Tag Archives: director

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

The Real, Sad Lesson of Burma 2007

Reuters

I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma’s brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans’ (an excellent journalist, by the way; I’m just choosing his piece because it’s in front of me) article in today’s IHT:

“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.

or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:

“By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide,” he said. “On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message.”

There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.

First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.

It’s true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.

Burma’s generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens

“We have your pictures. We’re going to come and get you.”

They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.

Xiao Qiang’s point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The ‘democratic’ process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.

More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don’t think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It’s the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there’s outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years — a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.

I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it’s quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.

By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.

Phishing Takes Its Toll

Is phishing beginning to take its toll on banks?

It’s been my belief for some time that this is, or would be, the case. Banks have seen the Internet as a cash cow and have been over-eager to milk it without realising that it’s not just a way to grab more customers and slice overheads. The Internet is a world unto itself, with its own rules, its own technologies — and its own scams. Banks and the Internet make sense, but not if banks think that an online department can be set up in a few weeks and staffed by a few sysops.

That’s why phishing is such an important wake-up call. It’s the first seriously clever scam that online banking has faced, and banks — and other institutions — have done a very poor job in responding to it. Sure, they’re beginning to now, but not after anything between $500 million and $5 billion has been lost to phishers. Whatever the figure, some folk made some serious money out of phishing, which means that Internet-based financial crime is going to be the main attraction for every criminal with half a brain from here to Archangel.

Which is where a new survey, reported by this month’s American Banker magazine (subscription only), comes in.

The article says that “nearly 30% of respondents to the 2004 American Banker/Gallup Consumer Survey said they think a bank has violated their financial privacy. That is the highest level since the question was first asked in 2001 and “a statistic you want to pay attention to,” said John J. Byrne, director of the American Bankers Association’s Center for Regulatory Compliance”. The article goes on to say: “A possible explanation for the increased perception among consumers that banks have violated their privacy may be the rising incidence of sophisticated identity-theft operations such as “phishing,” say experts.”

Of course, banks are going to say it’s not their fault: “Peter Cassidy, secretary general of the group, said that it is common for victims of phishing attacks to blame their financial institution for the loss of their personal information, despite the fact that the company had no involvement in the scam.” Of course banks are involved, in the sense that they did not heed the problem when it first appeared more than a year ago, but let’s not dwell on that. The bigger problem, the magazine says, is maintaining customer trust. “Dollar-for-dollar, the loss of customers’ trust that a bank is a safe place to put their money is a potentially bigger deal than all of the money people have lost to phishing attacks so far,” Mr. Cassidy said.

While the article swings between the idea of privacy as in releasing information to third parties for marketing purposes, and privacy as in “why did you let someone steal all my money from my account?”, to me the problem is pretty much the same. Any institution that plays fast and loose with your data — by letting third parties email trying to sell you stuff, to banks that see their online services as another way to flog more services (two banks I deal with try this, one by having lots of rubbish on their logout page that confuses the user who is looking for certainty they’ve logged out — admittedly better than a few months ago when they had a message along the lines of ‘you’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off’ along with a picture of a palm tree and an offer of travel insurance — while another forces me to sit through an ad for special interest deposit accounts while I call their helpline via an IDD call) — any institution that does this kind of thing is of course going to score low with the customer. “Is my bank spending time protecting my assets or trying to sell me more snake oil?” would be a reasonable question to ask in the face of this marketing onslaught.

I think banks are going to lose customers if they can’t figure out ways to make online banking more secure. And it’s not just about educating users, although that’s part of it. It’s really listening hard to people who know about some of the scams — and vulnerabilities that lead to scams — out there, and then trying to pre-empt them. In the end it’s about making a technology that is as bulletproof as you can make it.

News: ID Theft Is A Problem. It’s Official

 The Federal Trade Commission is now wise to the reality: identity theft is a problem. Nearly one in eight U.S. adults has had their credit card hijacked, identity co-opted or credit rating pockmarked by identity thieves over the past five years, Reuters quoted the Federal Trade Commission as saying. The FTC surveyed some 4,000 adults this spring to come up with the most comprehensive picture yet of the fast-growing crime.
 
Amid the grim statistics, the agency found a silver lining: After nearly doubling for two to three years, new incidents of identity theft are growing more slowly and tend to involve less money. That’s because banks are wising up to the problem, making it more difficult for scam artists to set up fraudulent credit cards, and consumers are spotting suspicious activity on their accounts earlier, said Howard Beales, director of the FTC’s consumer-protection division.