Friday, September 24, 2010

Your web surfing privacy gone in a Flash

Privacy is a big issue these days when it comes to using the internet.

With identity theft on the rise and increasing numbers of web-based networks wanting to track your every online move, people have become very conscious of the need to keep a weather-eye on just what cookies are stored on your computer.

As most Net-savvy people know, a cookie is a small set of data that is used to "tag" your browser so that it can be recognized as a unique computer as you move around the Net.

Many websites issue cookies that identify you solely to make life easier -- by automatically logging you back on when you return or by keeping track of other information specific to your online identity.

However, with the increased use and abuse of cookies, most web-browsers now offer the ability to surf in "privacy mode" or similar. When this happens, the cookies that websites send to your computer are only kept for the current browsing session then automatically deleted.

Most browsers also offer a very simple way to peruse and delete any cookies that might have previously been sent to your computer.

That all sounds fine and dandy doesn't it?

Except for one thing... Adobe's Flash.

Flash is a plug-in which provides some wonderful extra functionality when browsing the web. Animated graphics, enhanced interactivity and and other features are the reasons why web-designers have flocked to Flash in their droves. These days it's pretty hard to find a website that doesn't include at least a few Flash-based applets on its pages.

Unfortunately for those who like to protect, or at least monitor their privacy, Flash doesn't play by the same rules as your browser.

Even with your browser in "privacy mode", the Flash plugin continues to accept, store and regurgitate its own cookies when requested to by websites you might visit.

Clearly, given how ubiquitous Flash has become, this scuttles the whole utility of any "privacy mode" that might exist on your system. What's more, because Flash has its own stash of cookies, you can't even tell what has already been saved to your machine by asking your browser.

So how do you avoid falling victim to Flash's disregard for your privacy?

Well you can fit a Flash-blocker plug-in which will disable all Flash applets encountered on webpages you might visit. You can of course activate those applets if you need or want to but some of the more sinister ones which are responsible for issuing and requesting the cookies are sometimes invisible and need not be running in order to use the pages concerned.

Another way which it is hoped will become practical very soon, is to dispense with Flash altogether.

These days, many of the features that were once the sole domain of Flash are now becoming available through the latest extensions to the HTML standard. Embedded video, clever animation and improved interactivity are now all possible without recourse to Flash so eventually it is hoped that web-designers will leave Flash in the dust and move on.

There's also hope that Adobe's promise to deliver a mechanism for allowing users to control and examine the cookies deposited on their machines by way of Flash will also be fulfilled.

In the meantime -- do you really know who's keeping tabs on your web-browsing?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Blu-ray DRM: epic fail!

Everyone knew it would only be a matter of time before the strong encryption used to lock-up the content of Blu-ray disks would be broken.

It happened years ago to the CSS system used by the humble DVD and now, by virtue of a similar "leak" of important information, it has happened to today's HD video standard.

Now hackers have all the clues they need to craft their own software to decode the otherwise unintelligible stream of data that is stored on Blu-ray disks and which passes through the HDCP (High Definition Content Protection) connections (such as HDMI, DVI, etc) between various system components.

Experts believe the most likely outcome of this event is the creation of a mod-chip that will decode the otherwise encrypted streams, allowing ready "ripping" of HD content stored (and allegedly protected) on Blu-ray disks.

Rumors of the leaked master-key were rife on the internet as early as Tuesday but confirmation that the master key really had "escaped" came today when Intel issued a statement saying "We have tested this published material that was on the Web. It does produce product keys... the net of that means that it is a circumvention of the [HDCP] code."

Opponents of DRM tout the leak as another example of how DRM does nothing but handicap consumers with higher prices and reduced flexibility in how they can use the products they purchase.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, there will soon be a plethora of code available to make ripping Blu-ray content a trivial process.

Legitimate disk owners will justify such activities by claiming they have a right to back up the movies they've bought and paid for -- pirates will rejoice in having ready-access to HD content without paying the prices being asked by the movie studios.

Intel, the creator of the HDCP DRM system has advised clients that they may now have to resort to legal action to enforce their rights as copyright owners, if examples of piracy in the wake of the key leak are detected.

This commentator wonders when the studios will wake up to the fact that they're wasting an awful lot of money trying to protect their product in a manner that will always be doomed to failure. Perhaps they should learn from the Music industry which has begun to ditch the DRM on its wares in favor of reasonable pricing and ready availability.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Apple feels the android burn?

There have been a number of reports published of late which indicate that Android-based personal devices are becoming a favourite with consumers.

Sure, we'd all love a lovely new iPhone or iPod but more often than not, the equivalent device from other vendors is cheaper and (gasp!) occasionally they're even more capable.

Now I can't help but wonder whether the guys at Apple have been reading these reports and talking in hushed tones about the way that Android-based systems appear to be reaching critical mass with astonishing alacrity. They know that if the market becomes enamoured with these devices, sales of their iStuff could take a hit.

They're also worried that developers may see more bountiful pickings to be had by producing software for the Android market and opting to give Apple's tightly controlled product a wide berth.

So just how worried are Apple?

Well hold onto your hat... Apple have finally decided to allow developers to use a raft of development languages and tools that were previously forbidden.

In fact, even that most evil of all tools, Flash, is now no-longer persona non gratis -- at least as a platform for delivering games and other applications. Word on the street however, is that you still won't see any browsers on the iOS which support Flash embedded in webpages.

So where as previously, Apple was incredibly strict in dictating exactly what languages and tools were allowed when creating apps, they've now backed right away - to the point where almost anything goes.

No doubt developers will be very happy with this change, as will users of Apple's products.

Now, only time will tell if these concessions on the part of Apple are enough to knock the wind out of Android's sails. Does Android already have the momentum needed to give other device manufacturers the key benefits they need to deliver better hardware and software solutions than Apple.

I can't wait to watch for what happens next.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Report: Alien life has reached earth (or maybe not)

I bet you're probably thinking I've lost an oar and am now writing science-fiction instead of a technology column but, if reports on the science-news wires today are correct, earth may have experienced a visit by alien life forms at the start of this decade.

The reports suggest that the appearance of hitherto undiscovered microbial life-forms which remain completely inert at temperatures below 121 degrees C may have fallen to earth from space in an event that was reported as "red rain" back in 2001.

It was initially thought that the red rain was simply the result of dust or lichen spores of a terrestrial origin -- however there have been a small group of those who consider that the tiny cell-like objects contained in the rain came from outer space. This suggestion was given further weight when observers reported a bright flash and loud boom shortly before the red rain began to fall.

A couple of years after the event, physicist Godfrey Louis published a paper in which he proposed that the red rain was caused by debris from an exploding comet or meteor as it entered earth's atmosphere.

At that time, Louis published another paper with Santhos Kumar in which he claimed he had managed to get the "cells" contained in the red rain to reproduce at temperatures approaching 300 degrees C. The pair published another paper in 2008 in which they restated these claims.

And now, like clockwork, the pair (plus several other physicists) have published another paper detailing further research and observations which have been made on the mystical red cells.

Oddly enough, despite the huge implications of such a find, nobody outside of Louis and Kumar's team have verified the strange behaviour of these possible alien invaders - which must leave all but the most enthusiastic sci-fi reader somewhat skeptical of the conclusions they have drawn.

However, if it does turn out that the red rain was indeed an alien invasion, one can't help but wonder if climate change will eventually lift temperatures to the level these cells need to "come alive" and colonise the planet. Of course we won't care because by then, mankind will have well and truly vacated the scene.

Perhaps panspermia is for real after all.