Claridges, for lunch with PR company Medialink and a selected bunch of their clients -- Hauppauge, makers of computer TV thingies; E92 Plus, anti-spam software bods; and STB Systems, who do financial support software for banks. An eclectic mix, and the conversation spirals around money laundering, who's doing what to whom at the BBC, and was that really Mick Jagger spotted in the corridor outside the room (yes, it was. Some people stop at nothing to find out about anti-spam software). There is a "no work talk" rule in effect, but that's loudly ignored: having fleets of efficient flunkies drifting around topping up your glass, supplying cigars the size of dachshunds, and sweeping up the crumbs with amazing silver equipment makes one feel raucously decadent.

Claridges is a very odd place. The staff used to wear footman-style tights and wigs until around ten years ago, and it still has the last lift in Europe with an operator (they say). It's certainly huge, with a sofa at the back big enough to take all four Rolling Stones: a sofa that one likes to think was regularly graced with the backside of Barbara Cartland, who inhabited a suite in the hotel until her death.

She would doubtless find it gone terribly downhill.

Friday 19/12/2003
Microsoft has launched its own denial of service attack on the Internet. Well, what else can you call a security advisory that says that before clicking on a link, you should right click, copy, open Notepad, paste the link and inspect it by eye for badness? That's not just one link, that's every link -- at a stroke, slowing down even the broadest of broadband links to a crawl. Imagine the pain of having to do that dance when you're out Googling for gems. The trouble is, of course, that Internet Explorer displays URLs incorrectly when certain characters are present, a trick gleefully seized upon by the ever-growing army of scammers.

This is, or should be, an enormous Christmas present for Opera or Mozilla, who can now bundle up their software and offer it as the ultimate Internet Explorer security patch. And it's the perfect way to leave Microsoft as we wander off into the holly-infested, tinsel-packed holidays: never mind, there's always the New Year Resolution to give up daft security bugs and dafter security advice.

Interesting Christmas Ponderings Number One: why, when you type in 'xmas' to a Nokia or other phone with T9 predicative text, does it spell "Wob". Who is Wob, and woy?

Interesting Christmas Ponderings Number Two: How did Lowestoft schlock rock band The Darkness get away with a Christmas single that is simultaneously camper than a Volkswagen minibus and has a kids' choir singing about bell ends?

On that note, goodbye. See you next year…