Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Saturday, October 9, 2010

After the quake

On waking up five weeks ago and hearing an Radio New Zealand announcer saying “we’ll tell you more about the earthquake in the news in ten minutes”, I did what everyone seeking instant news does these days – I reached for my iPhone and the Twitter feed on it. It was immediately clear that Christchurch had been hit by a large quake, at the time said to be 7.3, shallow and close to the city. There were many, many tweets about people’s experiences and their shock, and some were already carrying pictures of devastated buildings.

There are many human stories associated with the quake – the best being that no-one died – and it’s not my purpose here to go through those. I will say, though, that I was touched to discover that the thoughts of many Christchurch folk, after the main quake struck, were toward Wellington which they feared had been wiped from the map.

There are many people who have lost their houses or are living in homes with no sewage facilities. There are those who have lost businesses, and there is pretty much everyone in Canterbury who just wishes the endless aftershocks would stop. If that describes you, you have my sympathy and my respect. I’m not going to write more about the human cost, though. It just seems too early.

This post is a lament for the beautiful old buildings in the CBD, many of which have been lost already or will be over the next few weeks.

posted by colin at 11:15 am  

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On the radio today: the tribulations of Telecom mobile

Today on Radio New Zealand National I’ll be talking primarily about the recent failures of Telecom’s XT mobile network. I’ll be trying to uncover just what a radio network controller is, and how Telecom managed to ballyhoo a network which then kept failing.

After that, if there’s any time, we’ll have a brief look at a new theory of physics that may integrate gravity and quantum theory. Gosh. And, of course, steam cars.

I’ll be on air after the 11am news. If you don;t want to listen live, shortly after the programme, you’ll be able to get it as a podcast or just download the audio as ogg or mp3.

posted by colin at 8:18 pm  

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why censoring the Internet won’t work

Governments around the world are trying to get to grips with the notion that the Internet allows unfettered communications between individuals. This is a threat to almost all societies, and leads to “moral” arguments to control people’s access to, and activities on the Internet. It’s hard to draw a hard and fast line globally about what is moral to suppress and what is not, unless you take the view that the sharing of any kind of information is acceptable under any circumstances. I don’t take that view; there are some things in my view which are reprehensible or harmful and I am happy that my government tries to deal with them. The main area that comes to mind is child abuse images (CAI), a.k.a child pornography. However, agreeing that governments have the right to control some kinds of information on the Internet does leave us open to the “slippery slope” argument, which we have already seen operating across the government where the Australian government has tried to censor access to public information site Wikileaks because it published a list of sites already censored by the Australian government.

There are various measures available to Internet censors. China, for instance, runs the so-called “Great Firewall” – a single point of access for all Internet traffic entering and leaving the country. Centralized national firewalls offer a high level of control, but they find it hard to deal with traffic which is encrypted (as a lot of Internet traffic is, routinely). Almost invariably, they have to block a lot of material which is wider than their intended purpose, just to be sure. You can’t allow free access to Google if you don’t your population to even be able to search for specific concepts. Another issue is that the engineering for the great firewall gets quite problematic. It needs to be able to pass a great deal of traffic very quickly while filtering out the “bad” stuff. Finally, there needs to be a staff who are dedicated to controlling the filter, adding new sites to it, perhaps removing old ones, and generally dealing with issues it throws up.

A more limited technical measure is to control the Domain Name System (DNS) in the country. This means that people typing the address of a “bad” site into their browser would instead get a page saying “naughty naughty” or some such. In fact, if they knew the IP number to go to – and it wouldn’t be hard for a determined person to find this – they will evade this form of censorship altogether. This technique would involve its own engineering challenges as well as the problem of managing the list of bad sites.

And deciding what gets blocked is the core of the problem with automated, technical measures like the two described above. There’s no way for the general public to inspect the list of what gets blocked – if you publish the list, you are just publishing a list of sites that you don’t want people to go to. If you don’t publish the list, there is no accountability that governments will only block CAI (or whatever they have said they will). The list can and will expand for several reasons: incompetence, in the case of the Queensland dentist’s site blocked by the Australian filter; a desire to protect the filter itself (Wikileaks); and an extension or what we regard as repugnant or harmful, but don’t necessarily want a public debate about.

There is another technique that governments use to control what people do on the Internet. That is, simply, to watch what is going on within their country and apply real-world sanctions to people breaking the law. All countries do this to a greater or lesser extent. In New Zealand, for instance, the Department of Internal Affairs looks for images of child abuse (i.e. child pornography) and prosecutes people involved in making or trading them. The recent charges brought against a blogger for allegedly breaking a suppression order are another example. This approach seems the natural one for an open society like New Zealand to take. It relies on humans to detect and discern illegal activity rather than machines. That’s how our court system works. It’s also how law enforcement works. We don’t require people to have licences for cameras; of course not, cameras are widely used for a variety of entirely legal purposes. We prosecute people who use cameras to break the law. It should be the same for computers and the Internet.

To summarise: filtering the Internet is problematic technically, but most of all it is incompatible with a democratic open society. Prosecute the wrongdoers but leave the Internet alone.

posted by colin at 4:54 pm  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The trials of Gary McKinnon

In the UK, a man named Gary McKinnon is fighting departation to the US for “hacking” US military government and computer systems in 2001 and 2002. He’s in his forties, he has Asperger’s, and he’ facing up to 70 years in a US jail for something that would earn him a much lesser sentence anywhere else. Yet McKinnon committed his crimes while on British soil.

I’ll talk about his case today on Radio New Zealand National after the 11am news, as well as handing out a brickbat and a couple of bouquets. After the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 8:23 pm  

Saturday, June 6, 2009

“Cloud” computing?

There’s a lot of talk about cloud computing, which is the notion that your files might live and be processed somewhere out on the Internet rather than on your own PC or laptop. It has some advantages – you don’t need a powerful machine, you can use any computer, and the people looking after your files can afford to do a better job of it than you can. Disadvantages include some loss of control over your files and worries about confidentiality.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. Like everyone else, I’m horrified by the way an airliner has disappeared over the open ocean, with apparently nothing more than a storm to blame. None of us who fly will feel safe until we understand how that happened, and how we can stop it happening again.Grossi-7.png The information about what happened to the aircraft is contained in two so-called “black boxes” (although they are actually orange) which are held on board the aircraft, presumably now in some 4,000 metres of water. They are going to be pretty difficult to find and recover. And it’s not clear that they would survive a fall from 10,000m cruising altitude in the first place.

What I’m proposing here is that the flight information that the boxes record in civilian airliners be continuously transmitted back to land. The black box becomes a server at, maybe, Boeing or Airbus Industries. Information in transit would be encrypted and subject to the same controls as the black boxes are. When the worst happens, and an airliner crashes, we will always be able to reconstruct the flight information and cockpit voice.

Reports in the papers suggest that some telemetry was taking place, mentioning a “burst of automatic messages”. That’s some clue, perhaps, to what befell the aircraft and those aboard, but it’s nothing like as complete a record as the black boxes should hold.

Let’s hope that aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and safety regulators can make this happen.

posted by colin at 9:48 am  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Anatomy of a smear

I’ve been involved in the campaign against Section 92A of the Copyright Act since before the election. On at least two occasions I’ve heard from journalists that someone they wouldn’t name was trying to plant stories linking anti-S92A activists with, of all things, child pornography. We gritted our teeth and ignored it.

Last weekend this all broke wide open. Video rental shops in the larger chains tried to get their customers to sign a petition demanding that S92A be retained. In one of the United Video shops around Hamilton, at least, video shop staff were telling customers that this petition was all about stopping child pornography. They were told to say that, they said, by their manager. (more…)

posted by colin at 3:09 pm  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Technology changes the check-in desk

A better title might be Technology gets rid of the check-in desk, because that’s pretty much what Air New Zealand is doing for domestic passengers.

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about this and how it works. Read on for my speaking notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 2:00 pm  

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fixing the holes

Like the roof on my house, the DNS has holes. A really bad DNS hole got patched earlier this year – well, mostly patched. I say “patched”, because the solution isn’t very good, it’s just dried up the worst of the problem, but the fix won’t last.

Kim Davies of IANA has written a very readable account of the problem in DNS security. It makes for scary reading. The bad guys will get control of the Internet unless we deal to this problem.

I have bitten the bullet and agreed to have a new roof on my house. Just patching the old one won’t keep the water out any more – it just comes through another place every time it rains. The DNS needs a new roof as well, and it’s called DNSSEC. It will involve lots of Internet folk in real work, but we need to get on with it.

posted by colin at 7:27 am  

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Putting spyware on your spouse’s mobile

There was a strange article in the Sunday Star Times over the weekend that seems to have passed without comment. The article, which is clearly based on a press release by a private investigator, describes loading spyware onto your partner’s cell phone as a way of finding out if they are being unfaithful.

This is highly likely to be illegal, both on telecommunications intercept grounds, and on the “anti-hacking” parts of the Crimes Act. The article doesn’t mention that, or any downside at all.

I’m amazed that anyone would think this is a reasonable thing to do. If you are reduced to spying on someone, why are you in a relationship with them? And, if someone spied on you like that, would you want anything more to do with them?

Update: Apparently the person concerned isn’t even a proper private investigator – check the second comment below. Looks like the Sunday Star Times was more than a little credulous.

posted by colin at 4:20 pm  

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Voting machines redux

Here’s a very good blog post by someone who has devoted a lot of time to looking the risks of electronic voting machines. Dan Wallach is responding a report written by the manufacturers, claiming that the machines are secure. This blog entry appears to be based on Wallach’s testimony before the Texas House Committee on Elections, which presumably gets to make decisions about how people vote.

Hat tip to Bruce Schneier’s excellent blog about security for the link.

posted by colin at 7:20 am  
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