Encrypted communication tools and software have seen a steady rise since the many surveillance revelations that were exposed by whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowdon. The notion of encrypting your emails, web browsing history and even phone calls have led to a battle over security vs state monitoring, but, what are the weaknesses within these various encrypted apps? A new study has found that we humans often compromised our own anonymity.
The observation in question was discovered by researchers at the University of Alabama who performed a study that “Mimicked a cryptophone app”. These apps including Signal may ask both parties who are either texting or calling to “verbally compare a short string of words they see on their screens which is often referred to as a checksum or short authentication string” This is with the aim of ensuring that a new communication session has not been intercepted by a third-party, if it has, the words will not match up and thus it is not secure.
Sounds secure, the study has found that the flaw lies in many cases with human error itself, let me explain. Researchers designed the aforementioned mimicking of a cryptophone app before asking participants within the control group to use a web browser to make a call to an online server. They were then asked to listen to a random two or four word sequence before determining if it matched the words they saw on the computer screen in front of them. The control group were also asked to determine if the voice they heard was the same as one they’d heard previously reading a short story.
Researchers found that the study control group would more often than not accept calls when hearing the wrong sequence of words and reject calls when the sequence was transmitted correctly. It was also found that a four word checksum decreased the overall level of security when it should in theory increase it. To put it into perspective, out of 128 participants, an incorrect two-word string was accepted 30% of the time, while the same level two-word string that was spoken correctly was rejected 22% of the time. Four word strings had even worse results with incorrect strings being accepted 40% of the time while rejecting ones that were in fact correct 25% of the time.
A possible cause could lie in the fact that these words are random and not easily placed in a sentence, therefore, we humans tend to zone out and therefore lose concentration, the result could be that we think we hear something which is in fact incorrect or vice versa.
It’s an interesting experiment which could lead to better development of apps that aim to keep conversations secure.
A new messaging app for iOS allows users to delete sent texts from the recipient’s phone, whether they’ve read them or not. The app, called Strings, allows users to send and receive texts, images, and videos in either individual of group chats, but with a set of customisable privacy controls. Users can control who can save and download images and videos, and remove sent messages, either individually or as an entire thread.
Though String hails itself as a more private and customisable version of messaging apps WhatsApp and Snapchat – its tagline is “You pull all the strings” – it has no facility to stop users from taking screen captures.
Strings has just launched in the US. There is no word yet as to whether the app will be rolled out internationally.
There are a number of things in life that are simply frustrating – traffic jams, paperwork and queues are just some, but high up on the frustration list for many is that simple act of tangled headphones. No matter how hard you tr, carefully wrapping up your headphones before placing them in your bag or pocket, somehow they manage to unwrap themselves and play a game of twister when out of sight so that when you next get them out, you have to spend five minutes trying to intricately undo the mass of knots that have miraculously appeared.
‘Tangle-free’ headphones have been around for a little while now and to be honest I think they’re just marketing junk as those cables still feel the need to wrap themselves around each other, leading you to the point at which you want to scream. This age-old problem however is no more as Robert Matthews, a physicist at the Aston University in Birmingham has unravelled this mystery and come up with a drop dead simple solution that appears to put an end to tangled headphones. Yes, that’s right, science and universities have come to the rescue once again for a solution to a trivial conundrum.
The solution comes with two simple steps. The first of these is to ensure the two ear buds are clipped together (this is where that random bit of rubber around your headphones comes into play) after which you clip the buds and the jack together as seen above, with the intention that holding them together stops the cable from threading through itself and creating the knots.
‘The study explains why your headphone cable mysteriously turns into one big jumbled mess while it’s in your bag or pocket. We’ve also struck upon an easy solution – simply clipping together the two ends of the cords makes the cable less likely to form a knot – saving the frustration of having to untangle it before plugging in. This was all about using hard science to tackle an everyday issue.
It was great to see how enthusiastic school students were to get to grips with the surprisingly complex science behind the phenomenon, and carry out experiments to study the effect and identify the solution.’
If you don’t quite believe that this simple ‘trick’ works, I’ve tried it with a couple of pairs of headphones myself and even when trying to mess the cable up in my hands, everything just falls out with no knots, tangles or swearing-in sight. Matthews may have just created the antidote to traumatic tangled cables syndrome.