Thursday, May 27, 2010

Human Infected with Computer Virus

Welcome to another edition Computers As Humans, "the tech blog that's plugged in and switched on."

The BBC has reported today that a man has implanted a chip infected with a malicious computer virus into his own hand. The man is Doctor Mark Gasson of the University of Reading and the chip he implanted is a standard RFID tag of the same sort often implanted in pets to track their whereabouts.

Gasson proclaimed himself to be the first man in the world to be infected with a computer virus. And indeed the scientist was able to demonstrate that it was possible to spread the computer virus through the chip in his hand.

The chip Gasson had implanted is a more sophisticated RIFD tag which allows him to pass through security doors and activate his cellphone. In the trials, Dr. Gasson was able to pass the virus on to external control systems.

Why exactly he had to implant the chip in his hand to demonstrate that it could remotely transmit malicious code is uncertain. But hey, he did wind up being covered by the BBC,, and now Computers As Humans, so good-on-ya Doctor!

Larry Seltzer at however slammed the implantation as a "cheap trick," and was quick to note that it would be just as easy to spread the same malicious software through a similar chip hidden in a pair of eyeglasses or a piece of jewelry.

He's right of course, but the idea of spreading a computer virus with the wave of one's hand is perhaps a little more intriquing when you author a blog called "Computers As Humans."

The implications of such research in regard to medically implanted technology would seem to have the most potential to be worrisome. Gasson for one, seems to think the possibility of humans being infected by computer viruses is a very real one.

As Gasson himself stated, "Many people with medical implants also consider them to be integrated into their concept of their body, and so in this context it is appropriate to talk in terms of people themselves being infected by computer viruses."

It is also not unforeseeable to consider that people may soon electively choose to have computer chips implanted in themselves. As Gasson said, "If we can find a way of enhancing someone's memory or IQ then there's a real possibility that people will choose to have this kind of invasive procedure."

While mister Seltzer at would undoubtedly write this off as sensationalism, others are not so sure.

Professor Rafael Capurro of the Steinbeis-Transfer Institute of Information and Ethics in Germany called the research, "interesting," adding that, "If someone can get online access to your implant it could be serious."

Perhaps Doctor Gasson has provided us with another example of the kind of vulnerabilities we may be opening ourselves up to as we interface more and more aspects of our lives with the digital world.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dangerous Curves on the Information Superhighway

Reports of a new adware attack put Facebook in the news for all the wrong reasons again today. The social networking site is of course still under scrutiny for making people's personal information too widely available on the web.

Apparently a new attack has surfaced in the form of a fake video entitled, "distracting beach babes." The supposed video is advertised by a thumbnail depicting scantily clad women frolicking in bikinis. Clicking on the thumbnail will direct your browser to a rogue Facebook app which will tell you that you need to download a new player in order to view the video.

Of course there is no video and the player is in fact a malicious adware application that download and displays multiple pop-up ads on your computer while it attempts to infect the rest of your network.

It is perhaps worth noting that the last such attack that was launched on Facebook was in the form of a fake sex video entitled, "sexiest video ever." With users willfully putting all their private information up on the site and apparently easily distracted by anything remotely resembling porn, perhaps Facebook isn't entirely to blaim.

Certainly while on the road we might from time time take a moment to gawk at roadside billboards featuring American Apparel models. Well apparently on the web we are just as, if not more easy to distract

British web-security firm Sophos, has nonetheless urged Facebook to implement an early warning system on the network that would keep users abreast of such threats as they arose.

Having a warning system on our Internet interface is not a bad idea. We already do to a certain extent such as when our browsers warn us about entering financial information into websites with questionable certification.

Our computers are, after all, the vehicles we use to navigate the inroads of the Internet. We need to keep them in good running order. Just as signs on the highway might inform us of dangerous curves ahead (which could be the next fake sex video attack by the way), Web based warnings could help us steer clear of the more bumpy, treacherous stretches of the information superhighway.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Facebook's Privacy Problems and the Gulf Oil Spill

The tech world was front page news as Facebook, came under attack this morning, seeming perhaps to draw some fire away from BP. The latter of course are the well-known perpetrators of what threatens to be the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century thus far.

Sitting here, sucking up power on the laptops and desktops we are reading this on, this disaster perhaps serves to illuminate the dangers of living globally through technology as we do. There was a time when to cross the ocean you sailed on a ship, harnessing natures power temporarily and leaving a relatively clean wake behind you.

Nowadays we move about in gas guzzling, climate damning cars and planes while circumnavigating the globe daily through digital means.

Our increasingly vigorous attempts to put the squeeze on the world for energy as if it were an orange to be juiced has lead us to problems before and certainly will do so again. Currently, cries of "drill, baby drill," are being drowned out by, "Spill, baby spill." Clearly to continue in the global, technology driven lifestyle we enjoy, innovations and adjustments will ultimately be needed.


In the midst of all this the social networking site du jour, Facebook has also come under fire.

Today Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg went into full-on damage control mode in an open letter to the Washington Post. Zuckerberg admitted that the site has "missed the mark," in terms of it's complicated privacy settings and made the pledge to do better.

Zuckerberg, went on to admit that the site, which has exploded in popularity over the last three years has been "growing quickly," adding that "sometimes we move to fast."

Zuckerberg assured users that in the coming weeks privacy settings would be introduced that would be easier to use than the system currently in place. Many users have complained that the current system is confusing.

Just as BP's seeming ineptitude has added fuel to the oil spill fire, Zuckerberg is experiencing some problems of his own that are similarly jacking up the Facebook fallout factor.

Recently a years-old IM thread surfaced in which Zuckerberg, then a 19-year-old student bragged that through nascent version of Facebook he had been able to assemble the personal information from thousands of users.

Computers As Humans chooses to give Mr. Zuckerberg rather a wide berth for these comments. There are very few of who could honestly stand up and account for everything we said or did as teenagers.

Unfortunately nowadays so much of what we do is ultimately processed through digital channels. Texts, emails, IMs, chatrooms, Twitter and social networking sites all add up to a massive virtual paper trail. We are effectively recording and potentially archiving even the most mundane or damning aspects of our lives.

Living online to the state we do now, is in some ways like drilling for oil in the deep, deep sea. In both instances we are exploring uncharted, and sometimes dangerous territory.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pac-Man Hits Google

Google celebrated the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man's release today be putting up it's first ever playable logo doodle. I came across it myself earlier today when I arrived at Google's homepage.

Always being one to take advantage of any excuse to put off actually working, I played a couple quick games on it. Aside from having to use your mouse instead of a joystick, it was a lot like the real game on a smaller scale.

Coming across Pac-Man on Google like that got me to thinking a bit about what computers were when Pac-Man came out compared to what they are now.

The computer was still something of a novelty or a luxury item back in 1980. Similar to the automobile around 1915: interesting and perhaps a bit trendy, but none-to-practical. Back then most of us interacted with computers by playing video games like Pac-Man in arcades or on Atari systems at home.

I can remember teachers and friends of my parents talking about how important computers were going to be at the time. Since my only experience of computers at that point was playing video games, this sounded hopeful to me.

Much like the automobile, the computer grew into itself over the next fifteen years. By 1995 the computer was like the automobile in the early 1930s: here to stay.

In the fifteen years between Pac-Man and 1995, which is approximately when the boom began, computers laid the groundwork that would forever integrate them into our lives. Much as the automobile did in the 1920s.

Just as better roads and highways helped the automobile proliferate, it was the information superhighway that really entrenched the computer in our day-to-day lives. Before the Internet, having a computer was kind of like having a car before highways. It was kind of neat, but it really couldn't get you anywhere.

Computers and the Internet have liberated people in a way that closely parallels the manner in which the automobile liberated people in the mid-20th century. Back then cars and highways made us free to explore the entire country. In the 1990s computers and the Web made us free to explore the entire universe, virtually at least.

Essentially, computers, like cars, have helped human beings to close distances. They've made communication easier which has the effect of bringing people closer together. Both cars and computers have been instrumental in bringing us closer to the "Global Village" idea put forth by Marshall McLuhan.

Unfortunately all that bring together has not been without some fall-out.

One thing we are more acutely aware of now than we were back when Pac-Man came out is that the global village has got quite a few streets on it that you don't want to walk down.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Sporty, Affordable Mac Laptop

The new $999.00 MacBook that is available from Apple Computer, is kind of the computer equivalent of a Japanese sport coupe': affordable, fast and economic. This year's model of the popular MacBook laptop has a speedier processor under the hood, better quality graphics and even longer battery life.

Visually, however the MacBook is more like a Porsche than a Japanese sports car. Not because the MacBook is particularly sporty looking but more because, like Porsches, they seem to look basically the same from year to year. Accordingly the new MacBook has essentially the same white unibody as last year's model.

But while it may look like the same old MacBook, this years model is more like a muscle car under the hood. Powered by a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, the new MacBook makes it much easier to speed through everyday tasks like checking email and navigating the Web. It also gives a nice boost to graphic performance.

The battery has also been revved up a little bit and is purported to last up to ten hours, which is three more than last years model.

The new MacBook is also very affordable for a Mac laptop. This makes it easier to consider some of the enticing extra options that are available. You can boost the MacBook's RAM to 4GB for $100. For $50 you can add a 320GB drive and for $150 more you can add one that's 500GB.

If the new MacBook lives up to it's promise this could be one of the best computer buys of the year so far. Speedy, affordable and energy efficient, if they could make a car with the same characteristics as this computer, I'd probably recommend that you buy that as well.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hacking Into Cars?

In Friday's blog, I discussed the some of the ways our computers are like cars. Well apparently there are also many ways in which our cars are like computers. For one thing, they can be hacked into.

Most cars made since the early to mid 1990s now have on-board diagnostic computer. University researchers, preparing a paper for the Internet security conference in Oakland next week, have discovered that it is possible to hack into these on-board computers. And what hackers can do upon gaining access to your car's computer is far more alarming than some annoying old spyware.

Researchers found that by hacking into a car's on-board diagnostic computer they were able to do things like turn off the breaks, control the speedometer read out and turn the air conditioning and radio off and on at will. They were also able to hack into the body controller system which is used to pop open the trunk, open windows and blow the horn. And they found that it was possible to lock the driver and passengers inside a car.

Many of the attacks developed by the researchers employed a technique known as "fuzzing," in which they merely launched random packets at a component to see what it would do.

This is perhaps another timely illustration of just how interwoven into our lives computers have become. While in the old days spies and mobsters would have to plant bombs or cut break lines in cars, in the future they could very well plant a small computer under the hood and do the dirty work that way.

Prank hackers could tune your radio to a country and western station, blast the volume, turn your heat all the way up and lock your windows. Or worse. . .

Thankfully the researchers said there is little risk for these kind of incidents at the moment. Such hacking requires a high degree of technical sophistication. Not only that but, in order to hack into and control a car, hackers would actually have to plant a computer on the car. However they did warn that manufacturers and shareholders should consider this risk in their future planning.

Stefan Savage, an associate professor at the University of California in San Diego, believes that, "This is an (automotive) industry issue." Adding that, "Computer control is essential to a lot of safety features that we depend on. When you expose those same computers to an attack, you can have very surprising results, such as you put your foot down on a brake pedal and it doesn't stop."

Does this mean that anti-virus and security software needs to become the latest security options available for new cars? When you consider the wireless and Internet enabled systems the auto industry is currently proposing for future model cars, the answer is, quite possibly yes.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The New Yahoo Browser Toolbar

Welcome to another edition of Computers As Humans, the high tech blog that strives to make computers if not cool, at least not cold. While doing my preparations for today's blog I took a glance at the automotive section of the paper before logging onto the tech news on the Web.

Online I got a pop-up advert for the new Yahoo toolbar add on for my browser. Always being one to take advantage of any opportunity to put-off work, I downloaded and installed the app.

It's a pretty cool addition to the browser overall.

Among other things it allows you to keep track of your email, the weather and your Facebook constantly, from wherever you are currently browsing. So I figure the time I've wasted so far downloading and installing it will actually be made up in the long run, as I won't constantly have to check to see if I have new email or if anyone has commented on my latest exciting status update.

Anyway between the new browser app and scanning the car pages, I got to thinking about just how much our web browsers and homepages are like the dashboards of car. They are the thing we look out over as we gaze out the windscreens that are our monitors while travelling the information superhighway.

However unlike the dashboards of our cars, web browsers and home pages are much easier to customize. You can choose your browser, add a theme to it, put some apps on it. If only we could do the same with our cars!

Okay, maybe it's good that we can't actually because if I could put soccer news on the dash of my car, you know I would.

If a web browser is a dashboard then it's easy to see how computers could be cast as the cars we use to drive through the virtual world. Some people are driving fast, flashy new ones, others broken down old slow ones. And just as it is with cars, most us probably have something more in the middle (Although for the record I think my car has more comfortable seats than the one I'm sitting in now).

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all drive the car of our dreams, or at least have a newer computer? Of course it would be. But as the old song goes, "You can't always get what you want."

Well until then I guess we're at least lucky to have the new Yahoo browser toolbar.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Envisioning the Cyber Super Attack

Software security researchers at announced this week that they'd devised a cyber-attack that would be capable of bypassing just about any existing anti-virus application on the market today. This theoretical cyber-super villain would apparently be able to sneak right past the likes of McAfee, Trend Micro, BitDefender and others.

The proposed method of attack would work by sending a sample of benign code in order to bypass security measures before then switching it with malignant data at the last minute. This nefarious bait and switch is like the computer equivalent of the enemy using a stolen password to infiltrate one's position in battle.

Just as an enemy agent infiltrating a position would take out the guards first, this attack would also be capable of taking our your anti-virus program, leaving you wide open to all manner of attacks.

And just as in a real-world operation of this sort, for this method of attack, it all comes down to timing. The attack must time it's bait and switch perfectly, not switching out for the malignant code too early or too late.

The good news is that only anti-virus applications that use System Service Descriptor Table, or SSDT to interact with Windows would be vulnerable. The bad news is that practically all anti-virus programs use SSDT hooks to interact with Windows.

As the researchers themselves put it, "100% of the tested products were found vulnerable." They went on to list a total of 34 products that would be vulnerable to an attack from this proposed digital super-weapon.

However the researchers also stated that such software would be large, and unwieldly. Meaning it would take a long time to download. Therefore a conventional hit and run cyber-attack would probably not offer enough time for the attack to sneak through.

But what if the attack were to attach itself to a vulnerable version of a commonly downloaded program such as Adobe Reader or Oracle's Java Virtual Machine? It would then be able to sneak right past your AV programs, install itself and take out your security like some kind of malevolent nano-ninja.

Of course at the moment this is mostly theoretical and there is no real world danger of such an attack . . . that we aware of. However it remains to be seen whether anti-virus producers will heed the threat seriously enough to come up with preventative measures before such an attack does arise.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sloppy Play

By now most people have heard that the Dow Jones Industrial Average suddenly plummeted 1,000 points on Thursday of last week. While the exact cause of the sudden drop remains mysterious, many are attributing it to a computer error. With more than 60% of the trading that takes place in this country now occurring on computers, this may not be entirely surprising.

Computer-based trading relies on high-tech algorithms that can buy and sell without human intervention. But in this case, many are also saying that computers weren't entirely to blame. Apparently a single human error set off a chain reaction of events that lead computers around the world to start selling before anyone could intervene.

In a world with a bad case of the jitters caused by economic downturns and failed Time Square bombings, it's easy to see how such events could have lead to a bigger drop and more widespread economic panic that would have snowballed. And that's a frightening thing to consider.

I like to think of it being like a bad pass in soccer. A bad pass on it's own may do little more than slow down a team's attack. However if such a pass is intercepted it can lead to a counterattack and in a worse case scenario, a goal for the opposition.

Human errors and computer glitches can be like the bad passes of the modern world. Mostly they are relatively harmless. But then there are other times when they get out of hand and then they are not.

Thursday's plummet, if indeed it was computer related, was like making a bad pass, loosing possession of the ball and then regaining it. What I mean to say is that things may not have gotten quite as bad as they could have. But sloppy play is sloppy play. And there's no room for that in the big leagues.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mobilizing for the Cyberwars

Any remaining doubts people had regarding the potential seriousness of cyber-terrorism were put to rest last year when it was revealed that spies had hacked into the U.S. power grid and planted software designed to create disruptions. That incident and several others have increased the chatter about the potential for cyberwar.

While addressing this week's Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit, Microsoft's Scott Charney, stated that the threat was, "confusing," and that cyber-threats ought to be differentiated. The four categories he proposed were conventional computer crimes, military espionage, economic espionage and cyberwarfare.

Charney went on to say that, "it appears that neither governments nor industry are well-positioned to respond to this highly complex threat and that, from a policy and tactical perspective, there is considerable paralysis." Charney also spoke of the potential of an electronic Pearl Harbor and the subesquent need for an electronic Geneva Convention to protect the interests of non-combatants.

It's fascinating stuff, and it raises the question of, are we now in some kind of sleeping giant state regarding the threat of cyber-conflict? Similar to the state of the country before WWII or the post-millenial lacksadaisicalness of pre 911? Perhaps we should be preparing for the possibility of conflict by. . . well. . .mobilizing.

This is what you do to prepare for war after all isn't it? It raises the interesting question, how would a nation mobilize for a cyberwar? It seems it would play out as some kind of surreal inversion of mobilizing for actual war.

Instead of factories churning out tanks and planes you'd see computer geaks working round the clock bolting down motherboards and constructing mainframes. Unlike the strapping commandos you'd find in conventional special forces, cyber-commandos would be a much scrappier breed. Gangly, bespectacled nerds with pen protectors in the front pocket of their fatigues, hacking their way in and out silently, likes ghosts in the night.

Rosie the Riveter, icon of homefront in WWII would be replaced by Patty the Programmer, sleeves of her white blouse rolled up with the jacket of her khaki business suit slung cavalierly over the back of her chair. The blackout order wouldn't be because of air raids, but to conserve electricity for the all-important digital war machine.

Its sounds funny, but in truth the casualties in a cyberwar could be quite serious. Beyond the banking system and the power grid, consider how integral computers are to government, medicine, law enforcement, communication and transportation. A well-executed cyber-attack could quite literally bring the country to it's knees.

Charney is not alone in thinking that part of the problem is in the labelling. James Isaak, president of IEEE Computer Society believes, "As soon as you say war, that's a government problem. And if that's not the nature of the problem we're dealing with, that's a disservice."

Indeed. However unlike conventional wars, cyber wars need not be fought between nations. In a cyberwar, one individual could potentially unleash worldwide havoc. And that. . .would be no laughing matter.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

iPad Outdoes World Cup and Justin Bieber

The iPad has been on the market for a month and a day now. Yesterday Apple reported that in that time they have sold over one million of the little tablet sized computers. That means the iPad has been moving at twice the speed of the original iPhone which "only" moved a million units after two months.

In the world of computers and tech there is simply nothing that can touch the iPad currently when it comes to sales figures. However the speed of the iPad's sales rate has lead Computers As Humans to ponder what else, if anything, is currently selling at the rate of one million a month.

Last month Associated Press reported that World Cup ticket sales have been lagging. With nearly half a million tickets that remain unsold, nearly a quarter of what's available, organizers fear games will be played out in partially empty stadiums. In the fact the roughly 1.5 million tickets that have been sold have been sold over a period of more than one year. So that's that.

Earlier this year Koichi Kondo, the executive vice president of Honda said he didn't even think the Honda insight would reach it's projected sales goal of 200,000 cars sold worldwide, never mind trying to sell a million in a month.

Even teen-pop sensation Justin Bieber can't seem to keep up with the iPad. His "My World 2.0" debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling an average of 92,000 copies a week for the first month. But that only amounts to just under 400,000 copies.

The numbers are in and for the month of April anyway, it seems as if the iPad is truly, the hottest iTem on Earth.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


The 22 year old college student who hacked into Sarah Palin's email account during the 2008 presidential election was sentenced Friday. David Kernell was convicted of of destroying records and unlawfully accessing a computer. He was acquitted of wire fraud charges and the jury is currently deadlocked regarding his felony identity theft charge.

Kernell, who got the former Alaska governor's email address from a news story, was able to access Palin's account by guessing the answers to her Yahoo security questions. It's funny, amazing and a little alarming to think that important public figures like Palin rely on the same flimsy security measures as the rest of us.

While Kernell is the son of a Tennessee Democratic state representative, he didn't really use any of the information he got from hacking Palin's account for political ends. The now highly paid lecturer and author however was quick to seize Kernell's conviction as an opportunity to gain some political capitol, stating that, "Violating the law, or simply invading someone's privacy for political gain, has long been repugnant to American's sense of fair play." Invoking the W-word, she went on to say, "As Watergate taught us, we rightfully reject illegally breaking into candidate private communications for political intrigue in an attempt to derail an election."

While it would be tempting to say that the lady doth protest too much and what happened to her was more characteristic of a college prank than devious political intrigue, her invocation of Watergate is actually pretty insightful.

For what one once needed burglars to accomplish could now far more easily be done with computer hackers. If some college kid can access a vice presidential candidates emails by presumably guessing her mother's maiden name and what year she graduated high school, imagine the kind of shenanigans a professional hacker with an offshore bank account could get up to.

In the future there are unlikely to be any hotel break-ins at Democratic or Republican campaign headquarters. The political dirty tricks of the new millenium are most certainly going to take place in the digital world. In fact they undoubtedly already are.