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Secure VoIP, an Achievable Goal 103

An anonymous reader writes "ITO is running a comprehensive article on VoIP security issues and how one can protect against them: "VoIP creates new ways of delivering fully-featured phone services that promise big cost savings and open the way for a whole new range of multimedia communication services. After years of 'will it, won't it' speculation and unfulfilled predictions of universal adoption, Gartner is now positioning VoIP firmly on its way to the 'plateau of productivity' on its widely-respected technology hype cycle. But questions about its security and reliability persist.""
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Secure VoIP, an Achievable Goal

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  • It Sure Is (Score:5, Informative)

    by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <(eldavojohn) (at) (> on Wednesday May 03, 2006 @09:49AM (#15253439) Journal
    See Zfone [].
    • That picture scares me.
    • Zfone's MITM attack is flawed if you do not recognise the voice of the other person.

      It is, however, the best set of ideas that have come up yet - with an implementation too.
      • Re:It Sure Is (Score:3, Informative)

        by Kadin2048 ( 468275 )
        Could you explain why this is so?

        I've read the FAQ and I don't think this is the case. ZPhone gives you an authentication string that you read to the person on the other end of the line, and they read (theirs) to you, so you can be sure that the node that your computer is connected to is the same one that the person at the other end of the call is sitting in front of. This seems to prevent most passive MiTM attacks that would insert a server somewhere into the middle of the connection that decrypted your si
  • by bepolite ( 972314 ) on Wednesday May 03, 2006 @09:53AM (#15253463) Homepage
    I still think VOIP has a long way to achieve the same level of audio quality you get on a regular land line phone. I use VOIP at home and at work (2 different VOIP providers and 2 different ISP's) and both myself and the people I call can tell the difference. I love the features and I want them to keep coming, but I'd like to see the audio quality improve too!
    • I love the features and I want them to keep coming, but I'd like to see the audio quality improve too!

      I'm more interested in the security aspect. Cell phones used to be atrociously noisy but the technology rapidly evolved to where, when your call isn't being inconveniently dropped, you can hold a conversation that's pretty clear. It will take VoIP a while, but in the end the audio quality will match what the phone company offers now. I just hope the prices don't start to balloon shortly thereafter.

    • by cybernate ( 545487 ) on Wednesday May 03, 2006 @10:34AM (#15253731) Homepage
      Ah, yes the quality issue. It drives me crazy that when VoIP providers (yes, as Co-Founder of BroadVoice I was one of them) try to build services the benchmark is PSTN. They use CODECs such as G.711 and G.729 that are almost as old as I am. Believe it or not, DSP power has increased in the last 20 years, Next gen CODECs such as SPEEX can deliver great quality at low bit rates and was designed for packet networks. One other big issue is that PSTN is only about 4 kHz of bandwidth, when you take the guardbands out it is more like 400 - 3600 kHz. SPEEX, AMR-WB and others support 16 or even 32 kHz of voice bandwidth. The problme is a chicken and egg issue. CPE guys don't want to support it because there is nothing to terminate to. ALl the major VoIP guys use people like Global Crossing, BroadWing, XO, for SIP origination/termination and they use SONUS or other TGs that only G.711 or a few other CODECs. The real solution is for VoIP providers to support transcoding at the edge. That way you can use next gen CODECs on the last mile and then hand of G.711 to orig/term providers.
      • There are several quality issues.

        First, the PSTN uses 64kbps, even if the sampling is only over 4khz of spectrum. Thus it is misleading to look at the spectrum when in most cases this is entirely adequate and not where the problem is.

        Secondly, VOIP runs over packet networks as a streaming service. Packet networks were never developed with voice traffic in mind, unlike the circuit switched PSTN. This means that network traffic or congestion has different effects in these two networks. With PSTN, you get
    • You have to draw a distinction between "voip" and "voip over the Internet". VOIP over the internet will almost never reach full toll quality all the time, simply due to the dynamic nature of the public internet (variable delay, packet loss, jitter, all that happy horsestuff).

      I run an Asterisk-based switch for all the company PBX traffic as well as a separate one for our VSAT satellite customers. We have full control over all aspects of the network and we have our own PSTN termination circuits, so there
    • Let me know when VOIP continues to work when the power goes out. Then I might consider using it.

      "They can hear you now." - NSA courtesy of AT&T.

      • Let me know when VOIP continues to work when the power goes out. Then I might consider using it.

        I always thought of this as a fallacy.

        Generally, in major disaster or emergency situations you loose both power and lan line since most areas put them on the same pole.

        If a tree falls during a hurricane it generally takes out both lines.

        Unless of course if you have the phone lines buried and the powerlines on the poles or vice versa... This of course depends on where you live and how good your power is.

        While livi
        • Well, there is one service that doesn't fail. That's HAM radio. Here's an article that excerpts some of the gov't reports from Katrina [] that illustrate how important the Amateur Radio Service was during a true disaster.

          On a closer to home note, our company found out the hard way relying on cell phones doesn't work during an earthquake. All cellular channels were immediately switched to route emergency traffic (police, fire, etc.), our staff emergency personnel were completely cut off (NexTel radios and Ve

          • Well, there is one service that doesn't fail. That's HAM radio. Here's an article that excerpts some of the gov't reports from Katrina [] that illustrate how important the Amateur Radio Service was during a true disaster.

            I was going to mention HAM radio and CB's :)

            You are right, they are pretty much there are the only reliable form of communication when there is a major disaster (as long as you've got a sulf sufficient power supply with and UPS or a power generator).

            For other times, I have found a c
          • Please don't forget, however... Commercial traffic is strictly prohibited on Amateur Radio. Don't get this for your business. If you want to let your wife know you're OK, or patch through a personal call, that's fine. If you're coordinating your employees to check status on something at work, it's not permitted.
            • That's correct. I only mentioned the problems with the company as a real world example of how communications break down in times of emergency. I don't know what the current plan is for disaster communications for the business, but it certainly doesn't involve HAM radio.
          • Glad somebody else mentioned it also.

            I'm active in a radio club that's major focus is disaster preparedness and management. We have a 2m repeater with a big diesel generator, a bunch of "go kits," coordination with local PD, FD, and Red Cross. It's interesting to think about what you'd do in a total loss-of-communication situation.

            Anyone planning on using their cellphone when the lights go out may be in for a very nasty surprise: one that will come in the form of the 'fast busy' signal because the circuits
    • I have no problem with VOIP quality as long as I am talking to someone else VOIP. The problem is in the transition to POTS and that varies depending on where I call. I have one place in FL I no longer use my VOIP line because it doesn't work. But there are other places that have no problem at all. Until there is a seamless transition to the POTS system (or POTS goes away) there will be problems, but VOIP isn't totally to blame.
    • Our provider (Commpartners) gives us about 98% landline quality. The first place to start looking when quality is missing is on your own LAN, the second place is your codec choice, the third is your internet connection itself. Residential connections rarely have the upstream and reliability for really good voip.
    • Actually, my experience is that the audio quality of VOIP is much better than land line it seems to have a much greater frequency range (better high and low frequency reproduction). I use Skype primarily... others may not be as good.

      Of course, Skype runs on the public Internet and is subject to traffic congestion, etc. so you can get delays and breakup but I have used it successfully from very distant places in Africa and Asia and it works very well.

    • Funny, I've had the exact opposite experience. A good friend of mine is a core engineer for a company doing telephony applications and VOIP; when I call, I always have to ask if he's still on the line because it's completely silent. I've become so accustomed to hearing static in the background of my phone calls that I think I've lost the connection when speaking to him.
  • sure (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    "But questions about its ... reliability persist."

    I'm guessing the blurb isn't refering to Gartner (as it should).
  • by cybernate ( 545487 ) on Wednesday May 03, 2006 @09:59AM (#15253511) Homepage
    There is a standard on how to encrypt voip already called SRTP, the problme is there is still a lot of debate on how to deal with the key exchange. MIKEY is the latest path, but most CPE vendors see it as overkill and to complex. SNOM and a few others have went with SDP Descriptions, a lightweight method, but requires TLS for signaling. Then you have guys like Sipura/Cisco who come up with a 100% propritary way of doing things that only will work with their devices.
  • Secure VoIP is easy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Wednesday May 03, 2006 @10:01AM (#15253529)
    When you make a call to another VoIP user (e.g. vonage to vonage), the entire call would be encrypted end-to-end with keys known only to the clients at either end.
    The vonage server in that case would only exist to do call setup, teardown and control etc.
    If you are making a call to a PSTN user, its encrypted all the way from you to the PSTN connection link server again with keys known only to both ends.

    I am sure there are ways to handle secure key exchange and such to make this actually work (and ways that dont require the user to know anything about how to create keys and other things)
    And there are encryption algorithims good enough to use for real-time encryption of compressed voice data.

    With this idea, no-one between the 2 points can listen to the phonecall. (other than what can normally be done on the PSTN side of the PSTN linkup if it is a PSTN call)
    • I am sure there are ways to handle secure key exchange and such to make this actually work

      Actually, this is a non-trivial problem. I have been looking at this problem from an IM perspective recently, and there are basically two approaches that people are using:

      1. Use something like PGP. This requires keys be shared in some secure out-of-band mechanism. Ideally, when someone gave you their business card (or vCard over a secure channel), this would have their public key on it.
      2. The other is to use an SSL-
      • The way I've seen is let the clients generate and send a public cert, and accept, and then get the users to ask each other what the fingerprint of the key is they are using. If it matches, good. If not, man in the middle.
        • Yes. I've seen this too. It is insecure. Anyone who can sit between the two clients (either of their servers, for example, and anyone on the 20 or so routers that seem to be the average hop length between my client and server) can replace the public key. They can then do a man-in-the-middle attack.

          Your second step adds exactly zero security. If someone is performing a man-in-the-middle attack, then they can very easily substitute the fingerprints that each user sends for the one that they will actuall

          • No, because the local client prints on the screen the fingerprint of the public key that was sent, and unless the remote talker says that is the public key they received, they hang up, unplug their computers, and drive to the Ukraine.
            • The local client prints the fingerprint of the public key on the screen. It sends the fingerprint to the remote client. Along the way, the attacker substitutes the transmitted fingerprint with the fingerprint of their key. The remote user is then presented with the fingerprint of the key that they have received, and the fingerprint that they have been sent by the other party. Both of these match.

              The only way this could be secure is if the correct fingerprint were transmitted out-of-band. If the local

              • You don't send the finger print to the other person. You get them to speak to each other, and confirm that way. Regardez:
                You connect to me, I supply my public key, you accept, create tunnel with it. (And vice versa.)
                Now, your client displays the fingerprint of the public key you received from me, and my client displays the fingerprint of the public key I sent.
                I ask you what the fingerprint is (via voice), and you tell me. It should match. Of course, if the MITM could synthesise your voice, and replace
                • Okay, I was talking about IM rather than VoIP in my original post. By using voice, you step up the CPU requirements somewhat, but not insurmountably. All voice adds is another obfuscation layer, rather than any real cryptographic strength.
                  • Sorry, I didn't notice the IM part in your post - I've just re-read it, and yes, it does say from an IM perspective.

                    I agree, normally key verification has to talk place outside the main communication band normally otherwise MITM can occur.

                    PS. I've quoted you on my website.
      • This requires keys be shared in some secure out-of-band mechanism.

        One thing to keep in mind: In many cases (ok, not all cases, but many) out-of-band key exchange is actually pretty reasonable. I don't know about you, but a lot of the people that I talk to on the phone, are people I have met in real life.

        And the amount of info that could be exchanged is staggering; you could exchange gigabytes of OTP instead of merely cipher keys. Your phone has a microphone, a radio receiver, and many have a CCD. The

    • When you make a call to another VoIP user (e.g. vonage to vonage), the entire call would be encrypted end-to-end with keys known only to the clients at either end

      Won't CALEA prevent VoIP providers from providing truly secure calls? Can you really trust a provider who knows the encryption keys?

      no-one between the 2 points can listen to the phonecall. (other than what can normally be done on the PSTN side of the PSTN linkup

      In this case the government and the phone company employees can certainly listen in.
      • Won't CALEA prevent VoIP providers from providing truly secure calls?
        The solution to this is to eliminate the whole concept of a "VoIP provider." People merely need a phone and an ISP.
  • My Problem With VoIP (Score:2, Interesting)

    by IflyRC ( 956454 )
    I checked into getting it a year or so ago and just couldn't see the rationality in it. I have a DSL line because I hated my cable company - even to the point of switching to satellite tv.

    Granted, I hate the phone company too so I was going to check into a VoIP solution just so I didn't have to pay the phone company "as" much as I currently did. So, the problem is - phone companies do not offer a data only DSL package. To even get DSL you have to have full phone package.

    So, my choices...go back to the
    • Not all phone companies in all locations require phone service with DSL. I got naked DSL (no dialtone, no voice service) from Qwest in Idaho. Cheaper than cable, actually.
    • I guess for you it really comes down to what the savings would be. If you make alot of long distance calls then something like Vonage may save you money in the long run, even if you are paying for basic phone service to get DSL + monthly Vonage costs. Really depends on how big your monthly phone bill is. In my case, paying for basic phone to get DSL + Vonage would still save me money (though right now I get my broadband from my cable company). My girlfriend talks to her parents 3+ hours a night, everyda
    • Isn't it funny how you HATE your phone company, and you HATE your cable company. That attitude seems to be quite common! How did those two industries manage to piss off so many people! (Besides poor customer service, over charging, etc)?
    • In my case, my phone line to the house is a digital DS-0 over ATM which is multiplexed with my i.nternet connection (1Mb/s symmetric). It uses the county fiberoptical network and allows me to have a choice of ISP's and telecom providers without sacrificing quality or reliability. Oh, an the PUD installs all the converters and battery backups so normal telephones work.

      So, move to Wentachee Washington and it will get better. :-)
  • Impossible. (Score:5, Funny)

    by avalys ( 221114 ) on Wednesday May 03, 2006 @10:08AM (#15253576)
    Secure VoIP is impossible! The person you're talking to will always be able to intercept and listen in on your conversation!
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I know that VoiP hacks are the holy grail right now in the script kiddie circles. I'm not aware of any though. It's misleading to suggest that it's "insecure" at the moment. We can bang it up a notch though, TLS all the way through would be a nice plus.

    Now the reliability aspect is something else and it does need to be addressed, when people pick up a phone they expect and sometimes depend on it working. When they dial 911, they expect help to get to the right address. The building can be on fire a

  • given the state of things right now, it seems VoIP has a chance to become the only secure way to talk to someone over distances. If people can use an open source encryption scheme for their VoIP, the NSA will have significantly more trouble butting in on your conversations---even with the help of AT&T.
  • At least from a lo-jack point of view. Any fool with a butt set--or single line phone for that matter-- can listen in on your conversations with a pots line. Of course any fool with a sniffer can do the same thing to your VoIP calls, but it requires a little more work than having your home/office address. Your physical address is graciously provided by the phone company in the form of a phonebook along with your POTS line anyway. Security is a myth anyway.
  • Hmmm (Score:2, Interesting)

    by cyp43r ( 945301 )
    Although,admittedly, I don't know much about VOiP, surely monitoring a dedicated landline would be much easier then trying to pick out the signals in the spare network traffic. As pointed out earlier, it is nearly always encrypted...what will happen next? Products to lockdown telephones? I'd like an encrypter on my landline personally.
    • There are lots of products around which provide secure voice communications over your regular land-line; the weakness of nearly all of them are that it requires both the sender and receiver to have the same model and type of unit, and outside of the government there's not really any standard. (And unfortunately I don't think that they sell STU-IIIs, fun as that would be.) The old Mac-based PGPPhone was a software-based version of a "secure phone," if you had it and the person you were calling also had it, y
  • by Anonymous Coward
    "Gartner is now positioning VoIP firmly on its way to the 'plateau of productivity' on its widely-respected technology hype cycle."

    Gartner's 'hype' cycle is widely regarded as a joke in my experience. Guess what, the press and marketeers AND Gartner play up new technologies. Guess what, even after the stories stop some of them continue to make lots of money. Gartner reports are just about always *after* the event - and they don't tell you anything about which ideas will succeed and which are just VC fodde

  • A better way to secure it would be to use software like skype which allows users on the same network to talk to each other through their computers instead of through a company which asks for money. Although I don't like skype's business due to their treatment of AMD, they have the biggest name, and biggest chance to penetrate the voip market.
    • Yeah, asking for money is a sure sign of shady business practices. And with a super-duper proprietary and closed protocol, you know it has to be secure.
  • Just curious, but if we're talking about key exchanges over an insecure medium, why can't we do a Diffie-Hellman key exchange, similar to what is used for IPSec tunnel negotiation? It seems like VoIP devices could establish tunnels to remote endpoints via GRE and/or IPSec and pass their protocol data over that tunnel. Is this not technically possible, or is it possible, just not scalable/cost effective?
    • A number of approaches can use DH. rea-1/raiarea-1.ppt [] The tunneling aspect is not so straight forward with voip since the signalling and bearer channels are not necessarily going to the same place. Another challenge with VoIP encryption is how to deal with non point-to-point streams, ie. conference calls. The device doing the audio/video bridging needs to maintain key pairs with all connected participants which in itself isnt all that bad, but from a use
    • Diffie-Hellman does not prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. It just makes sure that only you and the person you ran the Diffie-Hellman key exchange with know the key.

      You still need some other mechanism to make sure that you are actually talking directly to the right person and not to some man in the middle.

      In IPsec they use either a shared secret, a public key or a certificate to authenticate parties.

  • wait, doesn't Skype for example, already encrypt all voice (and even chat)?
  • When I was shopping for an end-user VOIP solution to replace telephone services a year ago (a move cause a sharp increase in phone rates), I could find

    • lots of encrypted software-to-software solutions,
    • a hand full of PSTN gateways (some even claiming to be secure),
    • but nothing that would permit me to call PSTN / mobile lines at an acceptable price with real encryption.

    In the end, I settled with SkypeOut - though nobody can check how they really encrypt and who as access to the keys.

    (Requirements: work

    • but nothing that would permit me to call PSTN / mobile lines at an acceptable price with real encryption.

      Seems like this requirement is the real killer, since it would require the person on the receiving end to have some sort of specialized equipment on their telephone, to decrypt the call. Much like a STU-III or its commercial equivalents.

      Unless you meant encryption only while the call was traveling over the packet-switched network, but really what's the point of that? If someone wants to intercept your ca
  • Am I the only one that believes there is no future for VOIP how it is currently implemented? If EVERYONE were to suddenly switch over to using it would it completely clog up our internet connections? I admit I know very little about the technology, so I am just curious about it. Unless the service is provided by the companies who own the cables making up the internet then whats to stop them from filtering all VOIP traffic except their own? If it were to cause so much traffic they have to provide the ban
    • When businesses switch, the rest will follow. What follows is an idea that I heard from Eben Moglen (

      It isn't feasible for my grandmother, and everyone else, to switch, but, companies can afford it and they can also afford to pay enought for new routers to be put in and new lines to be built. Once they drop their telephone lines and just have IT staff, the cost isn't much more. Especially if they used a Free Software VOIP system.

      Now, once businesses do switch, start swit
  • Alot of the issues mentioned in this article are worked out for everyday use. I work for a company that bids on and installs VOIP systems for large business's and the reason its getting so big is that switching from a legacy system to a VOIP system nearly PROMISES a 20% reduction in communication costs. We put together a package for FSU that saved them about 40-50% over the system they had been using. the biggest problem the VOIP market faces these days is disbelief from controllers regarding the potential
    • Funny... I support a large mortgage company who uses VoIP which would work out well except there are constant issues with voice quality, call drops, and seemingly impossible issues. And all of our equipment is Cisco (phones, routers w/ prioritization). I think my issue and probably others as well that would lead to a hestitancy to adopt is the support! What happens when all your phones go down? Unless you manage all of it yourself (and believe me - you won't in a large company), you better hope your Ser
      • It sounds like your problem is the company you went with. Its like anything else you buy theres a good way and a bad way. If your getting locked into proprietary hardware, service contracts, and crap service the fault doesnt lie with the technology it falls on the crap company thats roped you into that bad deal. Here is some advice on how to switch to VOIP and its something my company does with all our clients: get a free assesment to evaluate the quality and service of said company, Make sure that they use
        • I don't know any company (not just VoIP hardware) that open sources their hardware (firmware/driver wise).

          It's only necessary to get hardware which supports open standards like SIP or H.323. These are different things, but I consider open standards to be a hundred times more important.

    • Carefully there! Every vigilant slashdotter knows that the NSA is conspiracing with Microsoft, AT&T and the aliens to wiretap your calls. They are probably using this link to keep track of everyone who has something to "hide"...
  • As soon as it's secure against tapping, we'll be facing a law that makes it illegal to enable uninterceptable VoIP communication.

    Terror or child porn, pick your reason.
  • I wonder how the same folks that are behind CALEA are going to respond to widespread secure VoIP. Will it be clipper-chip revisited with all other crypto outlawed? Why should I care...I'm probably already marked as a "person of interest" because I have unlicenced mp3s, run mplayer on linux to watch encrypted DVDs, love bittorrent and seriously question Bush's I.Q. Maybe this explains all those extra searches at the airport... (j/k, but after this post, who knows...)
  • secure voip will forever be but a dream of young idealists

    much like building that big shell around the sun. obviously impossible
  • I am the technical director for a small voip provider, and I can't tell you how many times a day we get asked "how secure is it?"

    Really, I want to answer: "Who cares? Do you ask 'how secure is it' to Bell? No, you just get a phone line from them and stop worrying about it."

    In fact, any schmuck can splice wires into a physical landline. My friend and I used to do it all the time to hassle my sister, and this was when we were 10. If a couple of ten year olds can monitor phone calls by sticking wires
    • Well, of course, but it is one area where VOIP can easily beat the Bells. Have the customer setup public private keys, which could be as simple as create the private key during install and upload the public key to VOIP main server and with enough CPU power, the encryption decryption should be seamless.
      • Look, this could change in the future, but as it stands now, my users are freaking morons. One of them swore up and down that her email address didn't have an @. Another couldn't find her start menu (no, it wasn't hidden or anything like that). I've got a guy who configured his extension to forward to itself and doesn't understand why it doesn't work. I've been working with another idiot that wanted me to, quote, "put the address on the internet".

        Now you want them to create sets of keys and upload the
  • It's interesting to see that most people when talking about VoIP security are looking for stream encryption. In my opinion encrypting the voice stream is nearly meaningless until the entire worldwide system is VoIP with the possibility of encrypted voice streams. If your call is connected to or through the PSTN at any point it can be listened to with ease.

    The focus of security should be in the setup of a call. If it is difficult to spoof a phone device and place calls on someone else's dime the system b

  • As someone that has implemented an Openser server I can tell you it's easy. Very easy.

    While I do not have encryption enabled, it's certainly less difficult than learning how to manipulate openser.cfg.

    I guess it goes to show you that Gartner only listens to IPO-bound companies blowing smoke up their rear-ends at lunches/dinners.

    For every person that thinks skype is somehow secure, no one knows because the encryption system is not availble for review.

    How many times can the average american be screwed by
  • This article is terrible! Its complete gobbledygook. The author has no idea what he is talking about. Consider this:

    Anti-virus solutions will also be required, and these must be designed to ensure that excessive delay in telephony packets transiting the network is not introduced.

    Thats Intrusion Prevention not Anti-Virus. Does he even understand what those words mean?

    Phishing attacks on VoIP networks involve attackers faking the number of the phone they are using, making it look as though a legitimate or

  • H.235 was a good VoIP encryption standard - good for the large service providers who wrote the standard.

    VPN, SSL, and other open transportation security layers are a much better choice.

    But there are a lot of folks out there who do not encrypt VoIP at all. The future will include a few scandals about personal/company/government VoIP phone calls that were monitored, recorded, and posted on the Internet.
    • Speaking as a VoIP newbie...

      Commercial VoIP terminations (like the ones Vonage et al ship) run either Linux or VXWorks, or something similar, don't they?

      What's the downside of simply using OpenSSH tunnelling between the terminating devices?
      (assuming the compression/decompression is also done at the ends)

      The key exchange is already handled, BSD licsense etc...
  • How can we secure VOIP communications when the FCC can mandate that providers allow conversations to be snooped on by law enforcement officials?
  • Military VOiP is already secure! That is all.
  • "News" sites that use google adsense don't hold much cred in my eyes. It leaves the academia-style philosophy of knowledge acquisition and goes to buzz word bingo style eye-ball reporting.

    Could the editors use their influence in a way to make more valuable and valid stories easily accessible for the open source crowd. All the time wasted on meaningless jibberish slows us down as a whole. We're only given 24 hours in a day, and I'd like to get out and about as much as possible.

"Yeah, but you're taking the universe out of context."