The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: email

Plane water bombers jailed, bring on the security measures?

The news coverage of the conviction of the people behind the “water bottle bombing” plot has literally used the words “this has vindicated the heightened security measures” (BBC News 24) which were put in place after the plot was uncovered.

Does it really? I’m going to be pedantic here because vindication is a powerful word, here’s what it means:


vin·di·cate / ˈvindəˌkāt/ v. [tr.]

  1. clear (someone) of blame or suspicion: hospital staff were vindicated by the inquest verdict.
  2. show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009

I do appreciate the job that the security services have done in keeping what turned out to be a fairly clever and probably, had it not been detected and watched by the largest surveillance operation the UK had ever seen from an early stage and then immediately stopped once it moved beyond planning ending in the conviction of all but one of the suspects, damaging attack out of the skies over my head. That’s really, really fantastic news. I’m not pro-terrorist, make no mistake, and I’m very glad that the attack was stopped. This is a post on the use of words.

The security measures

My issue is that I do wonder if it really does “vindicate” the fact you couldn’t take enough baby food (baby food is now excepted from the restrictions, thankfully) on a transatlantic flight to feed a baby. Or how it now means that you can no longer bring water that you didn’t buy from the departure lounge onto a plane. Drinks that you pick up in the airport and quietly bring onto the plane unquestioned are clearly more friendly to allies of America than drinks from home that are subject to an x-ray scanner and security checkpoint, obviously. This isn’t as flippant as it seems because the explosive that the plotters planned to use was basically energy drink mixed with cleaning fluid. You can just buy that in the departure lounge.

You could even bring homemade liquid fiery death entirely legally “so long as the items are carried in a clear plastic food storage type bag with a capacity of no more than one quart” remembering that “each individual container must have a capacity of no greater than three ounces (90 ml)” And your friend could also bring his own clear plastic bag of liquid fiery death to top yours up if you wanted a bigger explosion and so on. Are we really safer with little bottles? Can I go out there and suggest that you could put it into a container of baby food which is exempt from the restrictions?

One of the main tricks of the trade when investigating a terrorist attack, or most crimes in fact, is asking the question “who benefits?” because if you know who had an incentive to commit a crime you narrow down the people who were likely to have committed it. By this metric, “who benefits from banning liquids from being taken through the baggage scanner?”, you end up with WHSmiths and Starbucks who get a legally enforced monopoly in the departure lounge shops because, legally, you haven’t got any other option unless you want to end up becoming a terror suspect. Is one textbook, wonderfully well executed police operation that kept us safe from even the slightest chance of harm to our air traffic at all times[1] a vindication of these measures?

Definition 1: to clear (someone) of blame or suspicion

This is probably not what the reporter meant when they dropped the v word. My comments above aside I don’t actually think WHSmith plotted to blow up planes to create a monopoly for their airport shops so it’s probably just commercially convenient rather than actually a dastardly conspiracy. The measures themselves have viewed with no greater and probably some lesser suspicion (I think everyone’s wondered in their heart of hearts if you actually can blow a plane up with a bottle of Oasis outside of a movie) because of this conviction but it is not “cleared” because of the trial and that’s what the definition of vindication requires.

Definition 2: show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

This seems more sensible and probably what the reporter meant. This is what I’m not convinced about, the main problem is that the instant case just doesn’t seem to have needed the actions that were rolled out to protect anyone. Basically the liquids prohibition (now relaxed to pretty awkward restrictions) was just a belt and braces extra on top on a mind bogglingly thorough UK police operation as far as this case was concerned. This case didn’t actually need the prohibition at all.

The prohibition was for other people.

This case only showed the real and present threat of liquid explosives passing through the baggage checking process at airports disguised as other liquids. The restriction on liquids was levied to stop other attempts. The vindication will come when the measures, not the police and intelligence services, stop an attack using liquid explosives disguised as other liquids to defeat pre-“jet plot” baggage checking procedures against a commercial aeroplane. That is the difference. The success or failure of this conviction does not relates to the restrictions at all – the restrictions were never tested by the plotters.

What the trial is is a vindication of the police surveillance operation, not all of them but this one was certainly justified, and also justifies its snooping on email traffic. Admittedly the sort of snooping on email traffic that is justified in this case is that being sent to or coming from a known terrorist mastermind living in Pakistan so it’s still not reasonable to snoop on just everyone’s email because of this trial.

The problem of security precautions is that it’s next to impossible to tell if security measures have stopped an attack. I suppose if we test every 95ml bottle of baby food that’s left at the baggage check for explosive and find some then we know we’ve dodged a bullet. On the other end of the scale if someone manages to blow up a plane regardless then we’ve bought overpriced airport drinks for nothing and that’s the horrible dilemma. We simply can’t tell if the restrictions are sensible or not from this case. We should all celebrate the successful conclusion of a ground-breaking multi disciplinary police operation which has almost certainly saved thousands of lives but at the same time it’s important not to take lessons from it that it’s just not teaching us. The effect of baggage search on anything is irrelevant unless you actually go through a baggage search. I think the police and security services involved in this investigation have kept us very safe and they are to be applauded but throwing away sealed bottles of water at the scanner is still to prove its worth. It certainly hasn’t in this case.

[1] The arrests were sped up when the well known Pakistan based mastermind of the plot was captured, not because the hitherto unknown plotters were suddenly spotted getting on a plane. The UK plotters were had well in hand and under constant surveillance.


An open letter to the Internet in defence of, well, letters

Dear Internet,
I’ve noticed you never get letters anymore, it’s a shame. The only thing that comes through the letter box now is generally a bill. The electronic version of the letter, the email, is also in grim condition. It is either a spam infested wasteland or a firmly stodgy business tool. The current champion of email – Research In Motion has made millions from business email but has struggled to make a similar dent into the consumer market.

Young people, it appears, have decided that email is a big business shill and do not use it for social purposes preferring to use instant messenging and social networking sites. I find that sad as a young person who actively likes email. I think email is the letter of the internet – you write it all in advance, address it and send it off, to get a whole message back.

Letter writing is nice, email is a little less formal – there’s no chance to open an envelope and it can be lost among adverts for various enhancements. Since the email is so much like the much appreciated letter, except less expensive and quicker, it is sad to see that it has been relegated to the position of “work tool” by the young people of today.

Although email is undeniably a fantastic tool for work, as is the traditional letter, and many technologies rejoice to be adopted as one because it will be written into compliance specifications and generally hand around for future decades it does mean that Joe Teenager will not be so keen to go for it. That means that when Joe Teenager becomes Joe Office Worker email genuinely will only be a work tool to him.

RIM has made excellent money from showing how useful not much more than always having access to your email can be but remains very much a corporate business – it only recently put cameras on its phones because of corporate policies against cameras. The Blackberry, however, is a household name – they are quality devices and Barack Obama loves them which are just two substantial points in their favour.

The mobile phone, in my eyes, is not the easel for the next great letter, which should rather be penned in an attic flat, next to a window while it’s raining to really set the scene but with all teenagers (seemingly anyway) possessing phones with email capability this could be the scene of the resurgence of the letter. Next time Joe Teenager (or Joe Twenty Something, or Joe Thirty Something or…) is on a bus for a few minutes with nothing to do he should sit down and start to write a letter, using his phone and sending it off by email. He should occasionally resist the temptation to send a quick text now and again because you can say much more in a letter.

A blogger

5 Backup Strategies for students

Ever since the student was invented centuries ago the worst thing that could happen to him was he could lose his notes and this is just as true if the student is using parchment and quills or solid state drives and the latest ultra portable laptop. He needs a way to keep track of the files he has and a good way to back them up. This used to be a massive undertaking in the days of hand writing notes (and I still look at my overflowing lever arch files and decide that I’m never going to copy them out again) which became only slightly easier when the photocopier was invented. The computer, however, revolutionised copying in a way which can (and has) give a music exec the cold shakes and it’s now so easy to keep multiple copies of every file you use that it’s no one’s fault but your own if you don’t use the same logic on your work as your music collection. The only problem for someone wanting to protect their files is picking which method you want to use*.

The best method

This is your humble author’s best bet for simple file protection while you’re at university:


[A USB drive ready to be plugged into a computer, source: Wikipedia]

There’s a lot of sense in using these small, inexpensive devices to store your data while you’re studying. They are extremely portable, not only between locations but also between computers. I could plug my USB stick into a university lab computer, hand it to a print shop or plug it into my own laptop and the files on it can be read off with no problems or issues whatsoever. I often copy files that I wanted printed copies of to my USB stick so that I can print them off on the much cheaper bulk laser printers in libraries than on my inkjet at home.

It depends on your requirements, obviously, what you need but generally I would go for a stick with a capacity of a few gigabytes. There’s really no reason not to do this now because costs have dropped so much. Fancier models are nice but speed and security are often overpriced in the eyes of users who just want a plug and play flash drive. I picked my 8GB stick off for about ten pounds. An 8GB stick will be effectively limitless as far as your homework is concerned. I keep a great deal of information on my USB drive, case reports, journal articles, coursework, etc but try to ensure that there is no personal data on the stick, just in case I leave it lying in the library or have it stolen from me and 8GB goes a very long way when you are using it to store text.

I use a [Windows briefcase (remember those?) on my flash drive which will sync with my home computers with a single click. The Briefcase is an ancient feature in Windows since Windows 95 but one which proves very useful to me nearly every day.

For other people simply dragging the folder over will be more than enough to keep a copy of your work but it lacks the synchronization features that using a Briefcase (or another sync program) will give you.

The online method

Online storage is a relatively old phenomenon but one which has only recently taken off. While people have had the opportunity to store their files remotely for many years the tipping point has come when it became easy and fast to do so. While people who still have dial up connections will gladly tell you how slow it is to browse web sites this is nothing compared to the ~3kb/s effort of sending a substantial amount of data the other way.

The most common domestic Internet connection is the Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) which divides a phone line up into various bands for upstream, downstream and voice. This allows the connection to do all three operations at once. That’s great for being able to answer the phone at the same time as use the internet but the way that the phone line divides up the data frequencies does not divide it equally – it’s asymmetric. Generally people will have hugely quick download speeds and considerably slower upload speeds, maybe as little as 10% of the download speed. This provides a massive barrier to anyone who wants to send a lot of data across their connection because it simply takes a lot of time.  For smaller amounts of data, though, it’s very convenient.

There are many options for online storage:

The handiest application I’ve found for my online storage has to be the Gmail Drive. This shell extension for Windows allows you to mount your googlemail account as a drive in Windows and copy files to, save to it from programs and generally use it as you would any other drive. The only difference is that the files are saved in your Gmail account as attachments in emails which you can access from anywhere you have Internet access. The storage limit is about 8GB and no single file can be more than 10MB but if you only use it to back up your text file homework and notes this is more than enough. You may have to reduce the length and complexity of file names to get it working just right but that’s a rare issue for most users.

You could do this manually by emailing yourself files as attachments which will let you access them from wherever you have Internet access but the drag and drop of Gmail Drive is particularly convenient for me.

A slightly more involved method is simply to use an online storage provider; these can be free but often charge monthly fees for their services and provide gigabytes of easy to access storage which you control through an often very colourful and polished downloadable application. I find these to be too much for my requirements which are served by not much more than an email account but they are a good, easy to use option for people who don’t want to get too involved in the technical background.

The network method

If you have more than one computer in your house, for example I have my work laptop and I have a more powerful desktop computer that I use for games and other entertainment tasks, you can use them to store your data in more than one place and improve the redundancy. I personally use a simple Windows SMB based network to create network shares that I can mount and use as regular drives and that does everything that I need the network to do, backup wise.

Even if you don’t have another computer you can still use a network to back up your data. Most people on broadband connections use a router to connect their computer(s) to the Internet and the router is a device which is naturally good at connecting lots of devices to networks. The standalone option is a NAS device:

One example of a consumer NAS

[One example of a consumer NAS, source:]

Network Attached Storage is a previously only business technology which suddenly became considerably cheaper and suddenly a lot more economical for the home user. These devices are roughly speaking specialized, low cost computers that have enough power to control a hard disc and a network connection and some have features like automatic Bittorrent downloads, which allows the device to run all day and night and not tie up a “real” computer. They come in two main varieties – prebuilt and barebones. Barebones units tend to be a cheaper purchase (but there can be a premium once you factor hard drives into that price too) than complete versions but you have to provide your own hard drives but that gives you flexibility as to your capacity. Prebuilt versions already have drives installed and generally arrive at the user ready to be plugged in the wall and used.

The sneakernet method

Sneakernet [sic] is a term that describes when instead of electronically connecting two computers you save the file you want to share to a disc and physically take it to the other computer. This is useful in situations where you want to save a copy of your work for future reference and want it to be safe from hard drive failure or being stolen from you while you’re out. It is not a bad plan to burn coursework and other essential pieces of your own work to a CD so you can store it at home if the worst should happen. Given the size of coursework files you could get a sizeable portion of your entire written handiwork stored on an old school floppy disc, I certainly remember family members finishing their entire university career with a small stack of floppy discs tucked into their notes. Those discs will still faithfully hold the files that were put on them in years past and that’s all that can possibly be asked of a backup.

No matter what method you use, remember to do it often!

Backups are of no use to you whatsoever if you haven’t got a recent copy of a file that’s suddenly disappeared. If you leave your backups for too long you risk running into a situation where the copy you have is not one which can really help you. I personally keep my USB drive nearly perfectly up to date because I keep the USB drive plugged in a lot of the time and it’s a moment’s work to click “Update All” in My Computer when I’m finished working.

Try to get yourself into a habit of backing your files up regularly when you’re working so you’re not left with outdated copies when disaster strikes.

Hopefully habits picked up in university with stay with you throughout your professional life and in an era where data losses seem to occur on a weekly basis you will be the professional who knows to keep a redundant copy of your client records locked up in a safe place and to use encryption (more on this later) on data that goes out of the office.

*If you’re particularly fervent in your quest for data protection you can bear in mind that the protection that backups give you is redundancy and the only thing that using more than one of these systems can do is improve your security. I personally have copies stored on both my computers as well as on flash drives.