A brief note on end-of-year giving

I wanted to take a quick break from the technical to bug you about something important.

The end of the year is coming up and no doubt there are some folks thinking about last minute charitable donations. There are many, many worthy causes you can support. All things being equal, I’d give to my local food bank first, given how much need there is, and how far these institutions can stretch a charitable dollar ($1 at a food bank buys the equivalent of $20 at a retail supermarket).

But if you have something left over I’d strongly recommend that you give to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on with technology and the law these days. I recently poked fun at how small the EFF’s budget is, but I meant it with love (and with reason!). They’re fighting a tough uphill battle with minimal resources.

I have a personal reason for supporting the EFF. Back when I was a grad student, some colleagues and I reverse-engineered a commercial device as part of a research project. This is something that security researchers do from time to time, and it’s something we should be able to do. Our goal was expose flaws in industrial security systems, and hopefully to spur the adoption of better technology. (Note: better technology is now out there, and no, I’m not taking credit. But scrutiny is generally a good thing.)

Anyway, we knew that there were legal obstacles related to this work, we just didn’t realize how significant they’d be. When we first disclosed our findings, there were some… unpleasant phone calls at high levels. The University’s legal counsel politely informed us that in the event of a lawsuit — even a frivolous one — we’d be bearing the expense on our own. This is not a pleasant prospect for a newly-married grad student who’s just signed mortgage papers.

It’s possible that without the EFF we’d have called the whole thing off right then. But the EFF did support us. They took our case (for free!), and worked miracles.

While our story has a happy ending, white hat security research in the US is still a minefield. Sadly this state of affairs doesn’t seem to be improving. The EFF is just about the only group I know of that stands up for security researchers. Even if you’re not a researcher, you probably benefit indirectly from their work.

So please take a minute to donate. It’s tax deductible and some employers will match. If you donate at least $65 and become a member, they’ll even send you an awesome T-shirt (I have one from 1999 that’s still going strong — it’s ugly as sin but damn, the build quality is high.) Again, I’m not saying this should be the only donation you make this year, but it certainly would be a good one.

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