Friday, March 26, 2010

Who owns your view of the web?

An interesting situation has begun brewing in the USA where Facebook has threatened the creator of a piece of browser-side software that effectively strips out unwanted flotsam and jetsam when users log into their Facebook page.

Apparently, Facebook have their knickers in a knot because they don't want mere users altering the way their webpages look or filtering the data so as to avoid important "messages" that some consider to be unnecessary or spammy.

This situation raises a very important issue...

Do users have the right to change the way that webpages appear on their systems?

For instance, a growing number of savvy websurfers use ad-blocking software to rid themselves of the tiring and annoying menace of garish, flashing, poorly targeted advertising that now runs riot across so many pages.

Likewise, there are many who have opted to install plug-ins that stop Flash applets from automatically running on a page.

In doing this, those users are effectively editing the page they received and it could be argued that in doing so, they're making a derived work -- which (technically) may be illegal under the provisions of the Copyright Act.

So how long before publishers, reliant on ad revenues that ad-blocking software denies them, decide to take action against the companies which make this kind of software?

Could we soon see lawyers gunning for the people who write browser plug-ins in an attempt to get this software withdrawn from the market and restore lost ad-revenues?

And what would happen (for instance) if someone writes a piece of software that accesses webpages and stories from a website like CNN but automatically strips out the advertising and replaces it with its own?

It has largely been agreed that framing webpages constitutes a copyright breach however, what if the framing were done, not by another website but by an application loaded and run by the user?

Do users have the right to use software that effectively creates a "mashup" of the pages they're downloading?

I'm picking that it won't be too long before "mashup" software becomes a powerful force in the way people browse online and the various ad and Flash-blocker plugins are just the start of this.

Let's assume you're the kind of person who likes to voice your opinion on the news stories of the day, and also like to read the opinions of others...

Wouldn't you just love a piece of software (perhaps a browser plug-in) that automatically added a box which let you comment on the contents of any page you access on the web? The same software would also display all the comments made by others who chose to air their opinions about what they found on that page. In effect, it would add a discussion forum to any website that users chose to use it with. Most worrying for the website publishers would be that the discussion forum and its contents, although intimately tagged to their content, would be totally beyond their control or administration and they wouldn't make a cent of revenue from the leverage that was gained from their content by the operator of the forums server.

If the forums server operator placed ads alongside user comments, the publisher of the original website content itself would see not a bean of that money, even though it was the catalyst for he discussions and ad-revenues that resulted.

Sounds like a plan doesn't it?

But what about the legalities?

The company that runs the forum-server and provides the software is not doing anything wrong -- it's the user who iss creating a new "derived" page through a mashup of the original webpage and the related forum page -- the software is simply providing a framework by which they can do this.

I seem to recall that this kind of thing has been done before, in the early days of the Net when a piece of software was launched that allowed you to effectively place "post-it" notes on any webpage you liked. Other users of the same software would display those postit notes whenever they visited a site that had been "noted".

The system died out through lack of interest -- but I suspect the Net is a far different place today and such a plug-in could become a runway success. It could even be highly profitable -- the software writer earning revenues from the ads which could be placed in the forum-window.

Legal? Ethical? Or just plan clever thinking?

I guess it all depends on which side of the fence you sit.

Once a webpage is on our computer, do we have a right to change it -- so long as we don't republish that altered version?

A good (and very important) question, isn't it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

And now, the Google-box

There are many euphemisms for the humble TV set...

The idiot-box, the telly, the child-minder and even the goggle-box. Well now you can add one more: the Google-box.

However, the Google-box is more than just another name, it is perhaps clear sign that a consortium of the world's largest corporations are about to become a key part of our every-day lives.

Between them, Google, Sony and Intel are said to be working on a new convergence of TV and internet that will effectively bring a wider range and depth of content to everyone's living rooms.

Hang on, don't we already have convergence devices?

What about Tivo? These boxes have recently gone on sale in New Zealand and now the advertising is promoting the Tivo's ability to download movies, TV series and other content that is otherwise unavailable on broadcast television. Isn't that the same thing?

Well no.

What about the Apple TV? How does this differ from the Google-box that these three giants are cooking up?

Well apparently, the Google-led consortium is planning to take a step beyond the currently available "set-top box" configurations and deliver a ubiquitous platform that has web-browsing capabilities, along with a wealth of well-organised and packaged content which behaves just like a collection of regular TV channel, albeit with an "on-demand" component as well.

With the help of Intel and Sony, Google plans to make the Google-box an integral part of your TV set, much as we now find FreeView HD tuners becoming standard-equipment here in New Zealand.

With decent broadband connectivity (can you say "National Broadband Network"), the average TV viewer's horizons maybe significantly broadened beyond what's available on free-to-air transmissions.

Given Google's ability to spin a profit from advertising, many observers also speculate that the vast majority of the Google-box's content will be paid for by advertising rather than subscription.

Will this work?

Well, when you consider that, unlike a conventional TV tuner, the Google-box will allow viewers to directly interact with the advertising and be transported to the advertiser's website or online retail store with the click of a remote, there's a very high chance that such a service could steal a good chunk of the ad-revenue currently earned by traditional broadcasters.

There are some who believe that the ad-revenue from the Google-box service could eventually become the company's single largest source of income and that it may herald a significant change in the ad-funded television industry.

This all hinges on a number of assumptions of course.

Will TV viewers become active rather than passive? Can Google convince couch-potatoes to reach for the remote and click on an ad rather than just reach for another biscuit or piece of chocolate while viewing their favourite programmes?

And do they run the risk that all the truly "interactive" viewers are already in another room, surfing the web on their PCs?

It would appear that Google is doing its best to keep the Google-box very low-key right now, perhaps because they don't want to give the potential competition too much of a heads-up before they're ready to do a full launch. One thing's for sure though, given the effectiveness with which Google has established dominance in so many of the markets it has chosen to enter, traditional TV broadcasters should be preparing for the worst.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Beware the malware within

It has now been revealed that the Conficker virus infection which brought a huge part of the Waikato Health computer system to its knees was injected through an infected USB drive plugged into a computer in the carpark.

Thanks to the previously lax way in which Windows handled new devices (running auto-boot code from such things without prompting), the infection probably took place within seconds and without anyone being the wiser.

Fortunately that gaping hole has been patched and, it is to be hoped, that every single LAN and WAN reliant on the Windows operating system has been suitably updated to ensure that the same does not happen elsewhere.

But this isn't the only bit of USB-based malware to hit the wires recently...

Elsewhere, alerts have been issued in regards to the Energizer Duo USB battery charger, some of which have been sold with built-in malware. The Duo has since been withdrawn from sale. Never the less, hackers are rushing to find infected machines that have yet to be cleaned.

These cases are just the latest in a very long list of malware-infected USB devices that really leave you wondering why it took so long to disable autoboot as the default configuration for such peripherals.

It also makes you wonder, especially given the recently reported levels of cyber-attacks originating out of China and targeting US government and corporate computer systems, whether there have been many more USB-based infections that have either not been reported or remain undetected to this day.

Why would I suggest such a thing?

Well the vast majority of USB memory drives, for example, are now made in China and it would be a simple task to "pre-infect" such a device with code designed to compromise any system into which it was inserted.

Then there are all the other USB-based devices that include MP3 players (as in the McDonalds malware infected give-away), LCD picture frames, LCD keyrings, cameras, etc, etc.

It would be a trivial task for a manufacturer or employee to sneak malware into such devices and indeed, the list of infected products is already a long one. In each case, the manufacturers claim no malice or ulterior motive but put the problem down to bad employee practice.

This "inbuilt malware" issue will probably not go away, especially as our reliance on components manufactured in countries of questionable political compatibility grows.

Even the humble BIOS is now a potential hiding place for malware, thanks to the switch to FLASH-based memory that has the potential to be re-written after installation.

In short, it may not be possible to give an absolute guarantee of certainty that the brand-new, virgin PC or peripheral you buy tomorrow isn't already carrying a malware payload. This means the installation and disciplined updating/use of anti-virus software is now even more important than ever before.

However, even AV software isn't infallible and one must always consider the fact that, no matter what the system or the operating environment, there is always a degree of "risk" associated with committing any valuable/sensitive data to a networked computer.

Friday, March 5, 2010

21st century robots break Asimov's first law every day

As a child I remember enjoying science fiction books, movies and TV shows in which robots with human-like characteristics performed numerous tasks that had previously been the domain of workers.

One of the most memorable TV series was The Jetsons, in which the maid was a mechanical robot who took care of the housework and the children. But that particular vision of the future was conjured up way back in the 1960s and today, more than 40 years later, there are no humanoid robots to be seen in any modern home.

In fact, apart from on factory production lines and as an amusing toy, there are no really impressive robots to be seen anywhere. The whole idea of replacing people with general-purpose machines seems to have delivered little fruit.

However, in the USA, robotic "people replacements" may be about to take a huge step forwards.

According to recent reports, the latest crop of jet fighters (the F22 Raptor) and those currently under development, including the F35, have just become too expensive to justify.

Some of the many reasons for massive cost over-runs involve the provision of systems to support the fragile human pilot that controls the plane. Unlike the airframe, its weapons, engines and avionics, the pilot is vulnerable to all manner of things such as excessive G-forces, sudden decompression, cold, etc and high on the designers list of expensive, performance-limiting factors are those mechanisms which maximise the survivability of the aircraft's occupant at all times.

With this in mind, and the stunning success of both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) in hostile environments, the military is now faced with a crucial decision...

Do they continue to develop expensive manned fighters or do they instead, invest that money in the creation of a new generation of pilotless craft that are cheaper and offer higher performance?

If they opt for the UAV/RPV choice, this will be a major milestone in the evolution of robotic technology.

Although they won't look like the robot out of Lost in Space, these autonomous and remotely piloted fighters will represent the pinnacle of robotic technology as we know it.

In order to deliver the required performance in a combat environment, these aircraft will have to process huge amounts of data in realtime and make crucial decisions that then become a complex series of commands designed to give them air superiority over any foe.

Military officials are banking on the fact that a robotic fighter will be able to turn faster, accelerate more quickly, climb higher and endure far greater stresses than any manned version. In theory, should there be a man versus machine face-off, the machine should have huge advantages over the "winged can of meat".

However, it's early days and to date, none of the UAVs or RPVs in use today have been designed to operate in an aerial combat capacity. Although there are numerous instances where UAVs have shot down other aircraft, there has yet to be (as far as we know) an unmanned craft capable of engaging in a dogfight and winning.

Of course those familiar with science fiction will soon realise that UAVs may not qualify as robots, simply because they break Asimov's first law of robotics:

"A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

I wonder if it's a sign of the times that the most advanced robots of the 21st century now take the form of killing machines?

I bet Asimov is turning in his grave.