Sunday, October 31, 2010

Google and The Italian Job

Internet giant Google found itself in a bit of trouble in Italy this week. Italian prosecutors are apparently investigating the Internet search engine on the basis that the data collected for Google's Street Search feature may have been done so in a manner that violates Italian privacy laws.

Apparently in the process of capturing images for the service, which offers detailed views of various locations around the world, Google inadvertently has also captured fragments of private communications sent out over various Wi-Fi networks. Many of the fragments are just that, fragments, however there were some instances in which names, passwords, whole communications and other sensitive information were also captured.

Google, for their part, have made no effort to deny the allegations, releasing a statement saying they had, "mistakenly collected unencrypted Wi-Fi payload data using our street view cars." The company has vowed to delete the data as soon as possible and to improve its privacy and security practices in the future.

Obviously a private company attempting to encircle the globe with street view photography is touchy business. Google already has an uncomfortable inside knowledge of most people's Internet activities. The fact that they've got people on the ground with cameras attempting to photograph every neighborhood in the world is bound to ruffle some feathers.

Italian authorities are not concerned so much with preventing Google from continuing on with their Street View project but more with mandating the company to warn people in advance when their cars will be in an area. Italian blogger Vittoria Zambardino says that Google should be praised for owning up to the breach adding that, "No one can dispute the beauty and utility of the Street View project."

If Google chooses to remain the World's nosy neighbor, as they undoubtedly will, this is likely not the last instance of this kind we can expect to hear about.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Usain Bolt of Computers

Anyone who watched the 2008 Summer Olympics is surely familiar with the achievements of Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter set a world record for the 100 m sprint and is the current World and Olympic champion in the 100 m, the 200 m and the 4 x 100 m relay. Bolt ran his races almost as if he was in an event by himself, dusting his competition and leaving the other runners essentially in a scrap for second place.

Reports emerged today that computer designers in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin are on the verge of unveiling a new supercomputer that like Bolt, will be the fastest on Earth. That computer, the Tianhe-1, utilizes chips that were manufactured in the U.S. which is also home to what is currently considered the fastest computer on Earth.

With a sustained computing speed of 2,507 trillion calculations per second, the Tianhe-1 is 1.4 times faster than the current title holder which is housed in a national laboratory in Tennessee. In the words of Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist who monitors the official rankings for supercomputers, the Tianhe-1, "blows away the existing number one machine."

However, as in sports, computing records are made to be broken. Just as Bolt shattered previously existing records, newer and faster computers are coming along every year. Steven J. Wallach, a computer designer, likened the Tianhe-1 to the four-minute mile, saying "The world didn't stop. This is just a snapshot in time."

As a matter of fact the Tianhe-1, which hasn't even officially been crowned the fastest on Earth, already has competition. Computer designers in Japan are currently developing a machine called the K Computer in an effort to claim the title for Japan. So just how long the Tianhe-1 will reign is anybody's guess.

Usain Bolt on the other hand is just 24 which means he will be 26 at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. So when it comes to setting new records or holding on to existing ones, I'd put my money on the Jamaican.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Tipping Point for Mac Security

As Mac users we've enjoyed a good, long, relatively worry-free ride, happily surfing the web for the better part of a decade and a half with no fear of malware, spyware, pop-up ads and all those other "PC problems." Well those days may be ending.

Ivan Fermon, the senior vice president of product management at Panda Security says that we may be nearing "a tipping point." You see Mac has been doing well recently. Perhaps too well in some regard. According to Fermon, "it will soon be financially viable for cybercriminals to target their efforts at Mac users." While this is good news for Steve Jobs and the people at Apple, it may be a wake up call for many of us.

Panda receive some 55,000 new security threats on a daily basis. The firm has apparently identified over 5,000 different types of malware that are specifically targeted towards Macs.

So you know all those complicated anti-virus, security and firewall applications you never pay attention to? Well it may be about time to start paying attention to them.

To that end Panda has developed an application called Panda Antivirus for Mac which is available for $49.95 and can be downloaded from the company's website:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Shrinking Internet

As someone who began his online career during the heyday of the '90s boom in San Francisco, I can remember when the Internet didn't seem all that big. Most people were on AOL, a few were trying something new called Yahoo and most online content consisted of words and still pictures. Believe me it was a good time to be a web writer and probably a photographer for that matter.

Nowadays the Internet is just so much bigger. There is a seemingly infinite amount of content available in either written, video, musical or graphics form. Much of our use of the Internet now consists of trying to filter out useless or unwanted information in the form of advertising, poor search results and bad links.

To that end the good people at Bing and Facebook have gone into a partnership that could make the web feel smaller and homier once again. The social networking site and Bing's parent company, Microsoft, rolled out a new search feature wherein people's Facebook friends, profiles and 'likes' will be integrated into search results.

The "social search" feature, as it is called, will be available when people are using the Bing search engine while logged into facebook. It is anticipated that by using one's likes, interests and other Facebook information as a kind of "search filter" Bing will be able to provide more relevant, tailor-made search results.

1998 was like a million years ago in Internet time. The days of one giant communal, AOL-centered web experieince are long gone. The web is vast and overwhelming. So when big web players like Bing and Facebook stand shoulder-to-shoulder and try to create a more user-friendly experience, it brings the web back under control to some degree. Search optimization is after all at its best when it guides what we experience on the web through filtering and sorting out what we don't want to see from what we want to.

None of this will make the web smaller, but it can make our own experience of it more manageable and enjoyable. Kind of like living in a cozy neighborhood in the middle of a big-city.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mandatory Health Care for Computers?

Network operators are abuzz everywhere, demanding increased levels of security following the detection of a dangerous new stream of malware designed to attack computer systems at industrial facilities. The "Stuxnet worm," has been raising alarm bells ever since it took over an Iranian nuclear facility in June.

Recent reports have indicated that as many as 220,000 new cases of malware are diagnosed every day. Clearly the problem represents a growing threat.

Security firms are responding to this growing threat seemingly by acquiring or being acquired by one another. For starters Hewlett Packard bought Arcsight and Intel bought McAfee. Symantech has remained independent as have international firms like Sophos in the U.K. But practically all of them are currently negotiating about new partnerships or acquisitions.

Shoring up resources in this manner enables one single company to provide more comprehensive service to their customers. Standing shoulder to shoulder is also in part a response to customers demands that security companies work in cooperation with one another to cast a more uniform blanket of security across the web.

Right now security firms seem very open to working in cooperation with one another so perhaps there is no need for government mandated minimum standards. As I alluded to in my last entry, that's probably a good thing considering the current state of political debate in this country.

Otherwise we might wind up with Tea Party rallies where protesters carry signs that say "Pop-ups ads are Free Enterprize" as they demand that no one infringes upon their right to have their computers infected by spyware.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Quarantine for Computers

Scott Charney is a guy who works at Microsoft with an interesting theory on how to manage the problem of infected computers passing malicious software on to other computers. Charney believes that infected computers should be quarantined just as we would with a sick person.

It's actually not a bad idea and Charney makes a convincing argument for the case, explaining that, "Just as when an individual who is not vaccinated puts others' health at risk, computers that are not protected or have been compromised with a bot put others at risk and pose a greater threat to society."

Quarantining for computers is actually feasible through the use of what's known as network access protection, or NAP. NAP applications are used to analyze the security apparatus for a given computer before allowing it to connect with a network. Computers that are deemed unsafe for a variety of reasons are redirected to a site that details minimum-security requirements.

However as Charney points out in his own blog posts, the vast number of botnets and computers that host malicious software are owned by consumers. As consumers we have no IT department or regularly scheduled system maintenance. We just want our computer to work like any other piece of electronics around the house. So most people don’t spend a lot of time on sophisticated security applications. And even if they did, it might not be enough.

Charney's solution can be seen as being inline with the policy of not letting people with highly contagious diseases fly. As Charney says, "In the physical world, international, national, and local health organizations identify, track and control the spread of disease which can include, where necessary, quarantining people to avoid the infection of others."

Of course trying to implement system-wide security standards for all Internet users would be an enormous logistical challenge. Not only that but in light of the Tea Party's seeming resistance to any kind of restriction being added to anything, anywhere, it would likely become a hotbed political issue if it were proposed in an election year.