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Hoax caller chats with David Cameron by posing as GCHQ boss

26 Jan 2015


Telecoms security has been in and out of the headlines for almost two years now, ever since patriot/traitor/hero/villain (delete as your opinion dictates) Edward Snowden revealed the PRISM campaign and the rest in 2013.

We've since learned that GCHQ has a pretty tight grip on the communications flowing around the UK and the rest of the world. So you'd think the folks at the top at GCHQ and the government would be adept at keeping their own comms secure.

Not so, it seems. Sneak was amused to read that David Cameron received a prank phone call from someone who managed to bypass the switchboard security (the mind boggles as to how) and was given the mobile phone number of the head of GCHQ, Sir Robert Hannigan.

Cameron explained that the hoax call took place while he was out for a walk, and was told, presumably by a government switchboard operator with a heavy case of 'Sunday afternoon lull', that he was being put into a conference call from Hannigan.

Cameron, however, was not taken in and said he was immediately suspicious when the caller said sorry for 'waking him up' at the start of the call.

Sneak knows politicians are often characterised as lazy, feckless types, but even he wouldn't have thought Cameron was in bed at 11am on a Sunday.

"I thought that was strange as it was eleven o'clock in the morning," Cameron said, with James Bond-like calm.

He then confirmed that he ended the call without revealing any national security information, such as Trident's tactical nuke launch codes, his inner thigh measurements or the location of the Holy Grail. Phew.

Elon Musk's Hyperloop is more than a pipe dream

16 Jan 2015

Sneak is a big fan of Elon Musk. The PayPal founder is an excellent example of an entrepreneur exploring the bat-dung crazy side of technology, rather than offering yet another social collaboration tool.

Sneak is still puzzled by social collaboration tools. Some sort of device that makes it easy to work with any invading force?

Clearly deciding that electric cars and space flight are too middle-of-the-road, the Mad Musk touted his Hyperloop transport system as a "cross between Concord and a rail gun".

Not wanting to downplay Musk's creative description, but Sneak pictures the Hyperloop as a tube filled with passenger pods boosted along by linear electric motors in a partial vacuum at up to near supersonic speeds.

Now go back and read that line again. Yes, near supersonic speeds for the average Joe. In short the Hyperloop is like a tooled-up monorail on a really good day. Here's a video of the Hyperloop concept:

Now, those of us with backward minds - some would call sane - perhaps think that Musk has been out in the California sun for too long. Yet the SpaceX billionaire took to the Twitter-verse and declared that he will be building a Hyperloop test track in the US.

This is all fine and dandy. If Musk wants to stuff his billions into creating something from a Roger Moore-era Bond film more power to him.

But Sneak is not sure that trying to encourage narrow-minded, wide-wasted Texans to stuff themselves into a supersonic vacuum tube is going to go down well. He can already hear the 'Hell no' of 10-gallon-hatted hicks shouted in between mouthfuls of beef jerky.

If such plans go ahead, Sneak will be waiting for the first news story about a 30-stone Southerner stuck in the Hyperloop.

Sweeping cultural generalisations aside, Sneak would like to see Musk test the Hyperloop on the other side of the world.

Perhaps he could consider north west Wales, where transport gave up moving beyond the steam age long ago. And Sneak does so wish to be able to visit Aunty Miriam in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

HMRC fails to self-assess reaction against tweeting tax inquiries

05 Jan 2015

Looking through his mountain of emails, Sneak believes that plenty of virtual hot air could be condensed down into the 140 characters of a tweet.

But as a weathered and scarred veteran of tax return navigation, Sneak draws the line at trying to fit inherently obtuse tax inquiries into a format suitable for social media consumption.

After all, you try persuading the tax office that 20 bottles of single malt Scotch are a legitimate tax deductible in a single tweet.

Yet, according to the BBC, Stephen Hardwick, director of communications at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), said that Twitter could be used to "supplement" the department's phone service.

Sneak has used Twitter to supplement his dealings with the HMRC but believes the content of such tweets should not be revealed before the watershed.

Presumably, Hardwick is the type of communications specialist who prefers to save words by carrying out all interactions in a form of verbal semaphore.

The direct director is championing Twitter use owing to the long waiting times associated with calls regarding tax self-assessment. With a veneer of the shambolic surrounding the HRMC helpline, Sneak can imagine that callers are having their patience taxed as well as their income.

Despite Hardwick thinking that Twitter is the solution, he has met opposition from Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who described the idea as "laughable".

Presumably between her guffaws, Hodge said: "No customer-based service should tolerate such a poor service and ministers and senior management should simply sort this out."

Sneak would like to note that Hodge's call to action was stated in under 140 characters. She could have tweeted that, but the MP appears to lack a Twitter account. Sneak wonders whether she is best positioned to be criticising the use of Twitter while a not tweeter herself.

Further derision came from Treasury minister Shabana Mahmood, who said that it "beggars belief" that the government would encourage people to "publically tweet about their tax affairs".

Seemingly ignoring the wordier shadow politicians, Hardwick stated that the HRMC does not want people to tweet their personal details.

Sneak believes if you listen carefully enough you can hear a collective sigh of disappointment from lazy groups of identity thieves and cyber criminals looking for an easy mark.

Not one usually to side with sniggering politicians, Sneak has to agree with them this time. Given the average tax return is 10 pages worth of text, to tweet complex inquires would be akin to writing War and Peace on the back of a stamp.

With peak periods of tax returns and credits seeing a spike in inquiry calls, Hardwick compared HRMC with the Post Office during busy periods.

Sneak can confirm that a similarity certainly exists when it comes to experiencing long waiting times and rising frustration, but at least with the post he can watch his dog terrorise the postman every morning.

Thwarting credit card crooks: it’s all in the jeans

19 Dec 2014

Sneak goes about his daily life with a healthy dose of paranoia and suspicion. And rightly so, as he recently discovered that tech-savvy crooks can wirelessly swipe information from contactless credit cards - all via a smartphone and a bit of technical finesse.

Feeding Sneak's natural distrust of the human race and pretty much everything in between, security experts have claimed that this form of remote pickpocketing is a growing problem.

Sneak is beginning to think that it might be best never to leave the house, but unfortunately Mrs Sneak keeps going on about "fresh air", "sunlight" and "the missing cat".

Being forced to navigate the mean streets of Britain, Sneak now has to carry around a wallet lined with lead and wrapped in tin foil. But help is at hand, according to the BBC.

Security firm Norton has teamed up with clothing firm Betabrand to create men's jeans and women's blazers featuring pockets lined with a sliver-based radio frequency identification blocking material.

Security-conscious fashionistas might enjoy the video below.

Effectively, the partnership has created the first wave of cyber-security fashion. With the tech trend trackers touting wearable technology as the next big thing, Sneak predicts that more clothes will need a layer of security. Perhaps we'll see shirts with firewalls, encrypted socks and hats with data segregation.

However, Sneak should probably alert you to the price before you rush to pick up Betabrand's jeans and jackets when they land in shops in February 2015 -  the jeans cost the equivalent of £96 and the blazer a steeper £127.

Sneak gave up following fashion when the boot cut trouser died a slow death on the high street, but he still thinks some people might baulk at the prices. That being said, can you really put a price on peace of mind?

To indulge his paranoia, Sneak would splash out on the jeans, but that would mean breaking a decade of rocking mustard cords.

Warning: Chinese e-cigarettes may damage your PC's health

25 Nov 2014

Sneak remembers his first cigarette, a rather clichéd affair involving bike sheds, peer pressure and no shortage of coughing. He decided that putting tubes of burning paper and dried leaves into his mouth was not for him.

Ever since then Sneak has been the one who looks after people's coats at the pub. But apparently, smoking can be quite moreish.

For Sir Walter Raleigh fans who aren't in denial about the warnings liberally plastered over tobacco packaging, electronic cigarettes offer a nicotine vapour-fuelled alternative to a tar-filled respiratory system.

Having originally thought that e-cigarettes were simply smoking apparatus from Yorkshire, Sneak decided to do a little more research into the subject.

To his surprise, while e-cigarettes are better for a smoker's health, it turns out they are not so good for the faithful PC or laptop that has the duty of charging the contemporary cigarettes.

According to a report on Reddit, some e-cigarettes appear to contain malware that can be inhaled by PCs and laptops when plugged into a USB port to charge.

One user who claims to be "an IT guy" detailed a data breach story at a "large corporation" where a seemingly secured computer was infected with malware from an unknown source.

The IT team went into Sherlock mode and eventually deduced that the malware came from a Chinese e-cigarette. Apparently the malware had been hard-coded into the charger, making like E.T. and phoning home to infect the system once it was plugged into a USB port.

While fellow Reddit users piled in with opinions, the consensus was to avoid charging e-cigarettes via USB and to stick to wall chargers.

Sneak would have suggested that smokers try the cold turkey route instead, but thought this might prompt some confusion with Christmas just round the corner.

E-cigarettes are not the first seemingly mundane items to contain hidden malware; digital photo-frames, MP3 players and other USB-enabled devices have been known to harbour viruses that can exploit poorly protected networks.

Ever the conspiracy theorist, Sneak believes this may be the first stage of a Chinese invasion, where every e-cigarette smoker is an unwitting sleeper agent swathed in malware and nicotine vapour.

He's even taken to keeping a weather eye on Mrs Sneak's cat, Chairman Meow, who has been acting strangely ever since Mrs Sneak started Mandarin language classes.

Artist intends to spend a month in Oculus Rift virtual reality headset living someone else’s life

20 Nov 2014

Sneak has done some crazy things in his life, many of them with some purpose, some even with some point.

Once he went 23 and a half years as a celibate, and once he went seven hours without a drink. Once he completed eating a packet of crisps without tipping it up and pouring its contents into his mouth, and once he managed to have two baths in a 148-hour period.

What he has never done, though, and never wanted to do, is spend a month wearing a headset that would make him feel like he is living someone else's life.

In fact, he would ruddy hate that. Unless it was a swap with a sloth, or someone who is paid to test beds and beer. That would possibly be acceptable.

One guy, though, an ‘artist' notes Sneak from below raised eyebrows, will wear an Oculus Rift headset and wander around presumably talking about what an exciting and immersive experience they are enjoying for a whole month.

The artist is called Mark Farid, according to a conversation that Sneak overheard while he was trying to sleep on the train, and he has earned immediate placement on Sneak's people-to-avoid list.

Farid has turned to Kickstarter to fund his month in someone else's virtual shoes, and has raised around £4,000 so far. This leaves about £146,000 to raise and 28 days to raise it.

Sneak likes a dreamer, and is really trying not to be so negative about things these days. He can also see some appeal in switching off for a month and being awarded £150,000 for the privilege.

We can't be sure, but it appears that he has been spending some time on the Kickstarter pages himself, and it did not look like he was investing in anyone else's schemes.

If you suddenly find that a low-budget, grubby, curmudgeonly man is shadowing your every move for a month it is probably Sneak. We advise you not to feed him, and to avoid eye contact.

T-Mobile will cancel a phone contact, eventually, and only over a husband's dead body

17 Nov 2014

Mobile phone outfit T-Mobile has not done much to endear itself to the British public, having reportedly insisted that a widow provide physical proof that her husband was dead and no longer in need of his mobile phone contract, reads Sneak.

The lady, Maria Raybould, according to The Daily Mail, lost her husband in the summer and provided T-Mobile with a death certificate. However, this was apparently not enough and T-Mobile insisted that the contract must still be honoured.

The paper reports that Raybould received a number of demands for money from the company and made a number of attempts to settle the issue by taking the ashes of the departed to a T-Mobile shop and showing them to people who worked there.

This failed to stop the demands for the £129 cancellation charges, according to The Daily Mail.

"I've been up to the shop with the death certificate, with a letter from the crematorium, the funeral bills - even his ashes. I took in everything I could. I lost it in the shop. I gave them 20 minutes to sort it out. I went outside and had a panic attack," Raybould said.

"When I went back in the girl told me she had spoken to the manager and they were going to stop the contract. Then I had another letter about the bailiffs."

This led to more contact with T-Mobile, and intervention from Raybould's son who was told that the situation was now fixed.

Sneak could predict what happened next: the sending of another collection letter with the addition of a warning about the imminent involvement of collection agencies.

Raybould suggested that cancelling the contract was a more difficult process than burying her husband.

Sneak has asked T-Mobile if it wants to deliver its side of the tale. According to The Daily Mail, an automated system was blamed and an apology issued.

A T-Mobile spokesperson said: "We apologise to Mrs Raybould for any distress caused at this difficult time. We can confirm that the account has been closed and the balance cleared."

Blue Ticks of Doom confirm your WhatsApp messages are being ignored

07 Nov 2014

Sneak loves WhatsApp. It's fun and easy to use and so what if it's owned by Facebook? The company only has his best interests at heart. In fact, he was pleased when Facebook bought it, as he hoped they would fix the problem that seemed to be plaguing him - undelivered messages.

To Sneak the uniform lack of response to messages he sent to friends, potential lovers and even family was clear: WhatsApp wasn't delivering the message. Sure the two little ticks appeared confirming delivery, but if that was the case - WHY DOES NO-ONE EVER REPLY? It was the fault of the technology, surely?

However, WhatsApp has now dealt a cruel blow with the inclusion of 'blue ticks' that inform you when your messages have been read - and invariably not replied to.

The note to Steve from accounts on Friday at 5:25pm asking if he fancied a pint? Read and ignored. The message to Louise, the nice coder he met at the SQL Singles night, that took literally days to compose? Dismissed. The message to mum looking for a crumb of comfort after his beloved cat Mr Tickles died? Utterly snubbed.

These little Blue Ticks of Doom, as Sneak has dubbed them, have no doubt already caused misery and heartbreak for millions around the world who can no longer delude themselves that their missives have still not been read, never arrived in the first place, or were intercepted by the National Security Agency.

No, the cold hard truth is that they were read, the eyes rolled, and they were ignored. Still at least you love me, right Mr Tickles 2? Hey, Mr Tickles, come back ...

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