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January 6, 2012

Only the paranoid

Yesterday's news that the Ramnit worm has harvested the login credentials of 45,000 British and French Facebook users seems to me a watershed moment for Facebook. If I were an investor, I'd wish I had already cashed out. Indications are, however, that founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in it for the long haul, in which case he's going to have to find a solution to a particularly intractable problem: how to protect a very large mass of users from identity fraud when his entire business is based on getting them to disclose as much information about themselves as possible.

I have long complained about Facebook's repeatedly changing privacy controls. This week, while working on a piece on identity fraud for Infosecurity, I've concluded that the fundamental problem with Facebook's privacy controls is not that they're complicated, confusing, and time-consuming to configure. The problem with Facebook's privacy controls is that they exist.

In May 2010, Zuckerberg enraged a lot of people, including me, by opining that privacy is no longer a social norm. As Judith Rauhofer has observed, the world's social norms don't change just because some rich geeks in California say so. But the 800 million people on Facebook would arguably be much safer if the service didn't promise privacy - like Twitter. Because then people wouldn't post all those intimate details about themselves: their kids' pictures, their drunken, sex exploits, their incitements to protest, their porn star names, their birth dates... Or if they did, they'd know they were public.

Facebook's core privacy problem is a new twist on the problem Microsoft has: legacy users. Apple was willing to make earlier generations of its software non-functional in the shift to OS X. Microsoft's attention to supporting legacy users allows me to continue to run, on Windows 7, software that was last updated in 1997. Similarly, Facebook is trying to accommodate a wide variety of privacy expectations, from those of people who joined back when membership was limited to a few relatively constrained categories to those of people joining today, when the system is open to all.

Facebook can't reinvent itself wholesale: it is wholly and completely wrong to betray users who post information about themselves into what they are told is a semi-private space by making that space irredeemably public. The storm every time Facebook makes a privacy-related change makes that clear. What the company has done exceptionally well is to foster the illusion of a private space despite the fact that, as the Australian privacy advocate Roger Clarke observed in 2003, collecting and abusing user data is social networks' only business model.

Ramnit takes this game to a whole new level. Malware these days isn't aimed at doing cute, little things like making hard drive failure noises or sending all the letters on your screen tumbling into a heap at the bottom. No, it's aimed at draining your bank account and hijacking your identity for other types of financial exploitation.

To do this, it needs to find a way inside the circle of trust. On a computer network, that means looking for an unpatched hole in software to leverage. On the individual level, it means the malware equivalent of viral marketing: get one innocent bystander to mistakenly tell all their friends. We've watched this particular type of action move through a string of vectors as the human action moves to get away from spam: from email to instant messaging to, now, social networks. The bigger Facebok gets, the bigger a target it becomes. The more information people post on Facebook - and the more their friends and friends of friends friend promiscuously - the greater the risk to each individual.

The whole situation is exacerbated by endemic, widespread, poor security practices. Asking people to provide the same few bits of information for back-up questions in case they need a password reset. Imposing password rules that practically guarantee people will use and reuse the same few choices on all their sites. Putting all the eggs in services that are free at point of use and that you pay for in unobtainable customer service (not to mention behavioral targeting and marketing) when something goes wrong. If everything is locked to one email account on a server you do not control, if your security questions could be answered by a quick glance at your Facebook Timeline and a Google search, if you bank online and use the same passwords throughout...you have a potential catastrophe in waiting.

I realize not everyone can run their own mail server. But you can use multiple, distinct email addresses and passwords, you can create unique answers on the reset forms, and you can limit your exposure by presuming that everything you post *is* public, whether the service admits it or not. Your goal should be to ensure that when - it's no longer safe to say "if" - some part of your online life is hacked the damage can be contained to that one, hopefully small, piece. Relying on the privacy consciousness of friends means you can't eliminate the risk; but you can limit the consequences.

Facebook is facing an entirely different risk: that people, alarmed at the thought of being mugged, will flee elsewhere. It's happened before.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

April 9, 2010

Letter box

In case you thought the iPad was essentially a useless, if appealing, gadget, take heart: it now arguably has a reason to exist in the form of an app, iMean, designed to help autistic children communicate.

The back story: my friend Michael's son, Dan, is 14; his autism means he can't really speak and has motor control difficulties.

"He's somebody who at the age of 12 had a spoken vocabulary of 100 words," says Michael, "though he seemed to have a much greater recognition vocabulary and could understand most of what we said to him, though it was hard to be sure."

That year, 2008, the family went to Texas to consult Soma Mukhopadhyay, who over the space of four days was able to get Dan communicating through multiple-choice. At first, the choices were written on two pieces of paper and Dan would grab one. He rapidly moved on to using a pencil to point at large letters placed in alphabetical order on a piece of laminated cardboard, a process Michael compares to a series of multiple-choice questions with 26 possible answers.

"Before Soma there were no letters, only words. So what he came to realize was that all the words he knew and could recognize were all combinations of the same 26 letters," Michael says. "The letter board did for Dan what moveable type did for the Western world, but the difference is that before Gutenberg people could still write and Dan could not."

The need for a facilitator to keep Dan focused on the task of spelling out a sentence also raises the issue of ensuring that it's actually Dan who's communicating. Michael says, "I was always very concerned not to impose myself on Dan while helping him as much as possible."

The iPad, therefore, offered the possibility of a more effective letter board that could incorporate predictive text and remember what's been said, and one whose other features might help Dan move on to more efficient - and more independent - communication. Dan's eyes jump so he may miss details in written text, but voiceover can read him email, and what he types into iMean can be copied into an answer. Performing all those steps independently is some way off, but the potential is life-changing.

Michael proposed the app he had in mind to 18-year-old programmer Richard Meade-Miller. "I didn't think it was going to be that hard because Apple has done most of it for you," says Michael, "but it turns out that to write an app you really need to be able to do programming in objective-C. For someone who learned Fortran 35 years ago, that's really difficult."

However, there were constraints. "We wanted the buttons to be as big as possible so Dan would have as little chance of error as possible." That forced some hard choices, such as limiting available punctuation marks to four, and shrinking the backspace button a little smaller than Michael had originally hoped in order to make room for Yes and No keys.

"When somebody like Dan sits down with this he may not be able to spell right away, but he needs to be able to say yes or no or say if something goes wrong on the screen. There should be a No button, bright red and very clear." Getting all that into the available screen space also meant creating a different view for numeric input, needed so Dan can do math problems and to speed entering large numbers.

The iPad's memory is also a constraint. "The program runs very quickly and smoothly, but anybody write an app for this platform has to be careful to release all the things that use memory on a regular basis." For the word prediction feature, iMean uses ZenTap, whose author supplied the code for Meade-Miller to integrate.

Word prediction - as Dan spells out words iMean offers him a changing display of three completed words to choose from - has speeded up the whole process for Dan. But it also, Michael says, has had a noticeable effect on his ability to read, "Because he's reading all day long." A final set of constraints are imposed by Dan's own abilities. Many autistic children do not point, an early developmental milestone. "Dan has started to point a little bit now as a result of tapping things on the letter board." Michael knew that, but he didn't realize how hard it would be for Dan, whose fingers sometimes shake and slip, to distinguish between tapping a key and swiping his fingers across a key - and a few keys are programmed to behave differently if they are swiped rather than tapped. "That may have been a mistake," he says. "It has forced Dan to really concentrate on tapping, so sometimes he double and triple taps.

Dan insisted on making a baseline video the first day so that later they can compare and see how much he's improved.

Their long-term goal is for Dan to be able to communicate with people independently. Whether they get all the way there or not, Michael says, "We know the app works the way we want. He can read a paragraph now instead of just a line - and it's only been three days."

Dan, by voice, is calling it his "stepping stone".

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. This blog eats comments for unknown reasons. Email netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

September 5, 2008

Return of the browser wars

It was quiet, too quiet. For so long it's just been Firefox/Mozilla/Netscape, Internet Explorer, and sometimes Opera that it seemed like that was how it was always going to be. In fact, things were so quiet that it seemed vaguely surprising that Firefox had released a major update and even long-stagnant Internet Explorer has version 8 out in beta. So along comes Chrome to shake things up.

The last time there were as many as four browsers to choose among, road-testing a Web browser didn't require much technical knowledge. You loaded the thing up, pointed it at some pages, and if you liked the interface and nothing seemed hideously broken, that was it.

This time round, things are rather different. To really review Chrome you need to know your AJAX from your JavaScript. You need to be able to test for security holes, and then discover more security vulnerabilities. And the consequences when these things are wrong are so much greater now.

For various reasons, Chrome probably isn't for me, quite aside from its copy-and-paste EULA oops. Yes, it's blazingly fast and I appreciate that because it separates each tab or window into its own process it crashes more gracefully than its competitors. But the switching cost lies less in those characteristics than in the amount of mental retraining it takes to adapt your way of working to new quirks. And, admittedly based on very short acquaintance, Chrome isn't worth it now that I've reformatted Firefox 3's address bar into a semblance of the one in Firefox 2. Perhaps when Chrome is a little older and has replaced a few more of Firefox's most useful add-ons (or when I eventually discover that Chrome's design means it doesn't need them).

Chrome does not do for browsers what Google did for search engines. In 1998, Google's ultra-clean, quick-loading front page and search results quickly saw off competing, ultra-cluttered, wait-for-it portals like Altavista because it was such a vast improvement. (Ironically, Google now has all those features and more, but it's smart enough to keep them off the front page.)

Chrome does some cool things, of course, as anything coming out of Google always has. But its biggest innovation seems to be more completely merging local and global search, a direction in which Firefox 3 is also moving, although with fewer unfortunate consequences. And, as against that, despite the "incognito" mode (similar to IE8) there is the issue of what data goes back to Google for its coffers.

It would be nice to think that Chrome might herald a new round of browser innovation and that we might start seeing browsers that answer different needs than are currently catered for. For example: as a researcher I'd like a browser to pay better attention to archiving issues: a button to push to store pages with meaningful metadata as well as date and time, the URL the material was retrieved from, whether it's been updated since and if so how, and so on. There are a few offline browsers that sort of do this kind of thing, but patchily.

The other big question hovering over Chrome is standards: Chrome is possible because the World Wide Web Consortium has done its work well. Standards and the existence of several competing browsers with significant market share has prevented any one company from seizing control and turning the Web into the kind of proprietary system Tim Berners-Lee resisted from the beginning. Chrome will be judged on how well it renders third-party Web pages, but Google can certainly tailor its many free services to work best with Chrome - not so different a proposition from the way Microsoft has controlled the desktop.

Because: the big thing Chrome does is bring Google out of the shadows as a competitor to Microsoft. In 1995, Business Week ran a cover story predicting that Java (write once, run on anything) and the Web (a unified interface) could "rewrite the rules of the software industry". Most of the predictions in that article have not really come true - yet - in the 13 years since it was published; or if they have it's only in modest ways. Windows is still the dominant operating system, and Larry Ellison's thin clients never made a dent in the market. The other big half of the challenge to Microsoft, GNU/Linux and the open-source movement, was still too small and unfinished.

Google is now in a position to deliver on those ideas. Not only are the enabling technologies in place but it's now a big enough company with reliable enough servers to make software as a Net service dependable. You can collaboratively process your words using Google Docs, coordinate your schedules with Google Calendar, and phone across the Net with Google Talk. I don't for one minute think this is the death of Microsoft or that desktop computing is going to vanish from the Earth. For one thing, despite the best-laid cables and best-deployed radios of telcos and men, we are still a long way off of continuous online connectivity. But the battle between the two different paradigms of computing - desktop and cloud - is now very clearly ready for prime time.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site hasn extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 1, 2008

Microhoo!

Large numbers are always fun, and $44.6 billion is a particularly large number. That's how much Microsoft has offered to pay, half cash, half stock, for Yahoo!

Before we get too impressed, we should remember two things: first, half of it is stock, which isn't an immediate drain on Microsoft's resources. Second, of course, is that money doesn't mean the same thing to Microsoft as it does to everyone else. As of last night, Microsoft had $19.09 billion in a nice cash heap, with more coming in all the time. (We digress to fantasise that somewhere inside Microsoft there's a heavily guarded room where the cash is kept, and where Microsoft employees who've done something particularly clever are allowed to roll naked as a reward.)

Even so, the bid is, shall we say, generous. As of last night, Yahoo!'s market cap was $25.63 billion. Yahoo!'s stock has dropped more than 32 percent in the last year, way outpacing the drop of the broader market. When issued, Microsoft's bid of $31 a share represented a 62 percent premium. That generosity tells us two things. First, since the bid was, in the polite market term, "unsolicited", that Microsoft thought it needed to pay that much to get Yahoo!'s board and biggest shareholders to agree. Second, that Microsoft is serious: it really wants Yahoo! and it doesn't want to have to fight off other contenders.

In some cases – most notably Google's acquisition of YouTube – you get the sense that the acquisition is as much about keeping the acquired company out of the hands of competitors as it is about actually wanting to own that company. If Google wanted a slice of whatever advertising market eventually develops around online video clips, it had to have YouTube. Google Video was too little, too late, and if anyone else had bought YouTube Google would never have been able to catch up.

There's an element of that here, in that MSN seems to have no immediate prospect of catching up with Google in the online advertising market. Last May, when a Microsoft-Yahoo! merger was first mooted, CNN noted that even combined MSN and Yahoo! would trail Google in the search market by a noticeable margin. Google has more than 55 percent of the search market; Yahoo! trails distantly with 17 percent and MSN is even further behind with 13 percent. Better, you can hear Microsoft thinking, to trail with 30 percent of the market than 13 percent; unlike most proposals to merge the numbers two and three players in a market, this merger would create a real competitor to the number one player.

In addition, despite the fact that Yahoo!'s profits dropped by 4.6 percent in the last quarter (year on year), its revenues grew in the same period by 11.8 percent. If Microsoft thought about it like a retail investor (or Warren Buffett), it would note two things: the drop in Yahoo!'s share prices make it a much more attractive buy than it was last May; and Yahoo!'s steady stream of revenues makes a nice return on Microsoft's investment all by itself. One analyst on CNBC estimated that return at 5 percent annually – not bad given today's interest rates.

Back in 2000, at the height of the bubble, when AOL merged with Time-Warner (a marriage both have lived to regret), I did a bit of fantasy matchmaking that regrettably has vanished off the Telegraph's site, pairing dot-coms and old-world companies for mergers. In that round, Amazon.com got Wal-Mart (or, more realistically, K-Mart), E*Trade passed up Dow-Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal (and may I just say how preferable that would have been to Rupert Murdoch's having bought it) in favor of greater irony with the lottery operator G-Tech, Microsoft got Disney (to split up the ducks), and Yahoo! was sent off to buy Rupert Murdoch's News International.

Google wasn't in the list; at the time, it was still a privately held geeks' favorite, out of the mainstream. (And, of course, some companies that were in the list – notably eToys and QXL – don't exist any more.) The piece shows off rather clearly, however, the idea of the time, which was that online companies could use their ridiculously inflated stock valuations to score themselves real businesses and real revenues. That was before Google showed the way to crack online advertising and turn visitor numbers into revenues.

It's often said that the hardest thing for a new technology company is to develop a second product. Microsoft is one of the few who succeeded in that. But the history of personal computing is still extremely short, and history may come to look at DOS, Windows, and Office as all one product: commercial software. Microsoft has seen off its commercial competitors, but open-source is a genuine threat to drive the price of commodity software to zero, much like the revenues from long distance telephone calls. Looked at that way, there is no doubt that Microsoft's long-term survival as a major player depends on finding a new approach. It has kept pitching for the right online approach: information service, portal, player/DRM, now search/advertising. And now we get to find out whether Google, like very few companies before it, really can compete with Microsoft. Game on.


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 16, 2007

Quick fix

The other day, I noticed that the personal finance software I've been using since January 2, 1993 (under DOS!), Quicken, had started responding to requests to download stock quotes this way: "Quicken was unable to process the information in the file that was downloaded. We recommend that you try again." (It's their version of Sisyphus's torture: trying again produces the same message.)

It must be a couple of years since I started seeing warnings that Quicken was going to disable quotes in older versions of its software. My version, 2000, probably should have stopped functioning in 2004. But I'd begun to think it would never happen.

I recognize that by this time I am a valueless customer to Quicken's maker, Intuit, I tried the 2002 version (mostly so I could synch with Pocket Quicken on the Palm) and hated it; I found useless the 2005 version that came on a laptop. Intuit's idea for turning me into a valuable one is apparently to force me to upgrade to Quicken 2007. Even if 200x versions had been good, this wouldn't be a perfect idea: In 2005 Intuit dropped its UK product, and while its US product now handles multiple currencies, what about VAT? Worse, in two (or three) years' time I will be forced to do the whole thing again because of Intuit's sunset policies.

This is, of course, an entirely more aggressive approach than most software companies take. Even Microsoft, which regularly announces the dates on which it will stop supporting older software, doesn't make it inoperable. It's odd remembering that we used to cheer for Intuit, partly because it was a real pioneer in usable interface design, and partly because in the 1990s it was one of very, very few companies that had to compete with Microsoft and succeeded.

The bad news is that this is likely to be what the future is going to look like. Cory Doctorow, who has spent years following Hollywood's efforts to embed copy protection into television broadcasts and home video systems, has warned frequently that the upshot will be that things unexpectedly stop working. TiVo owners have already seen this in action: the company proposed to disable the 30-second skip popular among the advertising avoidant, and also in some cases can how long you can save programs and whether you can make copies.

I'm sure there are other examples that don't spring instantly to mind. It's part of the price of a connected world that the same features that allow benefits such as downloaded information and automatic software updates give the manufacturers options for changing the configuration we paid for at their own discretion. If these were hackers instead of software companies, we'd say they'd installed a "back door" into our systems to allow them to come in and rummage around whenever they wanted to, and we'd be deploying software to disable the back door and keep them out. Instead, we call these things "features" and apparently we're willing to pay software companies to install them.

All software has flaws; part of learning to use it involves figuring out how to work around them. When I bought it, Quicken was one of only two games in town; the other was Microsoft Money, and its notable how few competitors they have. Quicken did a far better job, at least at the beginning, of understanding that personal finance software only really works for you if you can integrate it into the world of banking and credit cards you already live in. Intuit pioneered downloading bank and credit card data. Had I ever learned to use it right, it would have prepared my VAT returns for me.

But I never really did learn to use it right, and it's gotten worse over time as the software has disimproved (as the Irish say). The Quicken files on my computer have become hopelessly lost in confusion over split transactions that don't make sense, invoices that may or may not have been paid; mortgage interest I've never been able to figure out correctly; and stock spin-offs it's adamantly put in the wrong currency. Early on, Intuit created a product called Quick Invoice that did exactly what I wanted: it wrote invoices, simply and reliably, in about five seconds. This functionality was eventually subsumed into Quicken, which made it laborious and unpleasant. My least favorite quirk was that its numbering was unreliable.

I now realize that I had come to hate the software so much that I more or less stopped dealing with it other than for invoices and stock quotes. The original purpose for which I bought it, to save money by keeping track of bank balances had long since been forgotten.

So, I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it. It will cost me at least $50 more than the price of Quicken 2007 to buy a decent piece of invoicing software and something like, say, Moneydance, and quite a few hours to start over from scratch. But at least I know that two years hence I won't be doing it again.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).