Archive for August, 2013

Spies, surveillance, and God’s power

Also known as: A theology of government surveillance (part 2). Part 1 was here.

The Bible is 2,000 years old. Technology back then was pretty simple. So I don’t read the Bible because I’m looking for exact answers on what to do. Instead, I read it to learn principles. These principles transcend the technology that is here today and obsolete tomorrow. These principles address who we are as humans, and who God is as the creator.

The creatures and the Creator

  • Achan sinned by taking the spoils of war that were to be dedicated to God. The consequences were dire: Israel lost a battle. Achan’s sin was not kept private, but “all Israel” participated in the stoning of him and his family (Joshua 7:25).
  • God sent spies to the promised land. They were asked to report on the reality of the land that they were attacking, and Moses told them to “be of good courage” (Numbers 13:20). When the spies came back and gave their report, their courage was lacking. They said “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (Numbers 13:31). These spies disobeyed because they forgot the reality that God is great. However, the spies’s words led the whole congregation astray, and the people complained bitterly. They failed to trust in God to be stronger than the nations they were opposing. The consequence for the false report was 40 years of wandering in the desert!
  • Through the coming of the wise men, Herod learned that the king of the Jews was born. He was afraid of this new information, so he asked the wise men to tell him where Jesus was. When they did not, Herod ordered that all male children under two years be killed in Bethlehem.  But Joseph was warned, and Jesus was not in Bethlehem when the killing happened. It seems that God was in control over the situation. Herod knew something (the king of the Jews is under two years old and in Bethlehem), yet he didn’t know something (where he is located). Joseph knew something (that he should flee to Egypt), but he didn’t know something (the exact nature of the threat). Yet God was in control, and prophecy was fulfilled by the tragic actions that happened. (See Matthew chapter 2)
  • While David is on the roof of the king’s house, he sees a woman bathing. While this woman might have wished that her naked body remain private, David now sees that she is beautiful. David has not sinned up to this point, but what he does next is entirely his responsibility. He inquires about the woman and learns her name is Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:3). Spies may or may not gather certain information that we wish to be held private, but it is their responsibility what they do with that information.

Reading these stories (can you think of others?) helped me remember that God is in control and I am not. I am reminded of God’s attributes (as I wrote about earlier) and of my position before him as a child of God, clothed in righteousness because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now I am ready to respond to the situation in front of me!

Our response

When faced with recent revelation that the United States government is overstepping its constitutional bounds in searching and seizing our data, how should we respond? I don’t think we should panic or become paranoid. After all, we should not fear those who kill the body, or spy on it, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But fear him who sees all and has authority to cast into hell! (Luke 12:4-5)

So if you’re reading this and you don’t know Jesus and trust in him for the forgiveness of your sins and to change your eternal destiny, please trust him now! His work has been done, and that is good news. (Others have written and spoken about this–here’s a good starting place.)

If you do know Jesus, then God has an interesting kind of surveillance over your heart: “O Lord you have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139). Indeed, the very hairs on your head are numbered (Luke 12:7). (Even the NSA and the CIA don’t know that.)

Getting practical

I love the reminders from the Bible. They help me worship God. Still, my original issue is unanswered, how do I maintain the security of my data in the face of government surveillance?

Much of this surveillance is in response to the terror attacks of 2001. I ask myself, what is my response when tragic events happen in the world? In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus uses some contemporary tragic events to make the point that we should repent. Terror attacks remind us that life is short, and we need to be ready to die. I think that many Americans have failed to see this reminder, and our government has decided that what is best for us is to be “safer.” So we change some security rules, hoping that someone will notice that we tried to make our country “safer.”

An ideal government would do what is best for the people. But I know that I live in a fallen world. Sin affects the relationship between people and their God, and it affects the relationships among people. Therefore, I am not surprised when my government is imperfect. I can pray for my government leaders and (praise God) I live in a country where I can write my representative leaders and vote in elections.

Still, in the short-term I would like to keep my data private. Some people will say, if I haven’t done anything wrong, why should I worry? I can’t address the answer to this question here, because it would take too long, but Daniel J. Solove has written an excellent answer in his article Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’.

After reading that article, do some research and learn how much information about you is being collected: by the government, by the cloud services we voluntarily use, and by the advertising agencies that track us on the web. Then do something about it. Maybe delete a few cloud services, and install a cookie blocker on your web browser. Some changes will be minor, some may be a little inconvenient, and some are more drastic. It is up to you.

USB hardware smackdown

Continuing in the vein of my USB 3.0 benchmarks, I’d like to compare the USB 2.0 controller on my Samsung Chronos Series 7 NP700Z3A laptop (purchased in 2012) and my HP Compaq dc7900 CMT desktop (purchased in 2009).

My two flash drives for testing are the SanDisk Cruzer Red and the Kingston DataTraveler 111.

For both machines, I ran Ubuntu 12.04.3 amd64 desktop edition, and used Disk Utility (3.0.2) to perform a read-write benchmark.

Samsung Chronos Series 7 NP700Z3A

Average and maximum read rate for a read-write benchmark on the Samsung laptop
Device and port Maximum Read Rate (MB/s) Average Read Rate (MB/s)
Cruzer in USB 2 port 23.1 22.6
DataTraveler in USB 2 port 33.8 30.3

HP Compaq dc7900 CMT

Average and maximum read rate for a read-write benchmark on the HP desktop
Device and port Maximum Read Rate (MB/s) Average Read Rate (MB/s)
Cruzer in USB 2 port 24.8 24.3
DataTraveler in USB 2 port 40.5 39.4

My conclusion is that the HP desktop has a faster USB 2 controller than the Samsung by 7 MB/s or so, but this is only evident when comparing performance of the Kingston.

Some USB 3.0 benchmarks

After transferring large amounts of data and working with hard drives a lot, it interests me to compare the performance of USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. I have one of each of these ports on my Samsung laptop.

In March 2013, I bought a Kingston DataTraveler 111 8GB, and I wanted to compare it to another flash drive, the SanDisk Cruzer Red 4GB, which I purchased in August 2012. The Kingston is a USB 3.0 flash drive, whereas the Cruzer only supports USB 2.0. The tool I used to compare these two was HD Tune, which is free for read-only benchmarks.

Read benchmarks for USB flash drives
Using the USB 2.0 port Using the USB 3.0 port
SanDisk Cruzer Red Kingston DataTraveler 111 SanDisk Cruzer Red Kingston DataTraveler 111
Transfer Rate: Minimum (MB/sec) 19.0 25.4 20.7 60.4
Transfer Rate: Maximum (MB/sec) 29.7 29.6 29.2 72.2
Transfer Rate: Average (MB/sec) 27.7 26.4 28.3 64.8
Access Time (ms) 0.8 1.0 0.5 0.7

According to Wikipedia’s page on USB, the maximum transfer rate of a USB 2.0 link is 35 MB/s, and we see this port reaching very near that, with maximum transfer rates of 29.6 and 29.7. Without doing multiple trials of any of these experiments, we can see that the Kingston DataTraveler is much faster at reads over a USB 3.0 port than the SanDisk Cruzer on either port. However, the comparative write performance of either of these drives remains to be seen.

Sidenote: My pet peeve about USB ports is that (1) laptop manufacturers place them too close together, and (2) USB flash drive manufacturers make flash drives that take up a large profile. The result is you can only fit one flash drive at a time on the USB ports that have been packed too close together.

A theology of government surveillance (part 1)

As I navigate the modern world, I am presented with a bewildering array of technology options. Not only that, but I find that governments are increasingly interested in recording what I do. Hopefully, for now they will find nothing worth acting on in what they have found. Still, I find it all too easy to fall into fear in the face of the unknown. Who is reading this blog post? What will a government agency do with the information they find in my cell phone text messages?

In the face of this fear, I need to remind myself that God is sovereign. He is seeking his glory by giving grace toward undeserving humans through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As I am a follower of Jesus, I am interested in trusting in him and finding out what the Bible has to say about security.

A Christian view of technology

Other writers have addressed a Christian view of technology. This past year I read (or rather listened to) Tim Challies’ book, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion. The quantity of information available to us through digital means presents new challenges for those who wish to obey God. Some problems include a redefinition of truth and authority, the distraction brought on by technology, and communication becoming an idol in our lives. The information that technology allows us to so easily store and transmit is not neutral! Rather it has implications for how we live our lives.

God’s attributes

The attributes of God that seem most relevant to our discussion are the “omni” attributes, which come from a prefix meaning all.

  • God is omnipotent. That is, he is able to do all his holy will. This is also called God’s sovereignty.
  • God is omniscient. God fully knows himself and all actual and possible things.
  • God is omnipresent. God has no size or shape and is present in all places with his entire being.
  • God is eternal. God has always existed, having no beginning and no end, and experiencing no succession of moments.

Source: Tim Challies, Visual Theology – The Attributes of God

What is security and privacy?

My brief definition of security is that I want access to my data, and I don’t want others to. My data, or my information, includes files on my computer, digital information about my phone calls, information about my web browsing habits, books that I am interested in, and pictures of me at the beach. I want access to my data with little hassle, that is I don’t want to bother with too many USB drives or too many passwords and complex security measures. But when it comes to others accessing my data, I really only want those I trust to have access to specific things.

The government might want access to some information about me in order to keep me safer. For example, the police might know that my phone number is tied to my address in order to respond to a 911 call. My bank legally needs to know some contact information, because, after all, it is my money they are holding. I willingly provide this information to them when I open an account.

Privacy, secrecy, and confidentiality are related words that also apply to this situation. I’m using these terms loosely as synonyms for security as I’ve defined it above.

What is the role of government?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
(Romans 13:1-5 ESV)

After laying out “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (11:33) in his plan for salvation, Paul turns to moral exhortations. The Christians in Rome are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (verse 1). For them, that meant being subject to a government that was sometimes hostile toward them.

But in a broader sense, this passage from Romans describes a basic duty of government. Government should rule its subjects with justice. In the words of verse 3, government should punish those who do bad and not those who do good. In the Old Testament, God set up a special system of government over his people, the Israelites. He gave them laws and a system for enforcing those laws.

There several ways to connect this with a modern nation like the United States. First, we have a law, that murder is illegal. The system for enforcing that law in my city is the police department. If a dead body is found somewhere, there’s probably going to be a murder investigation. If the police can find out who did it, then this individual will be brought to justice. Law enforcement should be adept at fingerprints, footprints, and all kinds of crime scene evidence in order to catch criminals.

Digital technology creates more possibilities for crime and more ways for law enforcement to catch criminals. For example, the murderer could have revealed his plans in an online chat room a few days before the dead body was found. There are also online crimes, such as phishing and stealing people’s credit card information. Law enforcement should be adept at technology in order to catch these criminals as well.

A sidenote: Isn’t it interesting that we enforce a law against murder mainly by punishing people after they have already committed murder. This is because we can’t predict the future, and we are limited in our ability to prevent people from doing bad things. In Minority Report, the police had the ability to predict when and where and who would commit a murder, but this led to some interesting side effects. God, of course, is omniscient, and because he is eternal, he knows the future.

More to come…

In part 2 I’ll write some thoughts on passages of the Bible about spies, surveillance, and God’s power.

More GnuCash tips

I’m continuing to learn more about GnuCash in order to use it more effectively.

Make the display a little less cluttered by removing the horizontal and vertical lines from the register view. Edit -> Preferences dialog, then the Register tab. Note the two checkboxes, Draw horizontal lines between rows, and Draw vertical lines between columns. Before:

with lines


without lines

Transaction filtering

I’ve found this to be helpful when looking at a reimbursements account. I mark a reimbursement as cleared once I’ve received the money back from the company. Sometimes the reimbursements get cleared out of order because I have submitted them out of order. Then, when I submit my next reimbursement, I use transaction filtering to narrow down the display to just the un-submitted reimbursements.

How to filter transactions: View -> Filter By… Click the Status tab.

My beef with the summary bar

The summary bar appears above the status bar and includes information pertaining to the currently opened tab. On the main accounts page, it shows the grand total of all assets as well as the profit. The profit is calculated by subtracting YTD expenses from YTD income. Therefore, it gives a rough idea of how much money I’ve saved so far this year. However, I find this idea a bit misleading.

For example, it is August 2013. Lets say I will save $100 a month this year, by spending less than I earn each month. This is a monthly profit of $100, so at the end of the year, my profit would show $1200. However, let’s say that since April of 2009, I’ve been saving up to buy a car, and it will cost $5000. At the beginning of 2013, I had $4200 in my accumulation, and now in August, my accumulation fund has reached maturity. I buy the car for $5000. Suddenly the summary bar reports a profit of $-4200, whereas before it said $800. This is a little disconcerting.

In summary (pun intended) the summary bar’s profit calculation is not helpful for personal finance since it doesn’t help you know if you’ve stayed on budget. However, for other Tabs or Pages, such as stock accounts, the summary bar provides useful information, such as the current value of the shares held. So I wish there was an option to disable the profit calculation from showing, but keep the other useful information visible.