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This Week in Tech

Human ingenuity vs Biometrics.

Those of you who saw "Minority Report" will remember that Tom Cruise's disgraced policeman character had an eye transplant to hide his identity from ubiquitous iris scans - but kept his old eyes in a baggie so that he could still log on to the police network. Iris scans have been touted as even more effective than fingerprints as a form of biometric identification. That's why there was a frisson of excitement that rippled around tech circles when Samsung introduced iris scanning to unlock the new Galaxy S8 smartphone.

We all know that any new security technology is seen by some people as a challenge. AND, no security technology is completely foolproof. So, it didn't take too long before hackers touted that they could fool the iPhone's fingerprint scanner by getting a mould of your fingerprint and casting a replica of the finger. Not something your average girlfriend of boyfriend wanting to check out your texts to see if you are cheating is likely to do. It involves a bit of skill and technique to execute effectively and is definitely more than a 30 second hack.

It is a little faster to hack the iris scan on the S8 - all you need is a camera with night mode (so that it captures infra-red), a good printer and a contact lens. It's still not a 30 second hack, but it's certainly easier to get a photo of someone's eyes than it is to make a mould of their fingerprint.

The lesson is that no biometric security will ever be infallible - people will always find a hack. It's probably better to use a combination of biometrics and the good old PIN / password.

Green power - solar and wind

Tramp and Eskom / the SA Govt have at least one thing in common: they seem determined to cut all support for green renewable energy. This is not the case all over the world though. China just created a 40 Megawatt floating solar power plant that has the added benefit of protecting water supplies by reducing evaporation. Check it out at Digital Trends. In the UK a wind farm of 32 turbines each capable of generating 8 Megawatts has just gone on line. Supposedly a single rotation of one turbine can power a house for 29 months! Read it at Engadget.

Printed Ovaries - that work!

This was meant for last week's blog but somehow got left out. CNN has an article on how scientists created a 3d printed ovary, placed it inside a mouse which mated naturally and then gave birth to two pups. The video is with watching - but put it on silent: there is no voice over and the music is irritating!

WannaCry - and what's next...

Al Jazeera has an interesting video on the ransomware attack and cybersecurity in the future. Worth paying attention to is the fact that EternalRocks is quietly spreading itself in a much stealthier fashion but not delivering any payloads yet. Linux systems also have a vulnerability to the same type of SMB exploit used by the two worms and sysadmins are advised to patch ASAP - info and links to patches at The Hacker News.

CSO Online compares the real cost of ransomware to the actual amounts paid in ransoms.

Social Media

The Guardian got hold of leaked documents that reveal the guidelines given to the thousands of people employed as moderators for the site (this second article is very interesting, informative and a great source for classroom discussions). This prompted a little bit of internet outrage over where the lines are drawn between what can stay and what can't. It blew over fairly quickly. Basically: it is a grey area and moderators must use their own judgement....

At the same time Facebook is taking steps to counter the rising problem of the filter bubble that isolates people into worlds that only confirm their own biases and viewpoints. Engadget has more on their new approach to trending topics that might bring balance to both the news and the debates and discussions it sparks.

The connected future might belong to Thunderbolt 3

Engadget reveals that Intel is planning to build Thunderbolt controllers into their CPUs (removing the need for controllers on motherboards) and also plans to make the standard royalty free, meaning that putting Thunderbolt 3 ports into computers will cost no more than the hardware. Good news for those who want the fastest external device connection technology available. CNET has an excellent article on the differences between the different types of USB and Thunderbolt. Well worth the read.

Cashless ATMs

FNB is introducing cashless ATMs in rural areas in South Africa. The machines allow people to do banking tasks without having to travel to bank branches.

Walt Mossberg retires

The well regarded tech journalist has written his last article and it is well worth a read: find it at recode.net. In it he discusses what feels like a current lull in technology (iteration of existing products rather than the next big thing) and relates it to preparing the ground for the rise of what he calls 'ambient computing'.

8K Monitor - too good for current computing

If you have R70 000 burning a hole in your pocket and are prepared to spend it all on a monitor you can buy Dell's new 8K beauty. Digital Trends explains just how wonderful the screen is, and how modern computers (and even GPUs) just are not up to the task of getting the best from this screen.

And on that note, that's all for this week folks. Good luck with the exams and marking ahead.

Rise of Ransomware

Remember that whole saga of Apple vs the FBI when Apple refused to create a back door for the FBI to investigate a terrorists phone? Apple said that it was too dangerous and would make iOS vulnerable to hackers. The FBI said something like 'but you can trust us, we are a powerful government agency, we will protect the backdoor and keep it safe and no one else will ever get to use it - especially not hackers....' Apple stuck to their guns and the matter was never tested in court because the FBI withdrew their case and found an alternative solution to their problem.

Turns out Apple was very right though. A couple of weeks ago we reported on US government hacking tools and secrets being exposed by a hacker group calling itself the Shadow Brokers - and published on Wikileaks. That leak led to the biggest flood of ransomware infections in history. Computers across the globe became inaccessible - their data encrypted and unavailable. Ransoms of $300 - $600 were demanded. Here are some very important facts about the infection:

  • The malware in question 'Wanna Cry' (where 'Cry' stands for cryptor or decryptor) is not a virus nor a phishing attack - it is a worm with the smarts to distribute itself over the network without human intervention (you don't need to click on a link to get infected).
  • It is based on an 'exploit' leaked from the Shadow Brokers' hack of 'safe' US government intelligence agencies, specifically the NSA..
  • Microsoft was warned by the NSA that they had been hacked and that there might be a leak - and made update patches that fixed the vulnerability available in March of this year (two months ago). Unfortunately they did not patch outdated versions of their OS (XP, Vista, Server 200, Server 2003, etc).
  • Turns out most of the computers that got infected were running Windows 7.
  • The spread of the infection was slowed when a researcher discovered that the malware checked for the existence of a specific web page. As long as the web page did not exist, the ransomware continued to spread itself. The researcher (MalwareTech) registered the domain, created the web page and WannaCry stopped spreading itself.
  • Microsoft took the unprecedented step of releasing free patches for its outdated OS's.
  • Turns out that if you got infected and have not rebooted there is a possibility you can crack the encryption and free your data. The tool is available on GitHub.
  • The hackers have not earned that much from the infection. Monitoring of suspected linked bitcoin wallets shows a ROI (return on investment) of around $70 000 dollars so far. Perhaps the infection was just too large and created too much talk too quickly for people to pay up.

Wanna Cry infected hundreds of thousands of computers in over 100 countries world wide. It crippled businesses, government offices, health care (especially the NHS in the UK) and private computers indiscriminately.

The biggest lesson though is that machines with the latest version of the OS and up-to-date patches were pretty much safe from the attack.

Cartoon resources - great for class discussion or tests / exams:

MP3 is dead - NOT!

News articles this week tried to scare people into believing that MP3 as a music format is dead. Why? Well, basically the Fraunhofer institute that created MP3 is no longer licensing the format. Because their patents have expired. Which means that the format essentially moves into the public domain and is free for developers to write encoders and decoders for without having to pay royalties.

The articles suggested people use other formats such as AAC - which are, co-incedentally, still under patent and require royalty payments. These formats are newer and (slightly) better than MP3. I was just gearing up to explain the nonsense in detail when I came across this article by Marco Arment - who did it all for me so I don't have to!

The Working Dead - IT jobs in review

As IT and CAT teachers we have a vested interest in extolling the job market for IT savvy workers. InfoWorld has an excellent article on the evolution and turnover of IT related jobs and just how tricky the IT job market can be. Well worth a read so that you can talk in an informed manner with your learners on the topic.

Other News:

Fake News corner:

You might wonder why I did not report on the supposed 'Blue Whale' suicide game last week. It's simple: what information was out there seemed sketchy, anecdotal and unreliable. It seemed like a sensationalist story, the kind that proliferates on Facebook. Here's htxt.africa doing some serious research and vindicating my opinion of the story and not giving it any kind of credence.

Humans can't own property - only corporations can

Chaos and absurdity seem to abound in world events and politics (local and international) at present, so it seems only fitting to take this blog's title from a standpoint held by big corporations abusing copyright protection law to protect physical products. That's not all though, there's plenty more absurdity to come. So strap in, buckle up and enjoy the ride!

If you had to guess from previous posts where the title of this weeks blog come from I'm sure that you'd eventually arrive at: John Deere. Boing Boing has the details.

Hacking news and absurdities:

  • Ransomware is being hidden inside attachments - to attachments. Details at Lifehacker.
  • Downloaded a 'guide' to a game from the Google Play store? You might be one of over 2 million people infected with malware from these trojan apps. Hacker News has the details.
  • Badly written Android apps leave ports open - and your device open to hacking. Hacker News.
  • Intel has a firmware hole that's been around since 2008. Ars Technica explains (technical).
  • HP notebooks have a pre-installed key logger in an audio driver. htxt.africa. If you have one of these, best you get it fixed.

Fake news Dept:

Birds. Small, beautiful, fascinating and deadly.

To airplanes, at least. Birds being sucked into the swirling vortex of a jet engine can break turbine blades and cause a catastrophic failure of the engine. Which can kill the plane and, in the consequent crash, probably most of the people on board. So birds are a problem - especially around airports, where they are likely to come into contact with planes and their engines.

Enter the Robot Falcon - a drone that looks and flies like a falcon and is designed to scare birds away from airfields! Check it out at Atlas Obscura.

Good reads:

  • CSO Online has a great in depth article on computer forensics.
  • R2D2 operates inside your eye. Engadget.
  • The Economist: Data more valuable than oil.
  • The power and reach of Facebook. The Guardian (fascinating, written by an ex facebooker)
  • New York Times: people training robots to do jobs.
  • The technology behind your traffic fines. The Citizen.
  • 4G not fast enough? - 5G is coming. Digital trends looks at what 5G is shaping up to be.

Social Media:

That's it for this week.

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