VPNs for all

Hey so it’s taken way longer than it should have but I finally got around to hosting my own VPN. The setup itself was pretty easy thanks to the Ansible scripts and documentation provided by the Algo project.

Although it works fine with all major cloud providers, I was hoping to host it on a raspberry pi. Unfortunately, due to the sorry state of ISPs here in Germany, my 2 in 1 modem/router lacks basic functionality like port forwarding, bridge mode, or the ability to use other firmware. Pi VPN is another excellent project that simplifies this task, assuming you have the ability to port forward.


I’ve been meaning to 1. Learn more python, 2. Increase my understanding of cryptography and 3. Prune my backlog of ‘interesting stuff to checkout someday maybe’. To that end, I’m gonna jump into the https://cryptopals.com challenges.

Python solutions over yonder: https://github.com/rpavlov/cryptopals

Encoding: Hexadecimal, base64

The difference between Base64 and hex is really just how bytes are represented. Hex is another way of saying “Base16”. Hex will take two characters for each byte - Base64 takes 4 characters for every 3 bytes, so it’s more efficient than hex. Assuming you’re using UTF-8 to encode the XML document,a 100K file will take 200K to encode in hex, or 133K in Base64. Of course it may well be that you don’t care about the space efficiency - in many cases it won’t matter. If it does matter, then clearly Base64 is better on that front. (There are alternatives which are even more efficient, but they’re not as common.)

There is more to base selection than efficiency, however.

Base64 uses more than just letters and numbers. Different implementations use different punctuation characters as delimiters, and making up the last two characters of the set of 64. These can include plus “+” and equal “=” which are both problematic in HTTP query strings.

So one reason to favour base16 over base64 is that base16 values can be composed directly into HTTP query strings without requiring additional encoding. Is that important to you?

Notice that this is an additional concern, over and above efficiency. Neither base is inherently better or worse; they’re just two different points on a scale, at which you’ll find different properties that will be more or less attractive in different situations.

For example, consider base32. It’s 20% less efficient than base64, but is still suitable for use in HTTP query strings. Most of its inefficiency comes from being case-insensitive and avoiding zero “0” and one “1”, to mistakes in reproduction by humans.

So base32 introduces a new concern; ease of reproduction for humans. Is that a concern for you? If it’s not, you could go for something like base62, which is still convenient in HTTP query strings, but is case sensitive and includes zero “0” and “1”. base32 is case insensitive.

Why is XOR important in cryptography?

XOR represents the inequality function, i.e., the output is true if the inputs are not alike otherwise the output is false. A way to remember XOR is “one or the other but not both”.

Imagine you have a string of binary digits 10101 and you XOR the string 10111 with it you get 00010

Now your original string is encoded and the second string becomes your key if you XOR your key with your encoded string you get your original string back.

Python sidenotes

1: Statements vs functions

In python we have statements and functions, which is a little confusing. Certain things, in this case assert are functions in other languages. In python assert is a statement! Crazy!

So assert(False, "Oh no, something is wrong) will deceptively not trigger the error message. However, assert False, "Oh no..." will behave as expected:

/home/rpavlov/Projects/cryptopals/set1.py:30: SyntaxWarning: assertion is always true, perhaps remove parentheses? assert(len(byte_str1) == len(byte_str2), 'Byte arrays are of different lengths!')

In the switch from python2->python3 this is even more confusing, because print went from being an expression to a function. Coming from ruby, puts 'hey' and puts('hey') behave exactly the same.

2: zip()

The zip() function in Python 3 returns an iterator. It’s typically used to interleave two lists.

numbersList = [1, 2, 3]
numbersTuple = ('ONE', 'TWO', 'THREE', 'FOUR')

result = zip(numbersList, numbersTuple)

resultSet = set(result)

{(2, 'TWO'), (3, 'THREE'), (1, 'ONE')}

strList = ['one', 'two']
result = zip(numbersList, strList, numbersTuple)

resultSet = set(result)

{(2, 'two', 'TWO'), (1, 'one', 'ONE')}

3: bytearray([ord(char)] * len(hextobyte_array(buff)))

The purpose of this line is to expand a single character to a byte string of the same length as the one we want to xor against.

Misc notes

  • Ciphertext: result of running a piece of text throught a Cipher, otherwise known as an algorithm.
  • In cryptanalysis, frequency analysis (also known as counting letters) is the study of the frequency of letters or groups of letters in a ciphertext. The method is used as an aid to breaking classical ciphers.
  • Summarize the example in

Github pages domain takeover

Recently my partner’s website was defaced, in that it was serving new, different content at the old url. It is a simple static site hosted on github, which made the severity of this exploit initially puzzling. How could this happen? The site accepts no input and the DNS settings looked normal.

Luckily, this was one of those easily searchable and already known issues with Github pages. The short of it is, if you don’t have a CNAME file at the root of your project and someone else beats you to it, they can claim your custom domain and Github will happily serve their index.html instead! Other providers often require you to have a TXT record in your DNS records, but GH does not require proof of owernship in order to set a custom domain in the repository settings. The final take-away is you can’t trust even the big players to make sound technical decisions.

Here’s a great and even more detailed breakdown.

End of 2018

It turns out habitual blogging is difficult, but persistence is it’s own reward. Time to reflect on 2018 and then think about where to steer the ship, or pull the elephant if you prefer animal metaphors.

Career stuff

I opted to continue client work after getting the opportunity to build/manage the cloud infrastructure and development processes for a couple of companies. It leveled up large chunks of my knowledge, and allowed me to learn tons about DNS, network configuration, security, secrets management and a myriad of other sysadmin related things. In addition to the usual troubleshoot this and fix that of regular software development.

My previous career goal set around this time last year was to gain dev-ops and sysadmin experience in order to transition into more security oriented work and projects.

Back to security study

How me, a programmer, learn security?? Turns out I’m not the only one to have this idea. Here’s another classic. To that end, I’ve resumed self-study and practice according to a vague curriculum I’m putting together. More on that in another blog post.

Personal stuff

This year I managed to:

  • Nurture closer relationships with people I care about, respect and admire.
  • Move to Berlin. Living elsewhere is incredibly refreshing.
  • Live minimalist. I reconsidered what stuff I actually need. But also, which luxuries brings me joy? A good soundsystem + music, easy access to a gym, and a nice kitchen for example. Regardless of where in the world I am, if there is a place to lift heavy things nearby that’s already a huge quality of life improvement.
  • Work out a lot, and start Muay Thai and BJJ training.
  • Re-learn german. Going forward hoffentlich mehr auf Deutsch.

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