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This Week in Tech

A Social Mess

Social interaction has always (in my mind) been humanities Achilles' Heel. It is in this area where our insecurities and fears are most exposed - and where our need to dominate and profit often rise above our more redeeming characteristics. The rise of mobile, always on, always connected computing has gone hand in hand with the rise of mega-companies that are little more than symbiotic parasites - they ostensibly offer 'free' services that add value to our lives yet - leech like - drain much of the good and decent and substantive from our lives and social interactions. It would seem as if there is no low they will not stoop to in order to maximise their own profits.

In recent weeks we have seen these giant corporations scrambling to explain how and why they sold adverts that influenced the American election; how and why they publish and promote fake news; how and why it is OK for the American President to spout divisive, bullying hate speech on their platform... I find myself viscerally sickened and repulsed by it all.

And yet their quest to inveigle themselves into our lives is ever more persistent, determined --- and creepy. Two stories on Gizmodo this week particularly creeped me out:

Both stories deal with PYMK (People You May Know). Facebook wants you to make 'friends'. Their thinking (and research) is that the more friends you have, the more you will interact with their site (and the more money they will make from you). So they keep on suggesting people for you to connect with and be friends with. How they find these people is a closely guarded algorithmic secret (after all, other companies want you to connect to people using their network so that they can make money from you) and no one outside of Facebook really knows how it works.

PYMK uses '100 signals' to work out who to connect you to. Facebook refuses to say what these signals are. They deny that they use data bought from third parties or location data / location tracking in this mysterious algorithm. Yet they only vaguely describe around five of these 100 signals.

Both the articles describe extremely creepy connections that Facebook has made between users - connections that should not be possible.

Should any company have this kind of invasive power that they can wield at their own discretion without our having any recourse to prevent them?

The Reed Dance and social media

Facebook and Google and most other social media tries to block and censor nudity. But what if being bare breasted is part of your culture?

The Mail and Guardian has an article on how local girls protest their bare-breasted photos from the Reed Dance being deleted from social media....

Microsoft News

In case you missed it, Microsoft has discontinued support for Office 2007 (upgrade if you haven't already) and says that Windows 10 Mobile (and physical phones) is no longer a priority. The mobile space really belongs to Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Kaspersky - Anti-Virus or Hacking tool?

If you use Windows then going without anti-virus software is like going into space without a spacesuit. It feels kinda suicidal. Of course, the fact that everyone needs anti-virus to protect themselves from the baddies who want to hack and steal data means that, well, the AV programs themselves are the perfect way to hack...

In the news this week is a complicated story of how Israeli intelligence hacked into Kaspersky AV to find proof that the Russians had hacked the AV software so that it would steal American spies' secrets. Sounds more complicated than a badly written Hollywood tech-spy thriller? Probably - but it is true nonetheless. Read it at Ars Technica (and many other places).

Technology and the future

MIT Technology Review has an interesting article on predicting the future of AI (and technology). It does a good job of explaining the limits of AI in its current forms (including the 'machine learning' that is a buzz concept today). Excellent, thoughtful and worth a read.

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
Roy Amara - Amara's Law

A robotic massage

Digital Trends has an article on a massaging robot that has just started work in Singapore.

That's it for this week. Enjoy.

Comments

Robots again.... Autonomously

This week's news contains two significant robot announcements that point the way to a future where robots take over and humans have very little work to do. What existed only in the imaginations of comic book and Sci Fi authors in the 1960's is lowly becoming reality as our technology starts to catch up with our dreams. What is making this robot revolution possible? Small, low powered, reliable sensors (including GPS); powerful SoCs (System on a Chip - where the whole computer system is on a single chip); plentiful, fast, reliable and cheap memory and storage and major advances in AI algorithms....

Our robotic future

To the self-driving cars that seem to be just over the horizon we can now add robots that can farm by themselves - and carry out dental surgery without a human's guiding hand...

Hands Free Hectare is a project at Harper Adams University which just successfully proved that robots can plant and harvest a field without any human intervention. The robots in question were installed into old farming equipment (tractors, harvesters, etc.). During the entire process - from planting to harvest - humans were not allowed into the hectare sized field. The result? 4.5 tons of Barley!

And in China (where there is apparently a shortage of dentists) a robot installed two dental implants in a patient (humans are still required to change drill bits etc, but the precise, in-mouth work was carried out by the robot autonomously. On top of that, the implants were 3D printed! 3Dprint.com has more.

These are two great and interesting examples of ICT 'disrupting' the world as we know it and possibly increasing productivity whilst causing job losses for humans. It used to be that only factory style work (precise and very repetitive involving no ability to sense the world or make decisions) was the target for robotic replacement. Now any job is fair game...

Mining vs Advertising

Much of the web (and most of the 'free' apps and services we use) is 'powered' by advertising. The problem is, advertising is becoming over saturated and people are becoming suspicious and resentful of the 'tracking' that advertisers do. This week we saw proof that companies are investigating alternative sources of income. One of these alternative sources of income is 'mining' cryptocurrency. To 'mine' a bitcoin or ether or any other type of cryptocurrency you need to perform some intense calculations to solve complex mathematical problems. To make money by mining cryptocurrency you need expensive computer hardware running at full capacity - which uses a lot of electricity.

So why not get other people's computers to do the mining for you using a type of distributed computing?

That's exactly what The Pirate Bay (something you could expect of them) and video streaming site Showtime (a big surprise) did this week. They embedded scripts in their web pages that made your computer do cryptocurrency mining when you visited them. Your computer did the work, you got the electricity bill and they earned cryptocurrency. All without asking your permission. The Guardian has the details.

Privacy insight

Tinder is a dating app. Like most modern apps it collects data about you to 'improve its performance'. We all know this. What might surprise you is how much data it collects. A journalist who used Tinder for 4 years of using Tinder requested that Tinder supply her with the data it collected. European data laws allowed her to do this and eventually Tinder complied - the result adds up to 800 pages of collected data. Data from Tinder, Facebook and Instagram had been collected. All the places she was when she used the app. The online conversations she had with people she matched up with.

“Tinder knows much more about you when studying your behaviour on the app. It knows how often you connect and at which times; the percentage of white men, black men, Asian men you have matched; which kinds of people are interested in you; which words you use the most; how much time people spend on your picture before swiping you, and so on. Personal data is the fuel of the economy. Consumers’ data is being traded and transacted for the purpose of advertising.”


Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states your data may be used to deliver “targeted advertising”.

Alessandro Acquisti - from "I asked Tinder for my data. It sent me 800 pages of my deepest, darkest secrets" in The Guardian, 26 Sept 2017.

The extent of data collected by Tinder is astonishing - but is nothing compared to what Google knows about you. Remember - the connected world is NOT a private place.

Read the article at The Guardian (worth the time).

Tapes are back!

No, not your 70's, 80's and 90's mix cassettes - no matter what the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise would have you believe. We are talking tape based data backups. The fact is, disk based backups are vulnerable to hackers. Tapes are slower, not permanently online and more cumbersome - but their major advantage is that they are secure. You need physical access to mess with their data. That's why many companies are looking to use tapes as a secondary, more secure type of backup. Read it at Marketwatch.com. This ties in with spies and security agencies going back to typewriters, paper and filing cabinets because hackers make data security a joke!

That's it for this week. Happy teaching...

Comments

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 Readwrite.com.

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 Fortune.com.

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

Comments

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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