Who’s Checking your telephone or email records?

According to an article published in the Telegraph, councils, police and other public bodies are seeking access to people’s private telephone and email records almost 1,400 times a day in the UK.

The authorities made more than 500,000 requests for confidential communications data last year, equivalent to spying on one in every 78 adults.

These requests for information have been made under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The Act gives authorities – including councils, the police and intelligence agencies – the power to request access to confidential communications data, including lists of telephone numbers dialled and email addresses to which messages have been sent to. The powers given within the ACT were originally intended to tackle terrorism and organised crime, but it is believed that many of the request have been for crimes as trivial as ‘dog fowling’.

In 2008 promises were made to crack down on the miss use of such powers, but last year of a total 504,073 requests, 1,553 requests for communications data came from 123 local councils.

Sir Paul Kennedy, the interception of communications commissioner, reviews requests made under the Act. Sir Paul reported 595 errors in interception requests last year, including mistakes by MI5 and MI6, the intelligence agencies, where the wrong accounts had been monitored due to administrative errors.

While i am all in favour of laws that help prevent serious crimes like terrorism, i can’t believe that 1 in 78 of us are suspected or terrorism or organised crime, and i would question whether my local council need any such powers at all, and as for organizations such as MI5/6 requesting information on the wrong accounts that is not only beyond believe, but potentially putting lives at risk if they are indeed looking into potential terror suspects.

Who’s Checking your telephone or email records?

Opera/Microsoft antitrust case drama

It seems Microsoft are in the dock again. This time it’s the turn of Norwegian browser producer Opera, to pursue the software giant. The case is an anti trust allegation, claiming that Microsoft are ‘abusing their powers, by only shipping copies of their operating system Windows, with only their own “Internet Explorer 8.0” browser and none of their competitors’.

The Chief technology officer for Opera, is quoted as having said “Microsoft is ignoring web standards and should use its position to promote competition, among browser”. Meanwhile Mozilla, producers of the popular “Firefox” browser, claimed that the “browser wars are over”, at this years South by South West festival in Texas.

What Mozilla meant by ‘the end of the browser wars’ is that the main browser manufacturers are now working much more closely  together on a common set of standards, to ensure that all browsers act and display information is a uniform way. There have been some minor disputes, one being Microsoft going off and developing their own security systems, but in in their defense, they have made the code available for other vendors to utilize. Internet security is something that most people agree can not wait for agreements to be made, at the expense of leaving clients vulnerable and contrary to Opera’s claim, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8.0 does actually support internet standards.  By default Internet Explorer 8.0  has standards support turned on for the internet , but the  intranets, claiming that this is so that developers can continue to use internet explorer 7.0 while they upgrade their systems.

Microsoft’s stance on the shipping of browsers has been that Explorer and by extension  Internet Explorer form an integral part of the operating system and should be shipped with windows.

In the latest bid to appease the European Courts, Microsoft offered to go back on previous stance, that Explorer and by extraction Internet Explorer form an integral part of the operating system and should be shipped with windows. Offering to ship a version of their operating system for Europe (to be known as version e) without any browser at all.
After discussions with Opera, the courts dismissed this suggestion after a single day, saying “the move would not further its goal of promoting browsers that compete with Internet Explorer.”

The only hearing scheduled in the case, was set for early June, but has been cancelled after Microsoft complained that many European antitrust officials who could attend the hearing as observers were unable to do so because of a competing conference in Switzerland. The commission is under no timetable to release its ruling in the browser case, but in the past, it has publicized crucial decisions, fines and sanctions before leaving for its summer break in late July.

The truth is, that Apple also ship their operating system with only Safari, their own browser and yet Opera have not sued them. In fact its doubtful that it is Microsoft they should be chasing, as Microsoft do not install or ship most of the Windows products that go out, hardware manufacturers do. Companies like Dell, IBM, HP, ASUS often add their own utility software,  anti virus products and other extras, I’m sure that if Opera where truly demanded by end users, then they would be more than happy to bundle them with their products.

The idea of a modern operating system not coming with a browser at all is quite ridiculous, having to get installers on a cd or memory device and install one before connecting to the internet would make registration, licensing ad upgrade a far more arduous task.  Operating systems coming with a choice of  3 or 4 browsers, would also have implications to large corporate IT systems, supporting and keeping on top updates and security control for multiple browsers would be a very large undertaking in many cases.

In some ways I believe it is Opera’s own best interest to have users download their browsers from the internet if they want it, firstly this keeps them competitive as they have to make truly better browsers, and secondly because it gives them much needed information on who is using their browser.

Regardless of what the courts decide, remaining the default browser will be a lot harder than just being put on the installation disk. Opera,  will still have its work cut out, as it does have its downsides, there is a general lack of support for all important plug-ins and a large number of sites that don’t support it.

I myself am a big fan of Opera, and have been using it as my browser of choice  of late, but I do also use Explorer, Chrome, Flock and Safari on a daily basis, each of which has it own benefits.

Opera/Microsoft antitrust case drama

Microsoft Bing, discovery engine or porn engine?

Within days of the official launch of microsoft’s new ‘bing’ search engine, users have found ways to exploit it, in order to get around corporate firewall, filtering and policy options for viewing explicit pornographic and otherwise prohibited material.

The site streams video and places images directly into to the browser on the bing page, bypassing the original web address and thus avoiding any url based filtering. Explicit content is only shown to users who have set there adult content filtering to off, put this is on a user by user basis, which companies have very little control over, the default is to safe search for users that are not logged in, under a user profile.

Microsoft already have produced a work around, enabling IT departments to block all explicit content. This works very simply by redirecting all explicit results to the web address http://explicit.microsoft.com which can then be blacklisted on firewalls and filter lists.

This morning the urls were already being blocked by websense and other filtering services, and the bing.com server was reportedly receiving so many requests it was not able to allow users in to log in under their own profile.

Related posts : the bling of bing

Microsoft Bing, discovery engine or porn engine?

Pirate party gets into european parliment!

I’m not sure whether to be amazed, impressed, shocked or dismayed to hear that Piratpartiet gain a seat in the European Parliament yesterday. Piratpartiet, translates to ‘the Pirate Party’, are a Swedish parliamentary party, that want to reform copyright law to legalize file sharing sites like ‘Pirate bay‘.

According to their website, The Pirate Party ‘wants to fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens’ rights to privacy are respected. With this agenda, and only this, we are making a bid for representation in the European and Swedish parliaments.

piratpartiet - The Pirate Party (sweden)
Piratpartiet - The Pirate Party.

Under Swedish law, Piratpartiet had to go through six distinct stages in order to become an official political party, this process started with collecting a petition of signatures  in early 2006. Creating a website to harness the power of the internet, they achived the required number very quickly. This is all the more amazing, when you consider that all signatories must give there name and address, and for many that is admitting to breaking the current laws by using illegal file share sites.

While Piratpartiet have had a number of followers from the start, this number was greatly boosted by of all things a police crack downs on the ‘pirate bay’ group,  with an initial speed up in sign up when charges were made and a massive increase when the organizers were later jailed.

Over the 3 years since it was set up Piratpartiet has slowly gained momentum overtaking the  Green Party in December 2008, the Left Party in February 2009, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats in April 2009.

Piratpartiet is now the third largest political party in Sweden in terms of membership, and Ung Pirat, the Pirate Party’s associated youth organization,  is now the largest political youth organization in Sweden. Its sudden popularity has given rise to parties with the same name and similar goals in Europe and worldwide.

Alongside other fringe and extremist party victories around Europe, (including the first ‘british national party’ parliamentary seat), I’m not sure whether this is more an indication that the current political system is broken, or that the we really believe that copyright theft should be legalized.

While I understand what drives people to vote for parties like Piratpartiet, I can’t help but wonder how they will handle power. Its fine to stand for increase privacy, but how will they view hacking, police powers , anti terrorism measures. It may be that criticising government is somewhat easier than running it.

One thing that is for sure, is that as with the Obama election in the states, that the internet can used with tremendous effect to bring about politican change. At the moment this power seems to be targeted at the young, but as more and more of us start to use twitter, and blogs and the internet on a daily basis this is likely to spread.

Sources: Pirarpartiet | wikipedia

Pirate party gets into european parliment!

Discovering the Bling of Microsoft’s Bing!

This has been one busy month when it comes to search. In mid May, Stephen Wolfram brought us the first public release of  his computational knowledge engine, ‘Wolfram Alpha‘. Then there was the announcement that Google would be releasing their  new ‘Google Squared‘ product, and finally there was the release of ‘Bing‘ microsoft’s much anticipated successor to ‘live seach‘ .


Microsoft CEO,  Steve Ballmer Unveiled BING.com at the ‘All Things D conference’ in San Diego, on 28th May, and it went ‘public’ a few days later on 3rd June.

There have been several rumors going around, concerning the story behind on the name,  ‘Bing’. The official line is that it is a short, memorable and globally acceptable name, with positive connotations, reminiscent of the noises often made at moments of arrival or discovery. Steve Ballmer is said to have told ‘Wired magazine’ that he had drawn some inspiration from the charachter Chandler Bing’s name in TV show friends. But my personal favourite is that it stands for ‘But Its Not Google’.

When it comes to search, Microsoft seem to never quite made it into the big leagues. And in fairness to them, I  don’t think its has been as much to do with the technology, as it has been to do with the way they’re perceived. Google made it to critical mass first, and built a brand trust and loyalty that now seem to be almost unbreakable, even though the products themselves were pretty similar.

Its interesting then that Microsoft have chosen to position themselves as a ‘discovery engine’ rather than a ‘search engine’, possibly making a decision to go with a large portion of a niche market, rather than trying to compete head on with the Google , Yahoo’s for the middle ground.

Here’s microsoft’s introduction to Bing to give you a flavour of what its all about…

Sounds pretty cool, huh? But how did I find it when I took it for a spin.. well, I have to admit initially I wasn’t that impressed, and when Microsoft evangelist Steve Clayton wrote about it on his blog ‘geek in disguise‘, I left a comment saying as much, but Steve being Steve challenged me to back up by words with some examples. So I decided I’d better take a closer look, and dig around a little more, before answering that challenge. What I found was;  its actually pretty good at a consumer level. If you want help getting information to buy a product, make a trip or look up a general local or health information, then it does take some of the work out of making sense of the search results, In fact the more basic your search, the more help you’ll get, so for example if your enter ‘digital cameras’ it will bring back lots of information it will split this into categories, like brands, types, accessories and images, it will suggest a selection of related searches, it will order the information by relevancy bringing you the best matches at the top and picking out key data from deep within pages and its even has a price prediction technology to help you save money on any purchases. But if you’re searches are more complex, if you’re doing academic study or looking for specialist information, you’re much less likely to see any of these features, I do tend to do this type of ‘power searching’ and that may be why initially not wowed by bing, because at that level you don’t see many of the blingy consumer features. Another reason that I didn’t see the full features of bing on first test, was that I had the UK set in my preferences, but at the present the full feature set is only enabled if you sellect ‘United States (English)’.

Other things I noticed were; when I ‘Binged myself’ it brought up my webite after my Facebook and Linked-in accounts, and it worked better if I key ‘Who is David Coxon’ rather that just searched on my name (go on ‘Bing’ yourself – you know you want to!), I also noticed that when I looked for images, the image retrieval was really fast, but not as relevant as the live search results were, video results were nicely presented, with the ability to watch the movies directly in the search window without having to click through to the source. another strange one was that I got better results searching with the incorrect spelling of centre when I search for ‘Baltic centre for contemporary art’ perhaps this is because I was using the US preference though, and when i search for ‘contemporary art galleries in gateshead’ it didn’t find Baltic at all, but rather only came back with a gallery in Darlington (30 miles away) the same search on Google placed Baltic at the top of a list of 10 within 2 miles of Gateshead and 30 within the area.

In my opinion,  Bing could have done with a little longer in Beta, before being released. They should have at least got all the core functionality working,  in each of  the key regional setting working. At the moment you only see the advanced options working when you have your regional setting set to United States English so see the full functionality of Bing.

Although Steve Ballmer stated Microsoft are like a startup compared to the market leaders Google, it is rumoured that microsoft are spending 80-100 million on the Ad campaign for Bings launch this summer. Here is how the ad looks…

All in all, I think that that Microsoft have made the right decision to go down the route of  ‘doing something differently, but doing that incredibly well” – it’s a good business plan and it might work! It’s rushing into it , launching a prduct before its ready, (even if that is partially because your contemporares have released their’s) and insisting on going ahead with a huge markiting project for that product before its ready –  is nothing short of insanity. As for going down the consumer route, again I think is the right way to go for Microsoft, its the far less costly, its more sustainable and easier to achieve. I hope in time that they’ll go to apply the same features to other areas and cater for researchers as well as the  consumer market.

Resources: Bing tones for your phone

Related posts: Search Technology, Search history Privacy, Semantics searching for meaning, Bing – discover engine or porn engine?

Discovering the Bling of Microsoft’s Bing!

Could Google WAVE goodbye to twitter?

Google never cease to astonish me with their innovations. They are often criticized these days for being too big. Sometimes they seem to be into simply everything, and big powerful companies tend to scare us. But just when you think they can’t get any bigger, they up their game (again), and bring something out that is truly huge.

In typical Google style, they waited until the second day of the Google Developer Conference in the Moscone Center, San Francisco on May 27 – 28, 2009, to show us there biggest secret, WAVE. I’ve pasted the 1 hour 20 minute keynote video of below (for those of you that may have just woken up from a coma and havn’t seen it).

Google don’t normally make this sort of announcement, this early in a products development, but they have made an exception for WAVE. The announcement has already set the development and tech communities on fire, Youtube simply couldn’t handle demand for streaming the movie on the night of its release, (i had to wait several hours for things to calm down enough to access it), and twitter is still positively buzzing with comments on WAVE (which is a little ironic as WAVE could soon replace many existing communications channels like Twitter).

So what is Google WAVE? It is an entirely new communications model.
The Google Maps team, lead by Lars and Jens Rasmussen, have developed an application to allow people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and other tools, all within a standard browser.

So what makes WAVE different? for a start the whole approach to communication is different. Although unified communications has been around a while, it has always imitated nonelectronic forms of communication, but the Wave team threw away the old rule books and started again from scratch.

Over the past year Twitter has started to changed the way that we think about communications, its faster, its more inclusive (conversations are with groups rather than individuals), more accessible (searchable) , its far more personal and its creating new collaborative communities. WAVE is likely to take this to a new level, no longer are users limited to 140 characters, no longer do they have to wait until a reply is complete (you see them as they’re typed) no longer do you have to link to photos, videos, blog posts, you can include them all in a wave, and collaborate on them in real time.

Unlimited by the old rules of communication, WAVE is almost bound to change the way we communicate, but are businesses ready to make the change? Are our bosses ready to accept that online collaboration and communication can save more time than it costs, are corporations ready to take the leaps of faith required to trust employees enough to express opinions freely, do IT departments have the resources to keep up to date and can we find solutions to all the legal issues that this might raise, are the laws even capable of being applied to this kind of technology.

Like all waves, this WAVE is likely to gather speed and momentum before it reaches its full height and comes crashing down.

Related posts: Google WAVE | Releasing a wave of possabilities

Could Google WAVE goodbye to twitter?

The culture of free!

The world of IT is a relatively fast moving one. New trends and technology come thick and fast, and with every new trend or technology there follows a host of new terms, phrases, acronyms, and of buzz words.
One term that I have heard cropping up more and more lately, is “the culture of free”. It’s fairly easy to guess what this term might relates to, but why has it started to crop up now, and is a ‘culture of free’ a good thing, or could it have a downside?
While today’s internet generation may not remember, there was a time when you had to purchase browser software. Then one day someone came up with the idea of giving it away free, and a culture was born, and it didn’t stop at software, web based services (file sharing, storage, instant messaging, email and social networks) soon followed suit, and more recently data owner’s have started to share their data freely too.
There is even a ‘Culture of Free movement’, founded by Lawrence Lessig (a lecturer at Stanford University and author of ‘Free Culture’. The movement which is often associated with Creative Commons, promotes the freedom to distribute and modify creative works, using the Internet as well as other media. Lessig and his followers object to overly restrictive copyright laws, often completely rejecting the concepts of copyright and intellectual property altogether, claiming it creates a “permission culture”. Others, most prominently Andrew Keen, (an academic, author and technologist) criticizes the ‘Free Culture’ ideals, referring to them instead as the ‘Cult of the Amateur’.
When you think about it, the internet is fundamentally built on a culture of free, with all of its knowledge freely available, but blogger Leo Babauta, points out – we must distinguish between “free” as in you don’t have to pay for it, and “free” as in you are free to distribute and use the information.
So why would bloggers, photographers, film makers, citizen journalism, musicians, illustrators or authors, use things like creative commons licensing to distribute their work freely? Well they’re working on the premise that reaching a larger audience may bring returns in other ways, whether its through donations, public speaking engagements, lucrative commissioned work or just improving their profile.
Can there really be a downside to free? After all everybody likes getting something for nothing and the people giving it away seem happy. Well I guess the answer to that depends on your point of view. Some would argue that when things are given away freely it erodes their value and others would argue that the ‘culture of free’ is eroding the very skills and standards that we have spend decades building up. buzzword

The culture of free!

Vast global spy network discovered!

Sounds like the stuff of fiction doesn’t it? Covert networks and unknown organisations, spying on hundreds of government offices, embassies, news/media organisations and personal computers around the world. But apparently its true. Unlike in the movies though this was discovered by a group of researchers based in a basement office at the University of Toronto.

Self confessed  computer geeks Ronald Deibert and Nart Villeneuve were asked by the office of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, to examine its computers for signs of malicious software, or Malware. Using a combination of fieldwork, technical scouting, and laboratory analysis, during a ten month investigation, they not only found evidence of Maleware, but  discovered a far reaching network, spanning 1,295 infected computers in 103 countries, 30% of which could be described as high-value targets.

The Canadian researchers have been practicing what some term ‘Hacktivism’ from the Citizen Lab,  part of  Munk Center for International Studies at Toronto University for some time. Citizen Lab has a reputation for using technology to combat corporate and governmental attempts to control cyberspace, and say that the Malware found is remarkable both for its sweep and for its Big Brother-style capacities. What they’re referring to is, that it  is not been merely “Phishing” for random information, but has the ability to turned on the camera and audio-recording functions of an infected computer enabling them to see and hear what is going on in a room. The researchers were able to manipulate the code and infect a machine in their office, allowing them to monitor the commands given to the infected computers,  to see the names of documents retrieved by the spies.

A 53 page report into Ghost.net was published on-line under the ‘Information Warfare Monitor’ banner yesterday (29/03/09). The report is careful not to make any claims, as to who is behind the operation and in fact  is quick to say that the investigation has raised more questions than answers.

Two computer researchers at Cambridge University, Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson, also worked with the Tibetans, and released released their report “The Snooping Dragon: Social Malware Surveillance of the Tibetan Movement” yesterday (29/04/09). The British report went much further in its accusations against the Chinese, and warned that other hackers could adopt the tactics used in the Malware operation.

While it has long since been assumed that various governments are running these kind of operations, this is by far the largest yet to be discovered, and its still currently active infecting around 14 new computers a day.

John Markoff of the New York times reports that a spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York dismissed the idea that China was involved. “These are old stories and they are nonsense,” the spokesman, Wenqi Gao, said. “The Chinese government is opposed to and strictly forbids any cybercrime.”

Like with any other piece of Maleware, machines can be infected when users either click on an email attachment or a website which installs code onto the client device, allowing commands to be sent to the machine remotely, temporarily taking control of it. As an IT manager, i am only too familiar with Maleware and have some idea of just how hard it can be to spot and remove, But i think i must watch to much TV, in that i assumed that embassies and such high profile organisations as NATO, and the office of the Dalai Lama would be running enough anti maleware and network intrusion software to prevent this type of attack.

Sources: Tracking Ghost net Report, Snooping dragon ReportThe New York Times, The Toronto Star

Related:FBI Honeytrap Darkmarket.ws is sprung, FBI protect us from terrorism by watching Warcraft?

Vast global spy network discovered!

The changing face of a computer virus.

This week an Anti-virus company proved a ‘proof of concept’, showing that in principle a worm, (a type of computer virus) could be spread using Twitter.  This is just the latest development in a 30 year game of cat and mouse between virus writers and anti-virus providers. So what exactly do we mean when we talk about computer viruses? In simple terms, it’s any computer programme or piece of code with the ability to copy itself and infect other computers or devices without the permission of the owner. A typical virus will have a purpose, (to damage your computer, network, data or reputation to use your computer to for its own purposes – attaching another computer, system or person, or to steal your information, data or identity) it will have a trigger (something that activates it, starting off  on its mission) and it will have a means of replicating itself (copying itself onto networked machines, memory sticks, or utilizing email, messaging services or social networks). What then is the difference between a virus and a trojan, netbot, or piece of malware? Essentially very little, but a virus has the ability to self-replicate without permission. The others can all cause just as much damage, and often trick the user into installing them, but essentially they do initially require some action to be taken. According to anti virus companies there are some 250,000 known viruses in existence. These virus are often split into a number of groups described by their chief characteristics including: Boot Sector (infect the boot sector of a hard drive or floppy disk), Macro (utilize macro commands, commonly used in word and excel for example), File Infecting (replace legitimate files with viruses),  Multi-partite (use a combination of techniques, boot sector and file infecting), Polymorphic (often difficult to detect as they use code that changes, along with the viruses’ appearance after each infection),  and Stealth viruses (hide themselves from a computers’ operating system and anti-virus products). The first known virus, “The Creeper”, was detected on ARPANET (the predecessor of the internet) in the early 70’s , it did little more that remotely access machines on the network and display the message , “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!”. There have of course been far more harmful viruses since then, the Chernobyl virus was amongst the worst, attacking the boot sector and bios, rendering both the hardware and the data stored on it useless.  There have also been far more active viruses the W32/Mydoom virus was producing between 50,000 and 60,000 new copies of itself per hour at its peak (about 1 in 12 emails). Like their medical name sake computer virus are constantly changing. As technology (and the way we use it) changes, virus writer find new ways to utilize that technology to spread their viruses. In the 70’s it was Arpanet, in the 80’s it moved on to floppy disks and dial up modems, in the 90’s it shifted to micro viruses, this decade has seen email and the internet under attack, most recently it has bean a shift to social networking sites like ‘youtube’ and ’facebook’, and now it looks like it could be twitter’s turn. I recently spoke to an antivirus company and what scared them most was the idea of a super virus that could use the huge processing powers of today’s pc to hide within very complex algorithms, and could not only be targeted to a specific task, but could also be targeted to a specific victim, something that generic patent matching engines could not spot. They also spoke of the risk of a potential ‘perfect storm’ a virus that combined both the worst of destructive powers with the most efficient self-replication systems. At best a virus will cause you some inconvenience, slowing your computer and costing you time and effort to remove, at worst it could cost you the replacement cost of the hardware and loss of earning while you recover your data. It is estimated that 75% of businesses will suffer at least one viruses or malware attack a year and that collectively it costs billions of pound a year to but right the damage that they cause.

Related posts:  Viruses target Social Networks

The changing face of a computer virus.