Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guerilla War On the Internet

No, I'm not talking about the latest online, multi-user video game. I'm talking about an actual organized, digital guerilla campaign by a group of militant online activists against the government of an autonomous nation. That group is called `Anonymous' and the government they are threatening to target is that of Egypt which the group allege is an autocratic regime.

In recent days the Mubarak government has been accused of blocking Twitter and Facebook in an effort to stem the ripple effect being felt in the country after Tunisia's `Jasmine Revolution' earlier this month. In that popular uprising people overthrew an autocratic dictator who'd been in power for 23 years.

Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites have been widely used in Egypt to denounce President Mubarak and to organize protests and other actions. The government in Cairo has denied any such wrongdoings. Nonetheless the activists at `Anonymous' have already began attacking Egyptian government websites in distributed denial of service attacks. They claim to have already been successful in bringing down the Egyptian Interior Ministry's website (As of 10:46 a.m. Pacific time, I can't get the thing to load).

Anonymous have invited anyone to download the necessary software to take part in the DDoS campaign which they have labeled "Operation Egypt."

In the post Wiki-world we are continually moving into more uncharted territory. As Google tries to virtually encompass the globe we are discovering how the centrality of computers to every aspect of our lives can empower bands of hackers to potentially trigger events which could foment revolution and bring down governments. Love them or hate them, Assange, Wikileaks and Anonymous represent a new breed of digital revolutionary.

Previous targets of attacks by Anonymous include Scientology and various websites deemed by the group as "anti Wikileaks."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Virtuoso Virus

Carberp has got to be the best name for a computer virus I've heard yet in 2011. But in fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with cars and is instead a piece of banking malware that is so newly emerged no one has done a Wikipedia entry for it yet (Good opportunity for some lucky super-geek out there!).

Carberp is a data stealing Trojan that infiltrates a user's computer covertly and disguises itself as a legitimate piece of software. Like many pieces of existing malware Carberp also removes anti-virus software. However where Carberp has gone all 2.0 and taken malware to the next level is that it has the ability to upgrade itself automatically. Jeez . . I wish my web browser program was that convenient.

The program was first discovered back in October and is designed to attack users who operate on a Windows based system. The key factor that makes researchers want to keep on eye on Carberp is that like the Zeus virus before it, Carberp represents a new level of sophistication. But whereas Zeus could only make HTTP requests in one key, Carberp can use a different random key every time it makes such a request. You are now probably wondering what this means in English so I'll tell you.

Most security software monitors traffic signatures to detect and root out potential threats. Carberp's ability to change keys so fluidly allows it to evade this manner of detection. This could make it potentially very hard to stop.

In soccer some players repeatedly make the same play. You know it's coming but it can still be hard to stop. However some players are capable of coming at you in a million different ways and are completely unpredictable. Players like that are much harder to stop. If Carberp played soccer you better believe it would be such a player.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Computers as Currency?

Computers have changed our lives in countless different ways, big and small, in a relatively short time period. One area where they have made a particularly big impact has been the retail sphere.

Computers have utterly reshaped the global retail landscape in the last decade. Borders Books, the ever-expanding retail behemoth of the '90s has been hobbled in recent years, closing as many as 200 stores. Sure part of it is the economy but mainly it's due to the fact that people don't buy books anymore and when they do they buy them online at Amazon. But mostly they just download them to their Kindle or iPad and read them virtually.

Record stores have already largely gone by the wayside, a victim of online downloads, both legal and illegal. Video stores are closing their doors mainly due to NetFlix but partially because of consumers' ability to stream the movies and shows they want to watch online.

In the midst of a retail landscape that is collapsing like CGI buildings in the John Cusack disaster film 2012 Starbucks have introduced another digital innovation that could change the retail landscape yet again.

The coffee shop chain have introduced an app that will allow consumers to use their iPhone, iPod Touch or Blackberry as legal tender for making purchases. The Starbucks Card Mobile app will enable users to carry a virtual Starbucks Card on their mobile device that can be reloaded via PayPal. The app will also automatically track rewards on accumulated purchases made.

Using your phone to buy coffee is as simple as selecting the "touch to pay" option and holding the barcode on your device's screen up to the 2D scanner at the register.

As to whether the app will catch on let alone lead to more retail outlets sponsoring such apps, only time will tell. But given recent history and the fact that people are willing to let once cherished media like books, records, CDs and DVDs go in favor of digital media, there is little reason to doubt that consumers might be willing to cut the cash out of the equation in favor of the tidier process of making in-store purchases digitally.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cyber Espionage

In a report yesterday the New York Times revealed that the Stuxnet worm may have been designed by the Israelis with the aid of U.S. intelligence. The worm raised alarm bells in the cyber-security community last year when it attacked nuclear power facilities in Iran.

Stuxnet was designed to effect computer control systems manufactured by the German company Siemens. Such systems are used around the world to manage critical infrastructure like water supplies and power plants.

There have been incidents of the Stuxnet worm appearing in the United States, India, Germany, Australia, Finland and the U.K. among other countries. But Iran has suffered a higher incidence of attacks than all other countries combined with some 62,867 computers having been infected. It is believed that the purpose of the attacks against Iran was to spin the centrifuges of nuclear power facilities out of control and cripple Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weaponry.

If these allegations about the U.S. and Israel prove true, as they very likely are, it represents a good illustration of the changing manner in which espionage and covert military operations will be conducted in the 21st century. Tasks that would once have been accomplished by commando raids or black-ops spy teams can now be handled by professional hackers in government employ.

The attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities which took place last summer are thought to have been a kind of test run. What Stuxnet's creators, whoever they really are, ultimately have in mind for the worm remains unclear. However if it is Israeli in origin than the prevention of Iran from attaining nuclear arms is one likely objective.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What is Computers As Humans Alex?

IBM have developed a new computer system that is designed to answer questions that are posed in natural, conversational language rather than complex computer code. The computer, known as "Watson," while not connected to the Internet has digested thousands of books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, film scripts, news reports and more to acquire a broad base of knowledge.

So just what does IBM intend to do with Watson? Why put it on Jeopardy of course!

Watson will be going up against two former Jeopardy champions next month in a battle for $1 million dollars in prize money with the second place winner collecting $300,000 and third place runner up taking $200,000. If Watson wins IBM will donate the money to charity while the two former Jeopardy champs, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, have also both pledged to donate half their winnings.

Is their a point to putting a computer on a game show you wonder? According to IBM there is. David Ferrucci who is the leader of the Watson development project believes going on the long running Trebek-hosted game show will, "drive the technology in the right direction."

Ultimately it is hoped that computers like Watson, which consists of 10 racks of IBM servers, has 15 terabytes of RAM and runs on Linux, can aid humans in the speedier diagnosis of medical conditions or expediting the process of legal research.

The developers at IBM believe Jeopardy is a good approximation for the kind of real world situations they want Watson to be able to handle.

"It has all kinds of things," says Ferrucci. "The confidence aspect, don't answer if you don't think you're right. You have to do it really quickly."

Like all Jeopardy questions Watson has been taught to answer with a question, given a buzzer and will stand in front of a podium. In this case by proxy consisting of the IBM Smart Planet logo on an LCD screen that will flicker and fluctuate to represent its processing.

Watson will take on Rutter and Jennings over three days from February 14th through the 16th.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Firefox Tops the Table In Europe

Firefox has overtaken Internet Explorer for the first time to become the most popular browser used in Europe. Current figures put Firefox as having a 38.11% market share while IE has dropped down to 37.52%.

This change at the top of the table is not so much a result of Firefox gaining ground as it is one of IE losing market share to Google's now Chrome browser. If you were put it into the terms of the current English Premier League title race it'd be like Arsenal taking points away from Manchester City and allowing Manchester United to get clear at the top of the table.

Actually the numbers in the Premier League race are very close to those in the browser race with Arsenal holding 39 points in third while City and United are tied at the top of the table with 41. That means if they were in competition with each other Firefox would be in fourth place right behind Arsenal with Internet Explorer in fifth just above Spurs.

As to whether or not Arsenal will act as Google Chrome and bleed points away from City, we'll find out at noon tomorrow when the two clash. The question of whether IE will ever be the top team on the European browser market table again is more difficult to answer. Google Chrome has experienced a tremendous burst of growth on the European market over the last year, having nearly tripled its market share. In Premier League terms this makes it seem less like Arsenal and rather more like Tottenham Hotspur who also enjoyed a tremendous 2010.

As to which race will be more intriguing to watch, well I'm betting that Premier League will be a bit more hotted up than the browser race. Facts and figures can be fun to juggle and play off one another however they're no substitute for the action that takes place out on the pitch.