Sunday, June 19, 2011

Update from the warzone: Its cyberwar

Do you remember that scene from the movie Independence Day where Jeff Goldblum plants a virus in the alien mothership's computer system? It was very sci-fi, especially if you consider how something designed for our systems could work with an alien one. Here's what I am taking about -

All very futuristic but hacking and cyber warfare is nothing new. In fact, I came across this article published a long time back in April 2001 expressing paranoia about attacks from China.

So what's the big deal now?

Since then, things have moved, to absolutely terrifying proportions. To give you an idea about where we are now, the video below demonstrates how the virus 'Stuxnet' is able to shut down nuclear power plants and electrical grids while hoodwinking security layers.

Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus from Patrick Clair on Vimeo

While the video does not reveal the instigators behind Stuxnet, further reports have shown possible American and Israeli military links to the project. Clearly, warfare has truly gone beyond ballistics and explosives to the arcane realms of the digital world. There has never been a better time to be a white hat hacker.

If that looks bad, the problems facing corporates and organizations are far worse. The two main hacking groups terrorizing companies worldwide are Anonymous and Lulzsec. They are called grey hat hackers, whose activities fall somewhere between white and black hacking. These activities are commonly termed as 'Hactivism'. Between them, they have hacked major organizations and institutions like PBS, Sony, Nintendo, the CIA, NATO, Visa, MasterCard, Amazon, Gmail and loads more.

So what exactly is going on? Why are they doing this?

Anonymous' attacks seem to be politically motivated. After hacking NATO's systems, they left the following message -

"This is no longer your world. It is our world - the people's world." Read their entire message here. Clearly, this is a rage against the machine!

Lulzsec seems to have no political agenda and is probably just having a ball of a time. This excellent article breaks down their activities and shows us that they just want to brandish their skills while metaphorically giggling at the trouble they are causing to giant organizations.

Recently, computer security firm Black & Berg challenged hackers to hack into their website and modify the image on their homepage. The reward was a $10,000 prize and a job to anyone able to do so. LulzSec did it in no time, but refused the reward. This was the message they left -


They are also passionate about what they love. After some unknown hackers tried to break into Sega's systems, Lulzsec have declared war against these perpetrators and offered to track down and 'destroy' them. Their motivation?

"We love the Dreamcast, these people are going down."

Despite the various motivations behind cyberwar and hactivism, the message is very clear. This is war! The new war. So much so that the Obama administration has asserted "that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force."

The biggest problem I can see here is; who are the enemies exactly and where are they? Anonymous consists of nearly 4000 hackers distributed across the world. And if you do track them down, how complicated will the legal prosecutions be?

All this can lead to a lots of possibilities; from massive changes to international criminal laws or frighteningly, limiting freedom on the internet itself.

In the long sprawling stand-off between the good and the bad guys, there has never been a phase as complex and sophisticated as this. The trouble is, none of the sides believe they are on the bad side.

Update (20/06/2011): Today, Anonymous and Lulzsec declared war on the world's corrupt governments and corporates (#antisec). Wow! Is this the moment in history that we the common people had been waiting for? The time when the people have enough power to try and set things right?
Or will it lead to strict controls and censorships on the internet instead?

I do hope things go down well; but I am pretty sure they wont. On one side I do want them to set things right, especially considering how bad things are in India. But at the same time, the collateral damage may be way to high to justify all the hactivism.

Read further

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Time to ditch that wallet

Payment so far has mostly assumed three forms – coins, paper money and payment cards. Using phones and near-field-communications (NFC) technology, Google wants you to forget all that by popularizing a fourth way with its Google Wallet app.

What is it?

Google Wallet is an, so far, Android only app that stores a users payment, gift and loyalty card details on a phone and uses NFC for payments at a MasterCard PayPass-enabled terminals.

So far Google is partnering with a few banks and mobile carriers in the United States but there are plans of worldwide expansion. For users without a partnering card, 'virtual' prepaid credit cards are available.

Payment using NFC is not new. Trials using NFC are being conducted in nearly 100 countries. In the UK, Barclaycard recently introduced 'Quick Tap' which allows NFC mobile payment using Samsung's Tocco smartphone.

So why should consumers, banks and retailers suddenly take notice?

Apart from the fact that its Google's project, the NFC payment scenario is on the brim of exploding as can be seen below:
  • According to a research by multichannel marketing specialist Acxiom, one in 5 UK consumers is willing to pay via NFC.
  • Juniper Research found that the adoption of NFC mobile payments will reach 300 million devices worldwide, with one-fifth of all smartphone devices having NFC capability.
  • The worldwide mobile payment market is estimated to be at $618 billion by 2016, according to Edgar, Dunn & Co.
But how will it commercially benefit the consumers, merchants and banks?

To begin with, Google Wallet has been designed as an 'open commerce ecosystem'. This allows the development of features to store not only payment card information but also loyalty cards, gift cards, receipts, boarding passes, tickets etc. This offers banks and retailers the flexibility to create solutions relevant to their businesses and consumers choices in terms of how they benefit from the system.

  • Google Wallet will offer users a single source to store all their payment details, loyalty cards, gift cards, receipts and deal offers. Combining it with Google Offers, which automatically syncs with Wallet, consumers will have a convenient way of purchasing products while availing the offer with a single tap at the NFC terminal.
  • Using transaction history and geo-location, finding the best offers and discounts will be easier.
Retailers: The benefits to retailers and banks will be influenced by how the behaviour of the consumer will change.

  • Google Offers requires users to have a Google account. By having all the information of users on their device, retailers and Google can track almost all their buying behaviour and possibly connect their phone number to their profile.
  • A poll by Steria showed that 65% of UK residents want more personalised loyalty schemes services and real-time offers on their mobile devices while shopping.
  • According to a research by the Atlanta and Boston Federal Reserve Banks, merchants can reduce the cost and risks of storing sensitive data as magnetic-stripe data exposure is eliminated.

  • An Accenture research has found that banks which provide mobile device support can achieve returns on investment (ROI) as high as 300%.
  • According to a research by the Atlanta and Boston Federal Reserve Banks, NFC payment will improve fraud reduction capabilities. Currently, credit card fraud costs the UK economy about £610m every year.
The primary factor promoting Google Wallet amongst retailers and banks will be the fear of becoming a late adaptor. Of course, there are going to be issues like cost of deployment and revenue uncertainties but according to a white paper by SBJ Research, following some best practice guidelines can create profitable possibilities.

But what about security?

To prevent abuse, purchasing with Google Wallet requires a PIN. Beyond that, encrypted payment card credentials are stored on a separate computer chip called the Secure Element, which runs separately from the operating system.

But according to McAfee security researcher Jimmy Shah. an attack is still possible by fooling the chip to reveal user credentials. However, Lookout Mobile Security CTO Kevin Mahaffey believes that the combination of the PIN and the chip will create a secure environment.

On balance, it does appear that Google Wallet is turning out to be the NFC payment dream that both businesses and technophiles had been dreaming of. If anything is to support that point, it would be that the NFC forum promoting this technology, of which Google is a part of, comprises of almost every major mobile and semiconductor OEM, platform provider and financial institution.

I am totally up for this. What about you?

Read further

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Inevitable Unity

This is a post I wrote nearly 2 years ago. I may have become wiser by now, but the essence of the post still persists.

Is there anything as a 'Spirit of Humanity'? Frankly, I find the mere suggestion of such an entity ridiculous. Even if it does prevail in a realm, it must be a serious victim of BPD. While on one side it talks about peace and unity, it has an insatiable self destructive nature to itself. By peace here, i mean the absence of human bloodshed and wars and the like.

The point therefore is, peace cannot be obtained in the way we normally assume, in the way we isolate it as complete absence of chaos. Throughout history, man has killed man and I cannot recall any phase where there has been the persistence of a utopia.

I always maintain observing things based on how they are and how they have been earlier rather than on how anyone thinks they 'should' be. Our minds aren't omniscient and therefore we always prone to committing errors. And based on how things are and have been, utopia is an impossibility. In fact it almost appears as though peace is an irritating entity which never emerges dominant, never offsets violence significantly and never ever dies.

As a ferverent fan of astronomy, I have been zealously studying about our universe as we know it. And this is where I had this revelation - the Sun will actually be responsible for uniting the world. I am not talking about some extraordinary use of solar energy although that is basically the reason here. Still baffled? Let me explain -

The sun is a star and that means it is growing and becoming hotter continuously. Life as we know it is dependent on how much energy we obtain from the sun. Our earth is in a comfort zone in terms of its distance from the the sun; it's neither too far to freeze and neither too close to melt. But as the sun becomes more intense and bigger, the comfort zone will shift further away from it. With that gone, the earth will literally melt and finally perish, consumed into the innards of the sun.

I do not see an instinct more intense in every human being than the one to sustain its well being, to survive. In the future, humanity will have a common enemy and one from which there won't be any escape unless the world stands united in tackling it.

Think about it; the wars, the altercations and the like; all seem insignificant juxtaposed against this impending cataclysm. We have to leave planet earth and such an endeavor would possibly require the cooperation of the collective intelligence of the world.

Better still, all dissidents would have to be terminated. By dissidents, I mean the usual selfish odd one out unconcerned about the status of their subsequent generations. As far as I know, there are lesser of such people on earth. Instinctively, the world will attain a sense of togetherness on being threatened by a common enemy.

Of course, my speculation is subject to many other constraints. For example, since this event isn't going to manifest anywhere in the near future, many nations might already discover means of mass inter planetary transportation and hospitalizing other planets to replicate the environment of the earth. This would make leaving our world much easier and the sun would no longer be a threat. So much for unity in such a scenario then.

But for giving the opportunity for peace to offset violence completely just for a moment in the infinity of time, I really do hope we find ourselves one day looking at the sun more as a bringer of death than a giver of life. Till then, all we can do is hope that the shattered limbs of humanity are held together miraculously and it still breathes.

Read further

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Microsoft empire strikes back - part 1

Bill Gates Steve Ballmer Jedi
The thing about Star Wars is that it has pretty much taken over the geek domains, especially It has been 4 months now and I have not had one day so far where I haven't come across a Star Wars reference there. The brand will live on, and as it turns out apparently, so will Microsoft.

Just when the once dominant empire looked beleaguered, it seems to be clawing back. Eric Schmidt of Google may claim that the 'Gang of Four' most influential technology companies consists of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple; but Microsoft does have a few trump cards.

  • XBOX 360 and Kinect: Nothing else in the market can provide the same controller free experience like the Kinect does. We live in a world where a lot of factors have prevented the implementation of achievable sci-fi technologies. Amidst that, the Kinect really is a revelation.

    In all the years of human evolution, we haven't come across an age until now where our fingers have undergone so much stress by the act of typing. We are not designed for typing; no wonder so many of us end up with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Kinect will be our liberator; it will bring to life the gesture based computing that the movie Minority Report popularized.

    The march to that day has already begun. Microsoft is soon releasing a software development kit that will enable researchers and enthusiasts easy access to the capabilities offered by the Microsoft Kinect device connected to computers running Windows 7. The possibilities from that are pretty much endless. In fact, the Kinect SDK has already been used for things like virtual fitting rooms in Moscow, armchair controls and for even bringing Google's Gmail Motion April Fool joke come to life.

    Now you weren't ready for that were you? And at the same time, its rivals are quite literally taking a beating. The PSN hack has dealt a serious blow to Sony and Nintendo admits that Wii sales have been dropping. Things are looking on the up and up then...

  • Windows Phone 7: Ok, so iPhone and Android devices rule the roost here but that said, the WP7 operating system isn't bad at all. In fact, Engadget wrote that -

    '...the company has created an incredibly promising base set of features to build off of. With terrific Zune and Xbox Live integration, a fast and smart method of getting around the OS, great Office and email experiences, and a genuinely beautiful and useful user interface, Microsoft has definitely laid the foundation for the next several years of its mobile play.'

    Their partnership with Nokia also gives them some serious hardware firepower to play with, something Nokia never really did well. With the iPhone facing privacy issues and a staggering 99% of Android phones found to be insecure, the empire can truly strike back.
Thanks for reading part 1. I am sure you may have lots of things to argue or discuss about and I would be really happy to hear them.

Update: This morning I found that Forza 4 will use Kinect to allow drivers to look into corners while racing. This is something I always wanted to do and I can't wait for this!

Read further