The Conversation

Technology: Discussion of technology events and developments.

ObamaCare's Facebook page is a sham, too

Nov 17, 2014 11:19 AM PT

I've long been fascinated with the business of manufactured popularity, in which various forms of sock puppetry are used to make a person or product seem much more popular than it actually is.  It's amazingly easy to do on the Internet - just create a half-dozen free email accounts, build them into a half-dozen social media profiles, and write six glowing reviews from ostensibly different people for your product on Amazon.  There are paid professionals who specialize in selling five-star product reviews, or pumping out zillions of phony Twitter accounts to provide paying customers with an instant million "followers."

I presume this tactic is at least somewhat effective, because people keep putting time and money into it, even after exposes showing that much of this manufactured popularity is fake.  At this point, every reasonably savvy social-media user must know that Twitter and Facebook followings are often artificially inflated, especially by politicians... but the inflation continues.  At this point, it's probably viewed as a defensive expense by some campaign staffers - you can't afford to be the only candidate that didn't shell out a few thousand bucks to purchase a virtual mob of phony Twitter fans.

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Possible hacker attack at the State Department

Nov 17, 2014 8:16 AM PT

CBS News is careful to note that the State Department shut down its unclassified email system to repair "possible" damage from a "suspected" hacker attack, but those suspicions must run pretty deep to justify the measures that were taken:

A senior department official said Sunday that "activity of concern" was detected in the system around the same time as a previously reported incident that targeted the White House computer network. That incident was made public in late October, but there was no indication then that the State Department had been affected. Since then, a number of agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service and the National Weather Service, have reported attacks.

The official said none of the State Department's classified systems were affected. However, the official said the department shut down its worldwide email late on Friday as part of a scheduled outage of some of its internet-linked systems to make security improvements to its main unclassified computer network. The official was not authorized to speak about the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The State Department is expected to address the shutdown once the security improvements have been completed on Monday or Tuesday.

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Google sued for cheating employee out of hourly pay and overtime

Nov 15, 2014 5:40 AM PT

You hear a lot of liberal rhetoric from some of the top brass at Google, including open-borders ideology, and then you read stories like this one from Reuters:

Google was sued this week by a worker who claimed the company did not pay overtime, improperly classified him as an independent contractor then terminated him after he asked for more hours to be covered under his contract.

The case, filed in a New York federal court on Wednesday, seeks to proceed as a collective action on behalf of other Google Inc workers.

[...] In the latest case against Google, plaintiff Jacob McPherson said he began work in 2013 at $35 per hour as a "site merchandiser for magazines" in the Google Play unit. He was classified as a freelancer and paid through an outside agency, the lawsuit said, although he worked in Google's New York offices.

McPherson was limited to billing 30 hours a week but worked more than that. Google declined to pay him for those extra hours, nor for any overtime over 40 hours a week. Google eventually terminated his contract after he asked for more hours to be covered in the contract, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges claims including violation of federal labor standards and damages.

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The U.S. Postal Service gets hacked

Nov 10, 2014 8:27 PM PT

Looks like the Russian hackers responsible for so much mayhem sat this one out, as suspicions for the massive U.S. Postal Service data breach are falling upon the Chinese government.  Which is kind of awkward, because President Obama is currently in China, running around dressed like an extra from "Star Trek" for some reason.  He also managed to alienate the entire population of Beijing by popping out of his limousine chewing gum, which they interpreted as rude and childish, referring to the President as an "idler" on social media.

But anyway, yeah, it looks like the Chinese hacked the Post Office, for purposes as yet unknown.  While the USPS characterizes the breach as "limited in scope," it affected eight hundred thousand Postal Service employees, raiding personal data including name, data of birth, address, and Social Security number.  The hackers got the data for every single employee, right up to the Postmaster General.

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How to crash a cloud

Nov 10, 2014 10:44 AM PT

If memory serves correctly, the first random access storage device I seriously considered purchasing, as a preteen with some odd-job money to fuel his insatiable appetite for high technology, was a floppy disk drive that stored 128K per disk.  (Gather round Grandpa's chair, children of the Web, and let me tell you about the days when we used storage media that didn't let you randomly access the data...)  I could not imagine how anyone might go about filling a 128K disk with data, but I bought a pack of ten, just to be on the safe side.

Disposable toys hold more than 128K these days; the very idea of "K" as a measure of storage capacity grows quaint.  The incredible explosion of data storage speed and capacity has made entirely new applications possible, including tiny little cell phones that are veritable Swiss army knives of electronic capability.  I recall a Blackberry ad campaign from a few years ago, based on the idea that your entire life is stored in your phone - from music to email contacts.  Insane amounts of audio and visual data can now be stored and shuffled around with incredible ease; the amount of space taken up on your phone or tablet by your library of plain old text-based books is trivial by comparison, and would be even more trivial if e-books weren't packed with so many nifty accessibility features.

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Did Facebook's Secret Experiments on Users Affect the Outcome of the 2012 Election?

Nov 1, 2014 11:14 AM PT

Back in July, I wrote about the controversy over Facebook secretly manipulating the news feeds of some users, in what amounted to a huge psychological experiment.  The idea was to tinker with the priority of good or bad news items appearing in the subjects' feeds, to see if getting hit with a lot of good news up front would improve their mood, or vice versa with those who were fed a diet of bad news.  Facebook insisted that the tinkering was fairly minor - there were only monkeying with the order in which news items appeared, not hiding anything from the users.  Many Facebook users strenuously objected to being manipulated, even subtly, without their knowledge.

This controversial incident wasn't the first time Facebook and other social-media services have sought to manipulate users by surreptitiously changing their interfaces.  Over the past few years, there have been a number of stories about such experiments, often conducted with the benign express purpose of improving the service for all of its users.  There can be a rather fine line between harmless interface tweaks and user manipulation.

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'Suspicious cyber activity' at the White House

Oct 29, 2014 8:41 AM PT

Here's a lovely companion piece to the story about how ObamaCare's servers remain vulnerable to hacker attack: the White House itself appears to have been penetrated by online hooligans.  Reuters reports assurances from the Administration that no sensitive data was compromised:

Suspicious cyber activity has been detected on the computer network used by the White House and measures have been taken to address it, a White House official disclosed on Tuesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not say who might have been responsible for the activity on what was described as an unclassified computer network used by employees of the Executive Office of the President.

"In the course of assessing recent threats we identified activity of concern on the unclassified EOP network. Any such activity is something that we take very seriously. In this case we took immediate measures to evaluate and mitigate the activity," the official said.

It was unclear when the activity took place. The official said the technical measures to address the activity had led to limited access to some EOP network services. Some of the issues have been resolved, but the work continues.

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Chinese hackers go after iCloud

Oct 21, 2014 1:16 PM PT

While Russian hackers have busied themselves with the financial industry - occasionally describing their ill-gotten data as revenge for Western sanctions against Russia when they put it up for sale on the black market - Chinese hackers appear to have developed a taste for Apple.  Reuters reports:

Apple Inc's iCloud storage and backup service in China was attacked by hackers trying to steal user credentials, a Chinese web monitoring group said, adding that it believes the country's government is behind the campaign.

Using what is called a "man-in-the-middle" (MITM) attack, the hackers interposed their own website between users and Apple's iCloud server, intercepting data and potentially gaining access to passwords, iMessages, photos and contacts, Greatfire.org wrote in its blog post.

Greatfire.org, a group that conducts research on Chinese Internet censorship, alleged government involvement in the attack, saying it resembled previous attacks on Google Inc , Yahoo Inc and Microsoft Corp's Hotmail.

Asked about the attack, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, told a daily news briefing that Beijing was "resolutely opposed" to hacking. She said the Chinese government itself was a major victim of such attacks.

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Whoops: Russian hackers exploit security flaw in Windows to spy on NATO for the past 5 years

Oct 14, 2014 7:57 AM PT

Good news: Microsoft is about to roll out a patch that fixes a security vulnerability that exists in every version of Windows except XP.  Bad news: a gang of Russian hackers, most likely working for Moscow, has been exploiting it to spy on various targets - including the Ukrainians and NATO - for the past five years.  

The Washington Post reports on the exploits of a group dubbed "SandWorm" (yes, sci-fi fans, it's a reference to "Dune"):

The group has been active since at least 2009, according to research by iSight Partners, a cybersecurity firm. Its targets in the recent campaign also included a Polish energy firm, a Western European government agency and a French telecommunications firm.

“This is consistent with espionage activity,” said iSight Senior Director Stephen Ward. “All indicators from a targeting and lures perspective would indicate espionage with Russian national interests.”

There is no indication that the group was behind a recent spate of intrusions into U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Ward said.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say the capabilities of Russian hackers are on par with those of the United States and Israel.

“It’s possible they’ve become more active in response to the Ukrainian situation,” said a former intelligence official. “And when you become more active, you increase your likelihood of getting caught.”

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