Friday, July 29, 2011

Light, the new broadcast medium

With the radio-frequency spectrum becoming increasingly crowded due to a growing demand for wireless communications, a new part of the electromagnetic spectrum is shaping up to be one of the broadcast mediums of the future.

I'm talking about the visible light spectrum, ranging from red through violet -- or any combination thereof.

Using lasers to carry data over short and long distances is now very "old hat" with fibre-optic cables being the primary conduit for such bursts of light -- but now there's something different being proposed.

Thanks to the growing cost-effectiveness of powerful light-emitting diodes (LEDs), researchers are promising that very soon we'll be able to use regular visible light to communicate data at very high rates.

Some have speculated using something as mundane as streetlighting to replace WiFi as a two-way high-speed short-range communications links and others have proposed higher intensity lights placed in widely visible locations as being suitable for broadcast-type communications, carrying radio and television signals.

Due to the extremely high switching speeds of modern power LEDs, the data can be encoded in binary form (off/on) without any visible flicker or significant reduction in overall light intensity -- thus allowing the dual-functionality of these public lighting/broadcast nodes.

Of course while this may all work very well at night, researchers are quick to point out that visible light is more easily disrupted than most lower-frequency parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Something as common as rain or fog can significantly reduce the range of visible-light signals and during the day, such signals are likely to be heavily swamped by the light of the sun.

Never the less, there are applications where visible light communications links may have significant benefits over their radio-frequency peers. Possible candidates include underwater communications, domestic and office networking, the delivery of data services within RF-sensitive environments such as commercial aircraft and broadcast information within transport tunnels.

What will they think of next?

Friday, July 22, 2011

You are what you post

An interesting trend is developing in the employment industry...

Recruiting agencies and prospective employers are now using "social media background checks" to help determine the suitability of candidates.

In fact, there are now new companies popping up who will, for a fee, perform these online background checks, trawling through a person's interactions on social networking sites, forums and other mechanisms, all of which leave tell-tale footprints on the Net.

According to psychologists, such a check can deliver considerable insight into a person's personality, including determining whether they are suited to a team environment, have leadership potential, are honest, trustworthy, etc.

Recruitment companies are again warning those who are active online to think twice before they make posts that may later come back to haunt them and damage their career prospects.

Unfortunately, many postings to the Web do not just disappear and even deliberately removing them may not erase the evidence. Such posts often live on in Google's cache or on archive sites such as the internet archive.

Another problem that can cause issues when these background checks are performed is that of identity theft or poisoning.

There have been reported cases of people who have found their reputation deliberately impugned by old adversaries or foes who have created blogs or web-forum identities in their name and then made racist or potentially damaging comments. Since such poisoning often goes undetected until a background check is made, it can be hard for someone to prove that these postings were not made by them.

Good advice is to regularly Google your own name and check to see that your "cyber-rep" remains positive.

In the 21st century, your behaviour online may be every bit as important as the qualifications and experience on your CV when it comes to securing that next job.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Is the internet now an "essential service"?

As our lives become increasingly wired (or wirelessed if you use mobile/WiFi), there are those who believe that internet connectivity is rapidly becoming a "right" rather than an option.

Recent discussion in relation to the amended NZ copyright law and its three-strikes policy brought the whole issue of "the right to access" into the public spotlight.

Advocates of "the right" claim that Net connectivity is now just as essential as other utilities such as telephone, power and water. To force someone to be disconnected, they say, would be an infringement of their human rights.

Personally, I think that's a little bit of a long bow to draw but one has to concede that in a world where we increasingly rely on the Net to perform a growing array of tasks from managing our bank account through paying bills and filing business tax returns -- unwanted removal of internet access can indeed be seen as something that is difficult to justify.

Perhaps the only justification would be persistent abuse of the Net for illegal activities such as copyright infringement, accessing objectionable material or similar offending.

However, in the USA, one man has had his internet access revoked for a period of 12 months by service provider Comcast. His crime?

He simply used too much data.

It seems that because he used more than 250GB per month for two months in a row, Comcast invoked their "over-use" policy which, according to the fine print, allows them to decline to provide service in such cases -- for a period of up to 12 months.

While you might think that this guy could simply sign up with a new ISP, it's not that simple. Comcast are the only provider of high-speed broadband in the area where he lives. His alternatives are not really suited to the kind of hi-bandwidth use he makes of the Net.

In the USA, ISPs have attempted to introduce data-caps to avoid over-use by those who make heavy use of the Net. This move has been roundly criticised by both the public and politicians - to the extent that in a growing number of cases, these caps have been removed or greatly relaxed.

Now, given NZ's meagre data caps and the growing popularity of bandwidth-heavy services such as video on demand, social networking, video-calling/conferencing, etc -- I wonder how long before the issue of data-caps becomes a real bone of contention with Net users.

While it's unlikely any NZ ISP will try to follow Comcast's lead by refusing to connect "heavy users", the cost of over-cap data could soon become a factor that starts to cramp the utility of the internet for a growing number of Kiwi users.

The problem is likely to get worse when the UFB is commissioned. Faster speeds will make it easier to exceed data caps by increasing the viability of accessing HD-quality video and other bandwidth-heavy material.

Perhaps internet access is a right -- but only if you can afford to pay for it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Privacy in the hi-tech era? Yea, right!

Rupert Murdoch has announced he's pulling the plug on his News of The World tabloid newspaper and website.

This move comes after massive public outrage that NOTW had hacked a large number of phone accounts in order to get juicy information for its articles and expose's.

Many people are left wondering just how a bunch of newspaper reporters managed to gain access to what most people think are the secure voicemail systems offered by their phone providers.

The answer is simple -- it's really not that hard at all to access someone else's voicemail, if you know how.

I'm not about to divulge the exact details of how to go about this bit of skullduggery but suffice to say it involves the use of a VOIP connection and some spoofing of the information that connection delivers to the called party.

The illusion of security and privacy which used to surround our hi-tech communications services is once again shot to hell and back.

What's more, if you're an NZ resident, you're now even more likely to find your electronic communications being tapped, monitored and recorded by the government's SIS bureau.

New legislation makes if far easier for this security agency to perform such activities when and where they feel it appropriate to do so -- much to the disgust of many who believe such powers to be totally unnecessary and far too open to abuse.

If you really want privacy and security, you'll now have no option but to use heavy encryption on all data sent to or from your computer, and even when it's stored on your hard drive or backup media. The reality is that it's just so simple for other people to eavesdrop on what you're doing that sensible people will always assume that all communications will eventually fall into the hands of the media or the public at large.

Even if it's not hackers or "big brother" pressing their virtual ears to your electronic communications, it could be any number of hi-tech gadgets which can be bought direct from China that compromise the security of your messaging.

For around $50 you can now import very sophisticated bugging equipment and even covert cameras which will either transmit pictures and audio over distances of up to 1Km, or write it all to a removable microSD card for later recovery.

I know that I myself occasionally use my little HD keychain camera to covertly record important meetings and conversations -- something that has already proven to be invaluable when an official gave me an assurance -- but later denied doing so. With videographic evidence presented, it was amazing just how quickly they recanted on that denial.

This shows that, in today's hi-tech world, those who live by the sword shall also die by the sword and technology is a slave to all who choose to use it, playing no favourites.

The unfortunate thing is, I much preferred a time when we really could be certain that private messages or conversations were just that -- private. Too bad those days are gone forever, such is the price of progress.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why are spam levels declining?

Some very interesting figures came out this week.

Apparently, spam volumes have dropped significantly, compared to their all-time record high levels of last year.

At this time last year, unsolicited bulk commercial email messages (spam by any other name) represented around 90% of all emails transported across the ether. This year, that figure is down to just 75%.

So, either we're sending a lot more legitimate mail -- or spammers are having trouble finding customers willing to pay for their nasty marketing practices.

Fortunately for us, it appears as if the latter is true.

The Bagel botnet for instance, has shown a marked reduction in spam volumes coming from its machines -- down from 8.3bn to just 1.6bn per day in the last three months.

Some security analysts are suggesting that the decline in spam is being caused partly by the increased attention being given to killing the botnets, both by technology vendors and law-enforcement. Indeed, a number of high-profile "botnet-busts" have been carried out during the past 12 months and each time spam levels have fallen as a result.

Another possible reason for the decline in spam levels is that the botmasters have found it easier to make money by using their networks to launch denial-of-service attacks, either from on a "pay per kill" basis or by way of blackmailing the intended target.

Further moves to cripple the spammers infrastructure by removing the payment channels being used are also paying dividends.

Could it be that the era of spam will soon be behind us?

Not likely!

So long as someone thinks they can sell something to some hapless internet user, there will always be spam. The best we can hope for is that eventually, the level of spam drops to little more than a background noise.