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Nov 182013
 

Today the news comes that Google and Microsoft have agreed to block child abuse images. Great!

Anyone reading (or watching) the news story could be forgiven for thinking that this will solve the problem of child abuse images on the Internet, but that won’t happen. What Microsoft and Google have done is a tiny increment on what they were already doing – instead of just excluding hosts given to them by the Internet Watch Foundation, they are also going to ‘clean up’ the search results for certain searches.

It isn’t blocking child abuse images. The search companies can’t do that; anything who thinks so needs to go and learn a bit more about the Internet which includes the government. Who have of course come out of their rabbit hutch spitting lettuce leaves everywhere, saying that if this action by the search companies isn’t effective they’ll legislate.

Which is just about the clearest evidence so far that the government is completely clueless when it comes to technology; obviously Eton‘s reputation is overstated when it comes to technology education.

People tend to think of child abuse images as being a little bit like anything else you browse to on the Internet – you just search for it, and up it pops. I haven’t tried, but I suspect what you would get is a large number of pages like this one – talking about child abuse images in some way, but no real images. Undoubtedly there are some really dumb child pornographers out there who stick up their filth on ordinary web servers; whereby they’ll quickly get indexed by the search engines and someone law enforcement bods will come pounding on the door.

However the biggest area of child abuse image distribution is likely to be one of the variety of ‘stealth’ Internets … the “dark nets’, or ‘deep web‘.

The later are web sites that cannot be indexed by the search engines for various reasons – password protection, links have never been published, etc. These would be the choice of the not quite so dumb child pornographer.

The former are harder to find – they are roughly analogous to peer-to-peer file sharing networks such as Bittorrent which is widely used for sharing copyrighted material (films, music, etc.). But ‘friend to friend’ file sharing networks are private and not public; you need an invitation to join one. This is where the intelligent child pornographer lurks.

And all the hot air we’ve heard from the government so far is going to do pretty much bugger all about the really serious stuff. If you are a clueless politician reading this, get a clue and ask someone with half a brain cell about this stuff. And don’t invent half-arsed measures before asking someone with a clue about whether they’re likely to be effective or not.

May 022012
 

One of the cool things about “the cloud” is that there are numerous different companies all offering cloud-based storage of one kind or another. You can even get quite a bit of storage for free, and different solutions offer different cool solutions – such as Dropbox where my phone is configured to automatically send photos up to it. And there are plenty of other solutions out there :-

  • Box
  • Google Drive (of course you may already be using Google Docs which means you essentially have storage related to that).
  • SkyDrive (although for some mysterious reason, Microsoft doesn’t supply a Linux client)
  • iCloud
  • Wuala
  • SpiderOak
  • Ubuntu One – which despite the name, isn’t just for Ubuntu!
  • And in a note for myself, there’s also SparkleShare which is essentially a DropBox client to talk to your own servers.
Undoubtedly there are a whole ton more, but I think I’ve gotten the “big names” covered. The best strategy is of course to find the one whose client works with all the platforms you use (phone, PC, laptop, etc.), comes with the most free storage, and the cost of getting more storage is the least (in decreasing order of importance). Of course in the real world, you are likely to end up with more than one – simply because it’s tempting to look at the next “new thing” or because you want more cheap storage, or simply because other people insist you use service X.

Now if you use multiple cloud-storage solutions, you have a bit of a problem – different clients offering different functionality, different amounts of storage available, and remembering what you put on which “cloud-disk”. Plus of course there is the interesting problem of security – different providers provide different levels of privacy and operate in different jurisdictions where different laws apply.

Different Clients

Different clients work in different ways with different features. For instance, for a Linux user :-

  1. The Dropbox client seems to work pretty well, but it doesn’t appear in a list of filesystems (i.e. when you type df) so you can’t instantly see how much space is still available, etc. At least not in the standard way.
  2. Box(.net) lacks a Linux client, so you have to hack something together. Perfectly possible for more geeky users, but even for us there is the danger that a hackish solution may suddenly stop working mysteriously. Or rather that is more likely.
  3. Ubuntu One doesn’t seem to work via a filesystem interface at all.
  4. And that seems to be the same with SpiderOak.
It may be different for Windows users (I’m too lazy to check – if anyone wants to submit details, please go ahead), but I doubt it.

Whilst cloud storage providers may offer additional features to differentiate their product, they are all essentially the same as a removable hard disk, usb memory stick, or some other kind of removable storage. Whilst the additional features are very welcome, why should we have to learn a new way of managing storage just because it is out there in the cloud ?

Privacy

There is a great deal of paranoia about storing private data in the cloud with the assumption that creepy organisations such as Google will do something nasty with the data. Well maybe, but the likelihood of Google being that interested in an individual’s data is a little unlikely. Of  course just because the cryptogeeks are a little paranoid does not mean they are completely wrong – there are privacy issues involved.

Firstly, Google could be looking at your data to determine things about you that would be of interest to advertisers – to present targeted adverts at you. Which at best can be a little weird.

Next we like to believe that the laws of our country will protect us from someone picking through our personal data. That someone could be the company supplying the storage, or it could be the government in the country where the storage is hosted. That would probably be fine if the storage was restricted to one location where we could be sure that the government protected us, but where is the storage located?

Much of the time the storage is located in foreign jurisdictions where there is no guarantee that any kind of privacy will be respected – especially if a foreign government takes an interest in your data. Don’t forget the laws of say the USA are not designed to protect citizens of any EU country (or visa-versa). There are of course agreements such as the EU Safe Harbour agreement, but it is possible that it does not offer as much protection as assumed – it is not really intended for private individuals choosing to put their own personal data into foreign jurisdictions.

Probably most of us do not have to worry about this sort of thing (although we can choose to), but some may have to be cautious about this sort of thing. Some of us deal with personal data about third parties – sometimes very personal data – and need to consider whether storing such data in the cloud is being appropriately responsible about the data privacy. For example, a contractor who stores information about their clients should be taking actions to ensure that data is not accidentally leaked (or hacked and published).

The easy answer to this problem is to assume that cloud storage is not safe for sensitive personal data, because there is a simple solution to the problem that still allows the cloud to be used. Use encryption such as TrueCrypt to ensure that even if the cloud leaks your data, it is still encrypted with a method that is not known to the cloud provider.

Store It Twice!

There have been occasions where storage providers have removed access to storage either permanently or temporarily – such as the Megauploads site. Whilst it is perhaps unlikely, it is possible for a cloud service provider to disappear and for the customers to lose their data – even if the cloud provider claims that there is some protection against this sort of thing happening. But it could happen, so it is sensible to ensure that if you store data in the cloud, that you should ensure that you have copies of that data elsewhere.

 

Dec 052009
 

So a few days ago I was idly looking at the “StatPress” page on my site to look how few people were visiting to see something rather surprising :-

Graph of accesses

What was happening here ? Have I been slashdotted ? Is my income from those silly ads down the side going to shoot through the roof to a level worth letting a certain company send me the payments ?

No. Nothing so exciting. All (well, the overwhelming majority) were from an MSN robot – presumably indexing this site. Well fair enough, but why so many accesses ? It is not as if my site has much on it – nowhere near the nearly 100,000 page fetches they tried. A closer look at the Apache logs shows that the msn robot repeatedly fetched many pages including one page 1,300 times!

Sounds like Microsoft has a bug somewhere.

Jul 292007
 

Just seen part of an interview with Bill Gates on News24 where Microsoft’s educational projects were being discussed, and the One Laptop Per Child project was brought up. Bill sort of avoided trying to talk about it by claiming that hardware costs will continue to come down and the real problem is about educational content.

It is true that hardware costs tend to come down … to a point where prices stay fairly static but specifications increase. He has also glossed over the fact that the OLPC laptop is semi-ruggedised with features specifically intended to help with its use as a learning tool rather than a working tool; including the special display which has a special low-power black and white mode intended for reading eBooks. Not something found in a typical laptop!

The other thing that was totally ignored is that the Sugar user interface (running on a stripped down RedHat) is designed to be easy to use for children rather than rely on some conventional approach to desktop computing. For instance there is an easy way to see your local “neighbourhood” (press F1) … the local mesh of internetworked OLPCs.

However Bill hit the nail on the head by bringing up the content issue. It is the real problem and in fact the OLPC project highlights this and has a prominent area on their Wiki to deal with content. Perhaps Bill should put his money where his mouth is and help fund the content projects … it may not help Microsoft directly (although given that the content is intended to be “open-source” there is no reason why a Microsoft operating system could not use it as well as the OLPC laptops) but it would help education.

May 192007
 

Microsoft has recently claimed that open source software breaches exactly 235 software patents. Apparently open source developers “burn down the patents system”. Well my response to that is “well done open source developers”. Software patents are the biggest scam out there … bigger by far that all those scams we receive in our inbox every day. I quite happily say that companies trading on their portfolio of software patents are amongst the slimiest examples of capitalism and that even Microsoft were not that bad. Of course now they seem determined to join them.

A bit of tedious history … patents were first introduced as a mechanism to protect individual inventors from being ripped off by large companies. The 19th century is full of examples of individual inventors being ripped off by large companies. So patents for “hardware” inventions are not necessarily bad things.

Software is somewhat different. Software developers utilise software libraries written by others without inspecting the libraries for ‘patent violations’. When writing new code, they will come up with solutions to problems without realising that the solution they come up with has been used before. For instance one of the many algorithms for sorting is the insertion sort; it is not the most efficient sort, but is efficient enough (and probably more importantly is a stable algorithm) and is so simple that it has probably been re-invented many times. Certainly I thought of it back when I wrote a database engine for the BBC micro. There are many examples of software patents that are this simple.

For example, Microsoft holds a patent on a mechanism for navigating a web page in a graphical browser using the keyboard which requires that the ‘current link’ is highlighted in some way. Not only is there an example of a web browser using this mechanism before Microsoft’s patent (Lynx … a text browser that does exactly what is described in Microsoft’s patent), but it is a mechanism that is so obvious that it has been invented many times independently. Text editors on text terminals in the 1970s (and earlier!) used some sort of highlighting to indicate the current ‘active point’ on the screen and many of these editors were developed independently. So Microsoft’s patent here is a development of prior art (the only new thing is the graphical interface), and the basic concept of pointing where the ‘active point’ is, is one of those things that is obvious.

Back to Microsoft’s claim that open-source software is in breach of its patents … what exactly are these patents ? Well Microsoft doesn’t appear to be letting anyone know, which is kind of underhand as it stops open source developers from attempting to remove the problematic code. Linux Torvalds also points out that Microsoft hasn’t released their own source code to see how many patents they might be in breach of. Who knows ? Perhaps Microsoft has taken open source code and then patented concepts developed by open source developers … certainly it is known that Microsoft’s TCP/IP software is based on the BSD TCP/IP network software. Linux also points out that Microsoft has probably used many technologies developed by IBM such as demand paging and the like.

Most sensible people seem to believe that Microsoft’s tactic here is to spread FUD over the use of open source software to encourage people to use their own software. Perhaps they should spend more time on making their software better rather than indulge in dubious legal practices.

Feb 162007
 

So I was reading a review of Vista on The Register and was hardly surprised to see that the consumers are being ripped off again. It seems that they think that Microsoft can’t do currency conversions without making mistakes … I guess this is not too surprising given this is the company that gave us a calculator that made basic arithmetic mistakes.

However I decided to do a little checking myself and decided to use Amazon as the benchmark on differing costs on “Vista Ultimate Full” :-

Amazon.co.uk

£327
Amazon.com

$379

Next I converted the Amazon.com cost into pounds using £1 = $1.95 which is close enough for the purposes of this little rant :-

Amazon.com in pounds

£194

But wait! I forgot to add UK’s VAT rate of 17.5% :-

Amazon.com in pounds + VAT

£228

Now it is pretty obvious to me that £228 is considerably less than £327. Enough that I should do the calculation the other way around :-

Amazon.co.uk – VAT

£278

And to convert it into dollars :-

Amazon.co.uk – VAT in dollars

$543

So instead of $379, we in the UK pay $542 for our copies of Vista. That’s an increase of 43%! Now I could forgive a little bit of flab in the cost, but 43% is a little much to swallow. Apparently when The Register contacted Microsoft about this puzzling price discrepancy, Microsoft claimed they adjusted their prices to suit the market … or to put it another way, they gouge as much out of the consumer as they think they can get away with. Obviously they think that the average UK consumer is a bit of a numbskull.

It would be nice to prove them wrong. And ask the EU to take a little look into this matter.

Of course Microsoft is not the only company that tries to rip us off with the excuse of ‘tax variations’ and other bullshit reasons. Apple sells the Mac OSX operating system at widely varying prices :-

Apple.com US Price for OSX

$129
Apple.com UK price for OSX

£89

Hmm. Doesn’t seem like a ripoff compared with Vista does it ? Take a closer look :-

Apple.com UK price without VAT

£76
Apple.com UK price without VAT in dollars

$147

Hey that’s only 14% more expensive in the UK than the US. All worship Apple! No wait … that’s still a huge ripoff, but just not quite as excessive as Microsoft.

Of course this gives the Linux, Solairs and *BSD marketing types a good slogan :-

£0 or $0 – No ripoff there!

It is interesting to see that Microsoft could not give The Register reviewer a free review copy … you might understand it if it were a small company with a valuable product, but Microsoft and Vista hardly fit in there. Microsoft are probably wondering why they didn’t get a positive review 🙂

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