Category Archives: Technology

Russia Launches Counterattack

From their keyboards.

(Reuters) – The United States and Britain on Monday accused Russia of launching cyber attacks on computer routers, firewalls and other networking equipment used by government agencies, businesses and critical infrastructure operators around the globe.

Washington and London issued a joint alert saying the campaign by Russian government-backed hackers was intended to advance spying, intellectual property theft and other “malicious” activities and could be escalated to launch offensive attacks.

It followed a series of warnings by Western governments that Moscow is behind a string of cyber attacks. The United States, Britain and other nations in February accused Russia of releasing the “NotPetya” virus, which in 2017 crippled parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers across the globe, costing companies billions of dollars.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Russia’s embassy in London issued a statement citing British accusations of cyber threats from Moscow as “striking examples of a reckless, provocative and unfounded policy against Russia.”

The Post-Privacy Era

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

There is a lesson that I have preached to my children for years when it comes to using free services on the internet — if you are not paying for it, you are the product being sold. The recent revelations regarding Facebook confirm that lesson, but also highlight just how much of an illusion privacy has become in modern society.

The most recent privacy breach by Facebook garnered so much media attention because there is a connection to President Donald Trump, but it is hardly a new revelation. Facebook collects data about the people who use it and sells that information to anyone who can afford it. Facebook’s entire business model is predicated on collecting, shaping and selling its users’ information. Facebook’s customers are not the people who use it to share pictures of their meals and pets. Facebook’s customers are the people who buy information about Facebook users.

Facebook is hardly the only company that operates this way. They have merely become one of the largest and most popular because they created an application that people enjoy using. There are plenty of other companies with similar business models. Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google, Spotify, Pandora, Tinder and on and on. Even many websites for which you pay will sell any information they collect about you to anyone with a credit card. And since many people access their favorite sites on their mobile devices, location and other information can also be collected.

Then there are the data brokers who amalgamate information from many sources to create incredibly detailed and accurate profiles of people. They collect information about your buying habits, internet search activity, medical information, income, address, what guns you own, what movies you like, who your friends are and much more. These companies know more about people than their families or neighbors.

All of this collecting, buying and selling of information is legal. Then there is the illegal activity. All of this information is stored somewhere and people want it. Every week there is another story about some company being hacked and people’s information being stolen. Any information you keep on a computer will eventually be stolen. It is a matter of when, not if.

Worried yet? There is more. The next wave in breaking down privacy barriers is already here. The popularity of voice-driven technology like Siri, Alexa, Google Home and others has opened the door to a new way for businesses or hackers to collect information about you. Each of these devices is constantly listening to everything you say as it waits for you to say the key words to activate it. When a person uses these devices, their words are recorded and sent into the gigantic data processing hubs where they can be stored and used for anything.

Now people are sending their DNA to businesses through the mail to get a report back on what their ethnic heritage is or what diseases and disorders they are genetically predisposed to. These companies are creating massive databases of DNA that can be sold and used for everything from marketing products to redirecting government programs to something nefarious.

The fascinating aspect of the collapse of privacy is that it is almost entirely voluntary. People are willingly sharing incredibly personal information about themselves all over the internet. In an odd quirk of human nature, people who are unwilling to share details about themselves to their friends at church are more than willing to share their most intimate details on a digital platform that the entire world can access.

Why?

There are some legitimate and positive reasons for people to share personal information online. Having detailed information about people allows some companies to deliver a more personalized service. By knowing more about their customers, retailers, airlines, banks and many other companies can customize their offerings to the individual consumer. Consumers love it.

All of that information is also being used for more general societal benefits. For example, Google has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control to track flu outbreaks in real time based on spikes in the use of certain search terms. This allows the CDC to better allocate resources to where and when they are needed most.

People also enjoy the convenience of technology. Of course it is easy enough for you to use a remote to turn off the television, get up and adjust the thermostat, close the garage door, set an alarm, and turn on the radio. But it is even easier to just say, “hey Siri” and let it do the rest. The price of that convenience is that Apple, which provides Siri, now knows what channel you were on when you turned the television off, what temperature you like at that time of day, what kind of garage door opener you have, when you plan to get up and what music you like. What will Apple do with that information? That is none of your business. It is theirs.

Of course, there is a darker reason for people being willing to abandon any notion of privacy. The vile parts of human nature like vanity, greed and pride drive people to want to share things that were considered private 30 years ago. For every picture of a silly cat on one site, there is a picture of some guy’s private parts somewhere else.

Our culture has certainly crossed into a post-privacy era. It was a threshold we sprinted across willingly and without hesitation. There are many benefits, but also great risks. It will take a while for our laws and expectations to catch up.

Government Acknowledges Presence of Spy Technology in Washington

Yikes.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it has observed “anomalous activity” consistent with the use of so-called stingrays.

They could be used by foreign spies or criminals, although the DHS said it did not know who was using them.

It added that such devices pose a “growing risk”.

Stingrays, a brand name for a type of International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher (IMSI), are mobile phone surveillance devices that mimic mobile phone towers.

The size of a briefcase, the devices send out signals to trick mobile phones into transmitting their location and identifying information.

As well as tracking the mobile phone of a suspect, the devices also gather information about phones of bystanders who are nearby.

It is believed to be the first time the US government has acknowledged the use of rogue spying devices in Washington.

Zuckerberg Chickens Out

Transparency and accountability, indeed.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he will not appear before MPs investigating fake news, but will send one of his senior executives instead.

The tech giant and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica are at the centre of a dispute over harvesting personal data and whether it was used in Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign.

Mr Zuckerberg has apologised for a “breach of trust”.

His stand-in will give evidence to MPs after the Easter Parliamentary break.

Chairman of the Department for Culture Media and Sport select committee Damian Collins said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who reports directly to Mr Zuckerberg, would give evidence in the first week after the Easter break but he still hoped Mr Zuckerberg would do so too.

Facebook Sells User Data

There’s something I’ve taught my kids for years… if you aren’t paying for it, you ARE the product. How did people think Facebook made money?

Facebook is facing a crescendo of questions about how its user data came to be harvested for political purposes as investors continue to take fright at the risk the scandal poses to its business.

Claims by the New York Times and UK media that Cambridge Analytica tried to influence how Americans voted using information improperly gleaned from 50 million Facebook users have already seriously hurt its brand.

The London-based data analysis firm worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign. It has denied the claims and says it did not use Facebook data in the 2016 campaign.

NASA Might Privatize ISS

This might be an interesting plan.

Washington (CNN)Rather than ditch the International Space Station when its funding through 2024 ends, the Trump administration is looking to turn it over to the private sector, the Washington Post reports.

The Post reported Sunday that an internal NASA document it obtained says, “It is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.”
It continues, “NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit.”

Falcon Heavy Lifts Off

This is a pretty amazing development in the era of space exploration and commerce.

US entrepreneur Elon Musk has launched his new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mammoth vehicle – the most powerful since the shuttle system – lifted clear of its pad without incident to soar high over the Atlantic Ocean.

It was billed as a risky test flight in advance of the lift-off.

The SpaceX CEO said the challenges of developing the new rocket meant the chances of a successful first outing might be only 50-50.

“I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road. But fortunately that’s not what happened,” he told reporters after the event.

With this debut, the Falcon Heavy aims to become the most capable launch vehicle available.

Runners Map Military Bases

This seems unwise.

Military personnel around the world have been publicly sharing their exercise routes online – including those inside or near military bases.

Online fitness tracker Strava has published a “heatmap” showing the paths its users log as they run or cycle.

It appears to show the structure of foreign military bases in countries like Syria and Afghanistan, as soldiers move around inside.

The US military is examining the heatmap, a spokesman said.

Air Force Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, told the Washington Post that the US military was reviewing the implications.

Strava said it had excluded activities marked as private from the map.

Users who record their exercise data on Strava have the option of making their movements public or private. Private data, the company said, has never been included.

The appearance of military bases on the heatmap suggests that large numbers of military personnel across the globe have been publicly sharing their location data.

The latest version of the map was released in November 2017, but the implications for service personnel were only raised over the weekend.

Walmart’s Scan & Go

Against my wishes, I had to transact some business at my local Walmart today and experienced their new Scan and Go system. Walmart, with a massive labor force and a frequent target of labor activists, is usually at the forefront of technology innovations that seek to mitigate their labor costs. As a secondary goal, they are trying to improve the customer experience. Here’s how it went for me:

Upon entering the store, a guy explained the system to me. Here’s the process:

  • Get one of their scanners or download their scanning app on your phone.

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  • As you go through the store, scan the items as you put them in the cart. The carts also have packs of plastic bags mounted in the front, or you can buy their reusable bags.
  • When it’s time to check out, use the same scanner to scan a bar code on the self-checkout machine. That transfers all of the items to the self-checkout machine.
  • Pay.
  • Return the scanner to a charging station on the way out.

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Overall, I really liked the process. It was easy to use. I could see the running tally of my purchases and verify the scanned price matched the posted price. I spent less than a minute actually checking out. I was buying some heavy stuff and I didn’t have to lift anything out of my cart. It was a quick, easy process.

It might be a different experience if you are buying produce or anything else that needs to be weighed. But for the vast majority of things, I preferred this process to a human cashier or a traditional self-checkout station.

There is a lesson here. A free market will constantly evolve and respond to pressures. In this case, the upward pressure on wages – both artificial and real – coupled with the increasing desire of customers to be empowered by technology in their consumer experience, is driving innovation like Walmart’s Scan & Go system. I doubt it’s the last incarnation of the technology-enabled purchasing process, but it’s a good system so far.

Apple Investing in America

Wow. That’s a big pile of money.

Apple will pay about $38bn (£27.3bn) in tax on the roughly $250bn cash pile it holds outside the US following recent changes to American tax rules.

The sum is expected to be the biggest payment under the reforms, which slash the US corporate tax rate.

The tech giant also plans to build a new campus and create 20,000 new jobs in the US.

Apple said its plans would contribute more than $350bn to the US economy over the next five years.

The company has not said how much of its cash abroad would be brought back to the US.

Chief executive Tim Cook said Apple is “focusing our investments in areas where we can have a direct impact on job creation”.

Audio Dead Hand

Curious.

It is thought to be the headquarters of a radio station, “MDZhB”, that no-one has ever claimed to run. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for the last three-and-a-half decades, it’s been broadcasting a dull, monotonous tone. Every few seconds it’s joined by a second sound, like some ghostly ship sounding its foghorn. Then the drone continues.

Once or twice a week, a man or woman will read out some words in Russian, such as “dinghy” or “farming specialist”. And that’s it. Anyone, anywhere in the world can listen in, simply by tuning a radio to the frequency 4625 kHz.

[…]

There’s no shortage of theories to explain what the Buzzer might be for – ranging from keeping in touch with submarines to communing with aliens. One such idea is that it’s acting as a “Dead Hand” signal; in the event Russia is hit by a nuclear attack, the drone will stop and automatically trigger a retaliation. No questions asked, just total nuclear obliteration on both sides.

Russians Step Up Activity Around Undersea Cables

These cables have been tapped and monitored for decades. The only way to secure the information that traverses them is to encrypt the data itself.

Russian submarines have dramatically stepped up activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic.

US Navy Admiral Andrew Lennon, the commander of NATO’s submarine forces, said Russian activity has reached a level unprecedented in modern times.

Fears have been raised Russia could covertly deploy submarines to sever communications cables spanning the world.

‘We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,’ said Admiral Lennon.

Apple Slows Down Old iPhones

Uh huh… they did it as a service to customers. Suuuuure…

Apple has confirmed the suspicions of many iPhone owners by revealing it does deliberately slow down some models of the iPhone as they age.

Many customers have long suspected that Apple slows down older iPhones to encourage people to upgrade.

The company has now said it does slow down some models as they age, but only because the phones’ battery performance diminishes over time.

Apple said it wanted to “prolong the life” of customers’ devices.

North Korea Behind WannaCry Attack

Not surprising, but outrageous nonetheless.

North Korea was behind the massive “WannaCry” cyberattack in May that spread around the world costing billions of dollars, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday.

In the article, entitled, “It’s Official: North Korea Is Behind WannaCry,” Bossert wrote that the Hermit Kingdom was the main culprit behind the May 2017 global cyberattack in which computers running Windows were targeted. During the infamous attack, data were encrypted and ransom payment, in the form of bitcoin, was demanded of users if they wanted their data back.

“Cybersecurity isn’t easy, but simple principles still apply. Accountability is one, cooperation another,” Bossert’s op-ed read. “They are the cornerstones of security and resilience in any society. In furtherance of both, and after careful investigation, the U.S. today publicly attributes the massive ‘WannaCry’ cyber attack to North Korea.”

Pushing Electric Vehicles

Heh. Is it too obvious why an electric company would be advocating for electric vehicles?

Still looking for tax benefits in 2017?

Plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) are now viable for most lifestyles and budgets with more than two dozen models now commercially available. If you buy a new, plug-in electric vehicle in 2017, you’re eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

On average, fueling a car with electricity is roughly the same as fueling with gasoline at $1/gallon.  Nearly 600,000 Americans have made the switch to driving electric.

Arrowhead Proposes to Track Students’ Internet Activity

Good move.

Students and parents at Arrowhead High School are pushing back against a new web-filtering service the school is putting in place, calling it an invasion of privacy and an attempt to micromanage students’ lives online.

One of the chief gripes, for the kids at least, is that the parents now can opt to get a weekly accounting of all the websites they visit during the school day. The filters will run not only on all school-owned devices but also student-owned devices if they are connected to the school’s Wi-Fi.

But that, experts suggest, might be the least of their worries.

Security and privacy advocates have raised concerns about the capacity of such providers to collect vast amounts of information about students that may be stored for years and could be hacked or co-opted for unintended purposes if not adequately protected.

“Imagine, if we had the internet search histories of a young George Bush or Barack Obama,” said Bradley Shear, a Maryland attorney who has launched a national campaign urging schools to annually delete reams of student data, including internet browsing histories, all digital communications and the biometric data — finger and palm prints, for example — some schools are now using to manage their lunch lines, libraries and more.

The worries of the opposition are fairly misguided. All of that information is already being tracked, stored, and hacked.

Madison Taxpayers Waste Money on Broadband

Two years. Half a million dollars. 19 people served. Way to go

After two years and spending more than $500,000, Madison is well short of goals for the pilot program. ResTech had delays in extending fiber cable to the neighborhoods, and once there, found unexpected barriers in getting permission from property owners to connect to buildings and so far has signed up few customers.

The problems were outlined in a story in the Wisconsin State Journal on Nov. 20, the same day the termination letter was sent.

The “Connecting Madison” pilot program has potential to bring service to 161 buildings with 1,083 apartments in the neighborhoods with connections projected by the end of 2016.

But as of Nov. 17, ResTech had made broadband service available to just 86 buildings and had only 19 customers.

Voyager Fires Thrusters for First Time Since Carter Was President

Wow… just, wow.

(CNN)It’s a good idea to have a backup plan, especially in interstellar space.

NASA scientists needed to reorient the 40-year-old Voyager 1 — the space agency’s farthest spacecraft — so its antenna would point toward Earth, 13 billion miles away. But the “attitude control thrusters,” the first option to make the spacecraft turn in space, have been wearing out.
So NASA searched for a Plan B, eventually deciding to try using four “trajectory correction maneuver” (TCM) thrusters, located on the back side of Voyager 1. But those thrusters had not been used in 37 years. NASA wasn’t sure they’d work.
Tuesday, engineers fired up the thrusters and waited eagerly to find out whether the plan was successful. They got their answer 19 hours and 35 minutes later, the time it took for the results to reach Earth: The set of four thrusters worked perfectly. The spacecraft turned and the mood at NASA shifted to jubilation.

FCC gets it right on net neutrality

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has decided to move forward with reversing Obama-era regulations of the interned dubbed “net neutrality.” In doing so, President Donald Trump’s FCC is upholding a bedrock conservative principle of free market capitalism.

The internet has been atwitter for years over the issue of net neutrality. One side of the debate argues that the government should ensure that everyone has equal access to the internet. The other side argues that the people and companies who own their piece of the internet should be able to do with it what they please. While there are certainly philosophical or theoretical skirmish lines in this debate, the real war is being fought by giants of American business. As is always the case, one only needs to follow the money to see why.

First, let us remember that the internet is simply a vast array of millions of computers that are interconnected by millions of networks. All of those computers and networks are owned by separate people and companies who voluntarily connect them to each other for their own purposes.

On the “equal access” side of the debate are the giant media and entertainment companies who produce the movies, news sites, games, pornography, commercial marketplaces and other content that people consume through the internet. They argue that whatever they produce should be equally available to anyone at any time by any means.

On the “free market” side of the debate are the giant telecommunications companies who own the massive networks that connect all of the computers to each other and to the consumers who access the internet. They argue that since these networks are their property, they should be able to manage it and charge people to access their network as they please.

The media companies are worried that if the government does not force net neutrality, then the telecommunications companies will be in a position of market power to force the media companies to pay for access to consumers. The telecommunications companies want to do just that in order to monetize their network.

This debate is not about the internet consumer and whether or not he or she will be able to access cat pictures on Instagram at 100 megabits per second. This debate is about whether or not the government should regulate people and their businesses on how they manage and monetize their private property. Specifically, it is about whether or not the government should force telecommunications companies to give everyone the same access on their networks. Interestingly, nobody is talking about the government forcing media companies to give everyone equal access to the content they produce.

One of the principles that has helped drive the American economy for centuries is that the government should regulate less — not more. Laissez-faire economics are fundamental to free market capitalism. And while some may fear the consequences of less regulation, the invisible hand of the free market has proven for centuries to be the best regulator of prices, market access, allocating scarce resources and consumer demand.

Let us walk through the worst case that the net neutrality adherents envision. In a world without the federal government regulating net neutrality, the telecommunications companies may manipulate the speed and access to certain internet content based on whether or not the content providers pay them. But remember that there is already competition — often very robust in urban areas — between internet service providers. If consumers are demanding access to certain internet content, they will speak with their consumer choices and the internet service providers will be forced to accommodate. Woe to the internet service provider, for example, who cannot deliver Netflix or Hulu without choppy buffering.

Until President Barack Obama came along and thrust net neutrality regulations on the nation, the internet was thriving with both internet service providers and media companies tripping over themselves trying to meet the demands of internet consumers. The Trump Administration’s FCC is on the right track in reversing Obama’s antifree market internet regulations. It is just such deregulation that will continue to allow the internet to be the transformational economic and societal engine that it is.

F-104 Will Launch Satelites

What an amazing journey this aircraft has had.

The F-104, designed just after the first jet-vs-jet air combat in The Korean War, was created to fly as fast as possible, hurtling past all the previous speed records. Less than a decade after test pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the speed of sound, it became the first jet to fly more than twice the speed of sound.

On top of a military career which lasted nearly 50 years, the F-104 found itself serving as an experimental testbed – a rocket-powered spacecraft stand-in that allowed pilots to practice the kind of rocket-thrust manoeuvring astronauts would use to control a spacecraft.

Now, some 60 years after the prototype first flew, the F-104 has found another role – as the launch vehicle for a new generation of tiny satellites.

[…]

Cubecab plans to launch very small satellites – known as cubesats – using a rocket that weighs a similar amount. It’s much smaller, and therefore cheaper, than any other launch  method currently available.

How will CubeCab launch these tiny satellites? Simple – they’ll use Starfighters.

Cubecab will strap its lightweight rockets, each carrying a satellite weighing around 10kg, on to the kind of underwing ‘pylons’ usually used to fire missiles. And Starfighters Inc, a Florida-based company which still flies a handful of F-104s, will take their pint-sized payloads up to the edge of the stratosphere and fire them into orbit.