Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Of tinfoil and shaving cream

The assault on the Canadian Human Rights Commission has taken a downright bizarre turn recently.
Nelly Hechme, the innocent citizen whose wi-fi was allegedly borrowed by CHRC staff to log in to the neo-Nazi Stormfront site, has revealed that her Internet access was through a secured network. To get into it, hacking would be required. That brought the speech-warriors' paranoia to the full bubble and boil in jig time.

I ventured over to So-Con or Bust, John Pacheco's site, where, according to Ezra Levant, some masterful detective work had been done. This I wanted to see for myself. Pacheco claims that the "jadewarr" login during which Hechme's account was used took place within 64 minutes of a CHRC employee, Dean Steacy, logging in to Stormfront to download a post for Richard Warman. Warman himself was standing by, with CHRC lawyer Giacomo Vigna and goodness knows how many other people. The allegation is that this was precisely when the illegal hacking occurred.

Not being a techie, to put it mildly, I'm interested in two salient issues: first, how would CHRC staff have managed the feat of hacking into Hechme's wi-fi, and secondly, why would they do it?

I made the mistake of putting these questions to Pacheco. His level of intellectual honesty quickly revealed itself: he deleted my posts, but kept his responses to all but the last of them. This is fairly typical behaviour, I'm afraid, for conspiracy theorists: they don't like to have their delusions threatened. But for what it's worth, here are the detailed questions I raised, with his replies.

1) The distance as the crow flies from Nelly Hechme's residence to the Canadian Human Rights Commission offices is app. 370 metres--nearly a quarter of a mile. The intervening space is not occupied merely by an open field, as Marc Lemire claims in a complaint to the RCMP, but by a phalanx of office buildings.

Query: is it possible to access wi-fi at that range and with those obstacles in the way?

Yes, responded Pacheco: his brother-in-law, an electrical engineer, told him that long range wi-fi is easily available. You just need a cheap computer card and an antenna. When I asked him to clarify with his brother-in-law how the signal can penetrate a wall of office towers, all my posts disappeared, as if by magic.

2) I asked why the CHRC would go to the trouble and risk of hacking a private citizen's account when all a staffer had to do was log on to Stormfront and use CloakMe or other similar on-line services to hide the point of origin. In fact, as I had to remind Pacheco, CHRC officer Hanna Rizk testified at the March 25 Tribunal hearing that Warman had actually taught her how to use CloakMe. (That particular anonymizing service no longer seems to be available, but there are many others.)

Pacheco danced like Nureyev on this one. He claimed that
the CHRC probably wanted to avoid having the CloakMe logs subpoenaed. But that is much easier said than done: CloakMe originated in the US, and is quite probably immune to a subpoena from Canada. Compared to that uphill task, in fact, getting hold of the Bell Canada logs, as Mark Lemire did, was a cakewalk. Why didn't the CHRC worry about that far more likely possibility?

In any case, this is how the speech-warrior story runs now: a Canadian federal agency would rather risk criminal prosecution for theft of communications than simply log on to a hate site and use a cloaking service to cover its investigative tracks. This agency allegedly accessed wi-fi at long range, through several office building walls, not merely stealing unsecured wi-fi, which can be obtained throughout downtown Ottawa where its offices are, but going that extra (quarter-) mile and hacking a secured site some distance away. In front of a bunch of witnesses. On an office computer, with a long-range wi-fi antenna there for everyone to see. And all this simply to download a copy of a posting from Stormfront.

At this point, folks, we're deep into Truther territory. If I want to go see my next-door neighbour, why would I walk right around the block to get there? This, by analogy, is the claim about the CHRC. To do a relatively trouble-free task, they allegedly gave themselves more trouble and risk than you can shake a stick at.

There are times that I feel like wielding Occam's Razor like a broadsword, as I said over at Levant's place. The claim that the CHRC hacked into Hechme's site depends upon an accelerating number of suspect assumptions. A bucket of shaving cream seems urgently required at this point. And something else some of these conspirazoids need to know: contrary to popular superstition, tinfoil actually attracts and focuses the rays.

I would invite tech-savvy readers to comment particularly on the wi-fi issue. Is such access theoretically possible? Speculation as to the motives of the Commission for allegedly taking such a long and winding road are also welcome: given the lack of any real evidence, just let your imaginations roam. Maybe Commission employees, like Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, just like to live dangerously.

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