Internet Gangland

Members of "Anonymous"

The Internet has become a playground for gangs looking to steal private data and influence business and political action. The two biggest gangs on the Internet are Anonymous and Lulz Security. Lulz is a play on laughing out loud or LOL, and refers to laughs at someone else’s expense. These groups are loosely formed with little or no central management and comprised of thousands of hackers. Often called cyber activists or hacktivists, these groups hack business and government systems supposedly for some righteous cause. Lulz Security often hacks systems to expose security flaws, but also steals private information which it posts to the public Web. Anonymous attacks the systems of businesses and governments that hold positions or take actions with which Anonymous disagrees.

This week Anonymous launched a distributed denial of service attack, or DDOS, against the website of Spain’s national police force, making the site inaccessible for over an hour. Anonymous says that the attack was an act of retaliation for the recent arrest of three Anonymous members on charges of cyber attacks against Sony, governments, businesses and banks. Meanwhile Turkish police have detained 32 members of Anonymous on suspicion of planned attacks against a number of Turkish websites. Anonymous has targeted Turkey in protest against what Anonymous says is government censorship of the Internet.

This week Lulz Security hacked websites belonging to the U.S. Senate and the CIA, along with a database belonging to video game company Bethesda Softworks. Private customer data from Bethesda was posted to the Web along with some internal data from Lulz Security has hacked many sites in recent weeks including News Corp, PBS, Sony Pictures, and Nintendo. Lulz has opened a phone line for the public to use to request Web sites to be hacked.

Gaming company SEGA has shut down its gaming network after being hacked last week. SEGA says that private information belonging to 1.3 million users was compromised. The hacker group Lulz Security has unexpectedly vowed to track down and punish the hackers who broke into SEGA’s database.

While Anonymous and Lulz have been responsible for many of the recent cyber attacks, it’s still unclear as to who pulled off the recent major attacks against the International Monetary Fund and Citibank. This week Citibank upped its number of compromised accounts to 360,000. Some have speculated that these attacks originated outside the U.S.

Businesses and governments are scrambling to build defenses against hacker groups like Anonymous and Lulz, as well as hostile governments participating in cyber warfare. The Senate is considering legislation that would classify attacks against governments’ Web sites as an act of war against the U.S. The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to pass stronger cybersecurity measures, including a doubling of the maximum sentence for potentially endangering national security to 20 years in prison. Many companies are employing hackers to help protect their networks. Security experts say that companies need new tactics to fight the next wave of cyberattacks.

Apple’s New Cloud

This week Apple unveiled the long anticipated iCloud at its World Wide Developers Conference. The new cloud computing platform is similar to recent cloud music services from Google and Amazon, but goes several steps further. Users of iCloud will be able to store not only music, but all kinds of data and apps on Apple’s Web servers, to be shared across devices. iCloud takes advantage of Apple’s new unified OS X Lion, scheduled to be released next month, to allow users to have a common computing experience across all of their devices. Using iCloud, all of your apps, music, movies, photos, books, email, contacts, calendars, and data files are stored on the Web, and pushed to each of your devices. Users will no longer need to purchase multiple versions of an app for each of their devices. One copy of an app will come with a license that covers up to ten devices. The service also runs on Windows PCs through iTunes. The New York Times suggests that iCloud is the beginning of the end for PCs, and the birth of true cloud-based personal computing. iCloud is scheduled to be released this Fall. Microsoft and Google are both working to offer similar cloud services.

As users migrate to the cloud, they will have to commit to one vendor for storing their data and media. That vendor will most likely be Apple, Microsoft, Google, or perhaps even Facebook. As the cloud era arrives there are several important issues that should concern users. What happens if you are unhappy with your cloud service? Can you easily move your data to a different vendor’s cloud? Also, who is responsible for the safety of your data? How will Apple and the others compensate users for the loss of data? How about privacy and security? Can the vendor monitor what you store in its cloud, like Google monitors gmail, and Facebook monitors user profiles? These are issues that are already important and will certainly become critically important in coming months and years as cloud computing becomes the norm.

Addressable Ads

On the Web, businesses place small text files on your computer, called cookies, that assist in tracking your Web browsing activities. The information gathered with cookies is used to personalize your browsing experience. This includes displaying advertisements that are targeted at your interests.

Now cable TV and satellite providers want to try a similar technique called Addressable Ads. By monitoring the shows you watch on TV, the providers are able to learn a lot about your interests and tastes. Using this information they will soon begin sending commercials to your television specifically selected for you. So, for instance, at 9:30PM, in the middle of a broadcast hockey game, rather than showing all viewers the same commercial targeted at males aged 18 to 35, each viewer would see a commercial targeted at his or her unique interests. In an Addressable Ads pilot in Baltimore, Comcast discovered that viewers were 32 percent less likely to turn away from Addressable Ads.

While Addressable Ads provide more interesting commercials for viewers,they also cause concern for those who care about privacy. The customer viewing information gathered by cable and satellite providers is typically shared with data aggregation companies, which in turn can pass it on to advertisers. Unlike Web cookies, Addressable Ads are able to associate customer names, addresses, and other information with the data collected. This becomes even more worrisome as television, Internet and phone continue to converge. Cellular providers have the ability of placing ads on phones based on the current location of the device. When all of these technologies are combined, marketers will know about your every habit. They will be able to combine knowledge of your interests, your location, your activity, the time of day, and other factors to provide you with the perfect ad. Current privacy legislation is ill equipped to protect us from such an implementation of technology.

Facebook Rolls Out Messages

Facebook has been busy rolling out its Messages feature to all of its half billion users. Facebook Messages combines chat, email, and cellphone text messages into one application. So, for instance, if I were your Facebook friend, you could click my name on your Messages page and view all of our communications in one stream. A conversation you start with me in Facebook chat could be continued using text messaging on our phones, or even email. Messages maintains your communication history, so you can view your stream of conversations with each of your friends over the course of years. Facebook supplies its users with email accounts, but Messages also works with non-Facebook email addresses as well.

Facebook calls its service Seamless Messaging. It’s actually a form of what the industry calls Unified Communications. Communication has become complicated with many of us owning multiple email accounts, multiple chat accounts, and even multiple phone numbers. Accessing all of those accounts can be time consuming and error-prone. Unified communications allows users to access all of their communications through one interface. Facebook isn’t alone in its pursuit of unified communication. Google Voice allows users to merge multiple phone numbers into one central online service, where phone calls can be screened, redirected, and voice mail messages can be transcribed and delivered through email or text message.

Unified communication allows users to take control of the complexity of communications. Facebook Messages combines various types of messages into ongoing conversation streams. It allows users to sort messages from friends into one folder, and all others into another folder. It also provides a strong solution for spam.

Recent trends in online communication are moving away from traditional email and moving towards Facebook posts, tweets, and text messages. Facebook’s Messages feature may well point the way to the future of online communication. It is safe to assume that Facebook will be pursuing voice and video communications in the near future as well. As we move towards unified communication, it is smart to consider the benefits and risks of trusting a single commercial provider with all of our communications.

CES 2011

CES made all the tech headlines this week. Here are some of the highlights:

Technology 2011 and Beyond

This is the week that technology analysts and corporations make predictions about technologies that will become important in 2011 and beyond. Here’s a short summary of what some of the big names are predicting.

Intel predicts that big technologies in 2011 will include smart TVs, hybrid tablets/netbooks, and perceptual computers that can recognize objects. GPS combined with other sensors will enable on-the-spot recommendations for users, ushering in the era of the semantic Web. Intel also says 2011 will see the rise of digital billboards like those shown in the movie Minority Report, and a surge in home energy-management devices. As for Moore’s Law, Intel says that it is alive and well in 2011.

IBM predicts that in 2011 and beyond we will see the birth of glassless 3-D Telepresence, further blurring the line between the virtual and reality. The company also sees the evolution of personalized computing. GPS-equipped smartphones, car-based computer systems, along with real time traffic and parking information will eliminate traffic jams. IBM says that over the next 5 years mobile device batteries will hold a charge 10 times longer than current batteries and will recharge from air or static electricity generated by the user. IBM sees sensors being embedded in everything including vehicles, devices, and facilities allowing users to become “citizen scientists” assisting researchers in collecting and analyzing data.

Industry research firm, Forrester, predicts that 2011 will see tremendous growth in cloud computing including cloud applications that will bring high-performance computing to the masses. IDC predicts that HTML5 will begin replacing HTML on mainstream Web sites in 2011. But Flash and Silverlight will not go away.

NewsFactor Network predicts that 2011 will be the year of the tablet computer with a wide variety of makes and models coming to market. It predicts new competition for Facebook and Twitter likely coming from Google and other big companies. Newsfactor agrees that cloud computing will become even more popular in 2011 and that we will see growth in mega hard drives up to 3 TB in size along with larger, more affordable SSDs. NewsFactor also thinks the arrival of “three stream” wireless routers will have a big impact on networks, making it possible to stream different types of data simultaneously so you can stream music, download files, and surf the Web without interruption. 802.11n and USB 3.0 will become widespread and growth for Google Android and Windows Phone 7 smart phones to compete stronger against the iPhone and Blackberry.

To sum it up, it seems that everyone agrees that 2011 is all about speedier wireless networks, more amazing smart phones and tablets, cloud computing, and personalized computing services or what some refer to as the semantic Web.

After the iPad, What Tech Surprises Lay in Store for 2011? [NewsFactor]

Personalization and Virtualization Lead 2011 Predictions [NewsFactor]

Apple’s Announcement and the Fight In the Livingroom

This week Apple rolled out its next generation iPods including an iPod Touch with cameras to support Facetime, which you may recall is Apple’s video phone software for WiFi networks. The new iPod Nano is half the size of the old Nano and features a touchscreen and an FM radio. An upgrade to iTunes includes a music-centered social network called Ping that lets iTunes users connect with friends to share their musical tastes, and follow artists for news, videos, and information. Besides new iTunes and iPods, Apple also unveiled a new Apple TV which is half the price and a quarter of the size of the previous model. For $99 the new Apple TV provides users with streamed movies from computer or a NetFlix account and on demand television programs and movies.

Apple isn’t the only company working to bring Internet TV to your living room. Google is reportedly engaged in talks with major Hollywood studios to bring rental movies to YouTube. Google is also working with music labels to open its own online music store to compete with Apple’s iTunes. Amazon is in the race as well. The company is reportedly in talks with several major media companies including NBC Universal, Time Warner, and Viacom to open a video subscription service similar to NetFlix. Clearly the next major tech battle field is the livingroom.

Online Students Outperform Classroom Students

2839515040_be462f8cc4A recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” The research included 99 independent studies over a 12 year span focusing on quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance over the same material. The New York Times reports that the study found that “students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile.”

The study’s lead author states that ““The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction.” While this hardly suggests that classroom education is not valuable, it does suggest that online education is poised to ramp up over the next few years. Philip R. Regier, the dean of Arizona State University’s Online and Extended Campus program expects enrollment in the schools online courses to triple over the next three to five years.

Study Finds That Online Education Beats the Classroom [NYTimes]

OMG! Facebook threatens US Productivity!!

untitled-31The popularity of online social networks like Facebook is being blamed for decreases in the productivity of businesses. A recent study by IDC found that 30 to 40 percent of Internet use in the workplace is not related to business. The Gartner Group found that employees updating their status on Facebook, watching YouTube videos, tweeting on Twitter, and shopping at eBay is resulting in a 40 percent loss in productivity for businesses each year. In an economy where businesses are laying off large percentages of workers in order to stay afloat, these reports cause serious concern. Some businesses are employing content filtering technology that prevents employees from accessing social networks, media sites, and other time-consuming Web sites. Other software provides the employer with daily reports on how long each employee has been online, and what sites were visited. Under state and federal law, it is legal for private employers to monitor email, voice mail, and Internet activity so long as employees have been notified of the practice. It is also legal for businesses to lay off employees who use corporate networks, and time for non-business activities.

Monitoring Web Surfing at Work [NewsFactor]