In this episode, which non-techies will find boring as hell, security expert Steve Gibson analyses the technology and gives it the thumbs up from a security and privacy point of view. This is a man I trust when it comes to these things.
But here’s the thing that you may have missed – this is the foundation for app development, it is NOT a tracking app itself.
If people bothered to tap on the above settings option to open and read the details, instead of taking screenshots, posting them on LinkedIn (and probably Facebook and Twitter) claiming that something underhanded is going on, then they would have seen that this functionality is only activated when a compatible application is installed.
In case you are concerned that someone could create an app and secretly access this functionality for nefarious reasons, not just any Tom, Dick or Harry can knock up Covid-19 Tracking App using this API.
Only third party companies affiliated with a public health authority or government can use it and that will be tightly controlled by Apple and Google.
So what do I do now?
Frankly, nothing. There is nothing you can do to remove this nor is there any need for you to do so. If you don’t install a tracking app, this functionality won’t be activated on your phone. Simple as that.
If you don’t trust Google or Apple (or your Government) then you probably want to think about changing your phone to something a bit less “smart”.
As an aside….
Above I linked out to the Security Now podcast with Steve Gibson where he gave the thumbs up to the technology.
Well, research suggests that for the system to work effectively it would need at least 80% of the population to install it on their devices – and if the above hysteria is anything to go by, that’s just not going to happen.
Many of us know that when we send an SMS (aka text message) it is sent in plain text and can be read by anyone with sufficient access.
This is normally limited to your cell provider but there are hackers out there using readily available hardware to act as a cell tower and initiate a man-in-the-middle attack.
Now I don’t know about you but I seldom send a regular SMS message – I use WhatsApp most of the time. Not only does it allow group chats (very handy for communicating with the family – especially during Covid-19 Lockdown) but it also provides end-to-end encryption. This means that only the intended recipient(s) and myself can read the message content.
It’s not that I’m doing anything illegal of course, it’s all about privacy.
Now, before you start down the ‘what about terrorists and paedophiles’ route I’ve already covered my thoughts about that argument, normally spouted by Government officials when trying to justify an erosion of our privacy and freedoms, in a previous blog post.
The UK Government (and they are not alone by any means) are continually using this argument to attempt to force technology companies to weaken their encrypted messaging systems. They are calling for backdoors to be put in to allow ‘authorised’ agencies to access the data to aid with criminal investigations.
My argument is that should the tech companies relent and add these backdoors then the bad people will just use something else or, crucially, write their own. This would leave the rest of us on hobbled, insecure system with ‘authorised agencies’ trawling around peoples private messages attempting to justify their hard won access.
So what is involved in writing your own secure messaging system? Surely it’s not just an app on the phone. Surely there needs to be servers and things to receive and forward these messages to the correct recipients. How would a regular user set these things up?
Well, yes there does need to be some form of delivery system but that doesn’t mean we need to write it – there’s already one out there, it’s on just about every phone out there and it’s been tried and tested for years. I am of course talking about the humble SMS text message.
Hang on, SMS isn’t secure!
True, the way SMS works doesn’t add any encryption to the process – plain text goes in and plain text comes out.
But this doesn’t mean that we can’t encrypt the message before we send it and for the recipient to decrypt it at the other end.
Now, I consider myself as a pretty competent developer – but I’m not what I would think of as a “rockstar developer”. I won’t have any of the big tech companies banging on my door offering me a massive salary and stock options to work for them. But surely I could write a mobile app which would allow the user to send and receive encrypted messages over SMS. As it happens – I can, and did just that.
As a proof of concept (you’re going to hear that term a lot in this post) I wrote an Android application, using Xamarin, which handles Key Pair generation, Key Exchange via QR code, Encryption, Decryption and integration with the devices SMS functionality.
Encryption is handled by the Open Source Sodium.Core library which is a fork of libsodium.net (also Open Source) which is itself a wrapper around the well regarded libsodium library – yep, Open Source all the way down.
In the image below Bob is sending a message to Alice, they have already exchanged their public keys using the app to display and scan a QR code containing the required data.
Lets break this down a bit and explain, at a high level, what is happening here;
Inside the Shhh.SMS app Bob selects Alice as the message recipient and enters his message (he can add emojis if he likes – that all works too!)
After clicking Send devices SMS app is opened with the encrypted message ready to send
Bob will need to specify the recipient from his contacts
Alice receives the SMS just like any other and uses the SMS apps ‘Share with’ functionality to send the encrypted message content with the Shhh.SMS app
Shhh.SMS opens and if it can verify the message it displays the decrypted text
After passing the message over to the devices SMS application is only exists on Bob’s phone in it’s encrypted form.
When Alice receives the message it is only decrypted for viewing within the Shhh.SMS application.
Moreover, while the message was being sent it was encrypted using keys that only exist, securely, on the sender and recipients devices. The cell carriers involved in the delivery of the message have no way of decrypting it.
So what’s the point?
Let’s get this absolutely straight – I did not write this app so that bad people could communicate with each other about bad things. That’s not the point I’m trying to make here.
The point is that the encryption genie is out of the bottle and it cannot be put back in. It’s just math!
“…it’s a proof of concept and lacks polish but that’s not the point”
If the world Governments think that outlawing the use of encrypted messaging applications is going to stop bad people from using them then they are frankly deluded.
This app took me a couple of weeks of evenings to put together – sure, it’s a proof of concept and lacks polish but that’s not the point. The point is that if I can write this in a couple of weeks as an investigation, what could others with a more sinister mindset achieve?
The general public are, generally, good people. So why should we all be treated as if we are criminals?
When privacy is criminalized, only criminals will have privacy.
If you want to submit pull requests to fix problems or improve the app then please feel free to do so – but do bear in mind that it will never be my intention to release this as a production app via the Google Play Store.
By the way – did I mention that Shhh.SMS is only a Proof of Concept? Good, just checking 🙂
TLDR; I’m another statistic – IR35 and the Covid-19 outbreak have forced me into a position where I have to close down my contracting company and seek alternative employment.
Well, that’s that! Today I instructed my accountant to ‘Pull the Pin’ on my company and start the process of winding it up. A sad but somehow inevitable day for me – I’ve seen it coming for a month or so but it’s not easy being here now.
I’ve been contracting through my limited company for the last 9 years and in the time I have worked on numerous projects across numerous sectors – an experience that has, I believe, left me a better developer that I would otherwise had been. I have no regrets – none!
But a combination of unfair an tax legislation and a worldwide pandemic have left me in an untenable situation – while the company might (just might) survive the Covid-19 Lockdown the specter of IR35 looms large on the horizon and I’d rather take a different fork in the road instead of heading into more uncertainty.
While this results in files that are difficult for humans to read, browsers are still able to load and parse the data (unless the minification process has been a bit heavy-handed).
These files are normally used in preference over the unminified versions because of the reduced file size – making for quicker page load times.
As we enter week six of the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK I am still ‘between contracts’. I’ve had a handful of video interviews but these haven’t led anywhere yet – but I’m not sitting around idle.
Notwithstanding the decorating, gardening and spring-cleaning (of office and summerhouse – I’m not trusted to attack the house itself) I have been hitting Pluralsight online tech training hard for the past few weeks.
Taking the time to get up to speed with the most recent changes in .NET Core, Blazor and Xamarin were an initial target for my attention but I’ve subsequently moved on to those courses that I had bookmarked thinking – “that would be interesting/useful to look into if I ever get time”. Well now I have the time.
The police chief was forced to u-turn in his threat while the forces involved with the other two incidents say that the officers were ‘well intentioned but over zealous’ – but to my mind, that’s not the point.
The point is that there will always be people in a position of authority or power who overstep their remit – and when it come to our privacy that’s not a good thing.
In my previous post I stated that ‘As Directors we are not able to furlough ourselves and therefore would not be eligible for the Governments Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme‘.
I also said ‘the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward‘ – and it has (although a bit quicker than I expected).
If you don’t know who Martin Lewis is then check out the Money Saving Expert website. Basically, when this guy says something, especially it’s all in CAPS then he’s checked and double-checked the facts. He wouldn’t make this kind of statement without being absolutely sure.
If he says that Limited Company Directors CAN furlough themselves – even if they are the sole employee of the company, then that’s good enough for me.
Yesterday (17th March 2020) the Government announced that they would be postponing the rollout of IR35 changes into the private sector due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Despite the Minister referring to ‘off roll payroll working rules‘ (maybe indicating that he has no real idea what they are) he confirms that the changes will be tabled again ready for implementation in April 2021.
This comes far too late for many genuine contractors and associated services such as accountants who have had to close their businesses down as clients imposed blanket bans or ‘Inside’ determinations requiring the engagement of Umbrella companies and significant reductions in income.
It also comes the day after HMRC provided evidence to the House of Lords and were found seriously wanting in their response to scrutiny. While the House of Lords cannot force Government to defer the bill we have to hope that this contributed to the decision to pause the rollout (regardless of what they say).
I’m currently working on a new privacy application for Android and in a previous post I guided you from the Xamarin.Android Drawer Navigation project template to something that actually worked (as in you could actually use the pretty navigation provided by the template).
Now I wanted to change the menu items to something more relevant with some appropriate icons – I mean, how hard can that be right?
Well, as with everything in development these days – things are not always as easy as they seem to be.
It may sound odd but from time to time I get approached to review a book which is either due to be or has just been published.
I say odd because I’m just a regular developer – not a podcasting rockstar (or even a blogging one). Why would my option be worth a free copy of a book?
Maybe it’s because I’m just a regular developer – just like most of us.
Some of these I let pass me by, especially if I have no real interest in the content, i.e. a technology that I am not using and have no plans to use – F# for example. I frequently say that ‘you have to pick your fights when it comes to technology – you can’t win them all’.
So, when Packt asked if I would review this book it made me wonder:
“How much of a master can I be after reading a book that’s ‘only’ 200 pages?”.
I’m certainly not belittling the authors efforts, but I have a Microsoft Press book ‘Creating Mobile Apps with Xamarin.Forms‘ which is more than twice that length and that doesn’t claim to be able to make me a ‘Master’.
So, I’ve had an idea for another privacy-focused application, this time aimed at mobile devices – Android in particular (I know that Apple are a little touchy about encryption apps – maybe I’ll venture into iOS at a later date).
Notwithstanding my desire to keep my skills up to date I knew that the project I have in mind would require a lot of platform specific logic. While Xamarin Forms can handle this I prefer to take the hit, roll my sleeves up and I opted for a native Android project instead – and that’s where the trouble/fun started.
If you go through the ‘New Project’ process below you will end up with an application which will look something like the one above;
Yep -just what I needed, an application with a slide out menu. Now all I need to do is to replace the default options with my own and then open the appropriate views when they are clicked – what could be easier?
Well I guess it’s old news now, although it was quite foreseeable, but despite a pre-election promise the Conservatives have reneged on their commitment to review the IR35 legislation. Instead they will review the process for rolling the changes into the private sector – not the same thing at all.
Instead of me going over old ground, take a look at my previous IR35 post which was published prior to the election (and it’s broken promises).
In the weeks that have followed Twitter has been ablaze with tweets tagged with #IR35 – many are mine. There is a lot of anger out there and our worst fears, that end clients would take the ‘easy option’ and just stop using contractors altogether has come to pass (despite HMRC saying it wouldn’t).
Take a look at the OffPayroll.org.uk site and you’ll see the extent of the problem that is unfolding.
While we all know that Test Driven Development (TDD) is a good idea, in practice it’s not always viable. It could be a time constraint, a resource issue or the project just doesn’t warrant it.
While TDD may sometimes be an option, unit tests themselves should really be considered to be a must. They will save you a lot of time in the long run and while they may not prevent you from going grey, ask me how I know, they will reduce your stress levels when bugs raise their ugly heads.
So, whether you write your tests before you write the code or vice-versa, if you are developing production code you really should write tests to cover it.
Now, one of the requirements for unit testing is the ability to mock out a components dependencies so that you are only testing the component itself.
Normally you would use the Dependancy Injection pattern to help develop loosely coupled systems but Xamarin.Forms has a few components which can be a fly in the ointment – one of these is the MessagingCenter.