UK Banking, Fineco is not enough

You may remember that the last time I blogged about UK banking I had just dismissed Barclays in favour of Fineco, the Italian investment bank, branch of UniCredit, This seemed a good move, both because people spoke very good of Fineco in my circles, at least in Italy, and because the sign up flow seemed so good that it sounded like a good idea.

I found out almost right away that something was not quite perfect for the UK market, in particular because there was (and is) no way to set up a standing order, which is the standard way to pay for your rent in the UK (and Ireland, for what it’s worth). But it seemed a minor thing to worry about, as the rest of the features of the bank (ability to spend up to £10k in a single transaction by requesting an explicit lift on the card limits with SMS authentication, just to say one).

Unfortunately, a couple of months later I know for sure it is not possible to use Fineco as a primary account in the UK at all. There are two problems, the first being very much a problem to anyone, and the second being a problem for my situation. I’ll start with the first one: direct debit support.

The direct debit system, for those not used to it in Europe, is one where you give a “debtor” (usually, an utility service, such as your ISP or power company) your account details (Sort Code and Account Number in the case of the UK), and they will tell the bank to give them money at certain time of the month. And it is the way Jeremy Clarkson lost £200, ten years ago. There is a nearly identical system in the rest of the EU, called SEPA Direct Debit (with SDD Core being the more commonly known about, as it deals with B2C, business-to-consumer) debits.

After I opened the Fineco account, I checked on Payments UK’s Sort Code Checker which features were enabled for it (30-02-48) and then, as well as the time of writing, it says «Bacs Direct Debits can be set up on this sort code.» So I had no refrain in closing my Barclays account and moving all the money into the newly created account. All of my utilities were more than happy to do so, except for ThamesWater that refused to let me set up the debit online. Turns out they were the only ones with a clue.

Indeed, when in January the first debit was supposed to land, instead of seeing the debit on the statement, I saw a BACS credit of the same amount. I contacted my ISP (Hyperoptic, with the awesome customer support) to verify if something failed on their side, but they didn’t see anything amiss for them. When even Netflix showed up the same way, and both of the transaction showed up an “entry reversal” of the same amount, I knew something was off with the bank and contacted them, originally to no avail.

Indeed, a few more debits showed up the same way, so I have been waiting for the shoe to drop, which it did at the end of January, when Fineco sent me an email (or actually, a ticket, it even has a ticket number!) telling me that they processed the debits as a one-off, but to cancel them because they won’t do this again. This was professional of them, particularly as this way it does not hit my credit score at all, but it still is a major pain in the neck.

My first hope was to be able to just use Revolut to pay the direct debits, since they are all relatively low amounts, which fit my usual auto top-up strategy. When you look at the Revolut information page with your account details for GBP, the text says explicitly «Use this personal UK current account to get salary and to pay bills», which brought me hope, and indeed the Payment UK’s checker also confirmed that it supposedly accepts Bacs Direct Debit. But when I checked with the in-app chat support, I was told that, no Revolut does not support direct debits, which makes that phrase extremely misleading. At least TransferWise explicitly denies supporting Direct Debit in the sort code checker, kudos to them.

The next problem with Fineco is not actually their fault, but is still due to them not having the “full features” of a UK high street bank. I got contacted by Dexters, the real estate company that among other things manages my apartment and collects my rent. While they told me the money arrived all good when I moved to Fineco (I asked them explicitly), they sent me a scary and threatening email (after failing to reach me on the phone, I was going to be charged excessively high roaming charges to answer an unknown number)… because £12 were missing from my payment. The email exchange wasn’t particularly productive (I sent them a photo of the payment confirmation, they told me «[they] received a large sum of money[sic] however it is £12.00 that is outstanding on the account.» So I called them on Monday, and they managed to confirm that it was actually £6 missing in December, and another £6 missing in January.

Throwing this around with colleague, and then discussing with a more reasonable person from Dexters on the phone, we came to figure out that Barclays (as the bank used by Dexters to receive the rent) is charging them £6 to receive these transfers because they are “international” — despite the fact that they are indeed local, it appears Barclays apply that fee for any transfer received over the SWIFT network rather than through the Faster Payments system used by most of the other UK banks. I didn’t want to keep arguing with Dexters over the fact that it’s their bank charging them the fee, I paid the extra £12, and decided to switch the rent payment over to the new account as well. I really dislike Barclays.

I’ll post later this month on the following attempts with other bank accounts. For now I decided that I’ll keep getting my salary into Fineco, and keep a running balance on the “high street” account for the direct debits, and the rent. Right now for my only GBP credit card (American Express) I still pay the balance off Fineco via debit card payment anyway, because the credit limit they gave me is quite limited for my usual spending, particularly now that I can actually charge that card when booking flights on BA without having to spend extra money in fees.

Barclays and the single factor authentication

In my previous post on the topic I have barely touched on one of the important reasons why I did not like Barclays at all. The reason for that was that I still had money into my account with them, and I wanted to make sure that was taken care of before lamenting further on the state of their security. As I managed to close my account now, I should go on and discuss this further, even though I have touched upon the major topics of this.

Barclays online banking system relies heavily on what I would define as “single factor authentication”.

Usually, you define authentication factors as things you have or things you know. In the case of Barclays, the only thing they effectively rely upon is “access to the debit card”. Okay, technically you could say that by itself it’s a two-factor system, as it requires access to the debit card and to its PIN. And since the EMV-CAP protocol they use for this factor executes directly on the chipcard, it is not susceptible to the usual PIN-stripping attacks as most card fraud with chip-and-pin cards uses.

But this does not count for much when the PIN of the card they issued me was 7766 — and to lament of that is why I waited to close the account and give them back the card. It seems like there’s a pattern of banks issuing “easy to remember” 4-digit PINs: XYYX, XXYY, etc. One of my previous (again, cancelled) cards had a PIN terribly easy to remember for a computerist, at least not for the average person though: 0016.

Side note: I have read someone suggesting to badly scribbled a wrong PIN on the back of a card as a theft prevention. Though I like that idea, I’m just afraid the banks won’t like it anyway. Also it would take some work to make the scribble being easily misunderstood for different digits so that they can try the three times needed to block it.

You access Barclays online banking account through the use of the Identify method provided by CAP, which means you put the card into the reader, provide the PIN, and you get an 8-digits identifier that can be used to login on the website. Since I’m no expert of how CAP works internally, I will only venture a guess that this is similar to a counter-based OTP, as the card has no access to a real-time clock, and there is no challenge provided for this information.

This account access sounds secure, but it’s really not any more secure than an username and password, at least when it comes to dealing with phishing. You may think that producing a façade that shows the full Barclays login, and proxies the responses in real time is a lot of work, but the phishing tools are known for being flexible, and they don’t really need to reproduce the whole website, just the parts they care about getting data from. The rest can easily be proxied as it is without any further change, of course.

So what can we do once you can fool someone into logging in to the bank? Well, you can’t really do much, as most of the actions require further CAP confirmation: wires, new standing orders, and so on so forth. You can, though, get a lot of information about the victim, including enough proofs of address or identity that you can really mess with their life. It also makes it possible to cancel things like standing orders to pay for rent, which would be quite messy to deal with for most people — although most of the phishing is not done for the purpose of messing with people, and more to get their money.

As I said, for sending money you need to have access to the CAP codes. That includes having access not only to the device itself, but also the card and the PIN. To execute those transactions, Barclays will ask you to sign a transaction by providing the CAP device with the account number and the amount to wire. This is good and it’s pretty hard to tamper with, hopefully (I do not make any guarantee on the implementation of CAP), so even if you’re acting through a proxy-phishing site, your wires are probably safe.

I say probably, because the way the challenge-response is implemented, only the 8-digits account number is used during the signature. If the phishers are attacking a victim that they studied for long enough, which may be the case when attacking businesses, you could know which account they pay every month manually, and set up an account with the same number at a different bank (different sort code). The signature would be valid for both.

To be fair to Barclays, implementing the CAP fully, the way they did here, is actually more secure than what Ulster Bank (and I assume the rest of RBS Group) does, with an opaque “challenge” token. While this may encode more information, the fact that it’s opaque means there is no way for the user to know whether what they are signing is indeed what they meant to.

Now, these mitigations are actually good. They require continuous access to the card on request, and that makes it very hard for phishing to just keep using the site in the background after the user logged in. But they still rely on effectively a single factor. If someone gets a hold of the card and the PIN (and we know at least some people will write the real one on the back of the card), then it’s game over: it’s like the locks on my flat’s door: two independent locks… except they use the same key. Sure, it’s a waste of time to pick both, so it increases the chances a neighbour would walk in on wannabe burglars trying to open the apartment door. But there’s a single key, I can’t just use two separate keychains to make sure a thief would only grab one of the two, and if anyone gets it from me, well, it’s game over.

Of course Barclays knows that this is not enough, so they include a risk engine. If something in the transactions don’t comply with their profile of your activity, it’s considered risky and they require an additional verification. This verification happens to be in form of text messages. I will not suggest that the problem with these is with GSM-layer attacks, as that is still not (yet) in the hands of the type of criminals aiming at personal bank accounts, but there is at the very least the risk that a thieve would get a handle of my bag with both my card and my phone, so the only “factors” that are still in my head, rather than tied to the physical objects, are the (provided) PIN of the card, and the PIN of the phone.

This profile fitting is actually the main reason why I got frustrated with Barclays: since I had just opened the account, most of the transactions were all “exceptional”, and that is extremely annoying. This was compounded by the fact that my phone provider didn’t even let me receive SMS from the office, due to lack of coverage (now fixed), and the fact that at least for wires, the Barclays UI does not warn you to check your phone!

There is also the problem with the way Barclays handle these “exceptional transactions”: debit card transactions are out-and-out rejected. The Verified by Visa screen tells you to check your phone, but the phone will only ask you if it was your transaction or not, and after you confirm it is, it’ll ask you to “retry in a couple of minutes” — retrying too quickly will lead to the transactions being blocked by the processor directly, with a temporary card lock. The wire transfer one will unblock the execution of the wire, which is good, but it can also push the wire to after the cut-off time for non-“Faster Payments” wires.

Update (2017-12-30): since I did not make this very clear, I have added a note about this at the bottom of my new post, about the fact hat confirming these transactions only need you to spoof the sender, since the content and destination of the text message to send are known (it only has to say “Y”, and it’s always to the same service number). So this validation should not really count as a second factor authentication for a skilled attacker.

These are all the reasons for which I abandoned Barclays as fast as I could. Some of those are actually decent mitigation strategies, but the fact that they do not really increase security, while increasing inconvenience, makes me doubt the validity of their concerns and threat models.

New, new gamestation

Full disclosure: the following posts has a significantly higher amount of Amazon Affiliates links than usual. That’s because I am talking about the hardware I just bought, and this post counts just as much as an update on my hardware as a recommendation on the stuff I bought, I have not gotten hacked or bought out by anyone.

As I noted in my previous quick update, my gamestation went missing in the move. I would even go as far as to say that it was stolen, but I have no way to prove whether it was stolen by the movers or during the move. This meant that I needed to get a new computer for my photo editing hobby, which meant more money spent, and still no news from the insurance. But oh well.

As for two years ago, I wanted to post here the current hardware setup I have. You’ll notice a number of similarities with the previous configuration, because I decided to stick as much as possible to what I had before, that worked.

  • CPU: Intel Core i7 7820X, which still has a nice 3.6GHz base clock, and has more cores than I had before.
  • Motherboard: MSI X299 SLI PLUS. You may remember that I had problems with the ASUS motherboard.
  • Memory: 8×Crucial 16GB DDR4.
  • Case: Fractal Design Define S, as I really like the designs of Fractal Design (pun not intended), and I do not need the full cage or the optical disk bays for sure this time around.
  • CPU cooler: NZXT Kraken X52, because the 280mm version appears to be more aimed towards extreme overclockers than my normal usage; this way I had more leeway on how to mount the radiator in.
  • SSD: 2×Crucial MX300 M.2 SATA. While I liked the Samsung 850 EVO, the performance of the MX300 appear to be effectively the same, and this allowed me to get the M2 version, leaving more space if I need to extend this further.
  • HDD: Toshiba X300 5TB because there is still need for spinning rust to archive data that is “at rest”.
  • GPU: Zotac GeForce GTX 1080Ti 11GB, because since I’m spending money I may just as well buy a top of the line card and be done with it.
  • PSU: Corsair RM850i, for the first time in years betraying beQuiet! as they didn’t have anything in stock at the time I ordered this.

This is the configuration in the chassis, but that ended up not being enough. In particular, because of my own stupidity, I ended up having to replace my beloved Dell U2711 monitor. I really like my UltraSharp, but earlier this year I ended up damaging the DisplayPort input on it — friends don’t let friends use DisplayPort with hooks on them! Get those without for extra safety, particularly if you have monitor arms or standing desks! Because of this I have been using a DVI-D DualLink cable instead. Unfortunately my new videocard (and most new videocard I could see) do not have DVI ports anymore, preferring instead multiple DisplayPort and (not even always) HDMI output. The UltraSharp, unfortunately, does not support 2560×1440 output over HDMI, and the DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter in the box is only for SingleLink DVI, which is not fast enough for that resolution either. DualLink DVI adapters exist, but for the most part they are “active” converters that require a power supply and more cables, and are not cheap (I have seen a “cheap” one for £150!)

I ended up buying a new monitor too, and I settled for the BenQ BL2711U, a 27 inches, 4k, 10-bit monitor “for designers” that boasts a 100% sRGB coverage. This is not my first BenQ monitor; a few months ago I bought a BenQ BL2420PT, a 24 inches monitor “for designers” that I use for both my XPS and for my work laptop, switching one and the other as needed over USB-C, and I have been pretty happy with it altogether.

Unfortunately the monitor came with DisplayPort cables with hooks, once again, so at first I decided to connect it over HDMI instead. And that was a big mistake, for multiple reasons. The first is that calibrating it with the ColorMunki was showing a huge gap between the colours uncalibrated and calibrated. The second was that, when I went to look into it, I could not enable 10-bit (10 bpc) mode in the NVIDIA display settings.

Repeat after me: if you want to use a BL-series BenQ monitor for photography you should connect it using DisplayPort.

The two problems were solved after switching to DisplayPort (temporarily with hooks, and ordered a proper cable already): 10bpc mode is not available over HDMI when using 4k resolution and 60Hz. HDMI 2 can do 4k and 10-bit (HDR) but only at lower framerate, which makes it fine for watching HDR movies and streaming, but not good for photo editing. The problem with the calibration was the same problem I noticed, but couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to fix, on my laptops: some of the gray highlighting of text would not actually be visible. For whatever reason, BenQ’s “designer” monitors ship with the HDMI colour range set to limited (16-235) rather than full (0-255). Why did they do that? I have no idea. Indeed switching the monitor to sRGB mode, full range, made the calibration effectively unnecessary (I still calibrated it out of nitpickery), and switching to DisplayPort removes the whole question on whether it should use limited or full range.

While the BenQ monitors have fairly decent integrated speakers, which make it unnecessary to have a soundbar for hearing system notifications or chatting with my mother, that is not the greatest option to play games on. So I ended up getting a pair of Bose Companion 2 speakers which are more than enough for what I need to use them for.

Now I have an overly powerful computer, and a very nice looking monitor. How do I connect them to the Internet? Well, here’s the problem: the Hyperoptic socket is in the living room, way too far from my computer to be useful. I could have just put a random WiFi adapter on it, but I also needed a new router anyway, since the box with my fairly new Linksys also got lost in the moving process.

So upon suggestion from a friend, and a recommendation from Troy Hunt I ended up getting a UAP-AC-PRO for the living room, and a UAP-AC-LITE for the home office, topped it with an EdgeRouter X (the recommendation of which was rescinded afterwards, but it seems to do its job for now), and set them as a bridge between the two locations. I think I should write down networking notes later, but Troy did that already so why bother?

So at the end of this whole thing I spent way more money on hardware than I planned to, I got myself a very new nice computer, and I have way too many extra cables than I need, plus the whole set of odds and ends of the old computer, router and scanner that are no longer useful (I still have the antennas for the router, and the power supply for the scanner). And I’m still short of the document scanner, which is a bit of a pain because I now have a collection of documents that need scanning. I could use the office’s scanners, but those don’t run OCR for the documents, and I have not seen anything decent to apply OCR to PDFs after the fact, I’m open to suggestions as I’m not sure I’m keen on ending up buying something like the EPSON DS-310 just for the duplex scanning and the OCR software.

UK Banking, Attempt 2: Fineco Bank

So after a fairly negative experience with Barclays I have been quickly looking for alternatives. Two acquaintances who don’t know each other both suggested me to look into Fineco, which is an Italian bank also operating in the United Kingdom. As you can tell from their website, their focus is on trading and traders, but turns out they also make a fairly decent bank in and by themselves.

Indeed, opening the account with Fineco has been fairly straightforward: a few online forms, uploading documents to their identity verification system (very similar to what Revolut does, except using an Italian company that I already knew and was a customer of), and then sending £1 from a bank account that is already opened in your name. I found the forms also technically well-designed, particularly the fact that all the “I agree to” checkboxes automatically trigger JavaScript downloads of PDFs with the terms agreed, whether you clicked to read the agreement or not — I guess it’s a «No excuse, you have a copy of this» protection on their side, but it also made it very easy to archive all the needed information together with everything else I keep.

I should note here that it looks like Fineco’s target audience is Italian expats in the UK explicitly. It is common for most services to “special case” their local country as the first entry in the country drop-down, and then add the rest in alphabetical order. In the case of Fineco, the drop-down started with United Kingdom and Italy for all the options.

One of the good thing about this bank being focused so much on trading is that the account is by default a multicurrency one, similar to TransferWise Borderless Account. Indeed, in addition to the primary Sterling account, Fineco sets you up right away with accounts in Euro, Swiss Francs, and US Dollars, all connected to the same login. And in addition to this, they offer you the choice between a Sterling debit card, an Euro credit card, or both (for a reasonable fee of £10/yr). The two debit cards that are connected to the respective currency accounts (and no card is available for Francs or Dollars), and there are no foreign transaction fees for the two. While Revolut mostly took care of my foreign transaction fees, it’s always good to have a local debit card with a much higher availability, particularly as ATM access for Revolut has a relatively low monthly limit.

One of the interesting details of these currency accounts is that they all have Italian IBAN and BIC (with a separate SWIFT routing number, of its parent group UniCredit). For the main Sterling account, UK-style Sort Code and Account Number are available, which make it a proper local account.

This is actually very useful for me: for the past four years I have been keeping my old Italian account open, despite it costing me a fair bit of money just in service, because I have been paying the utilities for my mother’s house. And despite SEPA Direct Debit having been introduced over two years ago, the utilities I contacted failed to let me debit a foreign (Irish) account. Since I left Ireland, and the UK is not a Euro country, I was afraid I would have to keep my Italian account open even longer, but this actually solved the problem: for Italian utilities, the account is a perfectly valid Italian account, as for the most part they don’t even validate the billing address.

An aside: Vodafone Italy and Wind 3 Italy are still attached to my Tesco credit card, which Tesco Bank assures me I can keep using as long as I direct debit it into an Euro account anywhere. They even changed my mailing address to my new apartment in London. Those two companies insist that they only ever accept Italian credit cards, but they accepted my Irish credit card just fine before; in the case of Vodafone, they have an explicit whitelist of the BIN (for whatever reason), while Wind couldn’t get a hold of the concept that the card is Irish at all. Oh well.

Speaking of direct debits and odd combinations, while I should have now managed to switch all the utilities, including the council tax, to direct debit on this new account, I had some trouble doing the setup with Thameswater, the water provider in my area. If I tried setting up the direct debit online, it would report Fineco’s sort code (30-02-48) as invalid. The Sort Code Checker provided by the category association says it’s valid and it works for everything beside the cheque and credit clearing (which is unneeded). I ended up having to call them and ask them to override the warning, but they have not sent me confirmation that they managed. This appears to be a common “feature” of Thameswater — oh and by the way their paper form to request the direct debit was a 404 response on their website. Sigh.

The UI of the bank (and of their app) is much more information-dense than any other bank I’ve ever used. It’s not a surprise when you consider that they their target audience is investors and traders. It does work well for me, but I can see how this would not be the most pleasing interface for most home users. The only feature I have been unable to find yet in the interface is how to set up standing orders – I contacted them this weekend and will see what they say – so for the moment I just set up a few months worth of rent as scheduled payments, which work just as fine for the moment.

The Android app supports fingerprint authentication (unlike Barclay’s) and does not come with its own NFC payment system. Unfortunately the debit cards also appear not to be enabled for Android Pay, which is a bit of a shame. They also don’t leverage the app to send notifications, but they do send free SMS for new offline1 transactions happening on the debit card, which is great.

All in all, I may have found the bank I was looking for. It’s not a “cuddly” bank, but it appears to have what I need and it appears to work for my needs. With a bit of luck it will mean by Q1 I’ll be done with all the other bank accounts in both Ireland and Italy, and finally it’ll be simpler to keep an eye onto how much money I have and how much of it is spent around the place (although GnuCash does help a bit there). I’ll keep you all posted if this changes.


  1. Confusingly enough, a transaction happening over the Internet is an “offline” transaction. The online/offline is referred to the chip for chip’n’pin cards. If the chip is connected to a terminal that is in turn connected to the bank, that’s an online transaction. Otherwise it’s offline. If you read or type the number manually, it’s also offline.
    [return]

UK Banking, Attempt 1: Barclays

You may remember that back in August, I tried opening a NatWest account while not living in the UK yet, and hit a stonewall of an impossible declaration being required by the NatWest employees. I gave up on setting up a remote account, and waited to open one once I got in the country. Since the Northern Irish account seemed to be good for all I needed to do (spoiler: it wasn’t), I decided to wait for the Barclays representative to show up on my official starting date, and set up a “Premier” account with them.

The procedure, that sounded very “special” beforehand, turned out to just be a “Here is how you fill in the forms on the website”. Then, instead of sending you to a local branch to get your documents copied and stamped (something that appears to be very common in the British Isles), they had three people doing the stamping on a pre-made copy of the passport. Not particularly special, but at least practical, right?

Except they also said it would take a few day for the card, but over a week to have access the online banking as they need to “send me more stuff”. The forms were filled in on Monday, set up by Tuesday, and the card arrived on Wednesday, with the PIN following on Thursday. At that point I guessed that what else they told me to wait for was a simple EMV CAP device (I did not realise that the Wikipedia page had a Barclays device as an example, until I looked to link it over here), and decided to not wait, instead signing up for the online banking using my Ulster Bank CAP device, which worked perfectly fine.

On the Friday I also tried installing the Barclays app on my phone. As you probably all noticed by now, looking for a new app from the Play Store is risky, particularly when banking is involved, so I wanted to get a link to it from their website. Turns out that the Barclays website includes a link to the Apple App Store page for their app, but not for the Google Play one. Instead, the Play Store badge image is not clickable. Instead the option they give you is to provide your phone number and they will send you a link to the app as a text message. When I tried doing so, I got an error message suggesting to check my connection.

The reason for the error became apparent with developer tools open: the request to send the SMS is sent to a separate app running on a different hostname. And that host has a different certificate than their main website, which at that point was expired for at least four days! Indeed, since then, the certificate has been replaced with a new one, an EV certificate signed by Entrust, rather than Symantec as they had before. I do find it slightly disconcerting that they have no monitoring on the validity of the certificates for all of their websites, as a bank. But let’s move on.

The online banking relies heavily on “PINSentry” (that is, CAP) but doing so it makes it fairly easy to set up most things, from standing orders to transfers and changes of address. Changing address to my new apartment was quite straightforward, and it all seemed good. The mobile app on the other hand was less useful at first. The main problem is that the app will refuse to do much for the first ten days, because they “set it up” for you. I assume this is a security feature to avoid someone to get access to your account and have the app execute the transactions instead of the website. Unfortunately it also means that the app is useless if your phone dies and you need to get a new one.

Speaking of the mobile app, Barclays supports Apple Pay, but they don’t support Android Pay, probably because they don’t have to. On Android, you can have a replacement app to provide NFC payment support, and so they decided to use their banking app for the payments as well. Unfortunately the one time I tried using it, it kept throwing errors, and asked me to login, with network connection. I don’t think I’ll use this again and will rather look for a bank that supports Android Pay in the future.

Up to here everything sounds peachy, right? The card arrived, it worked, although I only used it a handful times, to buy stuff at IKEA and to buy plane tickets where Revolut would push an extra £5 due to it running on the credit card circuit1, rather than the debit card one.

Then the time came for me to buy a new computer, because of the one ““lost”” by the movers. Since Black Friday was around the corner, and with it my trip to Italy, I decided to wait for that and see if anything at all would come discounted. And indeed Crucial (Micron) had a discount on their SSDs, which is what I ended up ordering. Unfortunately, my first try to order ended up facing a Verified by Visa screen that, instead of trying to get more authentication factors for myself, just went on to tell me the transaction failed, and to check my phone for messages.

Indeed, my phone received two text messages: one telling me that a text message would be sent to confirm a transaction, and one asking me whether the transaction was intentional or not. After confirming it was me doing the transaction, I was responded to try the transaction again in a few minutes. Which I did, but even if this went through the Verified by Visa screen, PayPal refused the payment altogether. Trying to order directly through Crucial without using PayPal managed to get my order through… except it was cancelled half an hour later because Crucial could not confirm the details of the card.

At this point I tried topping up my Revolut account with the same card, and… it didn’t go well either. I tried calling them then, and they could only tell me that the problem was not theirs, and that they couldn’t even see the requests from Revolut, and they didn’t stop any other transactions, giving the fault to the vendor. The vendor of course blamed the bank, and so I got stuck in between.

Upon suggestion from Revolut on Twitter, I tried topping up by UK bank transfer. At first I got some silly “security questions” about the transfer (“Are you making this transfer to buy some goods? Is someone on the phone instructing you to make this payment?” and so on), but when it supposedly completed, I couldn’t see it in the list of transactions, and trying again would lead to a “technical problem” message. Calling the bank again has been even more frustrating because the call dropped once, and as usual the IVR asked me three times for my date of birth and never managed to recognize it. It wasn’t until I left the office, angry and disappointed, that the SMS arrived telling me to confirm if it was really me requesting the transfer…

The end result looked like Barclays put a stricter risk engine in place for Black Friday which has been causing my payments to not go through, particularly not from the office. Trying later in the evening from my apartment (which has a much more clear UK-based geolocation) allowed the orders to go through. You could say that this is for my own protection but I do find this particularly bothersome for one reason in particular: they have an app!

They could have just as easily sent a push notification to my phone to confirm or refuse the transaction, instead of requiring me to be able to receive text messages (which is not a given, as coverage is not perfect particularly in a city like London), in addition to me knowing my access code, having my bank card with me, and knowing its PIN.

At the end of the day I decided that Barclays is not the bank for me, and applied to open an account with Fineco which is Italian and appears to have Italian expats in the UK as their target market. Will keep you posted about it.


  1. But I found out just the other day that the new virtual cards from Revolut are actually VISA Electron, rather than MasterCard. This makes a difference for many airlines as VISA Electron are often considered debit cards, due to the “Electronic Use Only” limitation. I got myself a second virtual card for that and will see how that goes next time I book a flight.
    [return]

A quick London update

It’s now nearly two months since I last posted something and I guess I should at least break the silence to say that I’m well and alive. Although right now I’m spending a week in Italy – to see friends and family here, and take care of some remaining paperwork – my transfer to London completed and I’m now living on the outskirts of the City.

I was almost writing “completed successfully”, but “success” is hard to measure. As I said in the post where I announced my move, a lot of the reason for me to leave Dublin was the lack of friends and a social circle, so you could say that the only way to measure success is seeing if I manage to build such a social circle in the new city (and country), and that will take a while of course.

In addition to this, more than a few things are not quite going in my favour. For instance, the removal companies that arranged and delivered my move managed to screw up, and two of my boxes are missing, which coincidentally were the ones with the most valuable goods: my gamestation, the router and the professional document scanner. And I’m still waiting to hear from the insurance to see that they at least pay the (depreciated) value of the goods so I can get part of my money back on the new computer I’m trying to buy.

I say I’m trying to buy it, because I spent most of this past Friday fighting with my bank trying to have them let me make payments out of my account, possibly because their risk engine was turned up to eleven due to Black Friday, and it took me a significant amount of time to get in a position to actually dispose of my own money. You can bet that the first thing I’m doing after I’m back from this trip is finding a new bank.

Oh yes and somehow it looks like the company that owns and manages the building my apartment is in, is having a spat with the electricity provider. Last week every tenant in the building received a note from e-on (which is not my provider) saying that they are applying for a warrant to disconnect the landlord’s power supply.

So yeah expect more rants as soon as I manage to settle down, I have drafts.

How blogging changed in the past ten years

One of the problems that keeps poking back at me every time I look for an alternative software for this blog, is that it somehow became not your average blog, particularly not in 2017.

The first issue is that there is a lot of history. While the current “incarnation” of the blog, with the Hugo install, is fairly recent, I have been porting over a long history of my pseudo-writing, merging back into this one big collection the blog posts coming from my original Gentoo Developer blog, as well as the few posts I wrote on the KDE Developers blog and a very minimal amount of content from my (mostly Italian) blog when I was in high school.

Why did I do it that way? Well the main thing is that I don’t want to lose the memories. As some of you might know already, I faced my mortality before, and I came to realize that this blog is probably the only thing of substance that I had a hand on, that will outlive me. And so I don’t want to just let migration, service turndowns, and other similar changes take away what I did. This is also why I did publish to this blog the articles I wrote for other websites, namely NewsForge and Linux.com (back when they were part of Geeknet).

Some of the recovery work actually required effort. As I said above there’s a minimal amount of content that comes from my high school days blog. And it’s in Italian that does not make it particularly interesting or useful. I had deleted that blog altogether years and years ago, so I had to use the Wayback Machine to recover at least some of the posts. I will be going through all my old backups in the hope of finding that one last backup that I remember making before tearing the thing down.

Why did I tear it down in the first place? It’s clearly a teenager’s blog and I am seriously embarrassed by the way I thought and wrote. It was 1314 years ago, and I have admitted last year that I can tell so many times I’ve been wrong. But this is not the change I want to talk about.

The change I want to talk about is the second issue with finding a good software to run my blog: blogging is not what it used to be ten years ago. Or fifteen years ago. It’s not just that a lot of money got involved in the mean time, so now there are a significant amount of “corporate blogs”, that end up being either product announcements in a different form, or the another outlet for not-quite-magazine content. I know of at least a couple of Italian newspapers that provide “blogs” for their writers, which look almost exactly like the paper’s website, but do not have to be reviewed by the editorial board.

In addition to this, a lot of people’s blogs stopped providing as much details of their personal life as they used to. Likely, this is related to the fact that we now know just how nasty people on the Internet can be (read: just as nasty as people off the Internet), and a lot of the people who used to write lightheartedly don’t feel as safe, correctly. But there is probably another reason: “Social Media”.

The advent of Twitter and Facebook made it so that there is less need to post short personal entries, too. And Facebook in particular appears to have swallowed most of the “cutesy memes” such as quizzes and lists of things people have or have not done. I know there are still a few people who insist on not using these big names social networks, and still post for their friends and family on blogs, but I have a feeling they are quite the minority. And I can tell you for sure that since I signed up for Facebook, a lot of my smaller “so here’s that” posts went away.

Distribution chart of blog post sizes over time

This is a bit of a rough plot of blog sizes. In particular I have used the raw file size of the markdown sources used by Hugo, in bytes, which make it not perfect for Unicode symbols, and it includes the “front matter”, which means that particularly all the non-Hugo-native posts have their title effectively doubled by the slug. But it shows trends particularly well.

You can see from that graph that some time around 2009 I almost entirely stopped writing short blog posts. That is around the time Facebook took off in Italy, and a lot of my interaction with friends started happening there. If you’re curious of that visible lack of posts just around half of 2007, that was the pancreatitis that had me disappear for nearly two months.

With this reduction in scope of what people actually write on blogs, I also have a feeling that lots of people were left without anything to say. A number of blogs I still follow (via NewsBlur since Google Reader was shut down), post once or twice a year. Planets are still a thing, and I still subscribe to a number of them, but I realize I don’t even recognize half the names nowadays. Lots of the “old guard” stopped blogging almost entirely, possibly because of a lack of engagement, or simply because, like me, many found a full time job (or a full time family), that takes most of their time.

You can definitely see from the plot that even my own blogging has significantly slowed down over the past few years. Part of it was the tooling giving up on me a few times, but it also involves the lack of energy to write all the time as I used to. Plus there is another problem: I now feel I need to be more accurate in what I’m saying and in the words I’m using. This is in part because I grew up, and know how much words can hurt people even when meant the right way, but also because it turns out when you put yourself in certain positions it’s too easy to attack you (been there, done that).

A number of people that think argue that it was the demise of Google Reader1 that caused blogs to die, but as I said above, I think it’s just the evolution of the concept veering towards other systems, that turned out to be more easily reachable by users.

So are blogs dead? I don’t think so. But they are getting harder to discover, because people use other platforms and it gets difficult to follow all of them. Hacker News and Reddit are becoming many geeks’ default way to discover content, and that has the unfortunate side effect of not having as much of the conversation to happen in shared media. I am indeed bothered about those people who prefer discussing the merit of my posts on those external websites than actually engaging on the comments, if nothing else because I do not track those platforms, and so the feeling I got is of talking behind one’s back — I would prefer if people actually told me if they shared my post on those platforms; for Reddit I can at least IFTTT to self-stalk the blog, but that’s a different problem.

Will we still have blogs in 10 years? Probably yes, but they will not look like the ones we’re used to most likely. The same way as nowadays there still are personal homepages, but they clearly don’t look like Geocities, and there are social media pages that do not look like MySpace.


  1. Usual disclaimer: I do work for Google at the time of writing this, but these are all personal opinions that have no involvement from the company. For reference, I signed the contract before the Google Reader shutdown announcement, but started after it. I was also sad, but I found NewsBlur a better replacement anyway.
    [return]

Shame Cube, or how I leaked my own credit card number

This is the story of how I ended up calling my bank at 11pm on a Sunday night to ask them to cancel my credit card. But it started with a complete different problem: I thought I found a bug in some PDF library.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I asked Hanno and Ange since they both have lots more experience with PDF as a format than me (I have nearly zero), as I expected this to be complete garbage either coming from random parts of the file or memory within the process that was generating or reading it, and thought it would be completely inconsequential. As you probably have guessed by the spoiler in both the title of the post and the first paragraph, it was not the case. Instead that string is a representation of my credit card number.

After a few hours, having worked on other tasks, and having just gone back and forth with various PDFs, including finding a possibly misconfigured AGPL library in my bank’s backend (worth of another blog post), I realized that Okular does not actually show a title for this PDF, which suggested a bug in Dolphin (the Plasma file manager). In particular Poppler’s pdfinfo also didn’t show any title at all, which suggested there’s a problem with a different part of the code. Since the problem was happening with my credit card statements, and the credit card statements include the full 16-digits PAN, I didn’t want to just file a bug attaching a sample, so instead I started asking around for help to figure out which part of the code is involved.

Albert Astals Cid sent me the right direction by telling me the low-level implementation was coming from KFileMetadata, and that quickly pointed me at this interesting piece of heuristics which is designed to guess the title of a document by looking at the first page. The code is quite a bit convoluted, so I couldn’t at first just exclude uninitialized memory access, but I couldn’t figure out where it could be coming from, so I decided to copy the code into a single executable to play around with it. The good news was that it would give me the exact same answer, so it was not uninitialized memory. Instead, the parser was mis-reading something in the file, which by being stable meant it wasn’t likely a security issue, just sub-optimal code.

As there is no current, updated tool for PDF that behaves like mkvinfo, that is print an element-by-element description of the content of a PDF file, I decided to just play with the code to figure out how it decided what to use as the title. Printing out each of the possible titles being evaluated showed it was considering first my address, then part of the summary information, then this strange string. What is going on there?

The code is a bit difficult to follow, particularly for me at first since I had no idea how PDF works to begin with. But the summary of it is that it goes through the textboxes (I knew already that PDF text is laid out in boxes) of the first page, joining together the text if the box has markers to follow up. Each of these entries is stored into a map of text heights, together with a “watermark” of the biggest text size encountered during this loop. If, when looking at a textbox, the height is lower than the previous maximum height, it gets discarded. At the end, the first biggest textbox content is reported as the title.

Once I disabled the height check and always reported all the considered title textboxes, I noticed something interesting: the string that kept being reported was found together with a number of textboxes that are drawn on top of the bank giro1 credit system. The cheque includes a very big barcode… and that’s where I started sweating a bit.

The reason of the sweat is that by then I already guessed I made a huge mistake sharing the string that Dolphin was showing me. The reference to pay up a credit card is universally the full 16-digits number (PAN). Indeed the full number is printed on the cheque, and as the “An Post Ref” (An Post being the Irish postal system), and the account information (10-digits, excluding the 6-digits IIN) is printed on the bottom of the same. All of this is why I didn’t want to share the sample file, and why I always destroy the statements that arrive, in paper form, from the banks. At this point, the likeliness of the barcode containing the same information was seriously high.

My usual Barcode Scanner for Android didn’t manage to understand the barcode though, which made it awkward. Instead I decided to confirm I was actually looking at the content of the barcode in an encoded form with a very advanced PDF inspection tool: strings $file | grep Font. This did bring up a reference to /BaseFont /Code128ARedA. And that was the confirmation I needed. Indeed a quick search for that name brings you to a public domain font that implements Code 128 barcodes as a TrueType font. This is not uncommon, particularly as it’s the same method used by most label printers, including the Dymo I used to use for labelling computers.

At that point a quick comparison of the barcode I had in front of me with one generated through an online generator (but only for the IIN because I don’t want to leak it all), confirmed I was looking at my credit card number, and that my tweet just leaked it — in a bit of a strange encoding that may take some work to decode, but still leaked it. I called Ulster Bank and got the card cancelled and replaced.

Which lessons I can learn from this experience? First of all to consider credit card statements even more of a security risk than I ever imagine. It also gave me a practical instance of what Brian Krebs advocates for years regarding barcodes of boarding passes and similar. In particular it looks like both Ulster Bank and Tesco Bank use the same software to generate the credit card statements (which is easily told not to be the same system that generates the normal bank statements), which is developed by Fiserv (their name is in the Author field of the PDF), and they all rely on using the normal full card number for payment.

This is something I don’t really understand. In Italy, you only use the 16-digits number to pay the bank one-off by wire, and instead the statements never had more than the last five digits of the card. Except for the Italian American Express — but that does not surprise me too much as they manage it from London as well.

I’m now looking to see how I can improve on the guessing of the title for the PDFs in the KFileMetadata library — although I’m warming up to the idea of just sending a patch that delete that part of the code altogether, and if the file has no title, no title is displayed. The simplest solutions are, usually, the better.


  1. The Wikipedia page appears to talk only of the UK system. Ireland, as usual, appears to have kept their own version of the same system, and all the credit card statements, and most bills, will have a similar pre-printed “credit cheque” at the bottom. Even when they are direct-debited.
    [return]

(Audio)book review: We Are Legion (We Are Bob).

I have not posted a book review in almost a year, and I have not even written one for Goodreads, which I probably should do as well. I feel kind of awful for it because I do have a long list of good titles I appreciated in the meantime. So let me spend a few words on this one.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) tickled me in the list of Audible books for a while because the name sounded so ludicrous I was expecting something almost along the lines of the Hitchikers’ Guide To The Galaxy. It was not that level of humour, but the book didn’t really disappoint either.

The book starts in the first scene in present time, with the protagonist going to a cryogenic facility… and you can tell from the cover that’s just a setup of course. I found it funny from the first scenes that the author clearly is talking of something he knows directly, so I wasn’t entirely too surprised when I found that he’s a computer programmer. I’m not sure what it is with people in my line of work deciding to write books, but the results are quite often greatly enjoyable, even if it takes a while to get into them. On this note, Tobias Klausmann of Gentoo fame wrote a two-part series1, which I definitely recommend.

Once you get on with the main stage for the book, it starts off in the direction you expect with spaceships and planets as the covers lets you to imagine. Some of the reviews I read before buying the book found it very lightweight and no-brainer, but I don’t see myself agreeing. While taking it with a lot of spirit and humour, and a metric ton of pop-culture references2, the topics that are brought up include self-determination, the concept of soul as seen by an atheist point of view, global politics as seen from lightyears away3, and the vast multitudes of “oneselves”.

Spoilers in this paragraph, yes definitely spoilers, and a bit of text so you may not read them out of line of sight. Go back to the following paragraph if you don’t want any. Indeed, it’s very hard to tell, and a question that the book spends quite a bit of time pondering over without an answer, whether the character we see in the first scene is actually the protagonist of the book. Because what we have later is a computer “replicant” of the memories and consciousness of him… and a multitudes of copies of that, each acting more or less differently from the original, leaving open the question whether the copies are losing something in the process, or whether it is the knowledge of not being the “original” that make them change. I found this maybe even more profound than the author intended.

Spoilers aside, I found the book enjoyable. It’s not an all-out bright and shiny future, but it’s also not the kind of grim and dark dystopia that appears to be a dime a dozen nowadays. The one thing that still bothers me a little bit, and that probably is because I would have fallen into the same trap, is that the vast majority of the book focuses on technical problems and solutions, though to be fair it pulls it off (in my opinion) quite healthily, rather than by hiding all the human factors away into “someone else’s problem” territory. It reminded me of an essay I had to write in middle school about the “school of the future”, and I ended up not spending a single word on people, even after the teacher pointed out I should have done so and got me to rewrite it. I’m glad there are people (who are not me) studying humanities.

I found it funny that the Wikipedia page about the book insisted on pointing out that reviewers noted the lack of female characters. That’s true, there are a handful of throwaway women throughout the book, but no major character. I don’t know if there was any way around it given the plot as it stands now though, so I wouldn’t read it too much into it, as the book itself feels a lot like a trip into one’s own essence, and I’m not sure I’d expect an author to be able to analyse this way someone else but themselves. I have not read/listened to the other books in the series (though I did add them to my list now), so maybe that changes with the change of focus, not sure.

As for the audiobook itself, which I got through Audible where it was at “special price” $1.99, I just loved the production. Ray Porter does a fantastic job, and since the book is all written in the first person (from somewhat different points of view), his voicework to make you know which point of view is speaking is extremely helpful not to get lost.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed the book, and look forward to compare with the rest of the series. If you’re looking for something that distracts you from all the dread that is happening right now in the world, and can give you a message of “If we get together, we can do it!”, then this is a worthy book.


  1. I hadn’t realized book two was out until I looked Tobias up on Amazon. I’ll have stern words with him next time I see him for not warning me!
    [return]
  2. This happens most of the time with geeks writing books, although not all the time thankfully. From one side it does build a nice sense of camaraderie with the protagonists because they feel like “one of us” but on the other hand sometimes it feels too much. Unless it’s part of the story, like here or in Magic 2.0.
    [return]
  3. Pun totally intended.
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Dell XPS 13, problems with WiFi

A couple of months ago I bought a Dell XPS 13. I’m still very happy with the laptop, particularly given the target use that I have for it, but I have started noticing a list of problems that do bother me more than a little bit.

The first problem is something that I have spoken of in the original post and updated a couple of times: the firmware (“BIOS”) update. While the firmware is actually published through LVFS by Dell, either Antergos or Arch Linux have some configuration issue with EFI and the System Partition, that cause the EFI shim not to be able to find the right capsule. I ended up just running the update manually twice now, since I didn’t want to spare time to fix the packaging of the firmware updater, and trying with different firmware updates is not easy.

Also, while the new firmware updates made the electrical whining noise effectively disappear, making the laptop very nice to use in quiet hotel rooms (not all hotel rooms are quiet), it seems to have triggered more WiFi problems. Indeed, it got to the point that I could not use the laptop at home at all. I’m not sure what exactly was the problem, but my Linksys WRT1900ACv2 seems to trigger known problems with the WiFi card on this model.

At first I thought it would be a problem with using Arch Linux rather than Dell’s own Ubuntu image, that appeared to have separate Qualcomm drivers for the ath10k card. But it turns out the same error pops up repeated in Dell forums and LaunchPad too. A colleague with the same laptop suggested to just replace the card, getting rid of the whole set of problems introduced by the ath10k driver. Indeed, even looking around the Windows users websites, the recommendation appear to be the same: just replace your card.

The funny bit is that I only really noticed this when I came back from my long August trips, because since I bought the laptop, I hadn’t spent more than a few days at home at that point. I have been in Helsinki, Vancouver and Seattle, used the laptop in airports, lounges, hotels and cafes, as well as my office. And none of those places had any issue with my laptop. I used the laptop extensively to livetweet SREcon Europe from the USENIX wireless at the hotel, and it had no problem whatsoever.

My current theory for this is that there is some mostly-unused feature that is triggered by high-performance access point like the one I have at home, that runs LEDE, and as such is not something you’ll encounter in the wild. This also would explain why the Windows sites that I found referencing the problem are suggesting the card replacement — your average Windows user is unlikely to know how to do so or interested in a solution that does not involve shipping the device back to Dell, and to be fair they probably have a point, why on earth are they selling laptops with crappy WiFi cards?

So anyway my solution to this was to order an Intel 8265 wireless card which includes the same 802.11ac dual-band support and Bluetooth 4.2, and is the same format as the ath10k that the laptop comes with. It feels a bit strange having to open up a new laptop to replace a component, but since this is the serviceable version of Dell, it was not a horrible experience (my Vostro laptop still has a terrible 802.11g 2.4GHz-only card on it, but I can’t replace it easily).

Moving onto something else, the USB-C dock is working great, although I found out the hard way that if you ask Plasma, or whatever else it is that I ended up asking it to, not to put the laptop to sleep the moment the lid is closed, if the power is connected (which I need to make sure I can use the laptop “docked” onto my usual work-from-home setup), it also does not go to sleep if the power is subsequently disconnected. So the short version is that I now usually run the laptop without the power connected unless it’s already running low, and I can easily stay a whole day at a conference without charging, which is great!

Speaking of charging, turns out that the Apple 65W USB-C charger also works great with the XPS 13. Unfortunately it comes without a cable, and particularly with Apple USB-C cable your mileage may vary. It seems to be fine with the Google Pixel phone cable though. I have not tried measuring how much power and which power mode it uses, among other things because I wouldn’t know how to query the USB-C controller to get that information. If you have suggestions I’m all ears.

Otherwise the laptop appears to be working great for me. I only wish I could wake it up from sleep without opening it, when using it docked, but that’s also a minor feature.

The remaining problems are software. For instance Plasma sometimes crashes when I dock the laptop, and the new monitor comes online. And I can’t reboot while docked because the external keyboard (connected on the USB-C dock) is not able to type in the password for the full-disk encryption. Again this is a bother but not a big deal.