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Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Break In The Weather

After what feels like an awful lot of work and not a lot of anything else, we find ourselves at a natural break in proceedings. Greatly helped with the knowledge that I've actually booked a week off to go and play golf with the lads in somewhere that the weather really has had a break and instead is mostly sunshine.... Portugal.





Never been before, so I was very much looking forward to finding out how it compares to the likes of Spain. And the verdict? What a pleasant surprise this gem of a country sewn in between the Atlantic Ocean and Mainland Spain. A special place I think and more than worthy of a second visit.

Saturday saw three of us make a very early departure to BHX and hop aboard an Airbus (A321 for the spotters among you) for the 2 and half hour journey. BHX was a speedy pleasure and the flight was comfortable and without incident. The other seven members of the group travelled over from BRS and had little or no fun at all battling weather en route TO the airport, followed by and overcrowded mass of holiday makes IN the airport. However, we all arrived safely and not an item of luggage got lost on the way.

Having had this years tour organised by our good friend Bwi, naturally we expected disaster upon disaster to be visited upon us, and for the most part he proved us wrong - but that's not to say he perfected the process, and in fact the first problem was "Where the hell is the Taxi driver Bwi?". Turns out he was a little way up the road and not holding up a little sign in the arrivals hall. 40 minutes of my life I'll never get back, but the excitement of being in a new country combined with the warm sun on your face helps to forgive all, as long as we have a nice comfortable place to sleep...

The second problem was where the hell are the bedrooms Bwi? It seems that our "organiser" is quite comfortable with the idea that a couple of breeze block walls thrown up in the corner of the basement parking garage, constitute a bedroom.... Hmmm... There's no doubt he hasn't heard the end of this. But for the time being - we're here and there's beer to be drunk and sunshine to soak up, and golf to play and sights to see, etc etc etc...

The hardest part of the whole trip is really the ability to drink until 4am have 4 hours sleep and the get up and play golf in the sweltering heat. It's a challenge and one that you really have to be in peak physical condition for - so you can imagine how well that works out for a bunch of middle aged buffoons such as we. Regardless, we battled on, facing the challenge and laughing it off at every turn. In fact laughing was the order of the week. I'm not sure how much laughing we did, but I know it was a lot, and often. Might even have been more than the drinking....

I managed to loose my voice by about the 4th day - no idea where it got to, but it was almost nowhere to be found. The birthday shenanigans were great fun and a crowd of mostly well dressed men took the town by storm - suits are remarkably unusual in such informal circumstances nowadays it seems. Kids have no taste, is the shorthand version.




It's fair to say we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves far too much and from my perspective it was just what the doctor ordered. I'd been feeling particularly crap in the week before the trip, so sunshine and giggles really proved to be the best medicine, for even though, sat here on the plane I'm tired to a level that I'm not sure I've experienced before, I'm also rejuvenated and happy to be in the world, no matter what it might throw at me. I've washed that job right out of my hair - so to speak.

Sadly, as a pessimistic realist (especially when I'm being such an optimistic fantasist) I know that none of this will last and I'll have to be back at work on Monday.

Ah well - let me bask in the glory of the whole damn trip for just a while longer....

Ta. Until next time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sniffing and button pushing

Today is going to be a big day for Tech - both in the form of announcements - Apple, Microsoft and Sony all having things to show us, and in the fast developing Internet monitoring story sparked by the Guardian regarding both the the NSA and latterly GCHQ.

The NSA story isn't unexpected - although what is a little odd is that it's taken this long for the general public to realise just how vulnerable their posts (let's call it data) is when using a publicly available, government developed network such as the Internet.

Naivety apart, it never fails to amaze me how people think the Internet is a "safe" place. To plagiarise Star Trek Into Darkness "You think your world is safe - It is not - It is an illusion".

Privacy in such a connected space has never really existed. Admittedly for most people who mistakenly think the Internet is what they see in a web browser, they may have never been exposed to the soft, deeply technical underbelly of the way networks work, but to those who have had exposure to IT at an analysis/support level, they are likely all to aware of just what the network is capable of "sharing" with those who want to find out.

At it's simplest level a "packet sniffer" will sit on a network segment and capture enough detail about the traffic on the network to figure out what that networks users are up to. There are a host of commercially available tools for IT departments to effectively "spy" on their users to monitor and manage the network, block sites and report usage.  Let me be clear here - this is NOT NEW. Take a look at netscout.com (sniffer global), gfi.com (web monitor) or spiceworks.com for a couple of examples.


Now imagine having government scale resources of departments like the NSA or GCHQ and running similar tools on the Internet and it's suddenly very obvious that this makes for a compelling tool for tracking suspects. And as long as that's what it's used for, and has the necessary legal hoops to jump through (which I believe are pretty much undefined at the moment) - then this shouldn't be a problem.
Given the lack of information on the way this "tool" is being used, it's understandable that the general public would get not just a little nervous.

It will be an interesting story to watch - and the reactions of those involved will no doubt be more than a little telling. Enough - onto to something else....

Big day for Apple - WWDC - meaning it's time for the Tech giant to announce it's next batch of fruitiness.  Since the death of Steve Jobs the Tech gint has been getting bad press and has (almost overnight) become un-innovative in some eyes.  This is smoke. In fact I'm quite sure they are still as innovative as they ever were - after all  Steve assembled a pretty awesome team of people, and they don't just stop thinking because their boss lost his fight with cancer.

This "bad press" combined with the lack of upgrades to the iOS platform and the following rise in popularity of the Android OS has left Apple looking a little weatherbeaten, so today's WWDC keynote speech is likely to be a turning point.

There has been (as is usual) a fever pitch level of guesswork going on in the tech news community - most of whom believe that Apple's chief designer (Sir Johnnie Ive) has come up with a flat looking interface to iOS.  Sure it needs an overhaul, but I don't think any of this guesswork is on the mark - in fact I think Mr Ive will surprise everyone - not least because Apple have publicly said that they would "double down on product secrecy" - so plenty of false stories then, and now we all know how touchscreens work (it's 6 years since the iPhone landed) - the button look can go....

....but we'll have to wait until this evening to be sure.

Sony will be announcing details about the PlayStation4 today as well. My observation - Microsoft have screwed up with the XBoxOne already by suggesting you'll have to pay to play used games and (related to the NSA story) it will sit in your living room and be "always on" - so for the paranoid among you, it will be busy logging your conversation in your living room.  They're trying to make the eggs-box more than just a gaming machine - they want it to be your "entertainment hub". MS have been pedalling this line for a very long time now - and while kinect seems to be getting them closer, they've still got one hell of a mission to pursuade the wider public.

I'm a Sony household as far as gaming is concerned, and barring anything stupid from Sony (which they haven't managed so far) I see no reason to change. Microsofts announcements today, are likely to be about the games for their new baby - while Sony will be focused on the Hardware - and demo's of the software.

Well, their you have it. I have much to do. Places to see, people to go and all that.  More importantly I have a holiday coming up. After the last couple of months, a week in the Sun is just what the doctor ordered - so in the meantime I have all sorts of stuff to sweep under the carpet.

Until next time....

I'll leave you with stunning attempt on goal (not that I know anything about football) - "Up the Eagles!"

Friday, June 07, 2013

Now heaven knows, anything goes....

I've been busy. busy to the point of not writing anything here, although I've still shared plenty of stuff on my favourite faux social network - Google+

So just a few words on PRISM and all the noise that its generating. If you don't know what it is by now, you almost certainly got nothing to worry about, or you don't work in IT. The short version is that PRISM is an alleged Top Secret project which the US government run, to monitor and record Internet traffic. It's said that all the Internet service big names are connected to it - Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo to name but 5, and that in short the FBI and the like have a tap directly into these services, to read (and presumably copy) whatever they want out of them. In summary they can read your stuff.... All of it.



It gets more complicated and I'll come onto that in a minute, but here's the thing that I find completely incredible....

Why is this a surprise to anyone?

From the early days of the Internet and the first time I saw a tool provided by "The Cult of the Dead Cow" in the 1990's even I could see that privacy online was dead. The tool enabled you to port scan a network segment, connect to a windows based machine and gain access to pretty much whatever you wanted from the system. Open shop.... Anything connected to the Internet is vulnerable and therefore not a safe place for any kind of conversation of a sensitive nature. Anyone who thinks otherwise (and right about now I guess we have almost an entire generation who do) is frankly naive.

It's this lack of experience which has lead to people putting things online that they later regret - be that an embarrassing Facebook update, or something more obscure, damning or even illegal. In the end, if you can't say it front of the world, don't say it online - and that goes for storing data on a connected system as well. Connected does not mean safe.

The ability to snoop all of our online data is a very obvious step for government agencies - especially those concerned with intelligence and in my opinion it's a valid and useful thing for them to pursue, albeit laced with pitfalls and problems - not the least of which is public education.

And this is where I start to have worries... Jurisdiction is for me the biggest reason NOT to allow a government to do this. Surely snooping on anyone other than your own citizens could be construed as an act of war or, at least in it's simplest form, it's spying - and the Cold War is testament to the situations that can arise as a result.

So when I hear President Obama say to the good people of the US "We're only using it on people that are non-US citizens" - I get very concerned. If a US request to monitor a British citizen was carried out via GCHQ, I wouldn't feel as worried, but the fact that the major companies involved are all American, means that most of their data lives on hardware in US and thus under US jurisdiction no matter where the people using them are.

In summary, all of 800million Facebook users data is in the US, and so the US government (via PRISM) can help themselves to it whenever they feel like it. In fact, I don't actually believe its as simple as that for them to do (at the moment) but those days are not far away.

With the US holding all the cards here (in the form of the large Internet companies), the UK, Europe and Asia are somewhat behind the curve on tracking US or UK citizens and clearly have only been doing so via an agreement with the US agencies (The NSA, FBI etc). Interestingly, the companies involved are issuing denials around the levels of their involvement - so my vote here is for openness. After all, we're adults and can draw our own conclusions about the processes involved.

I understand why these agencies exist and that they really do protect their respective countries citizens. No doubt there are many stories we may never hear about, where major incidents have been avoided as a result of their work - and I'm both grateful and supportive of them. But there has to be a balance.

Right now, I think the balance is being tested to see just how far it can be tipped before there's a backlash.

My final thought for now - as an example - it's NOT ok for newspapers to tap phones and read emails without any formal permission, so should it be alright for governments to do so? There may be circumstances when it is......what do you think ?

PS - Nice to be back ;-)
Until next time....
 

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