Archive for category Internet Safety

Is No One Safe Online?!

In a word: No.

I talked a while back about how a digital attack on Iran could well be the opening of a new phase where the Internet is a battlefield as much as any war torn country.  Well, that seems to have been born out this past week with a number of online attacks “originating from China”.  I put quotes around that because it’s entirely possible that efforts to trace the attack have simply been fooled into thinking that the trail ends in China.  With the Cloud becoming more popular, it’s going to be easier for hackers to take over your computer for their use, without you ever knowing about it.

However, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t someone (or several someones) in China, either.  There’s something fishy going on, though, because the Chinese government has denied that they were involved (check the bottom of the article).  Maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember anyone else suggesting that they had anything to do with it.  Sadly, it’s all too easy for anyone with a bit of programming knowledge to hack into computers these days.  The odds are pretty good, I think, that the hit on WordPress was just someone making trouble for kicks, like about half of the hacking done anyway.

However, some of it looks to have been pretty deliberately targeted.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree with G20 or not, you’ve got to agree that the hacking attempts against them really made a mess of things.  Put together, they almost look like someone’s getting revved up (no, I don’t think it’s the Chinese government) to make a big splash in the hacking community – who, of course, is probably reading this right now and trying not to laugh too hard.

Just kidding, everyone.  Most of the people in the hacking world aren’t doing it for sheer hate, although plenty of them are using it to make money.  But this is another excellent example of how the Internet is turning into a new frontier for warfare, so you need to make sure that your computers and websites are as safe as you can make them.  Beyond that, there’s nothing you can do but keep moving forward in your business and hope that you never have to deal with the worst of what could happen.



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Spam From Spying

A while back, we told you about how Google was using its mapping street-vans to “accidentally” collect things like your passwords in their efforts to provide all the public information they can to people.  Recently, Steve Kovach has pointed out that they’re recording your browser history in order to spam you with adds while you’re online.  I’ve got to admit that I’ve noticed a serious uptick in the number of adds I come across from the sites I’ve visited more than once.

To me, though, the problem is more that once again you’re being tracked.  The fact that it’s merely to advertise sites you’re already looking at is merely insulting.  But they’re violating your privacy – once again – by tracking you in the first place.  Steve focuses on the companies themselves, and that’s worthwhile in itself, because blocking them from getting the information does reduce the problem.  But the heart of the issue is that, once again, you’re being spied on by people claiming to help you.  That makes it look like nothing’s ever going to change, and these people really do want to take over your brain.

Honestly, it makes me feel like everyone’s got their own personal stalker who’s creeping around the Internet.  Maybe that’s what Eric Schmidt was talking about with his creepy line, in which case, it’s definitely been crossed.  And all so they can remind you about something that you’ve already looked at.  There’s a little cynical thought inside me that’s wondering what this is really about.  It can’t just be about rerunning ads, because no one’s so forgetful that they need reminded that they’re interested in something.


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Computers Are Evolving

By now you’ve noticed how much people are starting to value to new “Cloud” approach to the Internet. It really is more advanced than the basic per-server way that everything’s been done so far. But, you might not know that the hardware used on all computers is evolving to, because that advance is coming from a sector you might have overlooked: gaming.

Everyone knows that one day, we’re going to have something that looks like the computer systems in the old Jetsons TV series, but thanks to the Xbox Kinect and a bunch of people tinkering with it on their own time, we’re actually a step closer to the day when your whole room is your computer interface. With further innovation, the technology behind the Kinect could soon replace both keyboard and mouse as the way we control our computers.

As soon as that’s combined with the new Cloud technology, we’ll be able to just turn on our monitor-televisions and control everything with a wave of our hands. It’ll be so amazingly easy to access everything we want that the way we’re surfing the web now (admittedly impressive) will seem like the crude bumbling of technological cavemen.

HAL will be with you, always.

HAL will be with you, always.

Of course, falling back on classic geek humor lines, it’s also possible that we’re creating our own doom here.  The Cloud works byhaving computers share their resources with each other, essentially turning them into a larger hive computer. Many sci-fi stories have relied on the premise that something like this leads to computers becoming self-aware and deciding that they should get rid of humanity. If that happens, we’re giving an ideal set of eyes to something that ultimately wants to kill us.

In the meantime, we move forward, advancing ourselves toward a brighter futurewhere our lives will be a little easier and our days will be filled with easier access to the information we need. It may well be that our computing and cloud surfing will be a lot safer than browsing the Internet has ever been. Just make sure that you know how to deal with giant killer robots along the way.

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Well Done, Mark Zuckerberg

Just a quick followup on the post we had a few weeks back.  Facebook is now talking about the app/privacy problem it was having, and apparently has persuaded the information broker RapLeaf to delete all the data that was gleaned from Facebook’s pages.  The news article I found addressing the subject didn’t say, or know, whether there were other data brokers involved in the agreement, but this is a good sign that Facebook is serious about ensuring that its users aren’t being used while using the site.

Ostensibly, the information gathered wasn’t anything that people were blocking from public view, but the fact remains that this can and should go a long way toward rebuilding the trust that was eroding over this past month.

Well done, Facebook team.

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So Now There’s A Digital Battlefield?

Incoming!  Time to get in the bomb-shelter!

Except, it’s a cyber-bomb, not a literal one.  In the past few months, we’ve seen a large increase in warning signs that the Internet is going to turn into a literal battlefield one day.  That viral attack that did physical damage in Iran a month ago is a good example.

However, the U.S. Air Force has recently declassified its own manual on protecting oneself against cyberwarfare.  It makes mention of methods far more malevolent than mere identity theft, although those are included as well.  The point is that they’re considering the possibility of more cyberattacks, possibly of equal or greater magnitude to the one Iran suffered.

So, basically, there’s no shelter against this bomb.

And, like sold or stolen nukes, pretty much anyone with the right contacts can get hold of such a weapon.  All anyone can do is shore up their firewalls and antivirus countermeasures, and try to make themselves look like they’re not worth hitting.  At least we have some consolation that these are steps people already take to some extent or other, because this really raises questions about how safe we really are online.

Will it stay your friend?It’s always been apparent that the Internet is changing and will continue to do so in the future, but that doesn’t mean that it should be doing so in the direction of warfare.  Jules Verne once described what’s essentially been equated to nuclear submarines in his “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, and now such vessels are used by all the major powers of the world.  So what’re we going to find here: digital monsters that zap around their battlefield and can take each other over?  Virtual warriors who can “jump” from one structure to another and breach firewalls with a single “punch”?  Skynet?

Seriously?  Is that what we’re coming to here?  Everyone knows that the Internet isn’t as safe as we’d like it to be, but if it becomes a battlefield – even in a limited war – then that conflict is going to be one without boundaries, because that’s the reality of how interconnected everything online is.  All we can do is hope and pray that such a thing doesn’t actually come about, because there just might be no difference between the front line and the home front if it does.

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Third Half Of Your Battery?

Google’s done it again.  They’re in trouble for toeing the “creepy line”, and want to improve their image.  So, what do they do but extend their field of influence yet again?  Now they’re building a 350 mile power line that’s expected to carry electricity from Atlantic wind farms to nearly two million homes.  All well and good.

But the very thing that people have been worrying about is that Google is getting hold of too much of their lives.  Their CEO recently said that the company should be “the third half of your brain”, but apparently they now want to be the third half of your battery as well.

Honestly, I’ve got no problem with them making money.  But it seems to me that when your company is under fire for taking over too much, the best way to solve things isn’t to try garnering points by doing something PC in a new field of business (that’s more expansion).  Instead, you should clean up your act in the area people are complaining about.

Sure, they’re only funding the start of the project, but how’s that actually different as an effort to improve the way the company’s perceived?  They may be enjoying a little better perception at the moment, but this doesn’t do anything but deflect the ire that’s been directed toward them for the past several months and will probably end up increasing it if they decide to pursue the project after their initial investment runs out.

Google’s been making a lot of enemies both in public and private lately because of their ability and clear willingness to go too far in their quest to provide information to people using their sites.  Expanding things so that they’re also providing those people with electricity isn’t going to help with that in the long run, if it even does in the short run.  And, if you’re watching the “creepy line” so you can toe up to it, you’ve crossed it several yards back.

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Facebook And Privacy – What, Again?

We’ve heard this one before.  Seriously.

Yet they keep telling us the same story all over again.  Now Facebook doesn’t seem to know how to police itself in order to maintain its own privacy policies.  Undoubtedly, they’re scrambling to fix the problem now that it’s become known, but you’d think they would be looking to make sure that this sort of thing didn’t happen in the first place.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t Facebook’s fault, because they don’t control the apps that people use.  However, they do still bear responsibility since the apps in question are transmitting user IDs of people  on Facebook.  That’s why people may find that their favorite games aren’t working for a while – Facebook is shutting down (at least temporarily) the apps that have been giving out that data, either deliberately or unknowingly.

Now I don’t honestly want to sound like I’m out to get Facebook, because I’m not.  They’re working to fix the problem, and they’re being moderately upfront about it (although I didn’t find out about this because of them telling me).  The thing is, though, that they’ve been taking a lot of heat lately, especially in the category of the privacy of the site’s users.  Spam is a violation of privacy if you have to deal with it.  Coordinating the site with ski lodges can reduce your level of privacy.  Getting placed in groups without your consent, and sometimes without your knowledge, is a privacy issue.

The point is, people may not realize it, but Facebook is in trouble.  Heck, people are even starting to experiment with “what if we gave up the site for a while”.  The company recently quintupled its stock – that is, cut the value of each stock by 5 & said that everyone had 5 times as much stock as they did before.  That’s a lot of financial success, and we’ve seen before just how dangerous that can be for a software company – Microsoft, anyone?

Personally, I like Facebook, even though they seem to change the format on me every few months.  It helps me keep in touch with people that have moved out of the direct spheres of my life.  But if they don’t stop letting these problems slip past their screening, people are going to start hating the service every bit as actively as they do all the software giants that have gotten so successful that people got sick of them.

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Facebook’s Roping You Into Things

It’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard.  Facebook is letting your friends sign you up for groups on the site, without your permission or even your knowledge.  Taking a hand in what shows up on your Top News feed makes sense, but this is more a matter of putting people into things they didn’t show any interest in being part of.

Here’s the thing, though: when you get right down to it, this sounds too ridiculous to be true.  Someone you know, essentially forcing you into something on Facebook without your permission?  I know, for one, that it hasn’t happened to me because I checked my account a few minutes ago.  I’ve got some invites I haven’t decided on, but no groups that I don’t remember consciously deciding to join.

However, it does say on Facebook’s FAQs that the new system they’re using for Groups works that way (right here).  Maybe it’s just a matter of me not “friending” any people who’re going to throw me into things without my say-so.  In which case, avoiding the absurd fallout of this “improvement” to Facebook’s programming is a simple matter of not being Facebook friends with anyone you don’t actually know.

Even so, the fact that the guy who invented the site could wind up in a pro-pedophilia group like NAMBLA is very telling about how easy it is to abuse this change in the site’s software.  Maybe this will get them to stop and think about any changes they make before they apply them to the site as a whole.  More likely, though, they’ll just say this is an aberration and that people need to be careful off who they friend on the site.

Which, of course, is true.  You don’t actually need to be Facebook friends with someone you know absolutely nothing about.  There are people who use the site to steal people’s identities and commit other unsavory or illegal acts, the same as there are on the rest of the Internet.  However, that doesn’t mean that Facebook’s owners and webmasters need to make it easier for these people to do anything from committing crimes to simply forcing advertising on you that you don’t want.  If they let stuff like that slide, then they’re just as bad as Google is about privacy issues these days.

So, be careful who you friend, and keep an eye on what groups you’re signed up for.  Because you never know now when someone’s going to use you to pad out their group and spam you with its updates.  Since no one who uses the site is that likely to close out their accounts because of this (you can disengage from groups easy enough, at the same time blocking whomever put you in it in the first place from ever doing so again), applying a bit of care in what you do is the best solution you can use.


Choose Your Viewers Wisely

Everyone knows that you shouldn’t broadcast that you’re not going to be home for a while to everyone who might pass through your neighborhood.  What a lot of people don’t know is that you equally shouldn’t post that you’re not going to be home to everyone who might pass through your Facebook page.  Doing so can let clever, evil web surfers know that you’re a temporarily easy mark just as surely as a note on the front door telling people you’re not home and can’t answer the door.

This may become a problem this winter, because skiing in Colorado has just partnered up with making posts on social media.  That means that people are going to be able to post things like “I just aced a Black Diamond run” which is the same as telling a cyber-scout for theft “I’m not home, come hit me”.  Obviously, no one should live in fear that they’re going to be spied on in social websites any more than they should be paranoid in the rest of their lives, but a measure of sense is needed to ensure your safety.

For starters, everyone needs to set their accounts so that only confirmed friends can see their status updates and anything else that could give away your location and whether you’re somewhere that makes you an easy target for criminals.  There are plenty of people out there who never even bother with such basic levels of Internet security, even though it can be the same as painting a proverbial bull’s-eye on their houses.

And so we continue to walk the razor’s edge between greater convenience and greater vulnerability in all regards.  Someone who’s particularly dedicated may be able to find anything from your last address to your social security number, but there’s still no reason to make it any easier for people to find these things than it already is.  Using social media to help coordinate with your friends can be a great way to enjoy something like skiing together.  However, you don’t want to share too much info when you don’t know who else may be reading it.

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Smart Sat-Phone: Yes And No

Well, you can’t fault AT&T for offering their clients more products.  Even so, it sure seems like they’re putting out second rate material in the process.  On Tuesday, they released their new smart phone, the TerreStar Genus, which has some satellite phone capabilities.  They’re marketing it under the banner of providing coverage absolutely anywhere in the United States, even where there are no cell towers available for use – doing so with all the capabilities expected of smart phones.

However, there’s a big problem with it as well:  there’s only one satellite on this phone’s network.  That means that anyone trying to use it outside of normal cell coverage has to make sure that they have a direct, unimpeded line of sight between them and that one satellite, even though it’s so far away they’ll never actually see it.  Most likely they plan to launch more satellites in the future; but there’s no mention of that in the article, so it’s anybody’s guess when there will be more of them in the sky.

Setting aside how unreliable the satellite capability is, making a hybrid satellite/smart phone actually is a good idea.  Having limitations on where you can enjoy all the benefits of modern phone technology is a problem that countless people have experienced just by finding themselves outside the range of any cell towers at an inconvenient moment.  It may well be that someday we’ll be using our smart phones exclusively on satellite networks.

However, that raises another issue as well.  At what point will we become so dependent on our smart phones that we’re back to square one in terms of having a digital service watching everything we do and quietly violating our right to privacy?  Or perhaps losing our ability to look up more than just an anecdotal amount of information about anything?  We’ve already run the gauntlet on both of these at least once because of powerful search engines, so what would happen if we could check “anything” from anywhere in the globe rather than have to take the time to actually do some digging of our own?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer on that one.  Even though Harrisburg University ran its test to see how its students would do for a whole week without social media through any of their computers, that doesn’t even begin to approach the level of change that could be brought about by irrevocably tying your cell phone and the Internet no matter where you are.

It could well be that the benefits will far outweigh any negative aspects that come about as a result.  It could be that this is going to be the event that finally brings about the technological dystopia of which so many Twentieth century authors wrote.  We’ll just have to wait for a service with more satellites in its network in order to find out.

But a question that everyone ought to be asking themselves when they look at buying one, or just any new smart phone, is how much they’re willing to deal with someone watching them while they’re doing their online business with their cell phones.  Once upon a time, everyone would get up in arms over the prospect of a phone call being “recorded for quality assurance”.  Nowadays that’s standard practice in one form or another for just about everything done through communications technology.  If satellite-based smart phones do prove to be the wave of the future, there will be practically no avoiding being recorded and followed by the Big Brothers of the Internet.

Recently both Google and the U.S. government have been accused of spying on people in the name of maintaining some sort of quality control, but perhaps they’re not the only ones who find the line blurry over what’s OK and what isn’t.  The problem with having everything networked together is that we’re all suddenly living in glass houses whether we like it or not, even though we can’t actually see into other people’s lives as easily as some can see into ours.

Ultimately, people need to stop and think about how much access to the rest of the world they need and how much they’re willing to give someone else – maybe someone they’ll never be aware of – access to them.  What would you do with a smart satellite phone?

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