Who Goes There?

Anonymous
Image by sinsistema via Flickr

A UK court has set an interesting – possibly insane – condition of bail for four men on charges relating to the Anonymous and LulzSec hacktivist clubs. The judge has ordered them not to log on to anything using their ‘hacker’ usernames. What this will prevent exactly is not clear. But then I suppose the judge isn’t too clear about a lot here.

Several questions arise: If someone logs on using those identities, will the court have to prove that it was the suspects? It seems unlikely that they possibly could. Anyone who had the password could go online in the forums or services that the suspects used, and anyone on the planet could register the same names on other forums.

If the suspects have to show that it’s not them on the other hand it would be not only just as difficult, but also counter to natural justice as they would be required to prove their own innocence.

It seems virtually unimaginable that, if these people actually are deadly dangerous hacker types, not using a particular name will prevent them doing anything. If on the other hand they are innocent – which is the basis we are meant to be working on – it could be an enormous inconvenience. I mentioned the other day that I administer an Internet forum. I think I’ll be giving away no secrets if I say that my login for that isn’t “richardchapman”. I use – God forgive me, but it’s true – a name I made up. And the same goes of course for the login I use to write this blog.

The judge may be under the same misapprehension a lot of non technically literate society has: that going online by a name different to the one on your birth cert is the behaviour of deviants. In fact previous to Facebook it was the norm rather than the exception. Why would you allow online strangers to know your real name? The expectation of going by your birth name is part of what I’m tempted to call the “Facebookisation” of the Web. Commerce and government have both realised that the erasure of online anonymity would be very convenient, and they are beginning to cooperate to bring this about. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the Google Plus (Google+) social network even has rules against pseudonyms. It’s more than a little creepy.

But here’s an amusing wrinkle. Peter Gibson, one of the accused in this case, goes by the nerdy hacker username of “Peter”. So now he is not allowed to use his own name. That seems an extraordinary incursion on civil liberties – and will lead to an interesting situation if he tries to join Google+… Or if that’s not irony enough, listen to this: We have only been told three of the four suspects’ usernames. The fourth wasn’t revealed, apparently because he is seventeen. So yes, the username he used to protect his anonymity, something which he is no longer allowed by the court to do, is being kept from us by the court to protect his anonymity.

Something just blew in my brain.

No More Pencils, No More Books

iPad showing OpenStreetMap content
Homework never looked more attractive

Giving iPads to kids in school. How lovely. St Kevin’s in Crumlin is the most recent of something like seven around the country, starting with St Colman’s in Mayo, to join this revolution.

What the hell are they thinking?

I guess it tells you a lot about the world some people live in, that this idea wasn’t shot down on the grounds that the iPads would be stolen by children from other, less well-equipped schools. We assume all these kids are being delivered to the gates by car. It’s even more charming to realise that the kids themselves are being trusted not to break, lose, or ‘lose’ such valuable devices. Of course there’s one advantage – right now, most children who had the cash price of an iPad would probably use it to buy an iPad.

What I find either more touching still, or just hopelessly naïve, is the idea that kids will be able to use iPads, in class or for study, without becoming terminally distracted. They’re being encouraged to do their homework in an amusement arcade. Schools say the tablets will be blocked from things like Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t take a child to figure out that there are about a billion other available distractions on the Web, and it’s quite impossible to block them on an individual basis. And remember, this is in school – the only place in the world where it’s legal to enforce hours of brain-crushing inaction on innocent children. I spent thirteen of my most impressionable years being bored to tears, I would have killed for such distraction.

On the other hand, I am distracted every day by the fact that I work on devices I can use to access the Internet. Raised from the very start with the temptation, maybe these kids will develop the iron discipline necessary to keep their concentration in this all-singing, all-dancing world.

Maybe.

One thing that isn’t a problem though – you may be wondering how the hell it makes economic sense to give such expensive tools to every child in a school. To understand, you just need to know about the cost of schoolbooks in Ireland. School teaching is free here, yes. But school books are basically a massive scheme to ream hapless parents until their eyes pop. Compared to that, the cost of an iPad over a few years is almost trivial.

Another Google+ Bug

Nude Sea Sirens
I can't find any relevant image for this article, so here is a completely irrelevant Russian mercouple

I didn’t speak too soon anyway. The Dow just fell off. Well, had its worst plunge since the crash of 2008. Double-dip recession then? I think that’s far too complacent – why the hell should it stop at two? All we’ve seen since 2008 is an economic system trying to get up off the canvas. It’s not getting up.

But sorry, back to Google+. It’s a bit unfair of me to call it a bug, but “An Aspect Of Google+ Which Users Coming From Facebook May Find Misleading” just doesn’t cut it as a headline. Blame the sub-editors. This isn’t entirely Google’s fault, but I think they need to do something about it.

A lot of people coming to Google+ have prior experience of social networking on Facebook. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “all of them, basically”. So there is a natural tendency to think of someone adding you to their circles as analogous to a friend request. If you have reason to think they’re kosher, you’ll probably add them back. But what if you don’t immediately recognise the name? Speaking for myself it could still easily be someone whose name I’ve forgotten, someone I know by an online name, a friend of a friend. So what I do is see what friends they have in common with me; that almost always makes the relationship obvious.

When someone adds you on Google+ you can see the “People in common” they have with you. If there are a lot, your automatic assumption might be that you should know this person. But unlike FB where relationships are agreed by both parties, being in a circle in G+ is of course only one-way, much like being followed on Twitter. So when someone has a lot of “People in common” with you, all it could mean is that they first added one person you know, and then added all their friends.

It happened yesterday among my peer group – people started asking each other “Does anyone actually know X?” We eventually figured out that X was a fake friend. (Oh and Google? He had a perfectly realistic name and profile.) I would guess people are doing this exactly so that they might be mistaken for friends and added – whereupon they can find out more about you, spam you perhaps, misrepresent themselves even. It’s a new type of insidious social network penetration – we could call it “encircling”.

How can Google make this less likely to succeed? I think “People in common” is a misleading label – indeed, a misleading categorisation. It’s really only “People X has in circles who are in your circles”. There should also be a category “People in your circles who have X in circles.” If the latter group is far smaller than the former, you’ll know immediately that something is up.

Google+ Is A Trap

Google Docs – You create them, but they don’t belong to you

Not two months ago, I wrote:

…Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

With Google+, the straitjacket of authentication has perceptibly tightened. As Guardian blogger GrrlScientist discovered to her cost, it’s a little-known term of service that a Google Profile (which you need for any personalised Google service, not just Google+) must be in your own, real, everyday name. She has just found that all her Google services – Gmail, Reader, Blogger, Google Documents, YouTube, Google Plus – have been taken away, with apparently no recourse to appeal.

Have you created a Google Profile? (I know I have, but I don’t remember doing it. I just thought I was signing up to use Gmail.) If it isn’t in your real name, if it’s in a nickname, a pen name, the name of an alter ego or game character or a name you had to make up because your real one was gone already, then Google can take it away too.

How much could you lose, if Google suddenly decided to throw you into the outer darkness? More than you might easily imagine, as this similar case makes clear:

Now he had pretty much converted everything to Google services. He used its storage (and paid for extra capacity), used its social network, used its email and used its applications. He is a grad student and had more than 500 articles cached for research in his Google reader (gone); he had migrated all of his bookmarks to Google bookmarks (gone); he had consolidated on Google his 200 contacts (gone), his backup files (gone) and his docs (gone).

The guy even put all of his calendar items (doctors’ appointments, meetings, dates) onto Google, and they are now gone. He had used Google Maps extensively, and all of those records are gone. Oh — and it isn’t just access to new items either. His entire mail account and documented history have been deleted.

[Read the victim’s own testimony here]

Your documents, your emails, your pictures, your contacts – you life, dammit. If you have an Android Phone as well, I imagine you’re pretty much screwed. And let’s be perfectly clear, these people didn’t do anything wrong using their Google Profiles. Merely breaking an obscure term of an agreement they were in all probability barely aware of making has allowed Google to trash their online lives – and shatter their trust in one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Why would Google be so draconian, withdrawing their useful – for many now, almost essential – services for what seem arbitrary reasons? It is because they don’t want just to be service providers. Google see how they can be gatekeepers of an authenticated, business-friendly, government-friendly Web, one where your every move is – quite legally – observed and documented, where your online persona is precisely riveted to your real-world identity. An Internet, in other words, where everybody knows you’re a dog.

Now combine that with the same ubiquity and penetration into your personal life as Facebook or Twitter, combine it with the fact that you are happily providing Google with information about the people you know, by dividing them into different categories of trust, genetic kinship, etc., and you begin to wonder what you’re getting into.

But it’s clear what Google are. They’re getting into the business of delivering authenticated identities. You could call it policing.

Harper Seven Who?

David and Victoria Beckham in Silverston Circu...
The proud, if wrongheaded, parents

OK I’m going to do it. I’m going to talk about the Beckhams. Celebrity gossip. There, now is this a proper blog or what?

All right, they’ve had another baby and they’ve given it another odd name: Harper Seven. Not too bad compared to some maybe. What was their firstborn called again, Charlton Athletic? Something like that. But still pretty oddball. Why do celebrities do this all the time – do they hate their children?

No, naturally they want to give their kids the best start in life, and in a PR-obsessed world they believe that this includes a memorable name. But it is a high-risk strategy. If fame eludes them, it will get tiresome when everybody they meet ever remembers hearing about their birth. Can it, with names like that? Look at the Geldof-Yates children: Four of them have ridiculous names, but only one of them is even mildly notorious. Fifi Trixibelle meanwhile is still going to be called Fifi Trixibelle, even if she goes into stockbroking.

What’s so good about being rich and famous anyway? Simple; being rich. That’s quite good. Being famous means wherever you go, people attempt to crowd in on you. It’s the downside. So being famous but not rich is the worst of all possible worlds. I just hope that Victoria and David are prepared to support little Harper Seven for her whole life.

Related articles

Harper Seven Who?

David and Victoria Beckham in Silverston Circu...
The proud, if wrongheaded, parents

OK I’m going to do it. I’m going to talk about the Beckhams. Celebrity gossip. There, now is this a proper blog or what?

All right, they’ve had another baby and they’ve given it another odd name: Harper Seven. Not too bad compared to some maybe. What was their firstborn called again, Charlton Athletic? Something like that. But still pretty oddball. Why do celebrities do this all the time – do they hate their children?

No, naturally they want to give their kids the best start in life, and in a PR-obsessed world they believe that this includes a memorable name. But it is a high-risk strategy. If fame eludes them, it will get tiresome when everybody they meet ever remembers hearing about their birth. Can it, with names like that? Look at the Geldof-Yates children: Four of them have ridiculous names, but only one of them is even mildly notorious. Fifi Trixibelle meanwhile is still going to be called Fifi Trixibelle, even if she goes into stockbroking.

What’s so good about being rich and famous anyway? Simple; being rich. That’s quite good. Being famous means wherever you go, people attempt to crowd in on you. It’s the downside. So being famous but not rich is the worst of all possible worlds. I just hope that Victoria and David are prepared to support little Harper Seven for her whole life.

Related articles

Five Facts To Help You Forget How Crap Today Was

Leinster House
Little-Known Fact: Leinster House, the parliament building of Ireland, is on another f***ing planet.

Today yet another report on clerical abuse revealed yet more rape of children. The government says that child neglect is a thing of the past, but that the terms of the EU-IMF bailout deal require it to end the jobs of 200 Special Needs Assistants. That deal is supposed to get us back into the bond markets, yet following it has made these markets declare our bonds worthless. And the Euro is on the verge of collapse anyway, so it’s actually all meaningless.

However the hottest news item of the day was a personal remark about someone’s appearance made in parliament. Sometimes you just want to give up.

So I gave up. Unable to say anything meaningful about so much insanity, I went outside in the sun and painted the gateposts to match the wall.

I’ve decided that the colour is really 50% Grey – the shade exactly half way between black and white. I can like 50% Grey. (It’s probably more like 53% really, but I choose to ignore this.) It reminds me of Photoshop, and it’s a good mount card colour for black and white images. Anyway, it all looks nicer now that the walls and gateposts match. That at least was productive.

So here, instead of a proper post, are five things I learned today while drifting listlessly about the Internet:

1) There’s a company in England that sells a handmade sports car called the “5EXi”. Presumably this is a vehicle designed and built specifically for the needs of twats.

2) A disease called “nodding syndrome” is spreading in Africa. The symptoms include stunted growth, and a lack of neck muscle tone causing the characteristic nodding. No one yet knows what causes it.

3) Teapoy is a word of Indian origin meaning a three-legged table. By erroneous association with the word “tea”, it is also used to describe a table with a container for tea. So if you were stuck on today’s Irish Times simplex crossword, now you know.

4) There are now at least three people on Google+ posing as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Well I guess that should be “at least two”. One of them could be real.

5) There’s a fashion currently for women’s pants with the crotch hanging down at the knees. A friend in the States was prevented from boarding a bus because the driver considered them unsuitable attire. They call them harem pants, I think because women in harems wore them when they wanted their Sultan to leave them the hell alone.

First Impressions of Google+

The Google+ Profile Page

After using Google+ for a couple of days, it becomes clear that this is far more than a mere carbon copy of Facebook.

It also rips off Twitter, not to mention Diaspora.

To put it more positively, Google have clearly looked long and hard at what social networking does and why it caught on in the way it did. They’ve attempted to combine the best features of both Facebook and Twitter into one product.

The base is very much like an improved version of Facebook with a more open, airy look and no hint of anything that might be construed as fine print.

The differences begin with how people connect. While Facebook is all about equal two-way relationships confirmed by both parties, in Google+ you can follow anyone and read what they share – as long that is as they’re sharing it with the public. In this way it is almost exactly like Twitter.

From there though the user has the option of allowing you into a more intimate ‘Circle’. This is exactly the same idea as ‘Aspects’ in Diaspora. You can make separate circles for work colleagues, family, clients, etc. So you can decide exactly who gets to see the picture of you drinking beer, and who gets to see the picture of you drinking beer, naked, with your swastika tattoo showing.

Complicated? Well, any social networking system is. Even something as apparently straightforward as Twitter quickly gets confusing in use, as you try to figure out the consequences of one ill-judged tweet being retweeted by two or three people. (One interesting aspect of Google+ is that you can mark things as non-shareable, which is very reassuring.) It is however a fundamentally more simple model than that of Facebook.

Does it add anything new to social networking? Facebook and Twitter are distinctly different, and it would be nice to see a third innovative approach. But while it may be a little to early to say – both the others developed in unpredicted ways and Google+ may yet – it really doesn’t seem to. Quite clearly, Google+ is just the main features of Facebook and Twitter combined and cleaned up.

Which is not, to my mind, a good thing. With Google’s wealth and resources behind it, (not to mention the fact that it integrates right in with your Google search results, your Gmail, etc.), it’s really possible that Google+ will take over the markets that these upstarts created. Rather than adding to the possibilities of social networking therefore it may actually reduce them, in the process giving even greater dominance of the Internet to the company that already bestrides it like a colossus.

But even if comes about such dominance is still a long way off, and for now I like the interface and the control, and I like the fact that Facebook has a competitor. I therefore wish Google+ good fortune and success. Just, you know, not too much good fortune and success.

If you’d like an invite to join Google+, or are already there and would like to follow me on it, my address is: Richard.Chapman@Gmail.com

Facebook and Microsoft?

May I be the first to run around the room with my arms flailing? Facebook may merely be working with Skype to introduce video calling, and Skype may have only been recently bought by Microsoft, but it immediately makes you fear that Microsoft are on the point of buying Facebook. And that would be almost unthinkable. The lumbering old PC monopolist, owning the nimble new social network. The folks at Redmond, with their hands on our personal profiles. Shiver.

Yet… It seems a compelling match. Though not officially on sale yet, the estimated asking price of Facebook is The Largest Number You Can Think Of – a sum which Microsoft just happens to have.

Will they? Would they? They may have to. If Google actually begins to rival Facebook with its Google+ network, it is going to have a fantastically powerful strategic position. And remember, as the main way that the world interacts with the Web and the maker of what is going to become the world’s most popular phone OS, Google has a strategic position already far in advance of anyone.

It’s clear already what they’re planning to do with Google+. They’re going to blend social networking in. They want a person’s online activities, their socializing and their Web searching, to merge casually and seamlessly together. Search for an air fare to Italy, let your friends (or a certain group of friends) see that you’re searching, get their comments and tips. It’s amusing that just after all the browser-makers introduced an “In Private” feature so that you could explicitly search without being seen, Google realised that an “In Public” option would be even better.

This will work. People will like their social networking being blended into their general online activities. It will make using the Web as a whole a much more social thing, a lot more like being with people. It will be great and Google will become even more fantastically powerful.

So if Microsoft want to stay in the game, they need Facebook. The chances of them successfully introducing their own social network system seem poor. There’s really just one question. If Facebook becomes a property of Microsoft, will it instantly become uncool? It seems likely that being owned by Mr. Fox contributed to the demise of MySpace, possibly a similar effect could strike down Facebook. Especially if Google are successful in selling Google+ as the cooler alternative. I’m not sure. Facebook is so big now that it seems almost unimaginable that it could falter. And yet, anything can happen on the Web.

Then again, Microsoft could actually improve Facebook’s image. MS is not exactly the world’s most trusted and loved company, but it is at least known to be businesslike. Facebook is so good at giving the impression of being fundamentally unreliable that Microsoft could actually make it seem a lot more trustworthy.

What’s more, if MS keeps blundering around with the sense of direction it’s displaying right now, if Apple and Google keep running rings around them like this, it’ll soon be able to portray itself as the loveable underdog.

As I say, anything.

Great Soluble Sailboats!

Looks good, but kick it and it'll crumple like a rotten tea-chest

This sexy three-hulled stealth job is one of the US Navy’s new breed of “littoral” vessels, designed to be able to move fast and hit hard even when close to shore. Amazing piece of technology. One problem: It’s dissolving out from under them.

Unlike most warships, this one has a hull made out of aluminium. Great stuff, nice and light. You can make a much faster ship from that, and it’s still torpedo-proof. Mostly. But not all military equipment is made of aluminium of course. A lot of it is steel.

So you’ve got a lot of aluminium and a lot of what is basically iron bolted onto it. Now add a saline solution like, oh, I don’t know – the sea? – and what you have isn’t so much a ship anymore, more what’s known as “a battery”.

The electrical action between the two different metals is corroding away the body of the ship. What makes this all the more stupid – according to the makers at least – is it’s the Navy’s fault because they decided not to spring for the “Cathodic Protection System” meant to prevent their ship eating itself. To save costs.

Not having a self-eating ship would, you might think, be the better long-term saving.

When a friend posted this on Facebook I wasn’t the only one to initially misread that as “Catholic Protection System”. I thought, the rhythm method? I wouldn’t rely on that. Someone else though pointed out that it might mean a St. Christopher’s medal – these are supposed to protect travellers, so perhaps they should attach a whole bunch of them.

To which someone else replied that if the medals were made of zinc, that might actually help.