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Study Opportunities' Blog

Welcome to 2017

Welcome back. We hope you have had a good and welcome rest and are now gearing up to face a new year full of challenges and fulfilment.

Before we get onto other tech news, a quick reminder that we have a NEW version of the CAT Grade 10 book out - full of lots of updated, relevant information to keep your learners on track and well informed in their studies. If you haven't already done so, check out our catalogue, download our order form and get the new book - you'll be very glad you did!

Time to get skeptical

If 2016 taught us anything it is that people are terribly trusting an ill informed about the internet as a reliable source of news. The impact of fake news on the outcome of the American elections is just one example. It is our job as teachers to try to prevent out learners growing up to be gullible guppies who simply believe anything they see online and regard Facebook as their best (and only) source of news. We need to make them aware of the problem of fake news and teach them to be critical and skeptical of what they read online. Perhaps we need to get a weekly controversial news article and discuss whether it is real or fake - and how to tell the difference!

Motherboard has an article on the need to teach kids how to be skeptical of the internet.

The Joy of Tech has got a great cartoon (worth printing out and putting on your notice board) about the sad, sorry state of the internet with all its scams and abuse.

Levels of computer skills - in the first world

This chart comes from a study by the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development group. The OECD conducted a study of 215,942 people across 33 countries from 2011-2015. The study tested the skills of people aged 16-65 to measure their literacy in job-related tech skills. Tests ranged from simple tasks like deleting an email (considered “below level 1”), up to figuring out things like “what percentage of the emails sent by John Smith last month were about sustainability?” (considered level 3).

See the whole report here.

The work we do is important - even more so than perhaps you realise. All you need to do is look at the graph above, shudder, and know just what a difference you can (and are) making!

Computer security in 2017

What to expect? Keep it short an simple: Hacks, lots of them!

Try to remember how vulnerable computers are. Robert Morris, a founding developer of computer cryptography, had this to say about computer security:

The three golden rules to ensure computer security are:

do not own a computer;

do not power it on; and

do not use it.

Just a reminder of how bad things got in 2016: CSOOnline has an article detailing how Ransomware earned hackers $1 BILLION last year.

Also check out clickclickclick.click for a demonstration of how a website can monitor what you are doing on it. Turn on your sound for this!

New Hardware dept:

Two new drool worthy laptops have been announced at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every year at this time). They are the Razer Valerie with THREE screen built into it. This one is so new that pricing, tech specs and availability is not being supplied. In the meanwhile Acer has launched a gaming laptop with a 21" curved screen, 64Gb RAM, 2TB RAID SSD AND 1 TB HDD, with TWO Nvidia GTX 1080 Graphics cards. This beast of a machine costs R 144 000 and will be available from February on (so you better start saving now).

True or False?

This article on Boing Boing about a water cooler hanging because its updating Windows could be fake news - or not. Either way its pretty funny!

That's it for this week. May your preparations for the year ahead be going well.

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.

Safety, Security, Encryption & Backdoors

Cartoon from: http://www.cagle.com/2016/02/apple-lock/ used under 'Fair use' provisions for this non-commercial, educational blog.


A backdoor is a method, often secret, of bypassing normal authentication in a product, computer system, cryptosystem or algorithm etc. Backdoors are often used for securing unauthorized remote access to a computer, or obtaining access to plaintext in cryptographic systems. - from Wikipedia

Apple vs The FBI

Next Tuesday (22 March) is a very important day for Apple - and for users of technology around the world. Not because Apple is launching any new products (that happens the day before), but because they will start fighting an incredibly important case in US Federal court. In case you missed it, here's a quick summary what is happening and what is at stake:

Full disclosure: This author is very biased in favour of Apple's case.

On 2 December 2015 San Bernardino (in California) was the site of a mass shooting that killed 14 and seriously injured 22 people. Four days later President Obama declared that the shooting was actually a terrorist attack.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were declared 'home-grown terrorists' not linked to any specific terrorist organisation but inspired and motivated by terrorist groups such as ISIS or Al Quaeda. They became 'radicalised' (i.e. religious extremists prepared to commit acts of terror in the name of their faith) through the internet.

Four hours after the attack the couple (they were married) was killed in a shoot-out with the police.

During their investigation the FBI found an iPhone 5C that Farook used but which belonged to San Bernardino county (Farook's employer). It was the only one of three phones which the couple had not destroyed.

The FBI wants access to the data on the phone.

iOS 9 (the Apple operating system installed on the phone) allows the user to protect the phone and its contents by using a 4 digit passcode. The security has the following features:

  • The user can specify that after 10 incorrect attempts to enter the passcode the phone will delete all its data.
  • After each incorrect attempt, the OS enforces a delay of increasing length before allowing someone to try a new passcode.
  • The passcode is stored on the device and not even Apple knows (or can find out) what the passcode is.

The FBI asked Apple for help and Apple provided them with the phones iCloud backups - the only data that Apple had access to. The FBI was not happy with this because:

  1. The backup data was old and out of date (Farook had last backed up 6 weeks before the attack).
  2. They felt that the backup did not contain all the data on the phone.

There was a way to try to get the phone to make a new backup, which Apple offered to do - but the FBI / San Bernardino law enforcement thought they were being clever and changed the iCloud password - which now no longer matched the password on the phone. So no new backup was possible.

Then, on 16 February 2016, the FBI got a Federal judge to issue an order to Apple to write a SPECIAL NEW VERSION of iOS to disable the security features on the phone so that they could hack it.

This was not a subpoena (telling Apple to appear in court / provide information) but an order issued under the All Writs Act of 1789. Apple was being told to write new software so that the government could hack a product that they make.

Apple refused to do what the FBI wanted. They decided instead to fight the FBI and the Federal judge's order in court.

Reasons for Apple's refusal to co-operate include:

  • That what the FBI wants is not information that is in Apple's possession but for Apple to create a new, previously non-existent 'backdoor' into Apple's secure iOS software.
  • Once created the backdoor could never be undone and would place all devices using iOS at risk around the world.
  • The case has international implications - if Apple can create a backdoor for the USA then other countries like Russia and China could legally demand the same thing.
  • That this is a serious matter and should not be decided in court but rather Congress (USA's Parliament) should create a law controlling the use of and rights around encryption.
  • That when the FBI says 'just once, just for this phone' what they really mean is 'do it once and you will have to do it whenever we like because we have created a legal precedent'.

Anyone who says that Apple should just do this for 'this one time' to fight terrorism does not understand how technology works. Once done, this can never be undone - and the US government has a pretty poor record of defending itself from hacks and leaks, so they can't claim that they can keep the backdoor safe and secret.

Another part of the problem for the FBI is that Congress has already passed a law (CALEA - the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) about communications and encryption, which does not allow the government to do what the FBI is demanding of Apple -see the following:

(The FBI will say that Apple is not a 'carrier' but a manufacturer - but that clearly goes against the spirit and intention of the law). Perhaps this is why they are trying to use a law that is over 200 years old and not really applicable to get their way?

Author's opinion: There has long been a struggle between government and technology companies over encryption. I remember a time when some software was not allowed to be sold outside the USA because it contained encryption - and then a little later, when foreign versions of software had to contain 'weaker' 64 bit encryption instead of the 128 bit encryption used in the USA. The US government became so desperate to control encryption that in the 1990's they tried to force all makers of computer equipment to include a piece of hardware called the 'Clipper chip' that would perform all encryption but which would also allow the US government to decrypt and read any data they wanted to by having a built in 'Back door' to which the government would have the key. At the time there was a huge debate about the need for encryption vs the Governments need to access data for law enforcement. The government lost and the Clipper chip never became reality.

Today, far more people are using encryption because it is built into their personal devices and, to a large extent, automated. Government and Law enforcement hates this. The FBI wants to force all tech companies to build in a back door that will give them access to anyone's data whenever they want. They saw the San Bernardino issue as the perfect opportunity to cloud the issue with fear and emotion and the 'bogeyman' of terrorism so that they could get their way. They are also now using bullying tactics to try to force the issue before it gets to court: they have threatened Apple that if they don't co-operate they will take the source code for iOS!

It is interesting to note that not one security / tech expert has come out in support of the FBI's case. The list of Apple's supporters is large, with even their competitors (Google, Facebook, Microsoft) filing briefs to the court in support of Apple's position. They even have the support of an ex director of the NSA!

It is also worth bearing in mind that encryption is maths - anyone can do it and even if the USA bans it people will be able to obtain encryption software from other sources. Even if the FBI wins and can access all Apple devices and software, there is nothing to stop someone installing 3rd party encryption software and using that instead of Apple's built in messaging, e-mail etc.

For the classroom:

The outcome of this process (not likely to be resolved on Tuesday - that's just when it starts) will have an effect on your learner's lives - especially if the FBI wins. it's a great basis for a class discussion about the value of privacy, what encryption is, what type of data is on your phone, who should have access to that data - etc, etc. The cartoons are also great for printing and putting on your noticeboard!

Read more about this:

Time magazine: Apple vs FBI, Apple: Message to customers 16 February 2016, Apple employees may quit (The Verge), Apple's brief hits the FBI with a withering fact check (Wired magazine), What a backdoor is (Wikipedia), In the Apple encryption fight, the FBI is now on Chinas side (The Verge), John Oliver's 20 minute video covers the issue well, There is a nice image of fbiOS and a cartoon that summarises the gob-smacking stupidity of the order here, Another cartoon here.

What else happened this week?

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