February 11 – 17, 2013

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This week’s headline story: The drones are coming! The drones are coming!

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 10.31.31 AMRemote controlled drone aircraft, that can carry video cameras and other sensors, are empowering tools for law enforcement, news agencies, and other industries in the U.S.. Law enforcement authorities say drones can be a cost-effective technology to help with a host of policing efforts, including locating bombs, finding lost children, monitoring weather and wildlife or assisting rescue workers in natural disasters. While that may be true, drones have also given rise to fears of government surveillance. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington calls drones “a concrete and instantly graspable threat to privacy.”

Public concern over drones is prompting local and state lawmakers across the country to develop laws restricting their use or grounding them altogether. In Seattle, Mayor Michael McGinn answered public protests by banning the use of drones. Last week, members of Congress introduced a bill that would prohibit drones from conducting what it called “targeted surveillance” of individuals and property without a warrant. The Federal Aviation Administration has received about 80 requests from police, government agencies and others, for clearance to fly drones. Consumer grade drones that can carry video cameras or iPhones are available for less than $400 from companies like HeliPal. No doubt we will be hearing a lot regarding drones and privacy over the course of the year.

and elsewhere in Tech News.

  • Google has prided itself on being able to track the spread of the flu virus based in information that it mines from user search and social media data. But this year, Google’s projection was off… way off. Google predicted nearly twice as many flu cases as actually occurred. Analysts suspect that the widespread media coverage of the flu, caused many more flu-related searches, and online conversations, throwing a monkey wrench in Google’s algorithm. These results serve to caution researches about the dangers of drawing scientific conclusions from online interactions.
    When Google got flu wrong [Nature]
  • President Obama’s State of the Union address featured a record number of references to technology, suggesting that technical innovation is the key to U.S. economic recovery and global leadership. The president referenced a number of technologies including Macs, 3-D printing, drugs to regenerate damaged organs, new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful, wind energy, solar energy, technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner, high-speed rail, high-speed Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids, and modern pipelines to withstand a storm, to name a few.
    Obama: Technology Will Save the Country [TechReview]

and in Information Security news this week…

  • In the wake of cyberattacks against major news and media agencies, the big anti-virus companies have been forced to admit that their tools are insufficient against today’s most serious attacks. When it comes to so-called advanced persistent threats, Symantec says that “antivirus software alone is not enough.” Zero day viruses, those that are brand new and not guarded against by antivirus software, require more sophisticated methods of detection. New companies like FireEye are developing new techniques to battle these types of viruses and cyberattacks. Meanwhile, as the President presents technology as the savior of the economy, others wonder if technology might not be our downfall.
    Targeted Hacking Forces a New Reality on Antivirus Companies [TechReview]
  • President Obama has signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to share cyberthreat information with private companies and to develop standards to secure companies that provide the nation’s critical infrastructure.
    Obama signs cybersecurity order [Computerworld]
  • Facebook has reported that its network was breached by sophisticated hackers around the same time frame that Twitter, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others made similar admissions. Facebook has not found any evidence that Facebook user data was compromised. Both Facebook and Twitter were breached through a well-publicized vulnerability in Oracle’s Java software.

    Facebook Says Hackers Breached Its Computers [NYTimes]

  • Microsoft had a huge patch Tuesday this month: 12 security bulletins to fix a whopping 57 vulnerabilities, including five critical issues. The updates require several system reboots prompting security analysts to classify this month’s Patch Tuesday as “disruptive.”

    Microsoft Unleashes a Mammoth, ‘Disruptive’ Patch Tuesday [News Factor]

and in Tech Industry news…

  • In the U.S. smartphones currently make up roughly 80 percent of new phone sales, and roughly half the phone-carrying public use smartphones. However, in poorer countries smartphones have been priced out of reach, leaving most of the global population using feature phones. Now, with smartphone prices coming down, the global population is gradually switching over. Research firm Gartner is projecting that by the end of the year, smartphones will outsell feature phones world wide.
    Gartner: Smartphones To Outsell Feature Phones this Year [NewsFactor]

and finally….

  • Microsoft has purchased a Los Angeles television studio to produce original interactive television content for the Xbox. The new Xbox Entertainment Studios is a 125-employee production studio being led by former CBS Television President Nancy Tellem.
    Microsoft Seeks to Boost Xbox Claim on the Living Room [Newsfactor]

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Google’s New Stuff

It is the season for developer conferences. Two weeks ago I reported on Apple’s developer conference and Apple’s unveiling of the new Macbook Pro product line. Last week it was Microsoft developers conference and the unveiling of the new Microsoft Surface tablet. This week it’s Google’s developer conference where Google unveiled its own tablet called the Nexus 7. While Microsoft’s new Surface tablet competes in price and features with the iPad, the Nexus 7 is more in line with the Kindle Fire, priced at $199 like the Fire but outperforming the Fire in several areas. The Nexus 7 features a 7″ HD display made of strong Corning Gorilla Glass, a 1.2 MP front-facing camera, a quad core Tegra 3 processor, and a 12-core GPU that has gamers drooling. The Nexus 7 will be released later this month running the new Android 4.1 – Jelly Bean.

Google engineers also demonstrated Google’s futuristic augmented reality glasses at the developers conference, providing developers with the opportunity to purchase prototypes for $1500. And if that weren’t enough, Google unveiled a set top box called Nexus Q, which allows viewers to stream content from the cloud using their Android smartphone or tablet. Both the Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus Q set top box integrate with Google Play – Google’s new cloud-based media store providing music, books, magazines, movies, TV shows, apps and games.

Microsoft’s New Stuff

Last week I talked about all of the new Apple stuff announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. This week it’s Microsoft’s turn. The big announcement, that many anticipated, was a new Microsoft tablet computer, named Surface. That’s right – the name was borrowed from Microsoft’s tabletop technology which will be getting a new name. Since Microsoft has traditionally stayed out of the hardware business, except for the Xbox, the failed Zune, and accessories like keyboards and mice, this announcement has caused quite a stir. The decision to make its own tablet suggests Microsoft’s disappointment with Windows tablets being manufactured by its partners, and puts Microsoft in direct competition with those partners. The first reviews of the Surface tablet are very positive; the devices do appear to be a cut above its competition. Of course, its biggest competitor will be Apple’s iPad. Surface offers some significant benefits over the iPad. The biggest benefit is its integration with Windows PCs and phones, and the inclusion of a fully functional version of Microsoft Office. Surface may be the first tablet to offer true productivity capabilities for business users. Surface also comes with a built-in stand and a cover that features an integrated keyboard. Covers come in a range of colors that automatically blend with the Surface display color settings.

Microsoft also announced its next edition of its Windows Phone OS – version 8. Windows Phone 8 will be INcompatible with current Windows handsets, as will be apps developed for Windows 8. So, if you are considering a Windows phone, you would be wise to wait a few months for Windows Phone 8 handsets, which are scheduled to roll out this Fall. Windows Phone 8 offers full integration with Windows 8 PCs and tablets. It also offers tighter security features that should please businesses. As we approach the release of Windows 8 across PCs, tablets, and smartphones, we begin to see Microsoft’s strategy unfurling, and perhaps a glimmer of hope for a company that has been steamed-rolled over by Apple and the world’s transition from desktop to mobile.

Cloud Battle Escalates

The personal cloud storage battle escalated this week when Google released its Google Drive app. Google Drive works like the popular DropBox app to support storing files in the cloud. When Google Drive is installed on a computer, a folder is provided on the desktop that represents your Google Drive. Anything stored in that folder will be stored on Google’s server – in the cloud. Anyone with a Google account can use Google Drive to access a free 5 GB of cloud storage. Google Drive integrates nicely with Gmail, Google Docs, Google+ and with Android mobile devices.

Beating Google to the punch by one day, Microsoft announced a new personal cloud storage service on its SkyDrive offering 7 GB of space – besting Google by 2 GB, but failing to get nearly as many headlines. Microsoft’s SkyDrive integrates well with Microsoft Office and Windows desktop and mobile platforms. Not to be overlooked, DropBox announced that it is raising its free storage capacity to 5 GB matching Google Drive. SugarSync kept it’s cloud storage service in the news with an announcement of a new iPad app. SugarSync offers 5 GB of free storage. All of these services provide more storage for an additional monthly fee.

So why might a person consider using one of these cloud storage services?

  • Cloud storage provides a convenient method of backing up and securing your data – the cloud provider takes over the responsibility of keeping your data safe.
  • More than just backup storage, cloud computing can act as central storage for your data, allowing access to your files from any Internet connected device so you can work from anywhere anytime on any of your computers or mobile devices.
  • Versioning allows you to go back to previous versions of files when mistakes are made
  • Cloud computing is ideal for sharing files and folders with collaborators. You can assign users the ability to edit files or restrict them to read only.
  • Rather than having to attach files to email, you can simply share them from cloud storage by emailing a link to the file. Cloud storage web apps, allow many file formats to be accessed from within a Web browser.
  • Photos can be automatically uploaded and stored centrally on a cloud drive eliminating the need to copy photos between mobile devices and PCs – this also makes it easy to share photos and galleries with friends.
  • Some services allow you to stream music and movies from your cloud drive.

With all of these advantages, what may cause a person to decide not to use cloud storage? Privacy! There has been much controversy surrounding Google’s Privacy Policy which basically states that Google can do anything it wants with your files. While some believe that the policy is simply worded to protect Google from liability, others foresee Google using its user’s files for targeted advertisements or worse. This possibility exists with any of the cloud storage services. Still, Google’s new cloud drive sets the stage for a monumental shift in the way people store and access their personal data.

Big Data and the Internet of Things

A new buzz word is emerging as a mainstream topic for corporate executives. Actually, it’s two words: BIG DATA. The concept of Big Data emerged from the vast and exponentially-growing amount of data generated by social media, mobile devices, apps, and all the other digital tools wielded by the global population every day. Corporations and others are driven to collect all of that data and analyze it to gain useful insights that can be used to make better business decisions. Companies like Google, Facebook, AT&T, and many others have gotten good at collecting the data. Developing software to analyze the massive amount of data being collected is the primary challenge of the Big Data industry.

In coming years that challenge will become much more complex. Today, the average Internet user owns two Internet connected devices: typically a smart phone and computer. Over the next couple years, that number is expected to jump to seven, more than tripling the amount of devices on the Internet. The bulk of new Internet devices will represent things rather than people – thermostats, security systems, televisions, electric meters, cars, refrigerators and other appliances. These devices will increase the amount of Big Data by adding information like the temperature in every home at every moment, the energy usage of each residence and business, eating habits, laundry habits, water usage, waste production, and more. Add this information up and the Internet becomes a source of real-time information about the state of the entire planet at any given moment in time.

IBM researchers view the Internet as becoming a “global electronic nervous system, with trillions of individual sensors monitoring the status of everything of interest to humans.” IBM wants to stream all of those exabytes of data to its cloud-based cluster supercomputers to extract the “ultimate value from the data using Analytics software modeled on the human mind.”

You’ll be hearing a lot more about Big Data in coming months and years, as the world awakens to the potential of IBM’s vision. Many companies are working on developing analytics software that can tackle Big Data for all industries including health care, transportation and energy. Last week, Big Data company Splunk Inc, made an impressive debut on Nasdaq where it doubled its $17 initial public offering price. This marked Wall Street’s awakening to the value of Big Data, and alerted the media to a new industry focus. Big Data could provide many benefits beyond improving corporate profit margins and padding investment broker’s wallets. If managed properly, Big Data could also provide valuable insight for improving life on Earth. Managing Big Data in a secure and ethical manner, with concern for consumer privacy, may end up being the biggest challenge of all.

Bend your display

Bendable displays are finally coming to the market. LG has begun mass producing a 6-inch e-ink plastic screen, with a resolution of 1024 x 768, that bends up to 40 degrees at the center. Bendable displays will fuel the creation of new interesting devices, and also begin replacing glass displays in phones and tablets to create more durable devices. Samsung is developing a foldable OLED screen with no seam that folds in half — and unfolds to show a combined, larger screen. Nokia has shown a concept phone, the GEM, in which the entire surface of the device — front, side, back — is a single, touch-sensitive display.

LG Launching a Bendable Display [NewsFactor]

Do you MOOC?

MIT’s open-source online learning platform, MITx has launched its first course. The course is an electrical engineering course titled Circuits and Electronics and has 90,000 students enrolled on campus and off. MITx is MIT’s latest experiment in MOOC – Massively Open Online Course where anyone in the world with an Internet connection can enroll in an MIT course to view lectures, work on projects, and take exams. Stanford is offering five new MOOCs with classes beginning March 19th. The courses are Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Natural Language Processing, Cryptography, Game Theory, and Probabilistic Graphical Models. Enrollment is currently at 335,000 students registered.

First course offered by MITx begins [MIT News]
Stanford offers more free online classes for the world [Stanford Report]

GPS Intrusions on the Rise

A slew of GPS devices designed to spy on people have become popular in recent months. Take for example the PTX5 Live GPS Tracker. It’s about the size of a deck of cards, and can be attached to the undercarriage of a car, or hidden inside a glove box or backpack to track an individual. Once switched on, the device can be tracked using a Web application which shows the device’s location on a map. GPS trackers have become an essential tool for private investigators. Some parents are using them to keep tabs on their teens, jealous partners are using them to keep track of their mates, and criminals are using them to track victims. Last week the Supreme Court found that while these devices may be gaining in popularity, they are not okay for use by law enforcement officers – at least not without a warrant. The courts findings overturns a case where a nightclub owner was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking, since the conviction was based on GPS evidence linking him to the location where the drugs and money were stored.

Private Snoops Find GPS Trail Legal to Follow [NYTimes]

2011 in Retrospect

Goodbye Steve

Perhaps the story that garnered the most attention this year was the death of Apple founder and visionary Steve Jobs who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 56. Jobs transformed industries and lives be developing products like iTunes, iPods, iPhones, and iPads. For the past decade, the public has grown to expect yearly life-changing product announcements from Apple. This year, Jobs and Apple unveiled the iPhone 4S with Siri – digital assistant technology that promises to transform the way people interact with computers. This year Apple also launched iCloud, a system for storing music and data in the cloud for easy access from any Internet-connected computer.

2011 in the Cloud

History may look back on 2011 as “the year of cloud computing.” Apple wasn’t alone in developing cloud services. Just about every major tech company rolled out new cloud services this year. Amazon and Google, which have both been active in cloud computing for years, rolled out public cloud services for music to compete with Apple. Microsoft launched Office 365, a cloud-based version of Microsoft Office to compete with Google Docs. Businesses of all types and sizes are adopting both public and private cloud services for all types of business applications and services. This year has seen the start of a massive migration of data from private computers and servers to cloud servers to be accessed via the Internet.

Hackers

2011 also goes down in history for its huge amount of hacker activity. Daily targeted attacks increased four hundred percent over 2011. Nearly every form of networked device is at risk: computers, cars, smart phones, and even printers. Several major network and database breaches made the news this year. Perhaps the largest was Sony’s PlayStation network which was out of commission for over a month. More serious was the attack on security firm RSA, where security tokens for hundreds of companies were stolen leaving those companies vulnerable to attack. Many other companies and organizations were hacked in 2011. The Privacy Clearinghouse has tracked a total of 535 breaches in the U.S. involving 30.4 million sensitive records over the course of the year. In 2011 we also learned that some news organizations, such as one belonging to Richard Murdock, have a habit of hacking cell phones to gain juicy tidbits of news. News companies have also been the target of hackers as both Fox News and NPR were hacked and had bogus news stories posted on their Twitter feeds and Web sites. The past year saw the birth of a dangerous virus named stuxnet, that attacks industrial systems. We have also witnessed the rise of hactivist groups such as Anonymous, LulzSec, and AntiSec. These groups claimed responsibility for breaking into the networks belonging to hundreds of businesses, law enforcement agencies, and government agencies, including the FBI and U.S. defense contractors, and releasing confidential data for what they consider to be a righteous cause. Dozens of young hackers have been jailed for their participation in these hacker collectives.

Cyber Attacks

2011 has also seen a huge increase in state-sponsored cyber attacks including attacks on government agencies, U.S. defense contractors, and banks, not to mention one drone aircraft. U.S. intelligence agencies accuse China and Russia for many of the cyber attacks. The pentagon has designated cyberspace as an “operational domain” and threatens a military response to cyber attacks. The White house passed a new cyber security plan to help protect the nations critical infrastructure. But, it’s not just the U.S. that is concerned, every country on the Internet is dealing with cyber attacks and working to bolster their defenses. At the global Web Summit, nations deliberated over a cyber-nonproliferation pact to assist in curbing cyber-attacks between countries.

Social and Political Change

In 2011 the Internet and social media served as powerful tools for social and political change. Protest organizers in Egypt utilized Facebook, Twitter, and other online tools to gather public discontent into demonstrations that eventually ousted then-President Mubarik. The revolution fever spread through Internet channels to Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordon, Kuwait, Moroco, and Oman where citizens took to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with their governments in what has become known as the Arab Spring. The Web is being used to coordinate protests across the U.S., and around the world. stemming from the Occupy Wall Street movement, to express discontent with economic management by banks and governments. In the UK, the Web was used to orchestrate violent demonstrations featuring beatings, arson and burglaries across many cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

Censorship

As the Internet and Web empowers citizens to organize and express themselves, governments this year, are debating an Internet “kill switch” that would allow them to shut down the Internet in circumstances of public unrest. Egypt, and other Arab countries have implemented such actions during demonstrations, but still the demonstrators found ways around the Internet black-out to communicate their plight to the rest of the world. In other censorship news, U.S. lawmakers deliberate over the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring Internet Service Providers, search engines, and online financial services to block websites that are accused of infringing copyright. Some feel the bill represents the first significant step towards U.S. government censorship of Web content.

Privacy and Transparency

Privacy and transparency were huge issues in 2011. Wikileaks released hundreds of thousands of leaked confidential government documents to the public. In reaction to the move, several online banks and financial services have blocked Wikileaks transactions, leaving Wikileaks financially strapped and struggling. Google and Facebook have both been scrutinized and criticized by European and U.S. governments for collecting private data about users and using it for marketing and ads. Both companies are under mandatory privacy audits in the U.S. for the next 20 years. The U.S. is considering regulations to curb Internet companies from tracking users online, while the industry has come up with its own “Do Not Track” option which no company seems to be implementing with any seriousness. Cell phone companies have also been the focus of government attention as it was discovered that many handsets regularly send private usage data to the cellular providers. Net neutrality also remains a hotly debated issue, as the FCC put new policies in place that require telecom companies and ISP’s to be more transparent about their network management practices and to provide equal treatment to all Internet applications.

Mobile Tech Industry

It was an active year for the tech industry with many shifts in power and influence. 2011 was the year of the tablet. While Apple’s iPad remains the market leader, dozens of Android tablets are now also competing in the market. High-end eBook readers like Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet incorporate LCD displays and offer added functionality to compete with tablet PCs at a lower price. The success of the Kindle, has contributed to the success of eBooks. Amazon reports that it now sells more ebooks than paper books. The cellular industry has seen major shifts as well. At the beginning of 2011, AT&T held an exclusive contract with Apple for the iPhone. Now Verizon and Sprint share that privilege. The iPhone remains the most popular smart phone, however, Android has become the most popular smartphone platform due to the many inexpensive Android handsets available. AT&T’s bid to buy TMobile was shut down by government regulators. Verizon and AT&T are buying up spectrum in competition to provide the best service to the most customers.

Entertainment Tech Industry

3D TV’s still haven’t really taken off like expected, but Microsoft’s Kinect and XBox game system have been a huge success in living room entertainment. The Kinect’s motion-driven game controller has transformed gaming into a physical activity. Dance games have become all the rage displacing the previously popular guitar playing games. Speaking of living room entertainment, Netflix grew huge in 2011 with Netflix users eating up as much as one third of all Internet traffic. Netflix blew it though, when it nearly doubled its fees, and lost hundreds of thousands of customers. In the mean time, Google, Microsoft, and Apple all have plans to take over TV and living room entertainment.

Winners and Losers

2011 has seen renewed investment in the tech industry allowing young companies like Groupon and Spotify to rapidly grow into major players. Meanwhile established companies work hard to stay relevant by using their talent and market position to control the direction of the industry. Google launched its social network Google+, providing the first serious competitor to Facebook. Google+ is growing rapidly, with 62 million current users. Some believe it will grow to 400 million in 2012 – still significantly shy of Facebook’s current 800 million users. Companies like Google, Amazon and Apple have been successful at ininnovating and staying relevant against fresh young talent, while Microsoft, Yahoo, and Blackberry have been less successful. 2012 will be a telling year for many of these companies.

2012 and Beyond

2011 has been a remarkable year for those of us that enjoy observing technology’s impact on people, cultures, societies, and the world. So what can we expect in 2012? Well it’s all conjecture, but I think it’s safe to assume that information security, privacy, net neutrality and government censorship will grow to become more demanding issues. The rapid rise in serious cyber attacks from numerous sources makes it seem likely that 2012 will feature prominent and perhaps catastrophic attacks on major online resources, and national infrastructure. There is likely to be a call-to-cyberarms as governments and populations recognize the extent of their online vulnerabilities. With the stressed state of the global economy and the upcoming national elections in the U.S., our online lifestyles are sure to become the focus of political expression from politicians, their supporters, and disgruntled citizens and groups. While there are a lot of indicators to fuel pessimism for 2012, there are also many indicators that support optimism. Technologies continue to evolve to provide better communication, more rapid problem solving, and more engaging forms of expression and entertainment. Without a doubt, 2012 will bring many new technologies with which we can improve our lives and our world. Technology does more than merely amplify the human condition; it provides opportunity and freedom of expression for populations that have been downtrodden and oppressed. It is the great equalizer. It provides opportunities to advance civilization and culture. It is likely that we will continue to see radical global change brought about with the help of technologies in 2012 and beyond. Managing this change in a positive direction will require strong and wise global leadership from political leaders, as well as from teachers and students like you.

Digital Divas

Two Japanese pop stars stole the show at the recent Digital Concept Expo in Tokyo. The green-haired “Megpoid” and red-haired “Akikoloid” sang flawlessly as they performed amazing dance routines, working the audience into a frenzy. The truly unbelievable aspect of the performance is that both rising stars are completely computer generated. Through the use of voice-synthesizing software and sensors around the venue, on the cameras, and on two human dancers backstage, the two synthesized pop stars offered a realistic 3-D performance that rivaled the best human concerts. Music by the virtual pop stars has made it into Japan’s top 10 hits list. So, who gets the glory: the virtual performers, or the programmers?
Japan’s digital divas take to the stage, wow fans [Reuters]