Real Phone Hacking

Interesting glimpse into the real world of phone hacking–not the amateurish stuff we’ve been absored by in the UK–by Sharmine Narwani: In Lebanon, The Plot Thickens « Mideast Shuffle.

First off, there’s the indictment just released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which, in the words of Narwani,

appears to be built on a simple premise: the “co-location” of cellular phones — traceable to the accused four — that coincide heavily with Hariri’s whereabouts and crucial parts of the murder plot in the six weeks prior to his death.

Indeed, the case relies heavily on Call Data Record (CDR) analysis. Which sounds kind of sophisticated. Or is it? Narwani contends that this could have been manufactured. Indeed, she says,

there isn’t a literate soul in Lebanon who does not know that the country’s telecommunications networks are highly infiltrated — whether by competing domestic political operatives or by foreign entities.

There is plenty of evidence to support this. The ITU recently issued two resolutions [PDF] basically calling on Israel to stop conducting “piracy, interference and disruption, and sedition”.

And Lebanon has arrested at least two men accused of helping Israel infiltrate the country’s cellular networks. What’s interesting about this from a data war point of view is that one of those arrested has confessed, according to Narwani, to lobbying for the cellular operator he worked for not to install more secure hardware, made by Huawei, which would have presumably made eavesdropping harder. (A Chinese company the good guy? Go figure.)

If this were the case–if Lebanon’s cellular networks were so deeply penetrated–then it’s evidence of the kind of cyberwar we’re not really equipped to understand, let alone deal with: namely data manipulation.

Narwani asks whether it could be possible that the tribunal has actually been hoodwinked by a clever setup: that all the cellular data was faked, when

a conspiring “entity” had to obtain the deepest access into Lebanese telecommunications networks at one or — more likely — several points along the data logging trail of a mobile phone call. They would have to be able to intercept data and alter or forge it, and then, importantly, remove all traces of the intervention.

After all, she says,

the fact is that Hezbollah is an early adherent to the concept of cyberwarfare. The resistance group have built their own nationwide fiber optics network to block enemy eavesdropping, and have demonstrated their own ability to intercept covert Israeli data communications. To imagine that they then used traceable mobile phones to execute the murder of the century is a real stretch.

Who knows? But Darwani asserts that

Nobody doubts Israel’s capacity to carry out this telecom sleight of hand — technology warfare is an entrenched part of the nation’s military strategies. This task would lie somewhere between the relatively facile telephone hacking of the News of the World reporters and the infinitely more complex Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in which Israel is a prime suspect.

In other words, there’s something going on here that is probably a lot more sophisticated than a tribunal can get behind. I’m no Mideast expert, but if only half of this is true it’s clear that cellphones are the weakest link in a communications chain. And that if this kind of thing is going on Lebanon, one has to assume that it’s going on in a lot of places.

Southeast Asia’s Third Mobile Tier

The mobile revolution is moving from second tier countries in Southeast Asia to the third and final tier. Whereas previously Indonesia and the Philippines were seeing the biggest growth in mobile Internet traffic, now it’s Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia which top the list in terms of user- and usage-growth, according to the Opera State of the Mobile Web report for July:

    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in terms of page-view growth (6415.0 % and 470.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of unique users (1207.5 % and 179.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of data transferred (3826.6 % and 353.2 %, respectively)

Of course these figures are from a low base, and the Opera data is not the easiest to trawl through. (The Opera mobile report is always interesting reading, so long as you take into account that the Opera browser is for many people a Symbian browser and so of declining popularity in some quarters. Also their data is never presented in quite the order one would like, so you have to dig. )

Looking at the figures in more detail, and throwing them into a spreadsheet of my own, it’s clear that Burma is definitely an outlier. Cambodia’s growth is impressive, but Burma’s is by far the greatest out of all 27 countries surveyed. Here’s how it looks:

2011-07 Page view growth SEA

So is the Burma usage real, or is this just a jump from nothing to slightly more than nothing? I suspect it may actually be a sizeable jump. Opera are coy about the actual number of users (so we may actually be dealing with a small dataset). But the figures suggest that this is a real spurt in usage: Burmese mobile users are transferring more data per page view than any other of the 27 countries surveyed, and the page views per user is on a par with the Philippines and Thailand.

I’d cautiously suggest that Burma, along with Cambodia and Laos, are beginning to show exhibit some of the signs of what one might pompously call “mobile societies”: using the mobile phone as an Internet device as a regular part of their activities. Take the page views per user, for example, which measures how much they’re using the mobile phone to view the Internet (Brunei seems to be in a league of its own; I don’t know what’s going on there, except that in terms of nightlife, I’d have to say not much):

2010-07 Page views per user SEA

It’s probably too much to conclude that mobile phones as Internet devices are now mainstream in this third tier of the region, but it’s a healthy sign, with lots of interesting implications.

Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things (12″ version)

This is the extended version of my earlier blog post. The BBC finally ran my commentary so for those of you who want more info, here it is:

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it works, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.

Here’s how this kind of product placement works. On the Internet Google is like a benevolent dictator: it creates great stuff we love, and with which most of the net wouldn’t work. But it also wields great power–at least if you’re someone trying to make money off the web. Because if you don’t show up in Google’s search results, then you’re nobody. It’s the equivalent of exile, or solitary confinement, or something.

A lot of money is spent, therefore, in gaming your website’s position in Google’s rankings. But you have to be careful. Google also spends a lot of money tweaking its algorithms so that the search results you get are not gamed. Threat of exile is usually enough to keep most web players in line.

But because Google doesn’t issue a set of rules, and doesn’t explain why it exiles web sites, the gray area is big. And this is where the money is made.

One of the mini industries is something called link building. Google reckons a site with lots of links to it is a popular site, so it scores highly. So if you can get lots of sites to link to yours, you’re high up in the results.

Now it just so happens that some of the pages on my modest decade-old blog score quite highly here. So I suppose it was inevitable that link building companies would seek me out.

A British company, for example, called More Digital offered me a fixed upfront annual fee for a “small text-based ad” on my website. As intriguing was the blurb at the bottom of the email:

You must not disclose, copy, distribute or take any action in reliance on this e-mail or any attachments. Views or opinions presented in this e-mail are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of More Digital.

Clearly these guys mean business, I thought, so I wrote back to Alicia Ross. She was excited to hear from me, and offered two options: one was a simple link in my collection of recommended web sites. The idea would be that I would include a link to their client’s website–whoever it was–alongside my real recommendations.

The other was “one page simple text”:

The advert will be text, not a visual banner It will appear in the content, and only on a single page of your website. Our writers will provide you with a copy that will fit naturally into your existing content.

(I think she means “copy” rather than “a copy”). For this I would earn $200 a year per ad if the client was a poker, casino or bingo site;

Now in Internet terms this is big money. It would take me a month or so to make that kind of dosh on simple Google ads on my website. Now they’re talking about one simple text link and I get the cash in two days!

But hang on a minute. There’s that ethics thing in the back of my mind. I have to listen to it a second.

The first one I’m not crazy about: What’s the point of a collection of recommended links if I don’t actually recommend them myself?

But the second one took some getting my head around. I couldn’t figure out what she had in mind, so I asked her. And this is when I started to get really depressed.

Basically what they’re after is me inserting a sentence into an existing blog post that links to their client. These guys are not interested in a new post. That would take time to rise up through the ranks of Google; they want to tap into my micro-Google fame. And remember this is not an ad. It’s a plug. It’s product placement. In a piece that is supposed to otherwise be straight, authentic and, well, me. I like to think that’s why it has Google juice.

By the time I got back to Alicia the offer was off the table as all the spots had been picked up. Clearly this is a well-oiled business. But then I got another, from a different company. Mayra Alessi was contacting me on behalf of a U.S. company selling identity theft protection, which she wanted me to link to in a piece I wrote two years ago about a privacy problem with Facebook. For $30 a month.

Mayra, if it was she, proposed I add a sentence at the end of a paragraph on how Facebook needs to fix the way they handle friendshipt requests as follows:

Mistakes like these from Facebook, make us more and more vulnerable to identity theft, that is why it is important to understanding identity theft in the USA.

Clearly Mayra hasn’t made her way in the world based on her copyediting, grammar or punctuation skills.  And the irony hasn’t escaped me of a company peddling identity theft protection is at best unaware that companies operating in its name are paying websites to mislead their readers, and Google.

What’s wrong with all this? Well, I guess the first thing is the seediness. A company is basically hiring another company to fiddle its rankings on Google–instead of just producing the kind of kick-ass content that it should be building it leeches off my kick-ass content.

And it’s not just seedy, it’s illegal. Well, as far as Google is concerned. Only the other day someone complained on a Google forum after getting his sites bumped off Google’s index. The reason, he suspects, is that he took $75 from one of the companies that contacted me for linking to a site about bikes. And these companies must know that. I guess that’s why the fees seem quite high for the chicken feed that niche blogs like ours are used to earning.

The point is, that the companies apparently funding this kind of activity–those whose websites benefit from the link love–are not necessarily sleazy gambling sites. I was invited to link to were an Internet security company. Among companies willing to pay me $150 for a link are, according to one of these link building outfits trying to get me aboard, are those selling mobile phones, mobile phones, health and fitness, travel, hotels, fashion, Internet services, insurance, online education and, somewhat incongruously, recycling companies.

To me this is all the more sleazy because these are real companies with offices in the UK and US and they’re clearly proud of what they do. We’re not talking Ukrainian spammers here. But their impact, in a way, is worse, because with every mercenary link sold they devalue the web. I’ve been doing a blog for nearly 10 years now, and the only thing that might make my content valuable is that it’s authentic. It’s me. If I say I like something, I’m answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond.

All in all, a tawdry example of where the blogosphere has gone wrong, I reckon. Keep your money. I’d rather keep the high ground.

The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

The Future: Findability

We only noticed three months later, but we passed something of a milestone last December. I’m hoping it might, finally, wake us up to the real power of the Web: findability.

According to Ericsson, a mobile network company, in December we exchanged more data over our mobile devices than we talked on them. In short, we now do more email, social networking, all that stuff, on our mobile phones and mobile-connected laptops than we do voice.

Quite a turning point.

But a turning point of what, exactly?

Well, the conventional wisdom is that we will use our cellphone (or a netbook with a cellphone connection) to do all the things we used to do, or still do, on our desktop tethered laptop or PC. According to a report by Sandvine, another network company, released this month, one in five of us mobile data subscribers are using Facebook and video sharing website YouTube accounts for at least a 10th of all traffic.

But the conclusions they draw from this are wrong.

The thinking is that we’re somehow interested only in doing things that we did at our desk, even when we’re in the open air. Or on the couch.

Well, OK, but it betrays a lack of imagination of what we’ll do when we’re really untethered.

When we have access to everything the Internet has to offer–and when the Internet has access to us. Then we’ll have findability. By that we mean we can find the answer to pretty much every question we ask, from where’s the nearest 24-hour pizza place to what’s the capital of Slovakia. Or who was in that movie with John Cusack about a hit man returning to his high school prom?

We know that we know all this, even if we don’t know it. Because we have all this at our fingertips, because we have the Internet. No longer do we care about hoarding information because we know the Internet’s hoarding it for us, and Google or someone, is there to help us find it in a microsecond.

That’s one bit of findability. But there’s another bit. Connect all this to other bits of information about ourselves, drawn from sensors and other chips inside the device: where we are, what time of day it is, what that building in front of us is, who we’re with, what language they’re speaking, our body temperature, whether we’re moving or stationary, whether we’re upright, sitting or laying flat, whether our eyes are closed, whether we used voice, touch, eyes, keys or gestures to pose whatever question was on our mind.

All that adds extra layers of information to findability, by giving context to our search for information. Only our imagination can tell us how all these bits and pieces of data can be useful to us, but if you’ve used a map on your smartphone you’ll already get a glimpse of its potential.

Last December, we passed into this new era. The era when the potential of the Internet to move beyond the desk and lap, and start to mesh with our lives so that it is all around us. Where we, where everything,  can be found.

How Not to Disintermediate

image

With traditional media on the rocks, there are lots of opportunities for companies and organisations to  disintermediate: to project themselves directly to the public. Indeed, in some ways, this is the future.

But here’s how not to do it: to put a guy from the PR department in front of one of the senior folks and let him babble. The result is always awkward half sentences linked rehearsed (and usually quite obviously, and badly) lines from some media training session that ooze jargonish phrases that a real journalist would never let pass.

Things like these (with their translations alongside) from the Nokia Booklet 3G interview with John Hwang, its designer.

“nokia’s all about connecting people” = we make mobile phones

“further strengthening our device portfolio” = we’ve got a lot of different models. You’re confused? Try working here.

“mobile heritage” (repeated by the interviewer, as if it’s a phrase we all use in our daily lives: “honey, could you look in the drawer at our device portfolio and see if there’s something there from our mobile heritage we could lend the kids for sleepover?”) = we have to acknowledge we mainly make mobile phones, but we’re trying to make it sound like that’s our past. Just like our “tree-felling heritage”

“connected services” = the Internet

“all day performance” = the battery won’t give out on ya

“mobile design language” = we design mobile phones. Well we used to. Now we want to be thought of as computer manufacturers

“launched from our mobility statement” = I have no idea what this means.

(And the PR guy keeps saying “we” and then correcting himself to say “nokia”.)

If you’re going to do this kind of thing, do it right. PR guys should not be afraid of asking questions real journalists would ask, including tough ones. (Interestingly, the only tough question here is one the interviewee asks himself.)

links for 2008-09-11

  • Avego.com is where travelers cooperate to make the whole transport system more efficient, saving us all money, wasted time and reducing pollution.

    A 5-seat car traveling with only a driver is inherently inefficient, and yet 85% of the time, that’s how cars travel in much of the world. With our iPhone GPS technology, web services and your participation, we can fill up those empty seats.

  • Did I get enough exercise today? How many calories did I burn? Am I getting good quality sleep? How many steps and miles did I walk today? The Fitbit Tracker helps you answer these questions.

  • Swype was developed by founders Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden, along with a very talented team of software programmers and linguists.

    Cliff is the co-inventor of T9, the standard predictive text-entry solution used on over 2.4 billion mobile phones worldwide. He is the named inventor on multiple patents related to alternative text entry.

    Randy is the developer of the onscreen keyboard included in Windows, with an installed base of over a half a billion units. He is a recognized leader in the field of assistive technology and alternative computer input.

    Together, their experience is unmatched in developing onscreen keyboard-based text input solutions for mobile touch-screen devices.

  • ShiftSpace (pronounced: §) is an open source browser plugin for collaboratively annotating, editing and shifting the web.

  • # Create and track invoices you issue to clients.
    # Determine what you’re owed, by whom, and when it’s due.
    # Keep track of timesheets for yourself and your employees.
    # Notify your clients of new invoices.
    # Create interesting reports and analyze payment history
    # Save time & collect your money.

Time to Give the Telephone Back to the Cellphone?

Was interviewing a guy intimately involved in the mobile phone industry the other day, and we were comparing the various features of our sophisticated smartphones, when he suddenly leaned over and said, “Off the record, but this is my favorite phone.” And he showed me this:


Nokia 1100, photo Mobile Phones UK

The Nokia 1100, according to Wikipedia, is the world’s best selling handset, having shifted 200 million units. It seems to cost about $20, often less, and has a battery life of about 400 hours. And, crucially for my friend, sports two important features: It makes and receives calls and SMS. Beyond that, in the words of Bryan Ferry, there’s nothing. (Well, actually there’s WAP, but who uses that?)

The point about the Nokia 1100 is that it’s a phone. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else (except a flashlight, if you press and hold the “c” key down (presumably “c” stands for torCh or flasChlight or “come into the light where I can see you, Mildred”.) It’s designed for conditions in developing countries — dustproof keyboard, non-slip sides — but for many of us that could describe an ordinary day in the office (dusty, slippery, in need of illumination).

“For email,” he said, “I use this,” waving a Nokia BlackBerry clone. “For phoning and SMS, I use my 1100.”

Clearly my interviewee friend is not alone. A glance at Mobile Phones UK’s page on the model, the phone has a sizeable fanclub, with comments from Romania, Pakistan, Iran, the Philippines, Argentina, UK, Zaire and Tanzania. (Typical comment: “I needed a simple, sharp looking, long life phone. I got it. I love it!”) Of course, there are some who aren’t happy, but with 200 million units out there, that’s not surprising.

I guess my worry is, and has been for a while: As phones get more sophisticated, when do they stop being phones? And if it takes you longer to make or receive a call (or an SMS) than it used to, at what point do we need to split the phone/SMS functionality from our smartphone and give it back to the likes of the 1100?

When a Country Goes Dark

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Ministers’ homes at the new capital, Pyinmana

Burma has shown us that we’re not as clever, or free, as we thought we are.

It’s a sign of how the Burmese generals don’t really understand things that it took them so long to cut off the Internet:

Reporters without Borders and the Burma Media Association reported that the government cut off all Internet access in the country on Friday morning and they said that all Internet cafes in the country also have been closed. The Web site of the Myanmar Post & Telecommunications, the government-run telecommunications provider, appears to be down.

The Internet was something we didn’t have to help us back in 1988 in covering the uprising. Actually we didn’t have very much: a total of about eight international telephone lines into the country, the official radio which would broadcast once or twice a day, and which we’d monitor courtesy of a weird contraption in a special room that also spewed out garbled copies of the official news agency reports.

We’d spend most of the day in the Bangkok office trying to get a line in, cajoling and sweet-talking the female or male (we knew no shame) operators into trying again, and again, to get a line. When we got a connection we’d ask the person who picked up as many questions as we could, whether it was Aung San Suu Kyi or just some guy who happened to have a telephone. Once a day we’d pick up the monitoring by the U.S. embassy of other official radio broadcasts and pore over them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Occasionally we’d interview someone who managed to get out; my first ever wire service story was the Dutch ambassador going on the record at Don Muang airport about some of the horrors he’d seen. When we did get into Burma all we had in the office was an ancient telex machine.

Nowadays, 19 years on, there’s more technology out there than we could dream of back then. Not just the Internet: camera phones, mobile phones, satellites, GPS. But I’m also surprised at how little these really help. Burmese have bravely organized demonstrations via cellphone, and sent out information by Internet, but those channels are largely closed now, leaving us to join a Facebook group, wear red, or turn to satellite to try to glean information.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has analyzed satellite photos which it says “pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eyewitnesses have reported human rights violations.” This is more about the continuing (and long-running) war against insurgents and populations in border areas caught up in those wars. But it’s instructive to see their before and after satellite photos, like these ones:

[PHOTOGRAPH]

Before-and-after satellite images show the site of an apparent military encampment in Burma on 11 November 2000, (top), and again on 13 December 2006 (bottom), when new bamboo fencing can be seen. The human rights group, Free Burma Rangers, reported a major expansion of this camp in 2006, corroborated by the AAAS analysis of images. (Lat: 18.42 N Long: 97.23 E.)

Credit: Top image: © GeoEye, Inc. Bottom image: © 2007 DigitalGlobe.

The AAAS has a Google Earth layer here to illustrate the before and after. The full report (PDF, big file) is here.

The AAAS is currently collecting satellite images of urban areas to see what it can glean; it reminds me of 1999 in East Timor when satellite imagery showed up some of the destruction cause by the retreating Indonesian army. But such images can do little more than illustrate something that has happened, and not bring to life the actual suffering and abuses on the ground.

Indeed, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that technology can do so little to pry open a country if its government decides to close it off. We talk about information wanting to be free, but we tend to forget how that information still requires power and a channel in order to escape. Shut off the power, shut off the channel and the information is as much a prisoner as the Burmese people presently are.

AAAS – AAAS News Release