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This Week in Tech

Manslaughter - by text and a phone call

Seems like that old nursery chant: 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me' is no longer quite as true as we'd like to believe. Last week a judge in Massachusetts found a 17 year old young woman guilty of manslaughter for using text messages and a phone call to encourage and convince her 18 year old boyfriend to commit suicide.

“This is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words,”
- Matthew Segal, lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts

Our learners live in a world where constant communication and the pressures of social media are pervasive. They often post private messages to each other and public messages on social media without giving a moments thought to the impact, implication, consequences or possible collateral damage these messages might cause. As educators, we need to take the time and effort to repeatedly draw to their attention cases that vividly illustrate this - cases that redefine the law and our society. This is one such case. The New York Times has a good article on the topic, but if you have already used up your free access for the month, here's a link at CNN. If nothing else, this could open the door to Manslaughter / Murder becoming, of all things, a cybercrime.

Human error - again

Computers are stupid. they only do what you tell them to do, so you better make sure that you tell them to do the right thing. One young person, first day on the job, just out of University, unguided and working according to a document telling him how to set up his own test development database did what many of our learners do: he copied the code in the document and executed it unmodified. The result: the entire companies database deleted. Gone. Unrecoverable. The CTO promptly fired him and he posted about his experience on Reddit. Many readers have come out in support of him and believe that the CTO should have been the one to lose his job.

A complete nightmare situation. A business almost down the tubes because of human error. I say almost, because surely there were backups and recovery, though tedious and inconvenient, would be possible? Wrong! Seems like there was a problem with the databases and backups were not being restored. A company that provides a document containing a potentially destructive code snippet to a complete noob for unsupervised use is not likely to make sure they follow the best backup procedure in the world. More human error, compounding the original human error...

Quartz Media has a nice article based on the incident.

Robot, Robots, Robots

Harvard students seem to want to prove that robots can be made from anything - they are developing a spider like robot made from drinking straws and powered by air.

And now, a robot that crawls up your butt - to make an unpleasant medical procedure weirder but less unpleasant. Curious? Check it out at Boing Boing.

This robot uses AI to figure out how to pick up almost anything.

In Shanghai, an automatic, self-driving supermarket cruises the streets....

Finally, the BBC has a short segment from Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, chief engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on 5 robots set to change the world.

Click Fraud

Motherboard has an article on a click fraud farm busted in Thailand. Fascinating visuals and a glimpse into the world where fake likes, ratings, etc are manufactured on demand.

In Russia though, this type of click fraud is out in the open. Here's an article about a vending machine that sells Instagram likes and followers!

Lying AI

Whilst Google seems intent on creating AI's that defeat humans at complex games demanding strategy and insight, Facebook has built itself an AI that has learnt to lie to get what it wants. Appropriate for a system where most people create fake representations of a perfect life? A fascinating read.

AI, self driving cars and Insurance

Some interesting questions raised in this article from

Scary new malware infection technique

Digital trends has an article on how hovering your mouse over a link in a PowerPoint slide can automatically download and install malware (no clicking required).

Ransomware Ponzi scheme

A Ponzi scheme is a pyramid scheme. Popcorn Time is a new type of malware tries to maximise its profits by using the strategy behind a pyramid scheme - when you get infected and your data is encrypted and held ransom, you are given a choice: either pay up or deliberately infect at least 2 others to 'free' your data. What would you do? The New York Times has the details, also at

That's it for this week - good luck with the last of exams and the reports....


Farming Robots and Horrid Hackers

Don't you just wish that someone would tell the AI developers and robotocists to stop messing with playing poker and farming: what is really needed is a robot that can mark / grade exam papers!

Poker Face

Needless to say, that may not happen in our lifetime but in the past week DeepStack has been revealed as the first robot / AI that can beat professional poker players. Why is this significant? Well, AI's that can beat people in games like Chess and Go and Checkers, etc. are all working in a situation where they know what the human players know (i.e. they can 'see' the position of all the pieces on the board). In poker, the human players get cards that the computer never gets to see. There is also the not so small matter of bluffing. So, to win at poker an AI has to deal with incomplete information and interpret a player's behaviour to decide if they are bluffing or not. The AI has to analyse the game, factor in the probabilities of the unknown data (which cards are in the pack, which cards does the opponent hold) and recall / analyse the opponent's behaviour to decide whether they are bluffing or not. This is some feat of computing. Original article in and full academic paper here.

Farming Robot

We (the over 7 Billion people on earth) are able to access food thanks to the astonishing developments in farming technology. BUT, the human population is growing at an alarming pace and farming will have to work to keep up with it. When it comes to feeding the animals that feed us, we need to find a way to efficiently generate the fodder that creates the meat that most people crave as part of their diet.

Most farmers end up resorting to dried foods (because they can be stored for longer) - what else can you do if you have thousands of cattle and not enough grass? BUT eating fresh green is far healthier for the animals and produces better quality meat. Growing sprouts is a solution, but it has not been put into practise because it is very labour intensive and therefore very expensive.

Enter the Fodderworks Automated Fodder System - a robot that grows cattle food indoors in trays, under lights using hydroponic technologies. The food produced is seed sprouts - typically barley, grown and harvested by a robot and capable of producing tons of fodder per day. According to the company the robot can produce a ton of fodder a day (the first batch takes six days but then the principles of the production line kick in and you get a ton a day) at the low cost of around 12 US cents perk Kg! The original article is here on Motherboard and for more in depth information on the company check out the Fodderworks site.

This is a great example of social implications of ICT in the agricultural sector - the good = feeding cattle and producing food. The bad = fewer jobs.

Horrid Hackers

Having real life examples of hacking and malware to talk about with your learners is the main reason why we keep on including hacking news in this blog. Here are some short tidbits from news revealed during the course of this week:

  • France announced that it blocked over 24 000 cyber attacks against its military last year (BBC).
  • FNB (yes, the South African bank) tells of its battle with hackers threatening DDoS attacks unless ransoms were paid (CSO Online).
  • Justice? Israeli firm Cellibrite (which provides tools for hacking mobile devices) itself got hacked with 900 Gb of data stolen (The Hacker News).
  • An indian call centre swindled 15 000 Americans - The New York Times has the story.

Hard drive costs in SA

MyBroadband did a little research on hard drive costs in SA. Good to keep yourself and your learners up-to-date.

Fake News Corner

In case you have a problem explaining the problems with and consequences of Fake News, The Daily Maverick has an article worth reading on the matter.

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

Holiday catchup

So, Monday is back to school - time for a quick catch up on what has happened in the world of tech during the holidays:

Augmented Reality (AR): When virtual data / information / images are projected over a live view of the world around us. It is the great promise behind products such as Google Glass. Other examples include apps which allow you to view a city through the lens of your smartphone camera and add labels / icons to the image to show points of interest. Last week saw the launch of a new AR game that has taken the world by storm: Pokemon Go. In the game you walk around the real world hunting virtual Pokemon monsters that you find superimposed on the view of the world seen through the lens of your smartphone camera. It's an internet sensation and has featured widely in the news. The game is not available in SA (yet) but it's a great way to teach your kids about the concept of augmented reality.

Killing by Robot: The Police shootings in Dallas ended when the attacker was cornered in a parking garage where, after a long standoff during which the attacker made threats about bombs and explosives, the police attached an explosive to a remotely controlled robot, drove the robot up to the attackers location and detonated the explosion. The attacker was killed. This is the first incident of a robot being used this way in a criminal incident (Americans have used robots in this way in war zones before). Both CNN and have articles discussing the ethics of this action.

Robots in Accidents: Tesla's electric cars have an 'autopilot' mode where the car actually takes care of the driving, though the company requires drivers to remain alert with their hands on the wheels at all times when the autopilot is engaged. There have been several recent reports of accidents taking place whilst a Tesla car was in autopilot mode - one of which resulted in the death of the driver (read it here at Engadget). Google's self driving car also recently had its first accident which was caused by the car (and not the other person involved in the accident).

AI better than the best: This time it's not computer AI beating people at games such as Chess, Go or even the TV quiz program Jeopardy. No. This is computer AI beating the best Top Gun pilots in aerial combat simulations - 100% of the time. Read its at the, Popular Science and at Engadget (the last paragraph here is pretty impressive).

Unemployed by Robots: It's always easy to generalise and say how robots and IT can cost jobs. This is a concrete example of extreme labour reduction made possible by tech. Hostess (the company that makes American baked sweets such as Twinkies) has gone from a workforce of 9 000 employed in 14 bakeries across America to 1 170 in 3 bakeries. Well over 80% of its staff lost their jobs to automation. Read about it in and in the Washington Post (you need to enter your email for access).

More 3D Printed medical marvels: A man lost his jaw to cancer and its treatment. Thanks to 3D printing he can at least look like a normal human again. Article and video at

Small snippets: KiloCore: A team at University of California has designed a processor with 1000 cores. Read it at A Nascar race team was hit by Ransomware in April and nearly lost $2 million in files (but paid the ransom). has the details. Great article on Social Engineering at

Welcome back to the new term, good luck and happy teaching!

Make your phone a Science Lab

If you have an Android phone then Google has just released a cool app called Science Journal (get it here for free on the Google Play store). You use the app to record data from the sensors on your device (light, sound, movement) - which you can use as measuring equipment in experiments! The app also connects to Arduino powered electronics for additional sensors and data. The Google for education post about the software is here. Tell your school's science teacher about it - it's really great for use in practical physics experiments.

Some follow up on previous news:

  • SARS has identified 1700 South Africans in the Mossac Fonseca leak and will be investigating possible tax evasion with perpetrators facing large fines and / or jail time.
  • The robots march onward: Foxconn (the Chinese electronics manufacturing giant that makes, amongst other things, Apples iDevices and Samsung gadgets) has just replaced 60 000 workers with robots.
  • SWIFT hacked again. In March we linked to an article on how a spelling error foiled a hack attempt which would have seen the cybercriminals get away with $1 billion. Instead they only got $81 million. They did this by hacking SWIFT - the system used by banks to transfer money internationally. This week SWIFT was hacked again and the criminals got $12 million. Details here at The Hacker News.

SCARY: Old tech runs nuclear missiles....

How scary? Remember floppy disks? Not stiffies (as they were known in South Africa) not even the large old 5 1/4" floppy disk drives that held 360 K of data and powered the first Apple and IBM personal computers. No we are talking about the giant 8" floppy disks used in 1970's IBM mainframes.

Well, those same floppy disks and 1970's IBM mainframes are still being used to control Americas Nuclear missiles, bombers and other related military tech. Even older 1950's mainframe based outdated tech is the backbone of American Tax data, whilst other American departments still run systems that use DOS! CNBC has a summary of the revelations.

The full detailed tech report (for the real geeks) is available as a PDF here.

Short snippets for this week:

  • A tortoise that had 85% of its shell damaged in a forest fire has been given a new 3D printed shell. Read the details at
  • Local piracy: Research says 33% of software in SA is pirated.
  • Artificial Intelligence Rulez! A professor at Georgia Tech created a chatbot powered by IBMs Watson computer technology to act as a Teaching Assistant for his computer science class. The bot monitored online discussion groups about the course to give students advice and answer their questions. Most students didn't realise they were talking to a computer and some even wanted to nominate it as best teaching assistant! Read it on The Next Web.
  • The Week's big South African HACK: Standard bank had R300 million stolen. Hackers got hold of credit card details, created fake cards and used those cards at ATMs in Japan to draw cash to the value of R300 million. Around 100 people used 1400 ATMs to draw the cash over a period of about 2 - 3 hours. This was a big, co-ordinated, planned attack. Standard bank says the loss will be carried by the bank - no clients will be affected. Read about it at IT Web and - a shorter version with an infographic - at My Broadband.

Until next week....

Big Hacks and the importance of Software Updates

Matters Arising:

Apple vs The FBI. The FBI backed down, cancelled the case and stated that a 3rd party (that they did not name) had come forward to help them crack the phone. They did not say if there was any worthwhile information on the device. They have also said that the method used would not work on a newer version of iOS.

The weeks biggest story: Tax Havens, Dirty Money - and how the world found out

“Your information has never been safer than with Mossack Fonseca’s secure Client Portal.”

Mossack Fonseca - sounds like an interesting character name in a novel. Actually it's the name of a law firm in Panama that has been very much in the news this week. Whilst the firm may be very good at the legal services it offered (it has offices in many countries and clients from around the world), it obviously needed to pay much more attention to its internal IT. The facts are:

  • Their e-mail was powered by an outdated version of Microsoft's Outlook Web Access (and not encrypted)
  • Their web site ran off an outdated (by nearly 3 years!) version of WordPress (a free, open source engine used to create web sites).
  • They used old versions of Drupal and various WordPress Themes, Scripts and Plugins.

WordPress is incredibly popular. According to Wikipedia "WordPress was used by more than 23.3% of the top 10 million websites as of January 2015". This popularity makes WordPress a great target for hackers. So any web site administrator with any common sense knows that, if you don't want to be hacked, you install any update to WordPress as soon as it is released. The concept of the importance of installing updates is even stressed in South African High School computer subject courses!

Who actually did the hack - and how they did it is unknown.

So Mossack Fonseca didn't stay up to date. And, surprise, surprise - they were hacked. The hackers stole 2.6 TERABYTES of data. 11.5 Million documents. Mossack Fonseca was oblivious to the hack which took place over the course of a whole year. The hacker(s) gave all the stolen data to the German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung who shared it with the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), other news organisations and journalists around the world.

What was stolen?

This is where it gets interesting - the hacker stole documents that prove that the firm basically helped rich people effectively rob poor people by evading tax. Their clients include politicians, professional athletes, movie stars, FIFA officials, fraudsters, drug smugglers, Mafia bosses, and so on. The full list of names and companies will be released in May.

Why the fuss - what's really going on?

Basically Mossack Fonseca helped people create 'shell companies'. A shell company is a company that does nothing - except manage money. Enquiries about the company and the money it manages stop with the company - and its management; that is, the people whose names are on the documents and letterheads of the company (usually lawyers, accountants or even office cleaners - NEVER the owner of the company). In this way the shell company hides the true identity of the person receiving / 'owning' the money. This make it possible for the person involved to hide their wealth from their government and avoid paying tax on their millions. It also enables criminals to hide and 'launder' (pretend that their money comes from legal activities rather than crime) their money. If you really want to hide money you buy a shell company, use that company to buy another shell company, which in turn buys another shell company - and so on until it becomes virtually impossible to trace who really owns the money (except, of course, if you are hacked).

It is also important to realise that Mossack Fonseca is only one of many, many companies offering this kind of service to people wishing to hide their wealth.

Read More about this:

For the classroom:

This is a golden opportunity to stress the importance of updates and the consequences of failing to do so. It is also a good opportunity to deal with ethics. The hacker(s) who stole this data did something criminal - they stole data from a company. That data revealed illegal and corrupt activity - crimes - committed by others. Is what the hacker did right or wrong? The whole concept of 'Whistleblowing' is relevant here. Do the rich have a right to hide their wealth and not be taxed? If you are a soccer player being paid $5 million for the right to use your name and image, do you have the right to be upset that $2 million should go to tax? Is it OK for you to arrange that the payment goes to an offshore shell corporation instead of to you - and so no tax is paid? That shell corporation then buys you a house and pays your kids school fees, etc... Is what you are doing something that deserves to be kept 'private'?

Other noteworthy news:

  • If you have an iOS device and are blind then Facebook has a way to help you 'see' your friends photos. Using technology similar to the AI that beat the world 'Go' champion, your device can describe the contents of the photo to you! Check it out and see the video at Endgadget.
  • 3D Print a working ovary. Scientists have implanted 3D printed ovaries into infertile mice - which have given birth! Read it at Popular Science.
  • Newest e-mail Scam : Speeding tickets: You have to read this one - and then be careful which apps you install on your device and allow to access data such as GPS! The Verge

'Till next week, happy teaching.

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