A Back Door?

A Back Door?


Back Door | Guy L. Pace
What is a back door? Not long ago, we heard a lot in the media about one group needing a back door to the product of another group so we can all be kept safer. Yeah, this column is going to get a little bit technical, geeky. Sorry. But, I’ll try to make it educational and fun.

The one group–specifically Apple–is being pressured by other groups–the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DoJ)–to allow back door access to a proprietary encryption system used by that first group. Apple designed the encryption system to provide customers (you) a reasonable expectation of security and privacy in their transactions and communications.

Certain events over the last couple of years brought to the surface the FBI’s inability to break the encryption and discover evidence in possible criminal investigation without going through destructive processes that may or may not compromise the physical evidence.

So, people in the FBI voiced their desire for Apple to provide law enforcement a back door to their encryption. Of course, law enforcement would prevent the unauthorized release of the back door. Right?

And, there is the rub.

Expectation

Let’s examine this from a different angle. Door locks. We all have door locks, right? Front door. Back door. Side door. They all have locks. And, matched to those locks, we have keys with specific combinations of cuts in the little metal shaft. Sometimes we have a different key for each lock, sometimes a set of locks use the same key. You close a door, use the key to lock it and you’re good and secure. That’s the expectation.

The problem is there are ways to bypass the security of the lock and key. One method is lock-picking which requires specific tools, skills, and lots of practice. Another is the use of bump keys. When tapped, bump keys are specially cut keys designed to bounce a lock’s pins so the lock can be opened without having a correctly cut key. It does no damage and leaves no trace of the intrusion.

So, only locksmiths have these bump keys, right? The original concept was for use by locksmiths in the maintenance, disassembly, and repair of locks.

Well, that was the intention. Read that Wikipedia article.

Anyone with a few dollars and access to the Internet can buy any of the various bump keys for all the types of locks. It’s the same with lock picking tools (though the skills are much more difficult to acquire). To be honest, there is a whole field of work and study on breaking the physical locks we make. The purpose of this work is to make locks more effective, more secure.*

But, how secure do you feel now?

Technology

So, as technology advances, we have digital locks for our doors. We manage and control these locks through our household network and our smartphones. As we add more and more devices and functions controlled by our smartphones to our homes and lives, we become more dependent on their security. And, we are more threatened by any lapse in security.

A large part of the security provided by the new technology is the end-to-end encryption provided in the Apple smartphone operating system (iOS) and the other platforms in the Apple stable. End-to-end encryption means that from the smartphone to wherever the data is stored or managed, it is encrypted with a very strong algorithm. No point in the process exists where the data is un-encrypted by anyone. The only person with the key to encrypt and decrypt your data is you. Apple does not have the key and cannot see your data.

So, this is what sticks in the FBI and DoJ craw. Even with a court order, Apple cannot provide access to your data without your cooperation. Granted, the FBI could have solved much of their problem with Apple devices had they listened and worked cooperatively with Apple using legal means.

The Answer?

But, is the answer a back door?

Think about it. The FBI is asking Apple for the equivalent of a bump key into the Apple encryption system. To access information related to criminal investigations. Or, get access to our data using secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court warrants. Of course, they won’t access our data illegally and only with probably cause.

And, law enforcement would keep that bump key–er, back door–out of the hands of criminals.

Right. That back door key would be one of the highest priority targets for criminals worldwide. As soon as it gets in the hands of criminals, game over.

So, just how secure would you feel with anyone having a back door key to Apple’s encryption?

If any of this confuses you at all, walk through it one or more times. The issues are real, but the article is an exercise in reframing.

Reframing

Sometimes, as writers, we have to take an issue and reframe it into another context to get a clearer understanding of what the issue is, what it means, what impact it may have, and even see the truth of it. I brought my experience from information security and learning about lock picking and bump keys to reframe the issue of encryption back doors.

Does this help bring a clearer, better understanding to the issue? Maybe. But it is a great mental exercise and can help in bringing complex issues to a story in a realistic way. For example, build a scenario from the information above to craft a story around someone who just discovers that there is a back door to their device operating system, and criminals now have access to home security, bank accounts, and all manner of information. Talk about horror story material.

Keep writing.

(* Yes, I’ve worked with bump keys and lock picking tools as part of my work and research in information security. Information security conferences often have demonstrations on picking locks and using bump keys.)

 

Rules of the Game

Rules of the Game

Rules | Guy L. PaceEvery game has rules. Some are easy to understand. Some, not so much. It’s the rules that can drive us nuts, though.

Solitaire (the classic, Vegas rules version) is a losing game. There is no way to win long-term in that game. The rules protect “the house” and that is by design. The house is the casino, or the hosting organization allowing you to play. The rules are pretty simple.

Shuffle the cards, deal out the seven piles (the tableau), set the rest in a pile (the stock) nearby. Play all the possible cards showing in the tableau. Then begin taking one cards at a time from the stock and play it if possible. If not, place it on the waste pile (the talon). Once you go through the stock once, you’re done and the game is over.

If you are fortunate, you’ll get to stack suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs) on the foundations (the four piles at the top where you place the aces of each suit and proceed to stack the rest of the suit numerically). If you are very fortunate, you’ll end the game by completing all four suits in the foundations and clear the stock and the tableau.

Reality

But, nine times out of ten, you will only get one or two aces in the foundations, and maybe a few more cards.

See, to start, you ante up for $52 for each game. One dollar for each card in the deck–for each game. The house will pay you back $5 for each card placed in the foundations. If you lose $20 to $40 each hand you’ll find yourself in negative dollar land in short order.

You see, the odds are not in your favor–no matter what that strange-looking person in The Hunger Games says. While you can win a game once in a while, your chances of winning enough to stay even or gain a little are abysmal. The odds against winning two games in a row is huge. It’s designed to separate you from your money.

Gaming

Knowing all this, playing a solitaire game on your laptop when your life savings isn’t on the line is still a fun pastime, and supposedly is good exercise for your brain. But, how does this play when you are writing a situation for a character? I used solitaire for an example, but the odds and rules for roulette, blackjack, and other gambling games are always stacked in favor of the house. That won’t change.

How many times have you seen or read characters getting to Las Vegas with just a few bucks to their names, and in a few hours riding out of town in a new Cadillac and pockets full of cash. Aside from special talents (Starman), the odds against this kind of thing happening is astronomical. Then there is the house itself. Someone watches all games, players, dealers, all the time. If anything looks hinkey (this is Tabitha’s word), someone from the house shows up and takes the offending person(s) off the floor and maybe out the door.

Jackpot

Once in a while someone hits a jackpot. That’s by design. The good fortune of the odd player keeps the rest of the folks playing. Without that odd jackpot, the rest of the players in the facility would not have any hope of winning.

This doesn’t mean good things don’t happen. When my wife and I were leaving Reno many years ago, there was a gaming system right there in the gate concourse. I had a few coins left of our “to play” stash, so I plugged a few into the machine and played one last game before our flight home started boarding.

I won $10.

Keep writing.

 

The Bucket List

The Bucket List

Bucket List | Guy L. PaceThings change, the world changes, and we move ahead in time. Many of us have a bucket list, things we feel we need to do before we, ourselves, come to an end.

One of the things I’d love to do before I leave this plane is to travel the old Route 66 from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA. My brother, cousin, and I talked about making that trip a lot last summer. The 2,448 mile trip would take about two to three weeks if we stopped to see all the sights.

Much of the old route faded into newer roads, highways, freeways. Still, you can find a lot of the old route’s highlights if you look for them. Finding and riding the old road–as much as is left–brings some of the legend and history of The Mother Road to life. Route 66 in the mid-1900’s displayed the character of America and you can still find and experience some of that today.

So, that’s one of the things on my bucket list.

The List

Another item on the list is to crate up the Harley, ship it to Europe, then ride it for two or three months all over the place. Some places in Europe I visited in the 1970’s and I’d love to go back and see the changes or the things that are still the same. I’d like to spend more time seeing the countries and seeing some friends.

A fascinating ride in Scotland would be the North Coast 500. Tourism in the UK bills the route as the Route 66 of Scotland, but I think it has its own attraction. The article suggests a three-day run due to small, slow winding roads threading through the highlands, lochs, and rugged coastline.

Some of the things in my bucket list drive what I’m writing about in my current work in progress. A Harley, an open road, and time. But, time is a limited commodity. Progress, politics (both national and international), economics, and other factors may conspire to prevent me from doing some of the things on the bucket list.

Route 66 is slowly disappearing and it may be gone before I get a chance to ride it. I do have a small piece of tarmac I picked off from the old road in Arizona from a trip in 1995. I keep it with a Route 66 key tag in my curio cabinet.

Why?

The items on the bucket list represent dreams we might have. Things we’ve always wanted to see or do. When you can reach down deep and find those dreams and desires, you can find the motivation that drives a character in a story. It’s what makes that character set out on the adventure, chase that dream, or follow a cause.

Time, though, is the enemy. The limiter of experience. Like Route 66 fading, or the far-off adventure ending before you get a chance. Your character must strive for the goal in spite of time.

So. Find the time.

Keep writing.

 

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Unique

Unique

Unique | Guy L. PaceHere’s the trouble with writing something different, unique. As I try to get reviews and marketing attention for Sudden Mission, Nasty Leftovers, and Carolina Dawn, I often come across the question “Are these like the Harry Potter books, or The Hunger Games?”

Uh. No.

And, that’s a problem. I can’t piggy-back off the success of other authors by claiming if you like The Hunger Games, you’ll love Sudden Mission. I’m not throwing shade on The Hunger Games or Suzanne Collins. She is a very good author and I loved her books, as I did J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

But, the Spirit Missions series–I think–is unique. It’s a teen Christian fiction series that incorporates some science fiction, fantasy, role-playing gaming, and a lot of spiritual elements. You won’t find anything like it on the shelves at a Christian book store–unless that store gets some copies of Spirit Missions.

Something Different

Of course, it all started when I set out to write something I wanted to read. For Christian fiction, I stumbled on Ted Dekker’s work. I found it fascinating and dealing with characters that weren’t cartoon simulations. That’s where I wanted to go. Write about real characters, facing challenges in the real world (okay, mostly real world), incorporating their relationship to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit during their journeys.

That’s where I went. I didn’t expect glowing reviews (but I got a few), and I expected a lot of knock-back due to the spiritual nature and some violence. I even expected harsh challenges to the Christian doctrine I chose to follow, and some shock with the way I handle aliens in Carolina Dawn.

What I got was positive feedback from friends who said their non-reader teens couldn’t put the books down. I just wish those teens would get on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and post reviews. I also got a couple of Spirit-filled Fiction awards and I hope Carolina Dawn earns one, too.

Self-publishing

Since my former publisher closed their doors in 2016, I’ve struggled with the marketing and promotion. It’s not easy when your product is so different or unique. I got some great help from fellow authors on the net and from friends and family around the country. I also received good advice from Rachel Thompson and her 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge.

So, I keep plugging along. Maybe someday someone will publish something and make the claim that “if you liked the Spirit Missions books, you’ll love <new book title>.” It’s a nice dream.

Keep writing.

 

Good and Evil

Good and Evil

Good and Evil |Every work of fiction by any author deals with good and evil on some level. Put simply, protagonists (main characters) are good. Antagonists (the bad guys) are evil. There are shades of gray on both sides. Not all main characters are squeaky clean, without sin, or perfect in any way. Just the same, not all bad guys are completely bad or even always guys.

The main characters are the ones we root for, the ones we want to win out in the end. In the process, they face adversaries and their own frailties, weaknesses, or imperfections. Through this, they change, learn, grow as characters.

This applies to fiction in any genre, be it science fiction, romance, fantasy, mystery, horror, or thriller. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Christian or secular. These are the stories we want to read.

Imagine trying to get behind a purely evil protagonist as a main character who is out to wreak revenge, death, and destruction across the fictional world. Well, I suppose you could if you were a fan of H. P. Lovecraft and Cthulu. Still, most characters that resonate with readers are good, and/or strive to do right.

The Good

When we create a main character (MC), there are usually flaws or issues that make that character not perfect. True, the MC is the good in the story and will attempt to do the good or right thing. But, what is the good? Usually, the MC has to step outside of his or her self and do something for someone else, for the community, the country, or humanity. Sometimes, that involves battling against incredible odds, an overwhelmingly powerful opponent, city hall, or solving a particularly difficult murder case.

The MC struggles through adversity, resistance, and often directly against an antagonist to accomplish the goal. But, the effort is to do the right thing. Defeat the bad influence, antagonist, and put the world right.

The Evil

The antagonist works against the MC. There is the ethically challenged city manager trying to skim from the city coffers. Then there is the competing love interest that uses nefarious methods to thwart the romantic efforts of the MC. Or, how about a dark evil being lurking in the abandoned metro tunnels, sending it’s minions out to thwart the efforts of the MC?

It boils down to the antagonist’s core motives of self: selfish, self-serving, self-aggrandizing. Not all the bad guys in fiction are purely evil. They may perform some acts of kindness out of a fractured attempt at redemption, but usually those fail. Unless, the point of the story is to bring the antagonist to some kind of redemption.

Life is full of examples on both sides of this duality. Most aren’t quite so well defined and obvious, but you can see them.

Keep writing.