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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Who Controls the Technology that Controls Your Life?
Who Controls the Technology that Controls Your Life?
As we've discussed here before, we're all becoming more and more dependent on technology, whether we want to or not, and there isn't much we can do about it. Most of the time, it all works and we reap wondrous benefits from the gadgets and technological infrastructure that have become such an important part of our lives. Other times, something goes wrong and we experience the frustration of dealing with people and entities that can't function efficiently - or sometimes at all - without the help of the machines.
A very minor case in point: when the weather gets cold, our CATV goes bad. The digital cable channels become a mass of pixilation, ranging from the occasional annoyance of a briefly broken picture when the temperature drops a little to a completely unviewable picture with no sound when it drops a lot. We call the cable company, someone comes out and "fixes" it by adjusting the signal strength, and it works for a while - usually until the next cold snap. My contention is that we shouldn't have to pay for cable service on those days when wehave no service. Somehow the cable company doesn't agree.
In the "olden days," we weren't dependent on a cable company (or satellite company, or phone company) for our TV programming. We stuck an antenna on the roof or a pair of "rabbit ears" on top of the set and tuned in over the air. Now the analog OTA channels are all gone, at least in the U.S., and good luck getting a good HD signal with an indoor antenna. In many areas, you might not be able to get a good digital OTA signal even with a traditional 30 ft. outdoor antenna. And of course, you won't be able to get all those non-broadcast network channels that you may have become addicted to.
But TV, while nice to have, isn't a necessity. I can live without TV (and in fact did, for almost ten years). I'd have a harder time living with Internet connectivity, because my livelihood depends on it. Almost all of the work by which I make a living is done over the Internet, from blogging to submitting articles and white papers to communicating with clients and potential clients via email, IM and VoIP. I had a very strange thing happen recently. A software company that wants me to write for them asked for an in-person meeting. That's strange because I've been doing tech writing for over twelve years and this is the first time I will ever have met, face-to-face, the people I would be working with prior to starting the job. But that doesn't negate my statement about the Internet, since they still made first contact and the arrangements for the meeting via email.
But even those of us who depend on the Internet don't really consider it completely dependable. We're all aware that connectivity could be lost at any time; most of us have had that experience more than once. A power outage, a hardware failure, a server overload - we all understand that those things happen. But what about when our technology is deliberately disabled, when someone makes a conscious decision to cause the machines on which we depend to stop working?
When you think about it, then, whomever controls the Internet has a lot of power over me and others who depend on it for their work. That includes the various ISPs that provide service to me and on the other end, to those with whom I need to communicate. It includes those who maintain the domain name system on which I depend to translate friendly addresses to IP addresses and get those communications through. It also includes the government that increasingly regulates cyberspace. A Senate bill introduced last spring made big headlines when it was revealed that it would give the White House the authority to disconnect private sector computers from the Internet under the auspices of a "cyber emergency."
That type of power is unlikely to be wielded on a whim; the political ramifications would be too great. But there are people and organizations out there with the ability to affect your life by cutting off other services or disabling devices other than your computer. Folks got up in arms over the idea that Apple could "brick" their phones. Now it turns out that some car dealerships can brick your vehicle. That capability is supposed to be used as an alternative to repossession, but recently in Austin, TX, a disgruntled former employee of the company used another employee's password to hack into the system and disable the ignition systems and triggering the horns of all the company's customers. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Hacker-Disables-Cars
Imagine suddenly finding that your car won't start and its horn won't stop honking, and then discovering that a stranger who was angry about being laid off from his job did it to you deliberately.
Of course, many of today's cars can be disabled remotely. In 2009, General Motors began building that ability into OnStar-equipped vehicles. This can be a life-saving feature; last October it was used to disable the gas pedal on a stolen SUV and thus cutting short a police chase that could have endangered officers, the suspect and innocent bystanders: http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-OnStar
The disablement technology was used for a good purpose in this case, but it does give one cause to wonder: if OnStar can do it, can a clever bad guy figure out how to activate those remote commands and leave you stranded and at his mercy on a lonely road? What protections are in place to ensure that doesn't happen?
Then there are those "smart meters" that the electric companies are installing all over the country. It's bad enough that some of them would allow the power company to remotely turn off your air conditioning if you're using "too much" electricity. But could someone else hack in and shut you down, spoil all the food in your refrigerator, do much worse harm if you happen to have electrically powered medical equipment? Unfortunately, the answer is probably "yes." At least year's BlackHat conference in Las Vegas, Mike Davis did a presentation on hacking the smart grid, discussing the exploits and design flaws in the smart meter and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technology. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Smart-Grid-Security
Who is really in control of the technology that controls your life? Not you - that's for sure. Does it make you a little nervous to realize that so many of your essential systems could be turned off just because someone, somewhere, decides to do so? Or do you trust that the technologies allowing disablement of our vehicles, electrical power and Internet connections will be used only when appropriate? Do you worry about the security of those systems, or do you think they're well protected and the incidents that have occurred are isolated anomalies? What other examples can you think of, in which we're losing control of our technology? We invite you to discuss this topic in our forum at http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Forum-Discussion
Follow-up: Buzzing about privacy
In last week's editorial, I meandered a bit, from Google Buzz to online privacy (two different but not unrelated issues) and on into the prospect of mind reading technology, giving readers plenty of fodder for commenting. Minnesota Slim made a great point when he said, "I just don't see how anyone can sign up for any kind of SN site that is FREE first of all, where the idea is to post stuff about yourself, and then automatically expect that your info is private 'out of the box' without adjusting settings."
Social networking in general is, after all, about sharing information about yourself. It really shouldn't come as a surprise if the default is to share it all. It's a little like the celebrities who work so hard to become famous, and then complain when strangers recognize them in public. You can't have it both ways; privacy and sharing are part of a continuum and the more you have of one, the less you're going to have of the other.
In fact, I happen to know that some celebrities use false identities on Facebook. I understand the reasons - I have only a smidgeon of "fame" in narrow circles, and I still get many friend requests from people I don't know. These folks, who are household names, get hundreds of requests per day if they use their real names. Still, apart from the fact that it violates the Terms of Service agreement to do so, it wouldn't feel right to me to use a fake name on an SN site. I've tried writing fiction under a pseudonym before and that felt dishonest. I can't imagine pretending to be someone else in a venue where the whole point is to write about yourself. But to each his/her own.
Speaking of false identities, Tim G. shared a story in the Register about how undercover agents are infiltrating MySpace, Facebook, etc. in an attempt to collect evidence on users suspected of lawbreaking. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-MySpace
When I was in law enforcement, I was an outspoken critic of undercover operations in all but the most serious of cases. I believe when the police stoop to the level of criminals and begin to emulate them, too often the lines get blurred and we become too much like criminals ourselves. Why is it okay for cops to lie, steal, do drugs and perform other criminal acts in the name of catching crooks for lying, stealing, doing drugs and performing criminal acts? Why is it okay for law enforcement officers to lie about their identities on SN sites when other people have been charged with a criminal offense for doing so? Does the end justify the means?
Our world is getting more complex all the time, and that complexity leads to tough questions. We certainly aren't going to answer them all here, but it's thought-provoking and entertaining to consider them and to learn what others think about them. As always, thank you to all who participated in this discussion.
MediaWidget is the quickest and easiest way to transfer all of your music, videos, photos, podcasts, and more from your iPod to PC. Check out the cool Youtube demo and download the trial here: http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-MediaWidget
We always advise XP users who use Internet Explorer to upgrade to the latest version of the browser, for security and compatibility reasons. Unfortunately, you won't be able to do that when the next version of IE comes out. Microsoft has confirmed that IE 9 will not run on XP, or even on Vista unless it has Service Pack 2 applied. No, it's not just an arbitrary decision; the problem is that IE 9 uses Direct2D, which isn't part of XP and pre-SP2 Vista. Read more here: http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-IE9-and-Windows-XP
Windows 7 XP Mode will no longer require hardware virtualization support
If you have a new computer that came with Windows 7 but you still need to use your applications that are only supported by XP, it just got easier for you to take advantage of XP Mode in Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate editions. Previously the computer's BIOS had to support hardware virtualization technology such as Intel VT. Microsoft has just announced an update that will remove that requirement. This is good news for many people who bought low cost laptops with processors that don't support VT. Note that you still won't be able to use XP Mode on Windows Home Premium, but you can upgrade to Windows 7 Pro for $89.99 via the Anytime Upgrade program. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Windows7-XP-Mode
Can't run Windows Virtual PC on XP
The latest version of Microsoft's Virtual PC software has been rebranded as Windows Virtual PC and contrary to popular belief, it will run on any version of Windows 7, including Home Basic and Home Premium. The XP Mode preconfigured VM, however, only runs on Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions. The bad news is you can't install it on your XP or Vista computer. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Windows-Virtual-PC
That's the latest rumor, and it appears to be based on a Microsoft engineering document. No confirmation yet, but there are plenty of Xbox users who are hoping it's true. If so, you would be able to plug in a USB hard drive. The catch is that you'll only be able to use 16GB partitions for storing the games and other Xbox content. Read more here: http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Xbox-USB-Storage-Support
How To: Using XP Features
How to disable Fast User Switching
Windows XP supports Fast User Switching, which can be handy if you share the computer with someone else and need to swap back and forth often. But if you're the only one who uses your machine, it's just another service that runs unnecessarily and uses up your system resources. Luckily, disabling it is easy:
Click Start | Control Panel | Administrative Tools
Click Services to open the Services MMC
Navigate to Fast User Switching and double click it
Change the startup type to Disable
If the service is running, click Stop
Now the service will not start up automatically when you start the computer, saving some resources for other programs and services that you do use.
XP Security News
Web browser security news
Last week, Mozilla confirmed that there is a zero day security vulnerability in Firefox and expects to patch it at the end of the month, and Google released an updated version of Chrome that addresses nine security flaws. This is just a reminder that, despite the hoopla that you may hear about how you should switch from IE to another browser for security reasons, all web browsers have security issues and no matter which one you use, it's vital that you keep it updated with the latest security patches. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Firefox-Zero-Day-Fix
XP Question Corner
Is there a way to put multiple clocks in the system tray in XP?
QUESTION: I have a new Windows 7 laptop but my desktop still runs XP and I plan to keep it for a while. If it's not broke, why fix it? BUT there is something I really like about the Windows 7 computer and I want to find out if there's some way, maybe some program, that will let me do it on my XP computer. In Windows 7 you can put more than one clock in the system tray. I like this because my daughter lives in Europe and I like to be able to know what time it is where she is, without going to a web site. Can you help? - Josie K.
ANSWER: In this global society, more and more of us need to keep on top of the time in different parts of the world. I work with people on both coasts in the U.S. and in several countries overseas, so it's a big help to have clocks displaying multiple time zones. There are quite a few third party applications that do that for XP. If you specifically want an app that goes into the system tray, though, probably the best is Microsoft Time Zone. It lets you see up to five different time zones by clicking on the tray icon. It's a free download from Microsoft and you can get it here: http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Time-Zone
XP Configuration and Troubleshooting
Can't open HTML Help files from Internet Explorer
Your XP computer with security update 896358 installed may not be able to open help files in the .CHM format when you try to open them from Internet Explorer. That's by design, to reduce the security risks of using HTML help. However, if you do need to view these types of files, there are workarounds that you can use. To find out about them, see KB article 902225 at http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-HTML-Help-Files
File in network folder opens as read-only or returns error message
If you try to open a file that's on a folder on the network, using Windows Explorer on your XP computer, you might find that it opens as a read-only document or that you get an error message saying the file type cannot be recognized. This happens because Windows Explorer locks and reads the file to extract the thumbnail information. Installing the latest service pack will fix it, but if there's some reason you don't want to do that, there is also a hotfix available. After installing it, you have to edit a registry key. You'll find the full instructions in KB article 830903 at http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Read-Only-Error
This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff
Disclaimer: WXPNews does not assume and cannot be responsible for any liability related to you clicking any of these linked Web sites.
The DF1 helicopter is propelled by jets attached to the tips of its blades. It is easy to fly and - powered by hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) - creates zero pollution. Is this test flight going to run into the truck?: http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-Test-Flight
Download the PC Speed Maximizer trial and run a "Quick Scan" to get a quick overview of the status of your computer. From the Scan Results you will be able to see the changes necessary to optimize and protect your computer by fixing Registry Errors, cleaning Temporary and Junk Files, and optimizing your Windows settings. WXPNEWS readers get an automatic $5.00 discount if you decide to buy. Download the trial here. http://www.wxpnews.com/MY5HU3/100323-PC-Speed-Maximizer
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