2014/04/13

Mrs Tittlemouse is a short-sighted bourgeois reactionary

Reading a story aloud every evening for months on end does strange things to your brain. Thus, after the third or fourth month of reading 'The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse' by Beatrix Potter to my little daughter, something clicked, or maybe snapped, and I suddenly realised that the story is actually about Communism and the secret police, and has a surprising moral that is relevant to these post-Snowden times.

You may think this is deeply silly, and you're probably right. But since Mrs Tittlemouse is both quite short and now in the public domain, I can offer you a scene-by-scene interpretation right here.

The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse   ...and what it means
Once upon a time there was a wood-mouse, and her name was Mrs. Tittlemouse.

She lived in a bank under a hedge.

Such a funny house! There were yards and yards of sandy passages, leading to storerooms and nut-cellars and seed-cellars, all amongst the roots of the hedge.

There was a kitchen, a parlour, a pantry, and a larder.

Also, there was Mrs. Tittlemouse's bedroom, where she slept in a little box bed!

Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors.

This introduction serves to establish Mrs. Tittlemouse as a landowner obsessed with order.
Sometimes a beetle lost its way in the passages.

"Shuh! shuh! little dirty feet!" said Mrs. Tittlemouse, clattering her dust-pan.

And one day a little old woman ran up and down in a red spotty cloak.

The truth is that, Mrs. Tittlemouse's claim to 'ownership' of what appears to be a common right of way is only given weight through the use of intimidation,
"Your house is on fire, Mother Ladybird! Fly away home to your children!"

scaremongering,
Another day, a big fat spider came in to shelter from the rain.

"Beg pardon, is this not Miss Muffet's?"

"Go away, you bold bad spider! Leaving ends of cobweb all over my nice clean house!"

She bundled the spider out at a window.

He let himself down the hedge with a long thin bit of string.

and unwarranted physical coercion.
Mrs. Tittlemouse went on her way to a distant storeroom, to fetch cherry-stones and thistle-down seed for dinner.

All along the passage she sniffed, and looked at the floor.

"I smell a smell of honey; is it the cowslips outside, in the hedge? I am sure I can see the marks of little dirty feet."

Suddenly round a corner, she met Babbitty Bumble—"Zizz, Bizz, Bizzz!" said the bumble bee.

Mrs. Tittlemouse looked at her severely. She wished that she had a broom.

Babbity Bumble can't be intimidated however. He's a bee!
"Good-day, Babbitty Bumble; I should be glad to buy some beeswax. But what are you doing down here? Why do you always come in at a window, and say Zizz, Bizz, Bizzz?" Mrs. Tittlemouse began to get cross.

Mrs. Tittlemouse is experiencing cognitive dissonance caused by Babbity refusing to conform to the classical worker-capitalist paradigm.
"Zizz, Wizz, Wizzz!" replied Babbitty Bumble in a peevish squeak. She sidled down a passage, and disappeared into a storeroom which had been used for acorns.

Mrs. Tittlemouse had eaten the acorns before Christmas; the storeroom ought to have been empty.

In other words, Mrs. Tittlemouse would rather the storeroom go unused than have the space be productively filled.
But it was full of untidy dry moss.

Mrs. Tittlemouse began to pull out the moss. Three or four other bees put their heads out, and buzzed fiercely.

"I am not in the habit of letting lodgings; this is an intrusion!" said Mrs. Tittlemouse. "I will have them turned out—" "Buzz! Buzz! Buzzz!"—"I wonder who would help me?" "Bizz, Wizz, Wizzz!"

The bees, lead by Babbity Bumble, have formed a workers collective and—worse!—reclaimed the heretofore-unused real-estate as socially useful living space. No doubt the bees consider the unallocated resources the byproduct of a wasteful economy that hasn't been properly planned.
—"I will not have Mr. Jackson; he never wipes his feet."

Mrs. Tittlemouse decided to leave the bees till after dinner.

Tittlemouse is essentially driven back by the collective resistance of the bees, but is still reluctant to call upon Mr. Jackson, and for good reason as we shall see...

When she got back to the parlour, she heard some one coughing in a fat voice; and there sat Mr. Jackson himself!

...but Mr. Jackson has eyes, ears and noses everywhere, and he already knows that something's up.
He was sitting all over a small rocking-chair, twiddling his thumbs and smiling, with his feet on the fender.

He lived in a drain below the hedge, in a very dirty wet ditch.

Mr. Jackson is not good company. This is because Mr. Jackson is, in fact, an agent of the secret police. Dirty work is his speciality.
"How do you do, Mr. Jackson? Deary me, you have got very wet!"

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! I'll sit awhile and dry myself," said Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Jackson begins to toy with Mrs. Tittlemouse. Like all government officials, he speaks in triplicate...
He sat and smiled, and the water dripped off his coat tails. Mrs. Tittlemouse went round with a mop.

He sat such a while that he had to be asked if he would take some dinner?

First she offered him cherry-stones. "Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! No teeth, no teeth, no teeth!" said Mr. Jackson.

He opened his mouth most unnecessarily wide; he certainly had not a tooth in his head.

Then she offered him thistle-down seed—"Tiddly, widdly, widdly! Pouff, pouff, puff!" said Mr. Jackson. He blew the thistle-down all over the room.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! Now what I really—really should like—would be a little dish of honey!"

...until he finally reveals the true purpose of his call.
"I am afraid I have not got any, Mr. Jackson," said Mrs. Tittlemouse.

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse!" said the smiling Mr. Jackson, "I can smell it; that is why I came to call."

Protestations of innocence are useless...
Mr. Jackson rose ponderously from the table, and began to look into the cupboards.

Mrs. Tittlemouse followed him with a dish-cloth, to wipe his large wet footmarks off the parlour floor.

When he had convinced himself that there was no honey in the cupboards, he began to walk down the passage.

...Mrs. Tittlemouses' right to privacy and her protection from unreasonable search and seizure are ignored.

The truth is that, like the modern-day 'war on terror', the fight against communism considered civil liberties as mere obstacles, to be ridden over rough-shod.
"Indeed, indeed, you will stick fast, Mr. Jackson!"

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse!"

First he squeezed into the pantry.

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly? no honey? no honey, Mrs. Tittlemouse?"

Again, this symbolises the creeping abrogation of Mrs. Tittlemouses rights. Furthermore, although Mr. Jackson is searching for honey, other innocents are caught up in his search of her private property...
There were three creepy-crawly people hiding in the plate-rack. Two of them got away; but the littlest one he caught.

...and suffer the consequences of his paranoia.
Then he squeezed into the larder. Miss Butterfly was tasting the sugar; but she flew away out of the window.

Miss Butterfly probably represents the socialite elite. She's happy to flit through the window and fashionably play with the boundaries that Babbity and her comrades are trying to erase, but she didn't stay to fight.

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse; you seem to have plenty of visitors!"

"And without any invitation!" said Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse.

Note that Mrs. Tittlemouse, despite her obsession with hygiene and dislike of (non-mouse) visitors, was less comfortable still with Mr. Jackson.

Beatrix Potter is showing that the bourgeois are unhappy with the methods used by the state against revolutionaries, even when the state believes itself to be acting in their interests...
They went along the sandy passage—
"Tiddly widdly—" "Buzz! Wizz! Wizz!"

He met Babbitty round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

"I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles," said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

"Get out, you nasty old toad!" shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

"I shall go distracted!" scolded Mrs. Tittlemouse.

She shut herself up in the nut-cellar while Mr. Jackson pulled out the bees-nest. He seemed to have no objection to stings.

When Mrs. Tittlemouse ventured to come out—everybody had gone away.

...and while the real fight takes place she hides...
But the untidiness was something dreadful—"Never did I see such a mess—smears of honey; and moss, and thistledown—and marks of big and little dirty feet—all over my nice clean house!"

...and the riot is over, the state has destroyed the temporary autonomous zone, and left Mrs. Tittlemouse to clean up the mess.
She gathered up the moss and the remains of the beeswax.

Then she went out and fetched some twigs, to partly close up the front door.

"I will make it too small for Mr. Jackson!"

She fetched soft soap, and flannel, and a new scrubbing brush from the storeroom. But she was too tired to do any more. First she fell asleep in her chair, and then she went to bed.

Note that Tittlemouse shows no concern for the bee pupae that were gestating in their nest; no concern for where Babbity Bumble will live now that storeroom is empty and useless again. She's concerned merely with order for the sake of a quiet life and the maintenence of the status quo, oh and look—free beeswax!

In making the front door smaller, has Mrs. Tittlemouse let her love of order override the proper concerns of national security? Or has her initial distaste for Mr. Jackson solidified into rejection and disgust over his disproportionate, jack-booted response to the radicalised bees? Has she herself been radicalised?
"Will it ever be tidy again?" said poor Mrs. Tittlemouse.

Next morning she got up very early and began a spring cleaning which lasted a fortnight.
She swept, and scrubbed, and dusted; and she rubbed up the furniture with beeswax, and polished her little tin spoons.

When it was all beautifully neat and clean, she gave a party to five other little mice, without Mr. Jackson.

He smelt the party and came up the bank, but he could not squeeze in at the door.

The answer is no; The truth is that Mrs. Tittlemouse cares only for other mice and their opinions of her social elite; her racist prejudices prevent her from obtaining class consciousness through empathy with her fellow woodland animals.
So they handed him out acorn-cupfuls of honey-dew through the window, and he was not at all offended.

She's quite willing to accommodate Mr. Jackson and even continues to pay her taxes. She has seen the violence inherent in the system, but continues to conform.
He sat outside in the sun, and said—"Tiddly, widdly, widdly! Your very good health, Mrs. Tittlemouse!"

So there you have it. Mrs. Tittlemouse represents the landed bourgeois, the bees the workers collective, and Mr. Jackson the secret police. Truly a tale with a 'nightmarish quality' as Daphne Kutzer apparently wrote in her no-doubt less addled take on the story.

But a spectre is haunting Mrs. Tittlemouse - the spectre of what happens next time the bees come back through the window! How will Mr. Jackson destroy their nest, now that he can't get in through the front door?

Are we supposed to ask ourselves this question? Is Potter suggesting Tittlemouse's reluctance to call upon Mr. Jackson is misplaced, or is she secretly rooting for the return of the bees?

OK, but what does this have to do with the NSA?


The relevance of the fable to today is surprising. Imagine that instead of physically invading Mrs. Tittlemouses cupboards, Mr. Jackson has instead harvested her email, Facebook status updates and Yahoo webcam chat sessions. In response, Mrs. Tittlemouse didn't resize her front door; she audited all her crypto software, and ensured that all her Internet traffic was encrypted. But once the Internet is safe from surveillance, does that also make it safe for malfeasance?

This story illustrates a dilemma confronted by many throughout history. To what extent are we willing to compromise our core sense of identity in order to ensure collective security, and to whom does it fall to set these limits? In this story, Mr. Jackson unilaterally evicted the bees. As a consequence, Mrs. Tittlemouse accepts the risks of more bees taking up lodging in future, in order to maintain the tidiness (and access to beeswax) that is so important to her.

Today, the security establishment in the shape of the NSA, GCHQ and the other signatories of the 'Five Eyes' treaty have unilaterally decided where our rights to privacy begin and end. They've made an end-run around democratic limits by arranging for the NSA to spy in Europe, for GCHQ to spy on American companies such as Google, etcetera.

In response, Google now encrypts their datacenter links, journalists are more likely to use encryption, and any website that professes to value your data uses encryption by default. We are slowly realising that Mr. Jackson is not our friend, and, like Mrs. Tittlemouse, that we need to make our front door smaller.

2014/04/12

Heartbleed and the NSA: put your hand up if you've ever credited a responsible-disclosure vulnerability report to the NSA. Anybody? Anybody?

Heartbleed is no doubt the worst security bug to hit the Internet in a very, very long time, and this comes hot on the heels of serious SSL certificate checking bugs in iOS and OpenSSL.

Bloomberg says the NSA knew of Heartbleed and said nothing. The ODNI forcefully denies this. Unfortunately the denial is difficult to accept, and here is why. Vendors often credit the people or organisations who find vulnerabilities. As the ODNI themselves pointed out, the Federal government uses OpenSSL and, no doubt, many other open source security products.

It would make sense for the 'defensive' wing of the NSA to to audit these products and, following the logic the ODNI themselves laid out in the link above, responsibly disclose any vulnerabilities to the product owners.

Furthermore, it is an obvious PR win for the NSA to ask for credit, and they know how open source works, having done work on SELinux etc. People would say, "Hey, my tax dollars at work, making us all safer! Truly the NSA is a force for good in the world."

(On the other hand, it is an obvious counterintelligence win not to ask for credit, because then the Chinese, Russians etc. (and Germans, the MSF, and UNICEF to judge by their target list) would say 'The NSA can find that type of vulnerability? Better scan our software!' and Coverity would add a check for that class of problem, making future bug hunting harder.)

But here is the problem: does anyone recall any serious security vulnerabilities that were found and disclosed by the NSA? I don't. We know they search for vulnerabilities; the ODNI admits this themselves. Thanks to Snowden we know that programs such as FoxAcid can query a library of exploits in real time using complex criteria such as value, risk of disclosure etc.

If the ODNI's assertions regarding disclosure of vulnerabilities such as heartbleed are true, where are the corporations and open source projects that can stand up and credit the NSA with finding the problems for which they have issued patches? Why is their blog post above a context-free assertion of fact, instead of a litany of examples of past actions?

This is my conclusion. Anyone who works on OpenSSL or any other open source project such as BIND or Apache, and who has received a vulnerability disclosure from the NSA, needs to stand up and say so. Their continuing absence proves Bloomberg right and the ODNI wrong, and we need to know.