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This Week in Tech

Storage shrinks.... to DNA size!

It has been a relatively quiet week (if you exclude product launches) in general tech news. So this week's blog is equally short - but it does contain one or two interesting snippets...

Storage

We know that storage keeps getting smaller, faster, cheaper. BUT, this typically relates to the 'working storage' that we use all the time whilst our devices are active. Backup storage needs RELIABILITY above all other factors as its main characteristic. Tapes, Hard drives, optical media... they all fall short when it comes to long term archiving and storage of data. The material itself degrades, the hardware and software used to read the media becomes obsolete and so, ironically, our age of data collection and accessibility might in the long term, possibly end up with fewer records than the written pages of the Middle Ages!

One of the efforts aimed at solving this problem is aimed at figuring out how to store data using DNA. Yep, that same stuff that holds the genetic encoding that makes you 'YOU'.

This week in the news saw scientists encode complete jazz songs onto DNA - Digital Trends has the article here. The company responsible - Twist BioScience - has and interesting blog explaining what they see as the need for and the potential of DNA storage here.

Cryptocurrency

The New York Times has a short 'Q&A' style article explaining what Bitcoin is and how it works. Worth a read if you don't understand cryptocurrencies...

Tattoo Sensors

The video says it all....

That's it for this week.

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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.

Unintended Consequences

Tech is always pushing the boundaries. A continual fountain of new ideas, new gadgets and new ways of doing business bubbles up, with entrepreneurs and investors (and consumers) eagerly jumping aboard the latest bandwagon. The 'next big thing' arrives and is proclaimed by its inventors / creators / designers; we all reach, starry eyed and full of hope, for the magic that will miraculously improve our lives and ease our blighted souls.

The problem is: new tech is untried, untested and - even it performs flawlessly and does what it is meant to do in an exemplary fashion - people are wily and conniving and deceitful and will find a way to pervert the purpose of even the best technology.

This brings me to the cause of this negative and cynical rant: Poachers are trying to hack the tracking technology designed to protect and preserve their prey (Full scientific article available at Wiley Online Library). Cyber poaching. A new term to learn and loathe.


“Animal tracking can reveal animal locations (sometimes in nearly real-time), and these data
can help people locate, disturb, capture, harm, or kill tagged animals,”

Another job bites the dust

Used to be that people thought that jobs flipping burgers at fast food joints would be the last refuge for humanity whilst robots took over the world. Flappy, the burger flipping robot might hake something to say about that. Read it at Engadget and check out the video below.


Wikileaks and the CIA

The big news this week, splashed all over the news and just about every publication you care to read, is the Wikileaks publication of CIA hacking tools. The New York Times has an article detailing how to protect yourself if you are worried (summary: update, update, update!), Popular Science retcons it is all over-hyped and Digital Trends has a summary of the leak.

General news:

  • How big of a problem is spam? A single spammers list of email addresses has been found - an incredible 1.3 Billion adresses. From one spam operator. Just think how much faster and more responsive the internet would be if it were not clogged by the foul morass of spam mails.
  • It is early days yet but Google has started applying image recognition tech to videos - trying to identify objects in the video. Why it matters: You could search a video library for a specific item or scene quickly rather than suffering through endless fast forwarding. It also opens the path to all sorts of as yet unimagined analysis of video archives - as well as self-alerting surveillance systems.
  • Microsoft has announced it is creating a version of Windows Server that will run on the same type of smaller, lower powered, cheaper processors (ARM processors) that power your smartphone and tablet. Read it at Digital trends. Why it matters: This move would make servers (and data centres) cheaper and more energy efficient.
  • Android is about to overtake Windows as the most used OS globally. Why it matters: More proof that most people's first (and perhaps only) computing device will be a mobile one.
  • Prototype Red Cross Land Rover launches and lands drones from its roof - while on the go! Why it matters: Besides being sooooo cool? Improved response time and efficiency.
  • Is Facebook doing something about its Fake News problem at last? Possibly. Here's a link to a page on Facebook that allows you to declare a news item as possibly fake. Problem is, that they haven't made it generally available as yet. Why it matters: We've been talking about Fake News a lot and how it influences real life. This can help people become more aware that what they are reading is not necessarily true.
  • David Mahlobo (our very own Minister of State security) wants to monitor and restrict social media in South Africa. Why it matters: If you think that even a hint that government wants to control social media (for whatever reason) is not disturbing and dangerous then I am not sure how any amount of words can explain why this is important. Zapiro has a perfect cartoon to explain the futility of the idea and the repressive, dictatorial company that our Minister wants to join.
  • CNN announces availability of some news in 360 degree VR.
  • 3D Print has a great, but technical, article on printing baby skeletons and organs to improve neonatal care.
  • CPU Developments. AMD announces server CPU with 64 cores. Why it matters: It is always good to know the trends in CPU development (not that it is likely a consumer will have a machine with such a chip $3000 - $4000 (over R40 000 just for the CPU) . Obviously, this increases server, data centre power at the same high end price point.
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Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Welcome back. We all know that ICT is incredibly enabling. IT puts a lot of CAN into your world. This week we take a bit of time to think about responsibility and consequences. We look at three specific examples of where we can ask - 'you can - but should you?'. But first, let's start with some general news for the week:

Quick news summaries:


You can, but Should you: Monitor your staff?

Sensors are becoming smaller, cheaper and more powerful. Using them, people are developing systems to use energy and space in offices more effectively. To do this, the sensors need to track the movement of workers in the office. No workers in a room? OK, turn off the lights and climate control. Have an open plan office and need to manage work spaces, conference venues, meeting rooms, etc? Track who is where in the building.

The problem is that all technology can be used for many purposes. The same sensors that can tell you how many desks are empty and which meeting rooms are available can also be used to track how much time a worker spends at his / her desk. Some sensors can even tell how often people speak to each other. Big Brother is alive, well and coming to an office near you.

So the trade off is, once again, efficiency vs privacy. This is a topic within the frame of reference of your learners - and makes the whole privacy debate real to them. So why not give them the topic and get them to do a real debate in the class?

Some reference sites:


You can, but should you: Profit from fake news?

You live in a poor town in a poor country. There is an election in a foreign country that many people are interested in. You see an opportunity to create some 'news' web sites related to candidates in this election - and make some money off the advertising when people view your site. Your actions may have a significant impact on the outcome of that election. Should you go ahead and make money or not?

This topic is drawn mainly from a fascinating Wired article titled Inside the Macedonian Fake-News Complex. The article details the actions of a 17 year old who made $16 000 (more than R200 000) in four months feeding fake news to the American public during the elections. An interesting read - which raises interesting questions that you and your class need to be aware of.


You can, but should you: Watch porn online?


88 percent of the top 500 porn sites have tracking elements installed.

Finally, we all know that most school kids have looked at online porn at least once. You can be as shocked and in denial as you like - but surely it's better to be honest and upfront with the issue - and with them.

Articles detail how, no matter how you try to hide it, your porn viewing habits can be tracked - and all it takes is a hacker to put it out in public for the world to see... or blackmail you into a very uncomfortable situation. Check out Brett Thomas's Blog and Motherboard.


"If you are watching / viewing porn online ... even in Incognito mode,
you should expect that at some point your porn viewing history will be
publicly released and attached to your name."
-- Brett Thomas

Even if you don't feel comfortable debating the issue of porn, online porn and the viewing habits of the modern teenager - surely it is worthwhile to warn your learners of something that could potentially cause them (at minimum) great embarrassment in the future?


Solving the database problem of time

For the more technically minded. Running a global database is an immense technical challenge. But one of the issues that does not jump to the forefront of one's thinking is Time. How does a database track and manage user interactions (insertions, deletions, edits) on a global scale given the problems of different time zones - and the delays inherent in electronic communications? Only one company has solved this problem - Google. The database it developed is called Spanner, which it is making available to paying customers as a cloud service. Read about it at Wired.


Ransomware & Malware corner

Here's this week's Ransomware and Malware news.

  • Researchers show PLC (Programmable Logic Controllers, the small computers used in many industrial contexts) can be hacked and used to do things like hold the power grid to ransom.
  • And: The Hacker News has an article where researchers show that the water supply is also at risk.
  • Related: CSO Online has an article on worries that Ransomware will hit critical infrastructure. Interesting video on recovering from a Ransomware attack at the bottom of the article.
  • Prediction: Ransomware insurance will become a hot new thing.
  • Is your English poor? Are you worried your dating scam will be detected because of bad grammar / spelling? Don't worry, the Darknet has a solution. Krebs on Security has an article detailing how you can buy dating scam packs - full of templates, photos, letters, etc. to make it easy for you to steal money from a lonely person just looking to connect with that special someone.


Fake news corner

Here's a summary of fake news related articles for the week:

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

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