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WhatsApp encryption and private communication April 9, 2016

Posted by Aonrud ⚘ in Internet security/privacy/information, Technology.

You may have seen during the week that WhatsApp have recently introduced end-to-end encryption, meaning even they (or the company’s owners in Facebook) can’t intercept the content of your communications.  With a billion users, WhatsApp have rolled this out quietly to a huge number of people.

Of course the response from state security in its various forms isn’t entirely positive.  For example, in the UK, Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Bill could essentially seek to ban private encrypted communication.  There are arguably legitimate cases law enforcement can point to, and there are plenty of unpalatable uses private communication can be put to, but ultimately this sort of choice is quite all-or-nothing. Unfortunately or otherwise, if there’s a back door of any kind, then your messages aren’t private, and guaranteeing only the ‘right’ parties can exploit that is difficult; and if they are properly encrypted, then they can’t be accessed, even in exceptional circumstances.  It’ll be interesting to see what sort of pressure WhatsApp experience in the aftermath of this.

That also points to the issue that this service remains proprietary, so there is still a single target which could ostensibly be forced to stop providing it.  Even though WhatsApp aren’t storing all your information (like, for example, Facebook are) you still require their software.  I heard someone suggest recently that privacy has somewhat replaced the free software (libre, not gratis) movement’s prominence in technology rights.  The two are intertwined of course, but WhatsApp points to the problem that removing the service requires only a single target, whereas decentralised, open source methods of communication (of which email, for all its flaws, is an example) are far harder to shut down.

Still, even though I’d prefer a decentralised free software alternative, credit where it’s due to WhatsApp for rolling out fully private communication to a huge swathe of people, many of whom may not have otherwise sought it out.

Coltan, Congo and a missed opportunity July 3, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Business, Choice, Ethics, FairPhone.
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You might have seen the article in the Irish Times about a conference at NUI Galway, on the subject of women and leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Apart from a one-paragraph nod towards Mary Robinson’s contribution, the Irish Times reported only about a plenary speech by Thomas Turner, who is a specialist for Amnesty International on the DRC.

Turner has written a number of books on the Congo and the war there. His message for the participants at the NUI conference dealt with campaigns on boycotting electronic equipment like mobile phones and games consoles because of the claims that the coltan, a mineral used in capacitors in small devices, contribute to rape and mass killings. His abstract for the conference is pretty clear on why that simplistic picture is a problem:

The latest such oversimplification, imposed by outsiders, concerns conflict minerals, mass killing and sexual violence. The Congo war is the bloodiest since World War Two, and the country is the “rape capital of the world”. However, there is a magic bullet that can put an end to the atrocities and that is banning “conflict minerals”. In recent weeks, it has been reported that most of the mines in eastern DRC are no longer controlled by warlords or militias, yet the level of rape and sexual violence remains high.

The Irish Times reports:

Mr Turner also cited the Kony 2012 campaign as another example where the public had been confused, with young people believing that if they bought a plastic bracelet they could eradicate use of child soldiers.

And this line that simple steps by western consumers and concerned citizens will not solve the underlying problems is reported in a review of Turnder’s book Congo:

avoiding the purchase of coltan-laden cell phones or mineral-containing gaming consoles is somewhat incoherent and unlikely to resolve the substantive issues

This has been a missed opportunity. I cannot tell if it was Turner or the Irish Times who missed it.

It is valid to point out the inadequacy of boycotts or of clocking up online views of the Kony video (99 million views since 2012).

But offering only criticisms of simplistic solutions is to do a disservice to those who engage with the messy complexities and work within them to try to bring real change. For example, Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, instead of boycotting coltan from the DRC has sought to secure sources of the mineral that reflect the concerns of the simplistic activists Turner criticises. And those who follow Fairphone’s work know that they are neither naive nor simplistic. They know full well that in a complex product like a mobile phone there are limits to what an organisation can do. But they also see the work they have done as only a first step.

By not exploring viable solutions and concentrating only on criticising those who are simplistic, Turner or the Irish Times, or both, missed an important opportunity.

Generation lack of empathy? April 11, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Technology.

A very depressing piece in the Guardian recently which touches on some appalling incidents in the recent past, most recently:

Hollie Gazzard [who] finished her shift in the hair salon she worked in, a young man stuck a blade in her flesh and stabbed her to death. Colleagues screamed as they watched her fall. Paramedics tried, but they couldn’t save her. People passing stared, as they always stare when tragedies unfold in front of their eyes. When there’s screaming, and crying, and blood flowing as a life ebbs away, it’s hard not to. But some of them didn’t just stare. They whipped out their phones and videoed it.

There’s something distinctly disturbing about the impulse of people to take photographs or video from phones of an attack or the aftermath of a murder.

Still, I wonder about the following:

…the ability of young people to empathise, according to recent research, might not be quite as well developed as their ability to post selfies on Instagram. The American psychologist Sara Konrath has collated evidence from 72 studies which seems to show that empathy levels among American college students are 40% lower than they were 20 years ago. In the last 10 years, she says, there has been an especially sharp drop.

Which is then linked to this:

Young people, according to a new book called The App Generation by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner and digital media expert Katie Davis, spend 80% of their time on social media talking about themselves. Eighty percent is quite a lot. If it’s 80%, you’ve got to call it narcissism. If it’s 80%, it’s narcissism on a sociopathic scale.

Even if one accepts the figure, and I’m not entirely convinced (for example, what does it mean to ‘talk about oneself’, is that the text on a site or is it in the interactions? Those are two somewhat different things), while it may be narcissistic it’s not necessarily sociopathic. Moreover the overall argument reifies social media and the centrality of same to perhaps an unsustainable level. Lots of people don’t interact with social media. Moreover there are many other more obvious culprits for a lessening in empathy (and even that’s a bit arguable, for it surely is context driven?). For example, to pick one and one alone, how about what is broadly termed neo-liberalism or to put it another way what some would see as right-wing socio-economic and political approaches? Couldn’t they have had an impact, particularly in the US in the dog eat dog context of contemporary advanced capitalism particularly in the era since Reagan? Add to that a particular economic decline in the past five years and perhaps a lack of empathy is to be regarded as inevitable.

It’s not that social media don’t come with negative effects and outcomes and more on that soon, but… it is difficult not to think that for all those who would whip out a phone during such events there are many more who would abhor such actions – at least in their most negative incarnation.

In orbit they’re decades behind… March 15, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Technology.
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…is the thought one has reading an interview with British astronaut Tim Peake in the Observer.

Is the space station full of 90s tech?

Sort of. It’s very weird [laughs]. I used to be a military test pilot so I’m trained to be extremely critical of cockpits and ergonomics. We strive for a very high level of performance in our military aircraft. I thought the space industry would be along the same lines, but the ISS first launched in 1998. Even then, the Russians used the same blueprints as for the Mir space station, so some of it goes back even further, to the late 70s. Then a Soviet space station is attached to an American one, with European and Japanese labs attached to that … Well, it’s never going to be seamless. There’s a lot of workarounds and old technology. On the Soyuz craft, the Russians have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, so there are huge oxygen valves that haven’t been changed since the 60s.

Sounds a bit Doctor Who or slightly steampunk?

Yes! It’s a funny, fascinating blend of old and new. And it’ll stay that way because the ISS will be up there until 2024. New technology’s constantly going on board. We’ve got highly advanced equipment like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which looks for dark matter outside the space station, but an antiquated environment in other respects. There’s iPads and Google Glasses, mixed with clunky, shoebox-sized units. But it all works and that’s the beauty of it. We’ve managed to bring nations and technologies together.

In a way it’s no surprise. The Soviet/Russian approach of tried and trusted tech makes a lot of sense. Indeed one could argue that the reappraisal of what is near enough 1950s/60s technology by the United States in the aftermath of the end of the Shuttle programme is not dissimilar. Lobbing capsules into orbit is a far cry from the idea of a reusable space plane. Sure, it didn’t work out that way, but if feels like a retreat.

But there’s another point here. I’d not realised the ISS was going to be decommissioned in 2024. But even there we see different approaches as evidenced here. The Russians hope to reuse elements of the ISS as the core of future stations.

And this, from last year, is sobering:

NASA’s efforts to develop capabilities for both commercial cargo and crew currently only have the ISS as a destination. When the ISS is finally splashed into the Pacific, there will be no destination and no market for Dragon, Dream Chaser, Cygnus, and CST-100 if no replacement is developed. If the replacement is another government-owned and -developed station, the growth potential for commercial cargo and crew will be limited. If commercial stations can be successful, commercial financing opportunities of space based businesses will have the potential for more rapid growth.

In other words there’s the chance that an international station won’t be in orbit post-2024. Whether the much-vaunted commercial space sector can take up the slack seems to be a very open question. And meanwhile some states are taking a – perhaps – longer term view.

Buddy, can you spare a… February 25, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Technology.

Those of us inclined to scepticism about Bitcoin will not have been entirely surprised by the following:

MtGox, once the largest bitcoin exchange in the world, has disappeared from the internet with many millions of dollars of customer deposits.
The company’s site, MtGox.com, resolves to an empty page as of Tuesday morning, while its Twitter account was wiped blank on Monday. On Sunday, its chief executive Mark Karpeles resigned from the board of the Bitcoin Foundation, the charity that promotes the use of the cryptocurrency.

I like that term crypto currency. It works on many different levels. Anyhow:

MtGox’s apparent closure also follows the leak of what is alleged to be a “crisis strategy document” from the company, which says that almost 750,000 bitcoins (currently worth more than £200m) are “missing” due to theft which went unnoticed for several years.

Hmmm… This next is priceless – so to speak:

The document suggests that a temporary closure, and rebrand to “Gox.com”, may be enough to clean the company’s image. As for making up the missing millions, it proposes asking “bitcoin big players and the core community” to donate money. The rationale is that the total collapse of MtGox would be so bad for the digital currency that everyone who is invested in bitcoin will have a motivation to keep it alive.

Yes, that’s right. MtGox wants money from others – free gratis and for nothing in order to keep the system going. Sounds depressingly familiar, privatise gains, socialise (well, okay, it’s a stretch, given that it’s only those who have bit coin, but work with me) losses.

As is this:

MtGox did not respond to requests for comment. The Japan-based company, which was originally known as the Magic the Gathering Online Exchange, began as a site for selling cards from the popular Magic trading card game. It rapidly pivoted into selling bitcoin in 2010, and was sold to Mark Karpeles in 2011. By April 2013 it handled 70% of the world’s bitcoin trades.

Okaaaaay. Scroll down to the comments and it’s genuinely amazing how loyal some are to the concept of Bitcoin – even when they say (and who can tell how serious they are or not) that they’ve lost money in the strange disappearance of MtGox. That’s a faith based belief system if ever I saw one.

BTW, I’m not entirely sceptical about private currencies developing in the future, but there’s an element of this being a solution for which there is no known problem.

Would you want to set up FairPhone? January 14, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Choice, Community, Employment Rights, Environment, Ethics, FairPhone, Human Rights, Technology, Workers Rights.

Who in their right mind would want to set up FairPhone? Obviously you can check out their site to find out who actually did set it up as a Dutch social enterprise, but would you want to?

Park, for a moment, the ‘fair’ bit and think about what is involved setting up a company to make a new smartphone. Smartphones are complex products, with chips, capacitors, resistors, glass, sensors, casings, displays, batteries, cameras, speakers, antennae, sockets and other bits and pieces that I don’t know about. And you’d need software. You would also need to design all of this, or get people to do that for you, and to set up or find a factory to make it.

If you did do it, you would be going into a market with big brands like Samsung, iPhone, Sony, Nokia, HTC, and so on, so you would need a pretty strong selling point to attract customers from the products offered by those heavy-hitters.

Yeah, sure, whatever…but it’s no ekranoplan. August 24, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Technology.

Who could have missed this which was in the Irish Times, and then was picked up by Gizmodo… a Russian 550 ton Military Hovercraft ‘docked’ at a beach.

According to the Russian defense ministry this was within the territory of a military base – though Gizmodo was rather sceptical as regards that given the numbers of people sunbathing there, describing it in unflattering terms including ‘prison planet’. Perhaps so, though one has to note that said sunbathers didn’t exactly flee the beach, as far as we can tell.

And in any event this particular piece of military hardware is actually a bit less exotic than it seems.

The Zubr hovercraft are meant to be the largest in the world and can carry up to 500 troops or 8 amphibious tanks or – should the mood take you – three battle tanks.

But less exotic than it seems? Why sure. They’ve been sold to the Ukrainian Navy which operates two and… the Greek Navy which has four! So this particular hovercraft has the unusual qualification of being operated both by the Russians and a NATO member.

Anyhow, even if the Zubr is no ekranoplan (and speaking of which), it’ll do. It’ll do.

Cutting out the chatter? Well, not quite… June 17, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Irish Politics, Technology, Uncategorized.

Interesting piece in the Irish Times Business section last Friday. In a piece entitled “It’s no longer quite so good to talk” it is noted that “Figures published yesterday by communications watchdog ComReg show that total voice traffic has fallen 6.7 per cent over the past year.
The number of minutes we spend on landlines fell 2 per cent in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the “Christmas quarter” of 2012 and plummeted more than 11 per cent year-on-year.”
(by the way, in line with my continuing complaints about the IT website not bolding subheadings, well, check out the original piece online for an example of same and some – er – unique line setting).

Anyhow, more substantively, the piece continues by noting that:

That doesn’t mean we’re all talking on our mobiles instead. Mobile minutes account for 65 per cent of the market, but mobile voice traffic also fell 2 per cent in the quarter and is down 4 per cent annually.

So how is all this treated, this dip in usage of mobiles and land-lines for talking, or rather what explanation is offered?

Despite our sudden lack of anything much to say (or greater skill at cutting to the chase), the number of fixed-voice subscriptions has actually been on the rise since 2011.


…well, we may not be so keen to talk anymore, but we still spend more than 4 billion minutes on the phone each quarter.
ComReg doesn’t measure Skype minutes, so there may yet be hope for the art of chat after all.

Okay, this is a colour piece, of sorts, but even so, the obvious explanation isn’t that hard to divine and it has precious little to do with an aversion to chat… that explanation being, y’know, a recession that has left 13 to 14 per cent of the work force unemployed, that has seen wages frozen or cut, that has seen state provision cut back and then cut back again.

The view from the IT is sometimes mighty strange.

FairPhone June 11, 2013

Posted by Tomboktu in Community, Economics, Employment Rights, Environment, Ethics, Human Rights, Technology.
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[WorldByStorm suggested today that I move this up from a comment to a full post. I’ve uodated it because the time reference in the original is now out of date.]

Last year, I mentioned (in passing) that when I when I first bought a mobile phone, I made a point of buying from a telecoms company that recognises their workers’ union. I did not mention then that I had also done some research to see if I could buy a model that reflected my concerns — where the minerals are from, or union recognition for the people who make the actual phone.

So, I was pleased to see fairphone.com opened their new phone to pre-purchase.

On June 5 they hit their target of 5000 orders in order to go into production, and there are two days left to order one of the first batch.

And at the weekend just gone, they were working on aspects of the design their second phone.

The ethos is summed up in the invitation to the group of designers who participated in that workshop:

FairPhone was created because most people have no idea where the component parts of their mobile phone come from, how they are manufactured, and by whom. Bas: “Mobile phones are part and parcel of a complex economic and political system. We want to make this system visible to everyone. We do that by manufacturing the FairPhone, which unravels that system step by step.”

They recongise that their product is far from perfect — the rights of the workers is not secured through union recognition — but it’s better than any other phone I know of. Worth a look, I would suggest.

Pin hell June 3, 2013

Posted by Tomboktu in Internet, Modernity, Technology.

I recently succumbed to opening the online bank account that goes with my current account. (I had to — a service I needed is no longer provided in a branch.) With the online account goes a new 6-digit PIN and an eight-letter password. This weekend, I thought I would make use of this new facility and see if I can pay for an unusual purchase online. (It was one of these.) I could not remember the new passowrd. That reminded me of how much of my life involves PINs and passwords I am expected to remember:

  • the computer network at work
  • a separate number to get my payslipthe front door at work
  • a separate number for the door onto my floor at work
  • my personal laptop computer
  • my personal email account (there were two of those until ireland.com was closed)
  • my WordPress/CLR account
  • my (rarely used) Irish Left Review account
  • my account for the lgbt discussion board I pop into from time to time
  • my Irish Rail account, just so I can buy tickets online
  • the alarm at home
  • my mobile phone
  • my ATM card
  • my credit card
  • my public library account
  • the bin company account
  • my SSRN account (which I don’t need too often and have also forgotten).

I update my tax certificate each year to record the amount I paid in bin charges the previous year, and that has a PIN, but I never remember it and always fetch the envelope out of the file.

Somewhere in all of this there is a balance between security and madness. I think I’m reaching the boundary.

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