Big Brother is Searching You


I have an American bulldog called Hedwig (named after Hedwig and the Angry Inch not the owl from Harry Potter). She is a sweetheart and a lughead at the same time. She has a weak spot for pillows…if she is left with unattended access  there is a good chance we will return to find a thick down of feathers covering everything. She just lies on the floor cowering in abject misery as we yell at her….again. Her argument is “what can I do…I cant stop myself… have a problem!”  The NSA is a lot like Hedwig when it comes to our personal data.

The problem with data is that just as data it’s not that useful. You have to be able to use that data to answer questions. The obvious model to follow is a search engine. So God bless ’em our good friends at the NSA built themselves a “Google like” search engine for all their data. The troubling thing isn’t that they built a search engine….the troubling thing is that according to the law of the land they aren’t allowed to store data on US citizens on a “just incase” basis. Individual US citizens are supposed to be terror suspects or similar before being subject to this kind of scrutiny. In their enthusiasm to collect data on all kinds of potential foreign threats they are also scooping up tons of data on perfectly innocent US citizens and that data is then made searchable through their snappily named Google clone  ICREACH search program.

What our government is doing is circumventing regulations designed to protect our privacy by wrapping a search engine around all of the data stored separately (and perhaps legitimately in some cases) by various government entities and making it searchable by all the agencies irrespective of who gathered it and under what level of legal approval.

This isn’t a new problem. Search technology companies have been solving these problems for large companies for years. Imagine you are Home Depot. You have data in many different databases such as sales, stock inventory, HR records, delivery schedules etc. To manage your business you need to be able to normalize that data so that your people can see the entire picture not just the data limited to the area they specialize in. A search engine can wrap around those different data sources giving insights into the bigger picture.  It also makes sense to present the data in a way already understood by the people working on it. In the same way that the military models their vehicle and weapons control units around XBox controllers so the NSA copied Google. Data perhaps obtained legitimately by agency A is being made completely available to agencies B through Z a lot of data from completely innocent citizens is being collected then made available to any agency employee with access to ICREACH.

The good news is that our leaders who are incapable of launching a website to give access to medical services under the Affordable Care Act have apparently proved able to build and launch a super powerful search platform…an altogether tougher problem. I have a suggestion for that team.  The VA has thousands of veterans who are unable to get services because the government simply can’t find their records. Maybe the ICREACH team could be brought in to index and make searchable the chaos of data collected legitimately by the VA and get those service people the services they need….it’s not as much fun as constantly breaking the fourth amendment…but a good idea none the less.

Google is Hackable?


The other day I was about to pay for my purchases at Target with my debit card and my hand waivered as I swiped the card….what if they get hacked again. It seems like every day we hear reports of some entity misplacing or mismanaging our data. there have been so many scares most of which don’t ever seem to amount to any real threat it feels like we are getting used to this digital ‘cry wolf’ situation….and in any event the really big guys like Amazon and Google never get hacked…right?

Yesterday was different. For a few hours yesterday morning Google Images lost it’s proverbial mind. No matter what you searched for most of the images returned were of a picture of a car crash some place in Russia. That has to mean one of two things…a monumental bug which redirected all image searches for every topic to one random image….or more likely and probably more sinister they were hacked…probably by Russian hackers.

Given their famously transparent approach it’s unlikely that Google will ever reveal what actually happened but it’s interesting to speculate. In a related area recent testing revealed that a bunch of tattooed boy wonders were able to hack Gmail on all mobile operating systems no less than 92% of the time. Great first the NSA now the Russians…is there anybody not reading our mail?

California Law is Requiring Smart Phones to Have Anti-theft Features


On Monday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill requiring anti-theft features to be built into new phones and automatically turned on. People who have their phones stolen would be able to remotely lock them and erase their data, making the devices worthless targets.

The law, which goes into effect in July of next year, is a big victory for anti-crime advocates who had complained that smartphone makers like Apple didn’t do enough to help their customers fend off theft. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, had publicly criticized the industry for failing to strengthen security after phone theft became epidemic in San Francisco.

California is the first state to require the technology to be turned on by default. Earlier this year, Minnesota passed a law requiring phone kill switches, but the language did not say that the technology must be automatically enabled. Only when thieves are convinced that stolen phones have no value will they stop swiping them from people walking down the street or on the bus.

The initial kill switch bill, introduced in April by Sen. Mark Leno, of San Francisco, failed to pass in its initial vote. Only after being reintroduced later did it finally pass.

The new law only covers smartphones, and not tablets or laptop computers. Retailers will face a fine of $500 to $2,500 for selling phones without the required technology.

Before the bill signing, major phone manufacturers like Apple, Google and Samsung along with major carriers had opposed legislation by saying it would hurt consumers and potentially open a new avenue for hackers. Instead, they committed to a voluntary program to include technology that would let customers wipe data from stolen phones and disable them. But the companies were under no legal requirement to carry out the program.

Apple, for example, introduced an initiative last year that let users protect their devices through the iOS 7 iCloud Activation Lock feature. During its first six months, thefts of iPhones fells by 38% in San Francisco. Meanwhile, theft of Samsung devices, which had no similar anti-theft technology, rose 12% during that period.

Microsoft Facing a Tough Challenge from Google’s Chromebook


Those unwilling to believe that Microsoft is not concerned with the competition from Chromebooks better adjust their thinking. The company has been targeting the cheap laptops running Google’s OS since the early days of its Surface tablets. It is now pushing the building of cheap Windows laptops to go head-to-head with the Chromebook.

There’s good reason for Microsoft to be worried about the Chromebook. They are cheap and are making a market for themselves in the vital education market. Selling laptops is important to the industry where they buy in bulk and are training the computer buyer of the future in the systems they will look to down the road.

The education sector may be a target for these cheap Windows laptops. HP will soon launch its Stream Windows laptop that should cost around a couple hundred dollars. HP is including 200GB of cloud storage with the purchase. That’s well and good, but it still falls short of what schools get with Chromebook deployments.

Deploying Chromebooks to schools removes expensive support from the budget equation. School districts with Chromebooks don’t have to worry about supporting the OS and updates are handled automatically without issues. Even though Windows 8 is probably the easiest version of Windows yet, many users still require regular support.

Perhaps most importantly, school personnel don’t have to worry about hardware maintenance. When a Chromebook stops working, whether through rough handling by students or simple failure, Google replaces it with another. This is a tremendous advantage that the Chromebook has over Windows laptops. It makes it easy for school districts to put a fixed cost on the deployment, a crucial component of IT costs in cash-strapped organizations.

Apple had made some headway years ago in the education market by offering schools a huge discount on early computers that retailed for thousands of dollars at the time. This move has kept Apple as a competitor to Google and Microsoft in the classroom due to winning over many early on.

It’s a good thing for Microsoft to get behind cheap laptops to compete with Chromebooks, especially in schools. It’s going to take more than cheap laptops with Windows to do so, however. There will have to be turn-key programs like that from Google with Chromebooks to remove the cost and concerns of hardware and software maintenance. All for a low price schools are able to pay.

Michigan State University Creates a Transparent Solar Panel


Michigan State University researchers have created a solar panel that resembles a typical piece of glass, which can be placed on top of a window to collect solar energy. Clean solar power may be the future of energy. Transparent solar panels that seem just like normal glass may make that future real.

Called a transparent luminescent solar concentrator, the panel uses organic molecules made to absorb invisible wavelengths of light, such as ultraviolet and near infrared light. The material moves this unseen light to the edges of the panel, where strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it to electricity.

There have been past attempts at similar tech, but the results that have been produced were not transparent enough or were tinted. Such colorless transparency would allow these solar panels to have a wide variety of uses.

There are residential and commercial uses of windows using this technology, or gadgets like mobile phones and tablets with these solar cells embedded in the glass, or electronic signs that charge themselves, or even in cars or other vehicles with such windows.

The current version of the transparent solar cells is about one percent efficient, but the research team aims to increase that beyond five percent. Colored luminescent solar concentrators can get efficiency up to seven percent. Opaque solar cells can have an efficiency of 15% or more.

The “Toothbrush” Test


When deciding whether Google should spend millions or even billions of dollars in acquiring a new company, its chief executive, Larry Page, asks whether the acquisition passes the toothbrush test: Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better?

This criterion shuns traditional measures of valuing a company like earnings, discounted cash flow or even sales. Instead, Page is looking for usefulness above profitability, and long-term potential over near-term financial gain. Google’s toothbrush test highlights the increasing autonomy of Silicon Valley’s biggest corporate acquirers, and the marginalized role that investment banks are playing in the latest boom in technology deals.

Many of the biggest technology companies are now going at it alone when striking large mergers and acquisitions. Companies like Google, Facebook and Cisco Systems are leaning on their internal corporate development teams to identify targets, conduct due diligence and negotiate terms instead of relying on Wall Street bankers. Deals with unadvised buyers are increasing rapidly. The acquiring company did not use an investment bank in 69% of American technology acquisitions worth more than $100 million this year. That number was 27% ten years ago.

The diminished reliance on investment banks comes as technology deal making is rising rapidly. More than $100 billion in such deals have been announced in the United States this year, the most since 2000. At the center of this disconnect between technology companies and investment banks is the belief among many tech executives that some advisers simply do not know what companies like Google and Facebook are looking for.

Instead of trying to swallow already established Internet brands, Facebook uses acquisitions to make big bets on the future and plug technical holes. And in Silicon Valley’s relatively small circle of elite entrepreneurs, executives and venture capitalists, connections are easy and ample.

Tech companies emphasize that they maintain good relationships with many banks and use them on big deals when financing or fairness opinions are needed. But often, when big tech companies are looking to grow through acquisitions, it is the culture and vision, not the earnings and revenue that are of the most importance.

Wearable Technology May Soon Have Ability to Collect Data for Parkinson’s Disease


Recent news that Robin Williams had suffered from the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease preceding his death has been quite a surprise to many. Other celebrities have suffered from the effects of this dangerous disease for many years: Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, and Michael J. Fox. From these big names, has come widespread media attention, and awareness. This week, a big step has been taken towards finding new data to control the effects of Parkinson’s.

Intel announced on Wednesday its plans to use wearable gadgets such as smart watches to monitor patients with Parkinson’s disease and collect data that can be shared with researchers.

The well-known chip maker said that it is teaming up with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, established by the actor and Parkinson’s sufferer in 2000, to conduct a multi-phase research study of the neurodegenerative brain disease. An estimated five million people globally have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the second-most-common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s.

Their initial goal is to determine the feasibility of using wearable devices to monitor patients remotely and store that data in an open system that can be accessed by scientists.

The next phase of the study, which has been said will likely kick off in the fall, the foundation plans to set aside funds to explore how patients are responding to medication. Participants will be monitored via an array of wearable devices.

Clinical trials have been said to be far too “subjective” in the past. For instance, a patient might inform her doctor that she felt a tremor for several minutes, when it actually lasted a matter of seconds. In the future, Intel hopes patients and their doctors will have more precise measurements via wearable devices about the “frequency and severity” of symptoms.

The Michael J. Fox foundation will continue to raise funding to cover the costs of providing wearable devices to patients.

By using such devices, the foundation and other research groups can tap into a broader pool of patients for clinical trials. Today, many people with Parkinson’s disease are unable to participate in clinical trials because they do not live near a research facility. However, wearable devices offer a convenient way to track patients from their work or homes, allowing people in the most rural parts of the country to participate.

As the technology expands beyond the Parkinson’s Research, Intel hopes to capture a share of the growing market for big data analytics and wearable devices in the health sector.

While Intel boasts its own wearable technologies, Intel stressed that the Parkinson’s study is device agnostic, meaning patients can test a variety of wearable gadgets. In March, Intel completed its acquisition of Basis Science, a startup that is best known for its wrist-band that measures the wearer’s heart rate.

A Chilling Effect

china russia flags

We are getting used to thinking of the NSA as listening to our phone calls and reading our emails, and now apparently Google is checking stored attachments for kiddie porn.  However compared to the efforts of Russia and China our lords and masters are slipping up on the job.

Google told the Chinese where to put their strict regulations a few years back and Baidu has taken on the task of being a totalitarian friendly search engine and is making a killing doing that. China keeps a very firm handle on all kinds of political content and traditionally that control has extended to adult content in all of it’s myriad forms.Baidu has recently run foul of the censors by failing to prevent adult images from showing up in their results and being stored in their cloud storage product. Being the good dictator friendly search they are Baidu immediately got on the project deleting the content and shutting down user accounts.

The other dictator du jour Vladimir (The Terrible) Putin has been taking similar steps to keep their people in the dark. As of August 1st Search providers and other sensitive providers like bloggers and social media providers handling Russian traffic are being required to host their content on servers physically in Russia and store that data for six months. While it’s not quite yet as fierce a regimen as the Chinese have managed to establish this is a certainly scary step in the wrong direction.

The stories I heard trafficked by Russian “news” outlets about the recent Malaysia shootdown were both incredibly bizarre and widely circulated.  The old joke of “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God the British Journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed there’s no occasion to…applies en masse to the entire Russian news media. That without the recent hosting restrictions.

The sad fact is that information is power and governments around the world of all political stripes have recognized that and are getting with the program of monitoring and restricting access to that information.

Verizon’s Throttling Plan is Deemed “Disturbing” by FCC


Recently, FCC boss Tom Wheeler stated that he found Verizon’s efforts to throttle unlimited LTE users unless they move to a metered billing plan “disturbing,” expressing concern that Verizon was using network management to drive profits, not to protect the network. Verizon’s response was effectively saying that everybody is doing it, the company highlighting similar practices by T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint.

That response appears to not have sat well with the FCC boss.

“‘All the kids do it’ was never something that worked with me when I was growing up and it didn’t work with my kids,” Wheeler has said. “My concern in this instance is that it is moving from engineering and technological issues into business issues.”

Verizon does have a legitimate point that Wheeler oddly appears to be singling out Verizon, when other wireless ISPs engage in similar behavior. Then again, it wasn’t all the other carriers that sued the FCC in court to strip away network neutrality protections.

Of course, wireline and wireless carriers have used network congestion as a bogeyman to justify all manner of anti-competitive behavior and profit grabs for most of the decade, leading one to wonder if this realization is new to Wheeler. Using network congestion or fake-technical justifications to justify cash grabs or turf protection is kind of what Verizon does best if you’ve tracked the history of the company.

The cat’s out of the bag


When the EU recently ruled against Google on a person’s “right to be forgotten” and Google complied with the ruling in a reasonable and scalable way it was clear (to me anyway) that all hell was going to break out. It’s taken a few weeks …but it’s happening. The latest example of legal imbroglio comes from Hong Kong where a Movie maker is suing to have Google remove the autocomplete for their name as it links them to triad gang names. I guess it’s a bit like if you typed in 20th Century Fox and Google suggested the rest of the query should be “20th Century Fox Gambino Family” I could see how that would get annoying…whether or not there is any actual linkage.

This isn’t the first time Google has had problems like this, various EU jurisdictions have required they remove various autocomplete such as the one in Germany which linked “Scientology” to “Fraud”. I happen to think that one is perfectly fair comment…but that’s another blog…or see my reviews of some Scientology books on Audible and . In any event Google has always claimed that autocomplete is a purely algorithmic feature which they have no control over and thus no obligation to edit. Now the right to be forgotten precedent has been so clearly established it’s pretty simple to point to it and say if you can edit for that you can edit for this which has pretty much the same end result…in effect a right “not to be suggested”.

The search engines have sheltered behind the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US for the past 15 years. They have also relied on their enormous political sway to steer clear legal assault in the US. Clearly the rest of the world isn’t buying it and we can expect hundreds of thousands more requests to be forgotten and many other law suits with related issues all based on the right not to be remembered…or suggested.