Nov 09

Three Stupid Scripts I Find Useful


If I told you you could have one-click mac screenshots with automatic scp to a host of your choice and it could have a reasonably bad user experience and no keyboard bindings, well you’d just be all over that, wouldn’t you?

Yes, I know about grabup (and their recent departure), and tinygrab, and all the rest. I’ve used several of them, in fact. What can I say, I wrote this way back when, and still find it gets the job done. If you don’t want to hitch your cart to someone else’s image hosting horse (and associated ad spam/image expiry blah), you’re welcome to it.

It’s a shell script. It takes the screencap, does the scp, and then puts the URL on your clipboard. You’ll need to edit some bits. I find it irksome to run from the command line, so I wrapped it in a 1-liner applescript (do shell script "~/bin/sattap") that I can just click from the dock.

Rob wrote one of these, too. [UPDATE: And now catlee has “ported” sattap to linux.]


My macbook has the irksome habit, when I disconnect it from the external display and then reconnect it, of leaving all my windows on the tiny little 13″ display and not the hulking 24″ display I just connected, presumably for displaying things.

I borrowed a script from Dudehey on macosxhints to do the heavy lifting and then tweaked it to my particular preferences about which windows stay where. You will disagree with me, and hate this script; in fact, it won’t even work for you. But maybe you can make it work for you, if you care to?

Here it is. Open this in Script Editor – change it however you like, and then Save it somewhere as an Application, throw it on the dock, and hooray.

Rotate Page Bookmarklet

Okay, I don’t actually find this one useful, but it amuses. And you need some amusement.


Go on, try it. (Yes, in Firefox.)

Sep 09


To a first approximation, I think you can gauge how much people think about software quality by how highly they value deletion. While most rookie developers are chiefly interested in building rather than in tearing down (for what I hope are obvious reasons), great throbbing brains like Graydon speak about deletion with the kind of reverence that I presume cardinals reserve for only the coolest of popes.

In what history will likely judge as a vain attempt to impress him, then, I recently landed bug 513147, deletion of the now antiquated “Properties” dialog that used to be available on right-clicking things like images and links. Not because it was useless (every feature is someone’s baby, and is added for a reason) but because it wasn’t useful enough, to enough people, to justify the cost.

50kb of code in our product that is poorly understood, not often used, and not covered by unit tests is not free. When bugs show up, it takes longer than it should to fix them. If a security bug were to show up (which is always a risk when content mixes with chrome, however remote it may seem) it would be particularly expensive for us to reload that context into our brains to fix it.

Deleting it isn’t free either, of course – there are 4 extensions that build off that dialog that will need to be updated, and there may be some who use it regularly who will be disappointed. But the forces of software (inertia, squeaky wheels, cynicism and inertia) bias so heavily towards keeping code in the tree that we should all try to take clear deletion opportunities when they come up. Not capriciously, not without sensitivity to the impact it can have, but with recognition that the hidden cost to keeping them is also large and… hidden.

It is in the spirit of this sensitivity that we, on the Firefox team, have tagged this bug and others like it: [killthem].  What else do you think should go? (And please, be gentle. Remember, every feature is someone’s baby.)

[Update: Geoff Lankow has taken the code that used to be built in, and made it into an add-on, which is think is fantastic. As I said to him, and as I said above, my assertion has never been that the code was useless, just that it wasn’t useful enough to justify its cost in the core product. An add-on is a great place for functionality like that, and I thank Geoff for his work.]

Jul 09

Privacy Features in Firefox 3.5

While talking to press in North America and Europe about Firefox 3.5 (you’re already running it, right?) one topic that really resonated with people was the way we pushed on privacy in this release.

I think, initially, some people viewed our private browsing mode as a checklist feature. Even though we’d been working on it since before Firefox 3, it wasn’t strong enough for us to ship until 3.5 and in the interim other browsers have implemented versions of the same functionality. I really like the way we’ve done it, and there seem to be significant differences between the various browsers’ implementations, but regardless of all that I also don’t think that any private browsing mode is a complete solution.

Private browsing mode assumes that you will always know ahead of time that you’re about to do privacy-sensitive things. In Firefox 3.5, we tried to match more closely the way people actually use the browser, and sometimes that means they need to clean up after the fact – forgetting a slice of time, or a particular site. It also means that sometimes they want their browser to remember things, sensitive bookmarks for example, but not publicize those in the location bar. People’s use of a web browser in 2009 is more nuanced than:

Public Private

Alex Faaborg has done a fantastic job detailing many of the privacy features in the latest release of Firefox. I’d encourage you all to check it out.

Jun 09

Google Maps Geolocation Bookmarklet

I’ve been in Europe this week talking to French and German press about Firefox 3.5, and it’s been great to see all the excitement there is over here for the upcoming release.

One feature I’ve been talking a lot about is our support for Geolocation. I think that once Firefox 3.5 gets out there and sites realize they have a (privacy- and user-control-respecting) way to ask their users for their location in the world, all kinds of great services will show up. Flickr already has a photos-near-you feature, for instance, and I imagine mapping sites, restaurant reviews, and others are hot on their tails.

So I’m sure, in short order, that this won’t be necessary. In the meantime, if you’re running one of the Firefox 3.5 Release Candidates, you can use this bookmarklet to inject your current location into the google maps search box, so that you can base searches off your current location:

javascript:function sv(s){document.querySelector("#q_d").value=s};sv("Checking...");navigator.geolocation.getCurrentPosition(function(a){c=a.coords;sv(c.latitude+"%20"+c.longitude);document.forms.q_form.submit();},function(){sv("Rejected!")});

If you haven’t used a bookmarklet before, it’s easy. Open up your bookmark manager, decide where you want to put this (I like to have them on my bookmarks toolbar, since I use them a lot), and create a new bookmark. When it asks for a location, put in the code pasted above. Now, when you’re on the google maps site, click the bookmark to jump to your current location (after, of course, giving your consent).

This bookmarklet is specific to google maps (but I bet you can hack it!), and it certainly requires you to be using a modern browser with support for these features.  If you don’t have the latest Firefox yet, you can become part of our early testing community by downloading a copy now.

[Update: Changed the bookmarklet code a little to give some feedback immediately by letting you know it’s checking. I bet someone out there has already made a version of this that’s half as long, and twice as powerful. Comment!]

Jun 09

Google Ads: Did You Know You Could Do This?

A couple weeks ago I was attending a panel discussion at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in DC (featuring our very own Mike “Gillette Mach 3” Shaver) when Betsy, from Google Economics, started talking about their behaviour-based advertising.

She was making a point about how Google gives users control over the kind of ads they see, and she mentioned this:

I think I always knew that the “Ads by Google” text at the bottom of ads was clickable – I’ve probably even clicked it. Historically though, it’s just been a sales pitch for would-be advertisers and content authors.  Now, when you click on it (go on, there’s one at the bottom of this post), there’s a link to your very own “Ad Preferences Manager.”

This page tells you what Google thinks you’re interested in based on the browsing habits it’s observed, and hence what kinds of ads it wants to show you (seriously, go check it out).  It also gives you the option to add/remove interests, or opt out entirely.

Betsy, from Google, was talking about how they had been trying to really get the word out to people about this interface, so that people could control their ad experience. I wasn’t sure whether that message was reaching people – even people who might care about the information advertisers collect.

A couple of questions, then:

  1. Did you know about this page?
  2. Do the contents there surprise you?  How accurate are they?
  3. How does it all make you feel? Are you more comfortable, knowing that you have some control? Or are you less comfortable, seeing the profile laid out like that?
  4. Did you make any changes while you were there?

Mar 09

Updated SSL Certificate Database

When I blogged about my database of SSL certs from the top 1M alexa sites, it got much more reaction than I expected. It’s nice to have peers in this microcosm of nerdspace.

Easily the most often requested improvement was to include intermediates in the database. People wanted to see which issuers had a bunch of subordinate CAs and which issued right from the root. They wanted to see what kind of key sizes and algorithms CAs chose, and how they compared to the key sizes and algorithms used in regular site certs.

I’ve gone and re-crawled to gather that information now, and you can download the zipped db (509M). It’s still an SQLite3 database, though I’ve changed the schema a bit, with certificates now stored in their own table.  Let me know in the comments/email if you need help working with the data.

The schema, if you can call it that, was 100% expediency over forethought, so I would welcome any suggestions on DB organization/performance tweaking. I have done no optimizing so low-hanging fruit abounds, and a complicated query can take more than a day right now, so your suggestions will have visible effects!

Mar 09

Speaking to Lords – FAQ

People seem quite interested in how the trip went. Since I’m too sleepy to have anything qualifying as a coherent, synthesized opinion, FAQ format seems like the strongest play.

How Did It Go?

I think it went quite well. Of course, it’s hard to nail down short term success criteria for conversations with parliamentarians. A meeting like that is not going to end with a legislator standing up and saying “I agree. Let’s go pass a law.” Things like this are an exercise in advocacy: “Here is my opinion of the situation and the options under discussion for its remedy,” followed by others giving their versions of the same thing.

I do feel, though, that my opinion was listened to, understood, and amplified by others. The room included, in addition to invited experts and press, at least half a dozen Lords, and 3 or 4 MPs, so I am also confident that I was heard by people in a position to act on what they hear.

What Did You Say?

A couple of things. I said that this kind of data collection is not something users can be expected to understand and, if they did understand it, not something they have much ability to avoid.

I said that in many markets, even developed ones like Canada and Britain, there isn’t enough choice in ISPs to make “voting with your wallet” a realistic option for people who find this kind of surveillance invasive.

I said that the technological mechanisms for preventing this are prohibitively expensive (in the case of things like “universal SSL deployment”), largely ineffective (since traffic analysis would still be possible), and brittle (opt-out cookies assume you never switch computers or browsers, that you never reinstall or move houses, that you won’t be worn down to the point of surrender by the Nth attempt to opt out).

I said that, historically, anonymized data isn’t. The AOL data was blown wide open, for instance, and that was just search terms, not browsing history. I said that however ironclad Phorm’s current processes may be, this kind of data collection being done by multiple companies over any interesting period of time will almost certainly result in anonymity failures.

I said that the collection of this information is insidious, that however noble and scoped the initial goals, it tends towards exploitation because it is too valuable not to.

After saying a chunk of that in a single burst, I got some applause from some of the people in attendance which felt odd, but certainly seemed to suggest that I had struck a chord.

What are the Lords Like?

Parliamentarians, really, since there were MPs there, but in any event I was impressed, particularly by Baroness Miller, who organized the event.  She was exceptionally good at running a room – at ensuring that legislators’ questions were answered, at bringing digressions back around to the central themes, and ensuring that multiple voices were heard. As a group, they were forthright but unapologetic about their lack of technical knowledge (that’s not their job), and asked clear questions aimed at understanding the legislative implications of various details.

Were there Swords? Powdered Wigs? Snuff Boxes?

People from the UK know that their legislators are basically like other legislators, albeit with more exciting titles. To the rest of us though, the whole thing sounds very romantic, and we entertain positively ridiculous notions like this. No swords, no wigs, no “Yes, your exalted worshipfulness.”  The houses of parliament are guarded by perfectly normal police officers with perfectly normal frowns and perfectly normal assault rifles, but very little pomp.

What about the Building?

Imagine that your great great great grandparents and their friends had all the money in the country, and decided to build a place to hang out. Imagine that since then, it’s where everyone decided to put their cool stuff.  Imagine walking through rooms, separated by wooden doors older than calculus. Imagine those rooms are alternately filled with statues, murals, statues in front of murals, framed masterworks, and leather bound books about anything that could matter. Imagine that there are entirely different paths, staircases and elevators for peers of the realm than for everyone else.  Imagine that you could fit your current house inside the Queen’s entrance and have room to fly a kite from the roof.

It is a nice building.

Would you do it again?

Yes.  Yes I would.

I still think that legislating technology is fraught with peril. The way to mitigate that peril is not to run away from it, though, but to be a voice for the kind of change we want, and against the kind of change we don’t.

Is the Bowmore 17 you brought back tasty?


Mar 09

Deep Packet Inspection Considered Harmful?

I was recently asked, in the context of the ongoing Phorm debacle, and with other interested parties, to meet with members of the UK government and discuss deep packet inspection technologies, and their impact on the web.  I’m still organizing my thoughts on the subject – I’ve put some here, but I’d love to know where else you think I should look to ensure I have considered the relevant angles.

Brief Background

Phorm‘s technology hooks in at the ISP level, watches and logs user traffic, and uses it to assemble a comprehensive profile for targeting advertising. While an opt-out mechanism was provided, many users have complained that there was no notice, or that it was insufficiently clear what was going on. NebuAd, another company with a similar product, has apparently used its position at the ISP level to not only observe, but also to inject content into the pages before they reached the user.  It’s hard to get unbiased information here, but this is what I understand of the situation.


1.  Deep packet inspection, in the general case, is a neutral technology. Some technologies are malicious by design (virus code, for instance), but I think DPI has as many positive uses as negative. DPI can let an ISP make better quality of service decisions, and can be done with the full knowledge and support of its users. I don’t think DPI, as a technology, should be treated as insidious.

2. Using deep packet inspection to assemble comprehensive browsing profiles of users without explicit opt-in is substantially more questionable. My browsing history and habits are things I consider private in aggregate, even though any single visit is obviously visible to the site I’m browsing.

It’s possible that I will choose to allow this surveillance in exchange for other things I value, but it must be a deliberate exchange. I would want to have that choice in an explicit way, and not to be opted in by default, even for aggregate data. Moreover, given the complexity of this technology, I would want a great deal of care to go into the quality of the explanation.  Explaining this well to non-technical users might be so difficult as to be impossible, which is why it’s so important that it be opt-in.

3. Using deep packet inspection in conjunction with software that modifies the resultant pages to include, for instance, extra advertising content, is profoundly offensive and undermines the web. The content provider and the user have a reasonable expectation that no one else is modifying the content, and a typical user should not be expected to understand the mechanics of the web sufficiently to be able to anticipate such modifications.


As a browser, we do some things to help our users here, but we can’t solve the problem. https resists this kind of surveillance and tampering well, but requires sites to provide 100% of their content over SSL. Technologies like signed http content would prevent tampering, if not surveillance, but once again assume that sites (and browsers!) will support the technology. Ad blockers can turn off any injected ads, tools like NoScript can de-fang any injected javascript but, fundamentally, http content is not tamper-proof, and no plaintext protocol is eavesdropping proof.

People trust their ISPs with a huge amount of very personal data. It’s fine to say that customers should vote with their feet if their ISP is breaking that trust, but in many areas, the list of available ISPs is small, and so the need for prudence on the part of ISPs is large.

That’s what I’m thinking so far, what am I missing?