THIS WEEK IN TECH

Security, Sanity and Social Networking in the Ranks

U.S. military service members who want to keep up with friends and family back home have often turned to social networking Web sites to stay in touch. But the Department of Defense hasn’t quite made up its mind whether these kinds of sites are friends or enemies.

It definitely loves social networking when it comes to recruiting — you can follow or friend any and all branches if you’re thinking about joining up. Once you’re in, though, you might find yourself a little — or a lot — more restricted. The DoD’s concerns center on security, but it seems that different branches currently have different stances on the matter.

Just this week, the Marine Corps banned the use of military computers for cyber-socializing. Meanwhile, service members in other branches still have access. Policies could become more uniform by October, after the DoD finishes reviewing the security risks associated with the sites. One of the big concerns, as always, is the risk that someone may unintentionally spill sensitive information, putting a mission — or lives — at greater risk.

But military officials are also mindful that you have to maintain sanity in the ranks. Communicating with home is important, and social networking is just the way people communicate now. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently tweeted the following: “Obviously, we need to find the right balance between security and transparency. We are working on that. But am I still going to tweet? You bet.”


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Eject Button

Referring to the Microsoft/Yahoo partnership as a marriage is a convenient metaphor, but in reality, the deal is nowhere near “till death do us part.” If you look at the terms and provisions of their agreement, it’s more like “till unsatisfactory revenue do us part.”

Microsoft will get about 400 Yahoo employees, and Yahoo will get US$50 million a year for the first three years. Nothing too intriguing there. More interesting is the escape clause Yahoo managed to build in. The search company can end the partnership if the “trailing 12-month average of the revenue per search query of Yahoo and Microsoft combined queries falls below a specified percentage of Google’s estimated RPS measured on a comparable basis or if the combined Yahoo and Microsoft query market share in the United States falls below a specified percentage.”

Translation: If a combined Microsoft/Yahoo effort doesn’t start gaining on Google in a year, Yahoo can split. So, even though Microsoft didn’t have to put any cash on the barrelhead to consummate the deal it lusted after so long, it did have to give Yahoo an easy out.

Cutting Ties

As far as outside appearances go, Google and Apple have had a pretty good relationship — there are lots of Google apps at the iPhone App Store, not to mention those built into the iPhone itself. And until recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was also a board member over at Apple.

But at the rate Google’s been branching out into fields other than straight-up Web search and advertising, it’s been clear for a while that arrangement didn’t have much of a future. Google’s now in the business of making cellphone software that competes with the iPhone, a Web browser that competes with Safari (sort of) and an upcoming operating system that will presumably go up against Mac OS X.

Things were getting more and more tangled by the minute, so instead of trying to preserve a relationship that was beginning to look really inappropriate, Schmidt has given up his seat on the Apple board.

Video Games

Google dug $106.5 million out of its couch cushions this week to buy a company called “On2 Technologies,” which specializes in video compression. Whatever it’s up to with this buy, it’s not saying much, just that more information will be ready when it’s ready.

That didn’t stop people from making up all sorts of guesses and hypotheses. For one thing, it might be a move to control costs. Offering YouTube videos in high definition must be getting awfully expensive. Maybe it’s part of a move to bring more video to handsets, or perhaps it plans to run longer-form video content, taking aim at Hulu. Or just maybe it’s looking to open source On2 technology, since it might need a standard format for mobile video to keep things smooth between its Android and Chrome operating systems.

At this point, though, it’s all just a big guessing game, and the ones who really know what the plan is are keeping quiet.

Store Inspection

The FCC has been even more interested in the wireless industry than usual over the last few weeks, and the kiss-off that Apple gave Google’s Voice application seems to have attracted its attention.

Google Voice is a Web app that lets users send text messages and make domestic calls for free — and it offers cheap rates for international calls. A Google Voice application in the iTunes App Store would have made it really easy to use the service on an iPhone, but Apple nixed the application in its usual not-very-transparent way.

All eyes turned to AT&T, which threw up its hands and declared it has no role in such decisions. That did not stop the FCC from asking Apple some pretty jagged questions, though — like, Did you act alone? Does AT&T have any say in the App Store, and if so, what? And what does your contract with AT&T say on the matter? The Commission asked what other apps have been rejected and why. Hopefully it’ll share what it learns with the people who made them — developers of rejected apps sometimes complain about being left in the dark as to exactly what part of their work didn’t pass muster.

So it looks like the FCC is pressing pretty hard on an Apple sore spot: the often-heard complaint from developers that the App Store approval process is secretive, shady and weird. Then again, they’re just asking questions — no edicts, decrees or commandments from on high just yet.

To Ryan Radia of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, it looks like the Commission is just trying to score some easy populism points. He told us, “My speculation is that the recently confirmed FCC chairman is looking to make some headlines, scoring political points over the anger about Apple’s rejection of this app. It gives him the appearance of working for the benefit of consumers.”

Patch, Please

Apple doesn’t do regular monthly security updates like Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday, but if you light a hot enough fire under its butt, it jumps like anyone else would.

That’s one of the goals of a conference like Black Hat. Of course, its main purpose is giving top hackers a chance to boast about how very crafty they are. But the gathering also brings software security problems out in the open so they can be addressed before anyone decides to do something really nasty with them — hopefully.

This year, researchers Charlie Miller and Collin Mulliner reported a problem in the way some phones handle SMS, otherwise known as text messages. Android phones, for instance, could be knocked off a wireless network with a properly crafted text, they found. What they discovered about the iPhone was even worse: that a malicious text could theoretically take complete control of the device.

The pair privately informed Google and Apple about the problems weeks ago. Android got its patch, but the researchers said they didn’t get much in the way of a response from Apple. So they publicly presented their findings at Black Hat. Riots, panic in the streets, etc., ensued. A day later, Apple issued its patch.

Don’t ask me why it waited to secure the system until after the problem was technically out in the open. My only guess is that Apple likes drama. Evacuating the building before the fire starts is boring. But if you have Steve McQueen swoop in on a helicopter to save the day, well, now you’ve got a movie.

Your Friends?

According to my understanding of the whole process, you can’t actually give yourself a nickname. A nickname is something your friends give you, something you earn, for better or for worse, and from then on you have to either wear it and like it, or just get yourself a new set of friends.

RadioShack executives swear that the new moniker they’re pushing for their chain came from the ground up. It was first thought up by customers themselves, they say: “Our Friends Call Us the Shack.” Who am I to doubt it? Surely RadioShack marketing execs buy stuff at their own stores, so technically that makes them customers.

The retail chain has a very long history of selling gadgets, but recently it’s hit some pretty rough times. So now it’s taking a stab at winning over the minds of consumers by promoting its nickname with an ad blitz and some kind of event involving giant laptops in New York and San Francisco.

Sadly, this whole effort goes against the corollary to the law of nicknames, which holds that the less embarrassing its origin, the less likely it is to stick. For one to really stay with you for life, it usually has to involve an obscene story and/or pre-noon booze, not a nationwide branding campaign. So here’s what you do: You take RadioShack and three or four of its buddies and give them a nice trip to Thailand, all expenses paid. After two weeks, I promise you the company will come back with some good nicknames, though they might not be the kind of thing you want to advertise.

The Joy of Suing

For a while, it looked like the Recording Industry Association of America was making a cottage industry out of lawsuits. It deployed a small army of lawyers to sue people caught illegally sharing music online, threatening to drive them into financial oblivion. Of course, the accused were also given the option to settle for a few thousand dollars, which is what the vast majority ended up doing.

In fact, it might not have been such a bad proposition: If you were file-sharing long enough, you probably already amassed a music collection that would have cost well over $5,000 had you bought every track. It made sense to pay off the RIAA attack dogs and quit while you were ahead.

But two accused file-sharers opted to take the road less traveled and fight the RIAA in court rather than settling. For them, the stakes quickly shot way higher. One of the defendants, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, argued there was no proof she ever illegally shared anything, but she lost her case and was ordered to pay nearly $2 million.

In a separate case, Joel Tenenbaum was ordered to pay $675,000. But whether he really shared 30 songs wasn’t an issue — he admitted it. The only question for the jury was how much he should have to pay in penalties. A willful violation of the Digital Theft Deterrence Act can ring up at $150,000 per infringement. Theoretically, Tenenbaum could have been slapped with a total bill of $4.5 million. Obviously, the jury didn’t go that far, but it did put Tenenbaum on the hook for over half a million, fueling debate over the actual monetary damage caused by file-sharing.

Joel isn’t out of options yet. He could argue that the Fair Use exception to copyright protection was wrongfully dismissed by the court. He could appeal to the judge to adjust the damages. Or he could even make a constitutional argument: that the range of motion allowed to the jury — to penalize him anywhere between $750 to $150,000 — was too broad.

Still, it’s an argument that lacks precedence, according to copyright attorney Ben Sheffner. He told us, “Now, no court has accepted this argument. No court has ever thrown out an award of copyright statutory damages as unconstitutionally excessive. But it’s a serious and plausible argument and probably their best shot on appeal.”

The Lighting on the Wall

Those antique mechanical slideshow projectors are pretty hard to find outside of a museum, an old relative’s closet, or the AV room of a underfunded high school. These days, photo slide shows are presented on a computer or, if you’re really cool, your TV.

But it looks like Nikon is making a push to take the slide show back to the silver screen with the Coolpix S1000pj, a pocket digital camera that includes a built-in mini-projector, which lets you display images up to 40 inches across on a wall, a screen or any other flat surface.

Keep in mind, you’re not going to get anywhere near the kind of brightness you get from a big, home-theater projector. This Nikon puts out just 10 lumens, compared to the 1,000 or more you’ll get out of a home theater unit. The image resolution is described as “VGA equivalent” — so, nowhere near high-definition. But if you want to show a picture to a whole bunch of people at once, shining an image onto a wall does sound like an improvement over having everyone bunch their heads together to squint at the screen on the back of the camera.

Sony Is Watching You

In the future, you won’t have to deal with drunk people at parties shoving cameras in your face trying to get an embarrassing snapshot of you. Nope, those embarrassing pictures will be taken by stone-cold-sober robots, courtesy of Sony. Note that the future begins next month, when what the company has dubbed the “Party-shot” goes on sale.

The Party-shot is probably the best idea Sony’s had since the Rolly. It’s a platform that you can set on a table or a tripod. You mount a compatible camera on it, and it spends all night spinning and tilting, looking for smiles and automatically snapping photos. Meanwhile, the party just keeps getting crazier, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting at your computer Sunday morning with a bag of ice on your head, staring at a series of increasingly weird photos and trying to figure out where all those bruises came from.

And that Party-shot thing is still sitting there on its tripod … mocking you. Yeah, it remembers what you did.

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