Friday, June 24, 2011

Governments install internet filters -- just in case?

Another blow has surfaced to the freedom previously enjoyed by users of the internet.

What were once lines of communications unfettered by official roadblocks or detours are now increasingly coming under threat as authorities move to address the issues of crime and unauthorised distribution of copyrighted works.

In the USA, the government has taken it upon themselves to seize control of domain names it believes are associated with such nefarious activities and now the UK is looking at taking similar steps.

To date, filtering or blocking of websites has been used as a tool against more serious crimes such as child pornography and terrorism but now, it would appear, the copyright lobbiests have been able to sway governments to consider the use of such techniques as a method of protecting the rights of copyright holders.

One issue receiving priority consideration for such blocking is the blocking of streamed video, particularly that of live sports events. Such activities are sometimes carried out by capturing live pay-TV broadcasts and streaming them via the internet. However, as in the USA, moves are afoot to also disconnect or block access to sites which make copyrighted material available for illegal download.

Critics of the moves are challenging whether copyright infringement can really be compared to crimes such as child pornography or terrorism and therefore, whether such filtering or blocking can be justified. Some point to a "thin end of the wedge" strategy that ultimately opens the door to government filtering of the internet on political, religious or other grounds.

These opponents also point out that such attempts to stem the flow of copyrighted material will ultimately be futile, due to the wide range of different strategies that can be used to cloak and disguise such downloads and transactions online.

Governments argue that the blocks are simply used to enforce the law and that only sites engaged in illegal acts will be affected.

The question all internet users must ask themselves is -- where should the line be drawn?

We've all seen how instrumental the internet has been in some of the uprisings against oppressive regimes in countries which lack democracy. Could it be that even in democratic nations, governments are so concerned about the power of the Net that they wish to preemptively introduce control measures "just in case" they are needed for political ends sometime in the future?

Food for thought, perhaps.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How a website link can get you a free trip to the USA

For as long as I've been using the internet, and that's about a quarter of a century, there has always been debate as to whether a hypertext link can be considered a breach of copyright.

If I link to another website, am I effectively breaching their copyright by using that content for my own gain?

Way back in 1997 I was threatened with law suits when I dared to link to news stories running on websites published by The Nando Times. They demanded that anyone wishing to link to their stories pay a stiff annual fee for the privilege. Naturally I told them to take a hike.

I continued to link and they never did follow-up on their empty threats. Interestingly enough, The Nando Times has faded from the leading online news source to obscurity -- perhaps as a result of their myopic perspectives on copyright.

More recently, Rupert Murdoch as whined incessantly that content aggregators such as Google were leaching his intellectual property by indexing the news stories from his websites. He also has tried to erect paywalls and other devices designed to prevent others from "stealing" his copyrighted material.

Fortunately for those of us who believe that hypertext links are more a form of flattery than theft, the law rests on our side. I don't believe there have been any successful copyright prosecutions based solely on the fact that someone's copyrighted material has been pointed to by a hypertext link.

However, that does not mean that hypertext linking can't get you into trouble -- as a British student has found out to his cost.

Richard O’Dwyer, a computer science student from Sheffield is facing extradition to the USA to answer charges that he published links to illegal copies of popular Hollywood movies hosted elsewhere on the internet.

It seems that in the USA, this is an indictable offense and, to many people's surprise, there is an extradition treaty between the two countries that covers this kind of thing.

Despite doing nothing more than publishing a few hypertext links on the web, O'Dwyer was hauled off to a British prison for the evening and is now out on a bail of $6,000 pending those extradition proceedings.

US officials have also seized the domain name used by O'Dwyer, even though the site itself was not hosted on US soil and the country code of that domain was .cc, for Cocos the (Keeling) Islands, an Australian territory.

Although there maybe legal precedent in the USA for prosecuting those who publish hypertext links to unlawful copies of copyrighted material, one must really be left wondering how far that nation's jurisdiction now extends. All of Mr O'Dwyer's activities occurred outside the USA - yet somehow he is being prosecuted under the laws of that nation.

This must be a very worrying event for all who use the Net and may, unwittingly, break some esoteric aspect of US law with nasty consequences.

So readers, if you want a free trip to the USA, just publish a few links to Hollywood blockbuster movies on your website and wait for the knock at the door.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Liquid battery could change the world

Chemical batteries or cells are ubiquitous and for decades, have represented the power source for a huge number of portable consumer electronics devices.

Today, the battery is becoming even more important as we look to ween ourselves off fossil fuels for our transport fleets by way of electric vehicles.

The big problem with all the existing battery technologies however, is the time required for recharging.

Even the most advanced cells, such as the lithium-iron-phosphate types being considered for the next generation of electric vehicles, still have a recharge time that is usually measured in hours, not minutes.

There are two factors which dictate this protracted recharge time:

The first is the amount of electrical power that must be available to replenish the battery. In the case of an EV, this represents many kilowatts and, given that the average wall-socket only supports 2-3KW of load, clearly constitutes a serious bottleneck.

Then there is the battery chemistry itself. The charging process is not a lossless process and therefore a percentage of the power fed into the cell is converted to heat, resulting in a temperature rise that can adversely affect the cells. The rate at which the chemical processes in the cell take place can also limit the recharge speed.

Well imagine a battery that can be recharged just as easily as you currently fill your petrol tank...

That's what researchers at MIT are hinting at with their new liquid-plate battery technology.

Instead of using solid plates separated by an electrolyte, like traditional cells, these new batteries use a suspension of minute particles in a liquid which acts as both the plate and the electrolyte.

Two different fluid suspensions, one for the cathode and one for the anode, are poured into the battery and kept separate by a permeable membrane. This membrane allows the transfer of electrons and ions between the two fluids but does not allow them to actually combine.

When a battery becomes depleted, the cell's contents are drained and then replenished with new liquids in a very quick and efficient process.

It is hoped that, once the right chemistry is developed, the used fluids will then be reconstituted in a separate "recharge" process.

Once (or should I say "if") this technology is perfected, it could be the single largest step in the evolution of electric transport.

When you think about it -- it's obvious, isn't it? But aren't all the good ideas just staring us in the face?

Friday, June 3, 2011

I see your ICMP probe and raise you an ICBM

If you're not a tech-head then the title of this week's blog entry won't make a lot of sense to you.

However, once you realise that ICMP is one of the protocols used on the internet to communicate information between computers perhaps the meaning will become a little clearer.

Cyber-attacks are becoming an almost daily event in the 21st century, with "high value" targets such as US military defense contractors and even the suppliers of cloud-based services such as GMail, coming under repeated assault.

Now it seems that the USA has had a gutsfull and is contemplating categorising cyber-attacks against critical systems as "an act of war" -- something that would empower the government to retaliate with good, old-fashioned, guns, bombs and missiles.

Sounds scary, doesn't it?

Imagine if WW3 were to be kicked off by an errant IP packet that was mistaken for a cyber-assault or just happened to crash a pentagon computer by mistake?

Of course this won't happen, and nor will the USA retaliate against attempted or actual intrusions to its systems with lethal force -- and the events of this week demonstrate why.

Google has reported that some of its GMail accounts have been the target of concerted spear phishing attacks that, it is alleged, are coming out of China -- perhaps being the work of state-sponsored hackers.

The big problem is, and will always be, proving that any form of hacking or attack is the work of a state and not just a group of disenfranchised or militant individuals. Unfortunately, due to the very nature of the Net, it's simply too easy to mask the true origin of such attacks by the use of proxies and machines that have been "p0wnd" (ie: taken-over) by evil little sods.

To launch a military assault on a nation simply because it is implicated in a cyber-assault would be an act of incredible foolishness and likely to be the catalyst for even greater military conflict.

The USA won't be impressing anyone with this posturing stance and perhaps the UK has taken a more sensible approach to the problem. The British are planning to develop an arsenal of "cyber-weapons" that can be used to defend and retaliate against such online incursions -- perhaps the only practical way to handle such a situation.

In the meantime, if the USA really wants to bring a cyber-aggressor to its knees, perhaps they could unfriend them from the US government's FaceBook page. That would scare them!