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Skype and Snapchat security woes show risks ahead for 2014

02 Jan 2014

Digital security padlock red image

The New Year is barely a few days old but already the headlines are dominated by security stories of hacks and data thefts from major companies in the form of Skype and Snapchat.

For Skype, this saw its Twitter account and blogs targeted, while Snapchat had data on 4.6 million users released online in a warning to the firm about the need to take security seriously.

For firms of all shapes and sizes the fact security incidents are so immediately in the headlines for the start of the year should serve as a warning. 2013 was full of similar incidents and prove that no firm can rest on its laurels.

Indeed, while the PRISM spying scandal dominated the majority of the security agenda, it is important not to overlook stories such as the hacking of the Lakeland website as proof firms of all types face threats from cyber criminals.

The incidents prove that security is not a static area, but one where criminals and good-hearted ethical hackers are in a constant arms race to try and out do one another and find vulnerabilities to exploit them.

Firms cannot just assume that a single solution will cover everything or that a staff seminar on the things to be aware of such as phishing emails that is delivered in January will be relevant by next December, or even February for that matter.

Perhaps there is a silver lining for the industry from the incidents at Skype and Snapchat, though.

IT chiefs and those with security in their remit can use these incidents at the start of 2014 to make sure all those in charge at the company, especially those holding the purse strings, take security seriously and ensure that adequate resources are provided to help protect the firm from the risks that are present and growing all the time.

Otherwise, it could well be your firm in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Nelson Mandela tops Google searches for 2013, iPhone 5S and Galaxy S4 not far behind

17 Dec 2013

As we approach the end of the year Google has once against listed its annual zeitgeist list of the most searched terms over the past 12 months to show what most people around the world wanted to know during the year.

Despite only passing on a few weeks ago, the topic that has dominated the list is the death of Nelson Mandela, as those around the world searched for more information on the great leader. This was just ahead of the death of Paul Walker, the star of the Fast and Furious franchise of movies.

Elsewhere, though, technology was well represented on the list, with searches for the iPhone 5S and the Samsung Galaxy S4 both appearing, with Apple scoring more hits than Samsung, as it chalks up another, admittedly minor, victory over its nemesis.

The PlayStation 4 (PS4) also featured, unlike the Xbox One, as Microsoft’s console fails to quite match Sony for hype and interest in the games market.

The top 10 list is below:

1.    Nelson Mandela
2.    Paul Walker
3.    iPhone 5S
4.    Cory Monteith
5.    Harlem Shake
6.    Boston Marathon
7.    Royal Baby
8.    Samsung Galaxy S4
9.    PS4
10.  North Korea

Google has also made an interactive globe that shows the most popular search terms from different locations around the word, with London showing a weird demand for sport with both BBC Sport and BBC Football both scoring highly. Other UK cities such as Manchester and Bristol also show an enjoyment for sports information.

By V3's Dan Worth, who searches high and low

Google’s latest hubris: we’ll design our own chips

13 Dec 2013

Google is said to be looking at designing its own chips rather than using processors from chip giant Intel, according to reports from Bloomberg.

At first this might be considered as more wackiness from the search giant, following such gems this year as its Google Glass cyber-spectacles and notions about balloons floating above Africa to carry WiFi signals.

However, a closer look at the Bloomberg report shows that Google is considering building server chips based on the ARM architecture, which is a long way from designing your own processor technology from the ground up. In fact, ARM's entire business model lies in creating processor designs for other companies to manufacture.

ARM Cortex A15 chip

ARM has spent the past two decades refining its architecture to operate using as little power as possible, chiefly in battery-powered mobile devices such as smartphones. However, with the explosive growth in data and cloud-based services, many big internet firms and telcos are said to be eyeing ARM-based servers as a way of cutting their energy bills.

In theory, it could be relatively simple to produce your own ARM chip – you can just license one of ARM's designs and contract a semiconductor foundry company such as TSMC to manufacture it for you.

However, designing your own custom chip is somewhat more complicated, and the ARM architecture also has little track record so far in the server market. Startups such as Calxeda – which was founded by ex-Intel engineers – have been working on ARM server chips for several years now, with the first production systems only appearing relatively recently.

Of course, Google has enormous resources at its disposal, but if it is serious about making its own ARM-based server chips, we would expect that acquiring a firm with expertise in this area, such as Calxeda, would be a much better plan than trying to start from scratch. Alternatively, Google would be best advised to work with established chipmakers such as AMD, which is building its own ARM server processors.

Creating your own processor, making it work properly and tweaking it for optimum performance and efficiency, and then building an entire server around it, are processes that take time and a great deal of specialist expertise – expertise that Google almost certainly lacks at the moment.

Tellingly, Bloomberg's source is quoted as saying that Google "has made no decision and plans could change".

HP workers picket firm's Discover event over job cuts

10 Dec 2013

BARCELONA: HP's annual European Discover event has plonked itself down in Barcelona this year and, like previous Discover events, it is being served with a side order of drama.

While in 2011 the firm was dealing with the aftermath of Leo Apotheker's short-lived reign and in 2012 it had to minimise the fallout from the Autonomy accounting scandal, in 2013 the issue is protesting employees who are angry at job cuts.

Journalists were bussed in around the back of the event, which had the side-effect of hiding the protesters from view, but social media channels showed the Spanish workers camped outside the main entrance to the event venue.

HP insisted that the route in for journalists was about providing quicker access to the event, rather than any attempt to hide the protestors from view. After a 20-minute wander to find the site where the protestors were, these claims appear to have some merit. What was disappointing, though, was the discovery that by 3.30pm (once we had a break in our schedule) all the protesters had gone. Come on hombres, make it 9-5 at least.

A noisy protest outside its annual event in Europe is not what HP would have wanted, but it did issue a statement acknowledging the issues being protested and stressed that many jobs were not being cut, but changed or reallocated.

"HP has a long track record of good social dialogue with its employees and social partners through its European Works Council. HP's workforce management plans in EMEA are part of [the] global multi-year productivity initiative that was announced on 23 May 2012," the firm noted.

"The restructuring plan is designed to deliver a more agile and responsive business model in the region, streamlining processes, advancing innovation and creating efficiencies for the benefit of customers, shareholders and employees. HP has a proud history of investing in Spain and continues to be committed to the success of the business here."

The protests in Spain will no doubt be welcomed in solidarity by UK employees that are being affected by job cuts and changes in several locations, with a total of 1,124 jobs said to be going in the cuts according to trade union Unite, although HP has disputed the accuracy of its reports.

Nevertheless, the protesters will hope that their rally raises the issue of job cuts, which is an especially painful topic in Spain at present and comes after HP posted $1.4bn in profits for the last quarter.

Still, it wouldn't be HP Discover without a bit of drama.

By V3's Dan Worth, who's never crossed a picket line

Former Android chief dreams of Google robots

05 Dec 2013

Google has fingers in plenty of pies, but the latest news from Palo Alto is that one of those fingers might be made of cold stainless steel.

The New York Times had a chat with former Android chief Andy Rubin, who's now been put in charge of Google's robotic activities. Rubin has a history with robotics, having worked on manufacturing projects with the likes of Carl Zeiss. To that end, it would seem that Google's intentions are for robots to be hidden away inside factories rather than being walking, talking metal men (or drones) made to carry your shopping.

The piece also states that Google has bought seven technology companies with the intention of developing robots.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting development for a firm that currently doesn't have a particularly huge stake in the manufacturing and retail sectors – which both benefit hugely from robotics – and has only recently started offering home delivery for retail.

Of course, Google has a little bit of experience with creating autonomous machines, with its driverless car making headlines around the world and scaring regular users of zebra crossings to boot.

Rubin, who took Android from a fringe mobile OS to a dominant force in the smartphone space, says he has a "a history of making my hobbies into a career". In other words, he has a track record of getting things right, which probably made his task of convincing Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to get on board a little easier.

It's interesting that this news should come during the same week as Amazon's teasing look at its automated delivery drones. It rather seems like there's a bit of one-upmanship going on in the tech world, with major firms looking to steal headlines as the year comes to a close.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who always obeys the first law of robotics

Eric Schmidt pens guide for switching from iPhone to Android

25 Nov 2013

The executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, has penned a length post telling mobile users how they can switch from iPhone to Android devices.

Fresh from offering tips on using cloud computing, Schmidt has now turned his attention to the mobile market, using his page on Google+ to show users how easy it is to move to Android, and all it can offer.

“Like the people who moved from PCs to Macs and never switched back, you will switch from iPhone to Android and never switch back, as everything will be in the cloud, backed up, and there are so many choices for you,” he wrote.

"The latest high-end phones from Samsung (Galaxy S4), Motorola and the Nexus 5 have better screens, are faster, and have a much more intuitive interface."

What follows is a lengthy, complicated and caveat-heavy list of the steps you’ll need to take for this switch to Android, which runs to just over 600 words. This includes how to get Gmail on your phone, back up photos and move your music to your new device.

While Schmidt attempts to paint the transition as painless – as anyone who has ever moved phone, even within the same ecosystem, will know – such a task is never easy, and is always fraught with frustrations.

This isn't an issue with Android, or Apple, or anyone else, it just seems that anything that requires moving data is complex and time-consuming. Still, at least industry leaders such as Schmidt are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to try and help the average user, which is nice.

By V3's Dan Worth, who's happy with his iPhone

 

 

Phishers and firms both proving adept at online stalking

22 Nov 2013

SAN FRANCISCO: For the past few years now we've had a steady influx of reports from the security community, warning us that cyber criminals are learning and emulating legitimate companies' strategies.

In the past this has been limited to actual businesses models, with criminal groups setting up cyber black markets and advertising networks that, apart from the illegal wares they sell, operate the same way as entirely legitimate ones.

However, having spent the week in San Francisco covering Salesforce's Dreamforce 2013 event, we've noticed a number of other interesting similarities between the two groups' attitudes towards customer data.

It's no secret; web user data is the new oil. Every drop of it is potentially worth a lot of money, especially if it comes from a business account. This is why every year we hear stories about criminal groups targeting executives in specific companies with sophisticated spy campaigns. These campaigns see the criminal find a soft target within a business they're interested in and then expertly stalk them online. The campaigns see the criminal follow the victim's activity on social media sites and the like, to get a better idea of what makes them tick.

This research is potentially usable in a variety of ways, though its most common application is in phishing scams. This is because the data can be used to alter the hook of a phishing message and make it look more legitimate. For example, if you see on Twitter the CTO of the company you want to hack is currently attending Dreamforce, include a sentence in the phishing message saying "great to meet you at the conference" or if you see he's just ordered a set of golf clubs, send a fake delivery notification. The strategy is fairly simple.

What's interesting is – having spoken to a number of Salesforce customers – we've found most marketing and sales departments follow exactly the same strategy when creating pitches. Speaking to Carlos Zamora, the vice president of BT Conferencing in North America, this phenomenon was drilled home to us when he explained the company's research process leading up to a pitch.

"As we look at how an opportunity is being progressed, we have a number of teams [to] work through a process. This begins with questions like 'Can we win?' 'Is it the type we want?' 'Is our solution the best?' and 'What extras would we need to provide?' Then we map it from the point of contact and find who the decision makers are," he said.

"When you identify your relationship map and plot the influencers, sponsors and contractors involved, you then have to find the best way to engage with those individuals. Nowadays this is done in a variety of ways including social media – what they like, what they do, how they think."

Sounds familiar, right?

To me, this isn't that scary, just good sense. After all, getting information on somebody you're trying to influence is, at the end of the day, common sense. It is, however, a stark reminder of quite how much of our privacy we give away using services such as Facebook and Twitter and the ever-important truth; free services aren't really free and shared information can be used against us.

Let's just hope criminals don't get quite so good at collecting and using it as Salesforce, which just posted its first $1bn quarter.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Web could change forever with 2014 domain overhaul plans

20 Nov 2013

A domain name

For years the web has bumbled along with a motley crew of domain suffixes such as .com, .net and co.uk playing the ‘bottom half of the cow’ to the top half of www.

However, 2014 will see this change as the humble web domain suffix grows up and starts to change the face of the internet forever. As V3 noted last week, the .london domain is now up for grabs and interest is already said to be high.

This new domain is just one of over a 1,000 that are being made available by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) alongside others such as .technology, .cloud and even company-specific ones such as .Apple and .Google.

Furthermore, Nominet, the organisation responsible for domain addressing in the UK, has now announced that a new, shorter .uk suffix will be made available from 2014, which could mean many firms are forced into some tough branding decisions.

A website such as V3 could change from V3.co.uk to V3.uk, for example. But Nominet has said no old suffixes will go, so many firms may choose to stick with their existing setup. However, that could lead to an imposter stealing the similar .uk domain and causing confusion for customers.

To stop this happening, Nominet is giving firms with existing .co.uk domains the chance to have the .uk version of their domain first, and they have a five-year holding period to decide if they want to use it. After that, though, anything goes.

For firms, this poses some questions. Do you take the new domain and just run it in the background, and if people head to it they’ll end up on your site anyway? Or should you make the short domain the new brand for your firm? Or try and use both at the same time?

And what about the new top-level domains on offer from Icann? Is it worth splashing out for an entirely different type of domain – one that internet users may not realise exists – or should you just stick with the same domain you've been using for years and trust that no-one will come up with a domain brand that proves better for marketing?

It may take some years for this all to happen, but the web as we've known it looks set to change forever.

By V3's Dan Worth, who's the master of his own domain

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