Is North Korea Really Behind the Sony Hacks?

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There’s plenty of rumors and speculation, but one thing is certain: something has gone awfully wrong with the computer systems at Sony Pictures Entertainment – the television and movie subsidiary of the huge Sony Corporation.

The company has shut down its servers, after a ghoulish skull appeared on computer screens alongside a claim that internal data had been stolen and would be released if undisclosed “demands” were not met.

In parallel, Twitter accounts used by Sony to promote movies were hacked to display messages attacking Sony Entertainment’s CEO from a group calling itself GOP (the Guardians of Peace) who claimed responsibility for the hack.

11 terabytes of information had been stolen by hackers from Sony Pictures, and even tweeted a photograph of a sign placed in the lift of Sony Pictures’ London office asking staff not to use their computers or log into the Wi-Fi. If hackers have indeed hijacked Sony Pictures’ network, and stolen a large amount of data, it all sounds very dramatic, but the most the company has said publicly is that it is investigating an “IT matter.” The absence of hard facts about the hack has inevitably led to reporters filling in the vacuum with some guesswork and, in some cases, speculation that may be have shaky foundations.

For instance, one report claimed that Sony Pictures was exploring the possibility that North Korean hackers could be behind the attack – because of anger over an upcoming comedy film featuring Seth Rogan and James Franco working with the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

It does appear that North Korea is genuinely unhappy about the movie, but does it really seem likely that that would motivate what appears to be a widespread attack against the Sony Pictures computer network?

That hasn’t stopped other media outlets from repeating the original claim of a North Korean link without much in the way of questioning, churning out the same “news” without considering just how tricky it might be to attribute the attack to any particular country – especially when the victim itself appears to still be mid-recovery and mopping up the mess.

Does North Korea use the internet to spy on other countries? Is it possible that hackers sympathetic to North Korea (or simply people who aren’t fans of Seth Rogan) might want to disrupt Sony Pictures’ activities? Hopefully until we know the answer, Sony will do its duty to inform the public of what information has been compromised.

Quantifying the Online Revolution

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Nearly three billion people are now connected to the Internet, that’s more or less 40% of humanity, it is arguably the single greatest human achievement since electrification re-defined our society a hundred years ago.  Those of us who lived through the tech bubble and bust of the late 90s could be forgiven for rolling our eyes when commentators expound on the impact of the continuing online revolution but the impact is real and much more wide-ranging than you perhaps might imagine.

The first ‘online revolution’ was actually a fairly superficial exercise which tended to focus on retail transactions moving from a physical location to online, the poster child for this was pets.com which achieved notoriety by establishing an absurd valuation just before going out of business.  The migration of retail online has continued apace. Almost every good or service imaginable can now be ordered online however this is an example of how much deeper and wider the internet’s impact reaches. The product or service you ordered online is still manufactured in the conventional way, it’s delivered by drivers and trucks which earn wages and use gas.  The customer service person who answers your questions is likewise employed although she may be working half a world away. The company making the product will likely be thriving in good part because the new economy allows them to market more efficiently and keep in close contact with existing and new clients. Although in countries where the internet is well ensconced like the US or UK the internet is directly responsible for approaching 10% of GDP the vast majority (in excess of 75%) of the economic impact the internet causes shows up in the non-internet economy.

The new internet  driven economy has been widely criticized for causing job losses in some sectors, for example when was the last time you checked in at the airport or went to the bank and actually spoke to a human being? However a more careful study reveals that for every one job lost through this process nearly three jobs are created. These jobs tend to require a better educated labor force and in many cases they can be done from anywhere in the world, so speaking globally this is a strong net positive effect.  The impact of these changes isn’t just felt in larger companies where dramatic improvements in efficiency have occurred through rapid growth through information and automation made possible by the internet. Small and mid-sized business have seen similar if not greater opportunities.  The panoply of tools and access the internet generates means that almost anyone almost anywhere can start a business or grow their existing business.  Small companies taking advantage of what the web offers have been shown to grow and export over twice as fast as their less tech engaged peers.  Although small business has benefited from these changes they still have an enormous amount of as yet unrecognized online potential.  The internet allows many businesses to do things which would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago. This leveling of the playing field has led to dramatic jobs growth, indeed over 60% of the jobs created in the last decade were created by small to mid-sized businesses more than compensating for jobs lost through globalization.

Across the world the impact of the information revolution has been dramatic. Areas which have never had access to the telephone or even roads can join the rest of humanity through a generator and a cell connection. Simple things like knowing which products to take to market to garner the best price can make dramatic changes to subsistence farmers.  The ability to speak to a doctor or attend a virtual classroom can help drive change and even help reduce the impact of extremist world views. We have seem many revolutions against totalitarian regimes mediated by the internet and this is only going to grow more common.

In countries with well-established internet adoption in excess of 25% of GDP growth can be explicitly linked to the web.  That’s a staggering statistic but in reality it’s probably a conservative number.  It’s clear that infrastructure investments made by governments or the private sector act as access and wealth multipliers. Each area impacted by the internet generates its own opportunities and challenges. For example the rapid growth of Uber has led to loud complaints from the established taxi driver interest groups yet it has generated by some reports in excess of 20,000 new driver jobs per month.

The data clearly suggests that almost the single most important thing an economy can possess is a strong internet infrastructure and widespread online adoption. It offers communication, information, entertainment and access to the wisdom and experience of humanity.  It mediates and enhances commerce frequently inventing entire new business sectors. It allows companies of all sizes to compete and market more effectively increasing the pace of development and discovery. In spite of the dramatic changes the internet has made to so many business sectors we are far from finished with this dramatic process.  In economies with widespread adoption there are many sectors which remain almost untouched, as these areas become changed impacted in the near future massive new opportunities for wealth creation will continue to arise. In countries where adoption is less well established we can expect them to learn from the experience of more connected countries and make even more rapid progress as they deploy.  It can even bring democracy and peace.  The internet revolution continues with no end in sight and the only constant is change.

Google’s Game

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Google is getting into so many parts of our world it had to be only a matter of time until they got further into the world of gaming. Gaming is the Rock and Roll of our generation. Our kids listen to many of the same bands we grew up with…but the thing they do which we mostly can’t do and don’t get is gaming. Google is teaming up with James Frey who I think of as the guy who wrote the very good Million Little Pieces, then got yelled at by Oprah because he wasn’t clear enough where the real world left off and the fiction began. In any event he’s now a big player in the Young Adult category. His latest venture teams him up with the Google gaming guys to produce Endgame. This will be a cross media book/massive online game which follows a dozen teenagers across the world. The kids in the story are trying to save the world, the players of the book/game will be trying to solve the clues which will lead them to the key which will unlock a chest of gold worth $500K on display in Caesars Palace Las Vegas.

It’s not an entirely novel idea, Masquerade was a kids treasure hunt book about a rabbit which was a big thing in the UK a decade or so ago and more recently someone achieved their fifteen minutes of fame by hiding cash in various California locations and leaving clues on Twitter.

This project sounds like World of Warcraft meets Hunger Games combined with Ender’s Game (great book …horrible movie BTW). The sad fact is that one of my guilty pleasures is I actually quite like Young Adult fiction. Although I draw the line at Breaking Dawn, I did read all the Hunger Games books and I’m a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman all of whom supposedly target younger readers. I guess that means that although I may be able to follow the story I won’t be able to win the $500K without gaming help from a teenager.

The Great AntiFoot Hoax?

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Every so often you come across a marketing story which is so clever you really have to wonder if it actually happened. Such a story of sweeping through the media and chatterati of France. It’s World Cup season worldwide (everywhere except here in the US that is) and those very clever folks at Orangia have announced and claim to be selling the Orangina Antifoot…this has nothing to do with athletes foot I’m pleased to report.  The commercials show some boffins adding electronics to an Orangina can which allows the smart lady in the bar who doesn’t love ‘the beautiful game’ to surreptitiously turn off all the TVs in the bar. Such devices do exist…indeed a few years back when I was traveling a lot more than I do now and was tired of endless commercials and CNN news loop repeats being played at my poor head I did invest in such a device and it will indeed turn off any TV from 30 feet away..it’s a kind of universal off remote and yours for just $20.

What’s so clever about this campaign is that is that apart from the one pictured in the commercial nobody (that I have read about) has been able to get hold of the real thing.  It looks like it’s simply a very clever commercial hoax masquerading as reality.It’s technically feasible and makes for a hilarious commercial but the amount of adverse publicity it would cause if actually used …let alone the spontaneous outbreaks of mob violence against anyone caught drinking Orangina leads me to think that it never went into actual production or sale…which is a pity.

A French Suggestion

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In a news day ranging from Oprah Winfrey putting in a bid to buy the Clippers to the south east of our country enjoying weather straight out of a Roland Emmerich movie it’s the story out of Oklahoma that gives me most pause. In case you missed it, it’s the gruesome tale of a botched intravenous line which turned a new lethal injection drug into cruel and unusual punishment.

I love this country but man do we like killing guys. To be more accurate we like killing mostly black guys aged between 18 and 30 in a handful of God fearing flyover states. The guy who was incompetently poisoned yesterday (until a massive heart attack finished him off) was guilty of a horrible crime…as was the other guy whose sentence was delayed while the powers that be went back to their lethal drawing board. It’s an apparently irrefutable fact that the guys on the gurney yesterday are best monsters who had it coming…but at what point does a civilized society say enough?

Part of the problem is that the preferred source of the lethal cocktail is no longer available it was manufactured in Switzerland and the manufacturers were unable to assure Swiss authorities that it would not be used to kill people so they quit making it forcing the prison authorities to the lethal equivalent of making it up as they go along.

Where I come from back in the day we used to hang folks for pretty much anything….we also used to burn cats alive for entertainment (I kid you not) and bait bears. As our society “matured” we still hung ’em high but on a declining basis. The last people to go to the noose in the UK were executed in 1964. Even then the public appetite for hanging was waning and the pretty clear mistaken execution of James Hanratty in 1962 set the path towards abolition. Most other European countries followed suit although France was still using the guillotine as late as 1977…the French are famously fond of tradition and never believe in changing a winning solution to a problem.

Clearly a good handful of US states are keen to maintain the death penalty in spite of the fact that it offers no proven deterrence, is heavily skewed towards poor young men of color, it’s becoming more and more difficult to do in a clean “humane” way and fairly often kills the wrong people. If we are determined to keep the death penalty because we see it as divine retribution (or some such) and the rest of the civilized world is making it hard or impossible for us to get hold of the drugs needed for us to do it quietly behind closed venetian blinds maybe we should take a different approach.

Old Sparky is still on the agenda in some states but rather than risk slowly frying the condemned alive I was thinking that we might want to take a leaf out of the French play book. Back in revolutionary France there were real concerns about the spectacle of poor folks being bludgeoned to death on the wheel or unceremoniously hacked to bits by an often drunk axe man when the rich and nefarious were given a swift death with a single blow from a sober swordsman. Dr. Guillotine proposed a mechanized clean death to be delivered to all offenders regardless of their rank or privilege. It was a huge success. The technology was still working back in 1977 and no pesky Swiss government will be able to stop us from carrying it out our beloved executions. We could even sell tickets. If that sounds absurd…why does it? It’s a clean reliable instant death…if we are going to kill hundreds of young men each year let’s at least do it in a humane reliable way…vive la France!