back to article Official Secrets Act alert went off after embassy hired local tech support

Welcome to yet another instalment of On-Call, The Register's week-ending column in which we share readers' stories of extreme sysadminnery performed under extreme duress. This week, meet “Lee” who told us he used to work for a British government department that operates lots of offices overseas, usually in embassies. Lee was …

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Bah!

Hmm. "Scolding" does not seem adequate for the general suckage I have to put up with. I think I've been officially given sixty lashes.

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Holmes

Curious...

1. Was the USB drive successfully recovered?

2. Was it readable?

"And this is our secure data-wipe facility"

"Umm, it's a cage full of monkeys"

"That's right, we feed your data to the monkeys, and their digestive juices do the rest"

"Why do you do that?"

"Mainly for the entertainment value of watching opposition spies collecting the monkey shit in the forlorn hope of recovering the data"

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Re: Curious...

I think even during the world wars, it wasn't unusual to go through the leavings of agents and even hospital bins full of severed and gangrenous body parts in order to find any intelligence if you thought it was a possibility.

And I don't think any USB drive would be affected by a journey through even the toughest digestive system... it would have to be stuck in there for weeks to degrade to the point it was unrecoverable if you REALLY wanted it, and it would be unpowered so no chance of short-circuit, etc. You'd literally have to wait for the stomach acid to etch its way through to the memory chip itself, which is unlikely in the normal course of things.

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Headmaster

Re: Curious...

USB drive full of secret data goes in to cage full of monkeys.

Wait (long enough).

USB drive comes out containing complete works of Shakespeare...

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Boffin

Re: Curious...

Hence the fruit, to encourage stomach emptying and what the ads call 'digestive transit'.

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Re: Curious...

The Red Army did not provide its soldiers with toilet paper during the Cold War. In contrast the British army has packets of bog paper in with the rations.

However onionskin paper used by the cypher department is very soft and absorbent apparently. So it was common practise to try and get to sites occupied by HQ units during military exercises and collect all that lovely stuff from the latrines. As the saying goes, if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined.

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Boffin

Re: Curious...

A USB drive will quite happily survive a trip through the washing machine.

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Re: Curious...

Multiple trips.

I have data.

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Re: Curious...

"Mainly for the entertainment value of watching opposition spies collecting the monkey shit in the forlorn hope of recovering the data"

For added giggles, let it be known that the data might be on a microdot rather than a USB stick. That will require far more in the way of sifting and much closer inspection.

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Re: Curious...

The Red Army did not provide its soldiers with toilet paper during the Cold War. In contrast the British army has packets of bog paper in with the rations.

There was a story that eastern bloc personnel took to using old one-time pads as bogroll, because it was better than anything else they had at their disposal. Poor western agents then had the job of retrieving these used items so that they could be used for decrypting historic radio intercepts.

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Trollface

Re: Curious...

And what tasted better? The rations or the bog paper?

Enquiring minds etc ...

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Pint

Re: Curious...

On the robustness of USB drives....

Look into the plug part of the thumb drive. See the plastic tab with the contacts on it? There's a pretty good chance that you are looking at the chip package itself. All the rest is just for show. Yeah, the chip will survive.

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Re: Curious...

A USB drive will quite happily survive a trip through the washing machine.

Though experience has taught me that impacts can definitely have an effect.

Once had someone else throw one of my USB drives at a wall. Upon trying to use it again, I found that one of the directories on the root of the drive now pointed to the contents of a different directory...

thankfully, there wasn't anything important on it that wasn't stored elsewhere.

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Re: A USB drive will quite happily survive a trip through the washing machine.

I do not understand why clever young things think that getting unpowered circuit boards wet will hurt them.

Provided you take care drying them so that mineral deposits don't form between tracks there is usually no problem.

I was also once treated as a madman when I told a group of colleagues that I had washed an LP in water after finding it had been stored "carelessly" and was filthy and in danger of being scratched if a disc preener was used on it.

I decided not to tell them about the time I fixed a persistent back-skip with the careful application of a safety pin, and only had a small "pop" on one revolution afterwards. (Caravan, "Cunning Stunts", "Show of our Lives", damaged by idiots fiddling with the anti-skate and then leaving album playing unattended for an hour). But I'll tell you.

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What were top secret files doing on a USB in the first place? Were they being smuggled out to be hidden under a pile of leaves?

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Anonymous Coward

> "What were top secret files doing on a USB in the first place?"

Waiting to be left on a seat in a train/in a taxi ;)

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Pint

This should've been a story line on The Thick Of It. Imagine Malcolm Tucker ripping in to Terri after taking her laptop down Tottenham Court Road to fix the broken WiFi.

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Thankfully, as a tech support box, I've never had to fish a USB stick out of monkey shit, but I did have to clean a rather expensive microphone (nearly £500 to replace) when a user returned it, and it came back so slimy I could barely hold it without it slipping out of my hand. I never found out how it got like that. The user claimed he had never even taken it out of the photographer's metal case we leant it to him in.

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I suspect the substance may have been KY jelly with mixed secretions.

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Anonymous Coward

@ Muscleguy ; That would be explained by the fact the user in question literally talked out of his arse.

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Many Years Ago

I was visiting a government establishment that had problems with its PDP-11 (yes, that long ago).

It was the sort of place where they had two different colours of line printer paper - one for secure state, and one for when they had visitors, and all the secure printout had to be locked away before we were allowed in.

We read in the memory diagnostics paper tape and ran it. It was unclear whether it was a memory board problem or the backplane, so we turned the computer off, unplugged the memory board, moved it to a different slot, turned the computer back on, toggled in the load address on the front panel and ran the diagnostics again. At this point one of the locals asked why we hadn't re-loaded the paper tape. "It's core store" we answered "non volatile". At which point panic took hold. "You mean that the top secret contents of memory don't get lost when we power off?"

We went away with after giving them the instruction that could be toggled in to wipe memory ("MOV -(PC) -(PC)" IIRC) and leaving them to re-write their procedures without making it too obvious that they had previously had a gaping hole in them.

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Re: Many Years Ago

Alan, I learned to program on a PDP 11-75 runnign RSX 11M which my Dad managed.

Did they reallyl have ferrite core stores?

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Re: Many Years Ago

We had a PDP 11/40 with 32k (words) of core and 96k of semiconductor memory. On one occasion decorators pushed the Big Red Button by mistake, shutting off the power. When we turned it back on, the system resumed (because the OS was all in core), but the programs in higher memory all crashed immediately.

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Re: Many Years Ago

Did they reallyl have ferrite core stores?

Some of them did. I can't remember which model they had - the one back at our office was an 11/45. WIkipedia confirms that the '45 could have core.

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Thumb Up

Re: Many Years Ago

I worked at Data General, but used PDP-11s in uni. They most certainly did have core, because, for a while, it was denser and less expensive than semiconductor memory. Not to mention "available". Semiconductor memory only became commonly available in the mid- to late-70s.

I still have a core module form a Nova, somewhere in "storage"...

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Re: Many Years Ago

The early PDP-11's were all core store. On the Unibus along with the peripherals.

My 3rd year project was programming one, as the peripheral processor on a PDP15/76, to get a GT-11 display accessible from the '15. That was fun. I sort-of did it. Enough to not disturb my getting a Desmond, anyways.

18-bit word length on the '15 mapped into the 16-bit word length on the '11. Or the other way round. I forget. It wasn't pretty.

Under (then) Dr. Bob Spence, IC, 1976

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Thumb Up

Re: Many Years Ago

"18-bit word length on the '15 mapped into the 16-bit word length on the '11. Or the other way round. I forget. It wasn't pretty."

You have it right :-)

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Re: Many Years Ago

"Semiconductor memory only became commonly available in the mid- to late-70s."

Shenanigans!

The early 1900 series computers had (possibly germanium) transistor memory and nil cores, and they were obsolete by the mid to late 70s (despite the ravings of people who used them).

The IBM 1301 we built from scrap at school in, what, '71 had cores on barn doors. Re-read the "scrap" part.

Cores were heavy, prone to all sorts of failures if you stood too close or were elected to open the "fan" of barn doors to cool them down and were wearing too much metal. Not to mention they drank current like it was going out of fashion. We used to power up the IBM using a three-ring binder to throw the first switch on account of the fireball that would engulf your hand if you didn't, though some of that was caused by all the incandescent light bulbs inside the main console display.

Happy days. Quite prepared me for running the 1955-vintage NMR spectrometer in the basement* of the University of Climate Scandals with its Flash Gordoneque controls and orange oscilloscope display. Leaping from one side of the room to another to fiddle with this or that control that had to be far enough from the four-foot cubical magnet to not perturb the field. Lab technicians would walk in and drop a box of retort stand claws on the magnet when your spectrum was three quarters done just to be gits. Oh how we laughed.

* - The basement was of course at ground level, ground level having been redesigned as on the second floor and accessed by raised walkways at UEA. I remember the School of Environmental Science had a boat outside which would be covered in enthusiastic "crew". They would pass out when the real chemists dumped solvents down the sinks upstairs because ENV parked their boat trailer over a storm-drain in a natural dip. Oh how we laughed.

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Re: Many Years Ago

--- The IBM 1301 we built from scrap at school in, what, '71 had cores on barn doors. Re-read the "scrap" part. ---

How much core would a disk drive have had, then? ( OK, the original 5Meg RAMAC (IBM 350) had a sector buffer of IIRC 100 characters, (possibly in the 305 CPU, rather than the 350 disk drive) but it also had tubes/valves. ) And how much memory (built of discrete transistors) would the 1900 (ICL, aka Ferranti FP6000?)) have had? I can imaging a fair bit of "register" memory built with transistors, but "store" made that way (in 1964) would have been prohibitively expensive.

Just curious... (and exercising my pedant neurons while waiting for my ride on a rainy day :-)

My own recollection is the semiconductor memory was _available_ in the mid/late 1960s, but was not all that _affordable_ until the mid/late 1970s. Some folks care about cost. (and reliability, which for affordable DRAM was an early issue, while SRAM was yet more expensive).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Many Years Ago

"My own recollection is the semiconductor memory was _available_ in the mid/late 1960s, [...]"

The new English Electric System 4-70 mainframe in 1967 had threaded ferrite cores - 1 MB occupied several 6 feet high cabinets. IIRC the slightly later 4-72 had "plated wire" memory - which was still magnetic but it reduced 1MB to fewer cabinets.

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Re: Many Years Ago

The early 1900 series computers had (possibly germanium) transistor memory and nil cores,

I remember using a 1906S at uni in the late 70s, it had plated wire memory, which was like core but faster. Didn't see semiconductor memory until we had Apple IIs and VAXen to play with (and 6800 development boards, great days)

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Re: Many Years Ago

The early 1900 series computers had (possibly germanium) transistor memory and nil cores, and they were obsolete by the mid to late 70s (despite the ravings of people who used them).

In 1987 Computer Weekly ran a "Win-A-Computer" competition for schools. The entry I was involved in didn't come first, but as a "consolation" prize, an (IIRC) bakery company who was disposing of their ICT 1902T offered it to our school. It was the time of my "A" levels (the award ceremony was the day of my Physics exam), so I never saw it arrive at the start of the next term, but my brother did. It was never got to work properly, and when my brother left he took the core store box with him. It's now with The National Museum of Computing.

https://planet.davewylie.uk/castlerigg/

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Re: Many Years Ago

In 1987

Opps - sorry - typo - should have been 1977.

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swm

Re: Many Years Ago

At my college we had several NOVA computers used as printer controllers. Rather than put input devices on all of them we loaded the code into a "master" machine with a tape reader, copied the contents to another core plane and then carried that core plane to the printer controller NOVA. Saved buying a lot of tape readers and the users couldn't load other stuff via a tape reader.

This was really a core dump/load.

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Facepalm

Some people.

I was 55 and my "boss" was a 21 year old PFY. Each time a staff member logged a Wi-Fi connection fault he would tell them the laptop would need to be sent away to have the motherboard changed. I on the other hand just turned the Wi-Fi button back on. Even logged it in the SharePoint Helpdesk that he never read.

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Re: Some people.

Cattle prod. Now.

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Re: Some people.

I had a coworker who's Thinkpad had the WiFi switch glued in the On position by the site IT guys. He never noticed it, but was happy that his "internet stuff" didn't quit on him any more.

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Coat

Re: Some people.

Time to employ the loosely latched full height 2/3rd story window then and/or spade, lime and rug. :) PP

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Re: Some people.

"accidentally hit WiFi button on the side of the laptop and turned it off" etc. Glue! Brilliant idea, except that some keyboards turn the wifi off by a thick finger hitting cntrl while an f key is being pressed. Cue mysterious loss of wifi, panic calls etc.

It's a f***ng stupid bit of keyboard design that allows any non-obvious loss of function to be triggered by a small error. There's a reason why it took 3 keys to do a reset.

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Some people just need to not use computers full stop.

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Not quite the same distance

But once I had to fly from London to Edinburgh at the crack of sparrows, whilst quite phenomenally unwell, hire a car, and drive a couple of hours north in order to install some software. Said software ONLY worked on Windows 2000. Not XP, not ME, not Linux, only Windows 2000.

The customer had to get a new PC to run this, so I checked three times with them that they had got Windows 2000 on it. They assured me their local specialist had indeed installed Windows 2000.

After a lovely short flight that I spent puking in the plane bathroom, and then a very lovely drive through some very nice scenery, punctuated by more puking, I arrived. You already know it wasn't running 2000. Instead it was running ME because "it's basically the same thing, but cheaper".

So I turned around and went home again. By this time I'd finished puking so it wasn't all bad.

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Unhappy

Good thing it wasn't a U.S. office.

Instead of feeding it fruit, they would have used a butcher knife. (And yes, I'm USAn).

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>One such trip involved “four of us sitting around a cage full of monkeys,

>feeding them fruit” because one of the simians had swallowed a USB

>drive that contained classified files.

You should always mount a scratch monkey before copying files.

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Devil

Official Secrets Act

Isn't that a Chloe(acute) thing? Don't let on I played Commando days before "Christmas" (pandering to the crucified).

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