Tag Archives: San Francisco

Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam

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I find that the auto suggestions feature from Google Suggest in the Firefox search box very useful. But perhaps not in the way it was intended.

Google Suggest works via algorithms that “use a wide range of information to predict the queries users are most likely to want to see. For example, Google Suggest uses data about the overall popularity of various searches to help rank the refinements it offers.” In other words,  type one word and Google will tell you the next word most likely to be typed after it. Type “dimitar” and the most likely second word will be “berbatov” (this may not been a lot to non-soccer fans, but trust me, the two words go together like rock and roll for the rest of us):

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This can be useful, or at least revealing.

For example, I received one of those awful pieces of spam from Tagged.com that give the whole social networking thing a bad name:

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Click on the “Click here to block all emails from Tagged Inc., 110 Pacific Mall Box #117, San Francisco, CA. 94111” and you’re taken to a page where you’re asked to sign in or sign up. A sure sign of a scam if ever there was one; what happened to opting out a la CANSPAM?

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So I figured I should Google these clowns and see what’s being said about them. Type their name into the Firefox search box, and then hit the space bar, and this was what Google offered me as the most popular search terms:

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Having your product name coupled with “spam” and “scam” in its top three searches can’t be good.

Needless to say, tagged.com is a scam, at least in the way it tries to hoodwink users into signing up and signing up their friends. Here’s how the excellent and resourceful Amit Agarwal recommends you get rid of it from your inbox. It’s a shame that so many apparently good names are involved in something so blatantly anti-social and spammy. At what point do these people feel they’ve lost the game and allow corners to be cut? One of the founders even spoke at last year’s Authentication and Online Trust Summit for crying out loud.

The bigger issue is how to stop these sites from damaging social networking further. But that’s for another day. For now, using Google Suggest is a good quick way to know whether you’re on a hiding to nothing if you even click on a link in one of these emails. Take another scam networking site I’ve written about recently, Yaari. Its Google Suggest juice comes out looking similarly dodgy:

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Compare that with something a bit more bona fide, like LinkedIn:

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While this is a useful tool for us, I’m guessing that the companies involved are going to be hiring some drones to try to massage these results so they don’t look quite so  bad.

Escape to Streetlevel

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Next up: cities you can drive through, and not from above, or fake worlds where everyone has big chests. Real cities, from all angles. It’s called EveryScape.

The company calls it “the world’s first interactive eye-level search that offers Web users a totally immersive world on the Internet.” A “virtual experience of all metropolitan, suburban and rural areas in which visitors can share their stories and opinions about real-life daily experiences against a photo-realistic backdrop ranging from streets and cities, communities, restaurants, schools, real estate and the like.” Yes, I’m not crazy about the lingo, but the idea is a cool one: Just try the preview of San Francisco’s Union Square.

Using a Flash-enabled browser you move through the terrain and ground level (in the middle of the street), and then can tilt your view through all angles. You can click on certain markers for more information, or enter certain buildings. You “window shop storefronts as well as tour the inside of those stores, see their offerings, and access published reviews and other information.” You can add content such as “relevant links, personal reviews, rankings” and things like “a “For Rent” sign and an apartment tour.”

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Putting the stuff together doesn’t sound as hard as you would expect. EveryScape’s HyperMedia Technology Platform means anyone with an SLR camera can take pictures and upload them; EveryScape hopes to tap “into local communities and users to assist in building out a visual library of content that will cover the entire world.” A sort of Google Earth at ground level.

Great idea, though of course you can imagine there’ll be a lot of commercial elements to all this. It’s hard to imagine ordinary Joes allowed to plaster streets with their virtual graffiti or anything else that gets in the way of advertising opportunities. The only other concern I have off the top of my head is that Google Earth made some of us wonder whether, after seeing every corner of the globe from a bird’s wing, we’d feel the same urge to travel. Now, after wandering the virtual streets of San Francisco, would we lose our wanderlust?

EveryScape plans to launch 10 U.S. metropolitan areas this year.

From the Ashes of Blue Frog

The Blue Frog may be no more,  but the vigilantes are. Seems that despite the death of Blue Security in the face of a spammer’s wrath, the service has built an appetite for fighting back. Eric B. Parizo of SearchSecurity.com reports on a new independent group called Okopipi who intend “to pick up where Blue Security left off by creating an open source, peer-to-peer software program that automatically sends “unsubscribe” messages to spammers and/or reports them to the proper authorities.”

Okopipi has already merged with a similar effort known as Black Frog and has recruited about 160 independent programmers, who are dissecting the open source code from Blue Security’s Blue Frog product. The idea seems to be the same: automatically sending opt-out requests to Web sites referenced in received spam messages, the idea is to over-burden the spammer’s servers (or those of the product he’s advertising) as a deterrence and incentive to register with Okopipi. By registering he can cleanse his spam list of Okopipi members.

Some tweaks seem to be under consideration: Processing will take place on users’ machines and then on a set of servers which will be hidden to try to prevent the kind of denial-of-service attack that brought down Blue Frog.

Possible problems: I noticed that some of the half million (quite a feat, when you think about it) Blue Frog users were quite, shall we say, passionate about the endeavour. These are the kind of folk now switching to Okopipi. This, then, could become an all-out war in which a lot of innocent bystanders get burned. The Internet is a holistic thing; if Denial of Service attacks proliferate, it may affect the speed and accessibility of a lot of other parts of it, as the Blue Frog experience revealed. (TypePad was inaccessible for several hours.)

Another worry: Richi Jennings, an analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research, points out on Eric’s piece that project organizers must ensure that spammers don’t infiltrate the effort and plant backdoor programs within the software. “If I’m going to download the Black Frog application,” Jennings said, “I want to be sure that the spammers aren’t inserting code into it to use my machine as a zombie.” I guess this would happen if spammers signed up for the service and then fiddled with the P2P distributed Black Frog program.

Another problem, pointed out by Martin McKeay, a security professional based in Santa Rosa, Calif., that spammers will quickly figure out that the weak link in all this is it rests on the idea of a legitimate link in the email for unsubscribing, and that spammers will just include a false link in there. Actually I thought the link Blue Frog used wasn’t unsubscribe (which is usually fake, since if it wasn’t would then pull the spammer back within the law) but the purchase link. How, otherwise, would folks be able to buy their Viagra?

One element I’d like to understand better is the other weakness in the Blue Frog system: That however the process is encrypted, spammers can easily see who are members of the antispam group by comparing their email lists before and after running it through the Blue Frog/Black Frog list. Any member who is on the spammer’s list will now be vulnerable to the kind of mass email attack that Blue Frog’s destroyer launched. How is Okopipi going to solve that one?

Cellphone Bubbles And The Virtual Tribe

Looking for something else on the Net I stumbled upon this five-year-old piece from Jonathan Rowe in Washington Monthly, Reach Out And Annoy Someone. Some good stuff in there, but I particularly liked some stuff he wrote about Hong Kong, about the ‘lonely bubble’ of the cellphone user in public:

And what does that suggest about where this “communications revolution” is taking us? When I was in Hong Kong a year and a half ago, it was becoming a cell-phone hell. The official statistics said there was one phone for every two people, but it often felt like two for one. They were everywhere; the table scenes in the splendid food courts in the high rise malls were San Francisco to the second or third power. At a table with four people, two or three might be talking on the phone. You’d see a couple on a date, and one was talking on the phone.

In a way I could understand the fixation. Hong Kong is crowded almost beyond belief. It makes parts of Manhattan feel like Kansas, and I suspect that a cell phone offers an escape, a kind of crack in space. It is an entrance to a realm in which you are the center of attention, the star. Access becomes a status symbol in itself. A lawyer friend of mine there described the new ritual at the start of business meetings. Everyone puts their cell phone on the conference table, next to their legal pad, almost like a gun. My power call against yours, gweilo (Chinese for foreigner; literally “ghost”). The smallest ones are the most expensive, and therefore have the most status.

Some things are different now: the coolest cellphones are not small, they’re flat. And in a way not talking on the cellphone is cooler than talking on it. (Everyone now has a phone, so the actual talking-to-show-you-have-a-phone thing is superfluous. Silence is cool again.)

And the ‘cellphone bubble’ is not so much about status as about being part of a ‘virtual tribe’: Wherever you are, you have an ally you can count on to talk to, yanking you out of the fear of being alone, or of having to communicate to those around you, of having to participate.

It’s turned society on its head. No longer do we congregate to define ourselves. We do so via ‘virtual tribes’ that exist in a kind of telephonic continuum, via voice and SMS, as we wander around, largely isolated from the physical world around us.

Sparking The Wi-Fi Revolution

Glancing at the charts on JiWire’s newlook website of the top 10 Wi-Fi countries and cities, I wondered whether it was worth taking a closer look at the figures to see if there’s any conclusions we could draw about the wireless revolution.

The figures only include those commercially available hotspots, as far as I can figure out. But they’re still interesting. In sheer numbers London Wifi london is way ahead with more than 1,200 hotspots, followed by Tokyo (904) Wifi tokyo and New York (851) Wifi ny. But all these cities are different sizes. How about hotspots per capita? Taking populations of the metropolitan areas of these cities things look a bit different.

If the figures are correct, then Paris has by far the most hotspots Wifi paris with about 35 per 100,000 people, followed by London Wifi london 2 with about 17 and Singapore Wifi singapore with just under 16. Of U.S. cities, Chicago Wifi chicago comes out ahead of New York Wifi ny 2 and San Francisco Wifi sf.

Aware that by looking at metropolitan areas only these results may be distorted a little, I looked at JiWire’s country figures. The U.S. is way ahead in terms of numbers Wifi us with more than 24,000 hotspots. The UK has less than half that Wifi uk with Japan the only Asian country putting in an appearance Wifi japan in the top 10. But what about when the ‘Hotspot Per 100,000 People’ rule is applied?

Once again things look different. Switzerland, with only 1,300 hotspots, has more than 17 per 100,000 people Wifi swiss which is about the same level of access Londoners have. Indeed, the whole of the UK appears to be pretty well provided for: With nearly 10,000 hotspots, there are more or less the same number of hotspots per 100,000 throughout the country as there are in the capital Wifi uk 2. Elsewhere the picture is less impressive: The U.S. falls into third place Wifi us 2 with exactly half the ratio of hotspots in the UK with Germany Wifi germany France Wifi france and Australia Wifi australia trailing behind. Japan, with less than two hotspots per 100,000 people Wifi japan 2 is clearly not worth traveling around with a Wifi laptop as aren’t Italy Wifi italy and Spain Wifi spain.

And finally, without wanting to be biased, the ‘country’ chart doesn’t include Hong Kong and Singapore, both of them separate adminstrative entities that happen also to be cities. Given that, they both put in a good performance in the ‘country’ chart too, with Singapore Wifi singapore 2 coming only slightly behind Switzerland and UK and Hong Kong Wifi hong kong 2 roughly on a par with Germany.

Conclusion? Looking for a Wifi-friendly place to live outside the U.S.? Try the UK or Switzerland in Europe, and Singapore in Asia.

WSJ.com – Russian Sites Sell Song Downloads For Pennies, But Are They Legal?

Good piece today on WSJ.com by Vauhini Vara about the legality Russian MP3 download sites like allofmp3.com: Russian Sites Sell Song Downloads For Pennies, But Are They Legal? (subscription only).

Vauhini quotes lawyers as saying “buying music from the sites is as illegal as downloading it for free over a file-swapping network. “It doesn’t matter if somebody downloads in the U.S. and believes that it’s legal because the site tells them so,” says Evan Cox, an intellectual property lawyer at the firm Covington & Burling in San Francisco.” Elsewhere in the story, Vauhini quotes Peter Necarsulmer, president of the Coalition for Intellectual Property Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based group that watches copyright-related activity in Russia as saying: “Russian legislation is the same as the rest of the world…Therefore, placing music on a Web page without the author’s permission is, of course, illegal.”

The problem, according to Vauhini, is that going after the services “could be difficult. “You’d have to subpoena the sites to get their records, and if they’re operated out of Russia, it may not be such an easy task,” says Michael S. Poster, a corporate and entertainment lawyer at Katten Muchin Zavis Rosenman in New York.”

Could The Fake Beheading Have Been Proven Earlier?

I know it’s easy to be smart after the event, but were there enough clues on the Internet for journalists to have figured out the Benjamin Vanderford video was a fake before AP and others published the news?

There were some clues, at least. From the video we were able to know his name and his home town, even his home address. From that checks on Google would have thrown up the following at the very least:

  • Him, or someone with the same name, was running for office:  A piece on The Examiner website on May 31 mentions “Benjamin Vanderford, 22-year-old political independent, musician and video-game programmer” as being a District 4 candidate and a member of something called the Candidates Collaborative.
  • sfbulldog, an online resource for politics and the arts, also mentions Vanderford, or someone with the same name on May 22, who was, according to the author H Brown, “smarter than me (not saying a lot, I know) … has great web site and hell of a sense of humor. Fine young writer. A future in politics if he’s serious and could shock everyone if his web site catches on.” Unfortunately the website address mentioned is not cited. (It was possibly this one, mentioned on the Northeast Intelligence Network in its early assessment of the video but not cited. The link itself is no longer active.)

Already, however, we’re getting a picture of someone who seems likely to be the Vanderford in question, since he’s from that town, appears to be the same age, and is the only Benjamin Vanderford in San Francisco area. He’s also a guy with a sense of humour, running for office, smart and with a website worth checking out. What’s he doing in Iraq, and why is there no mention of that fact?

That, I suspect, should be enough. Did any journalists try calling his home to confirm? Vanderford says he had circulated the video on P2P networks such as KaZaA for several weeks. Would a savvy journalist have been aware of this? Perhaps not. But as the The San Francisco Chronicle points out, usually material which is gathered from the Internet carries qualifying phrases. But this time the fact that the video had appeared on a Islamic website that has in the past posted communiques and videos from Islamic radical groups appeared to be enough to convince several news agencies to go ahead.

Bottom line: Any material that appears on the Internet should be checked, wherever it appears. In this case, with the guy’s name and address so clearly stated, it would seem to make sense to make some rudimentary checks first before announcing he has been killed.

Wi-Fi For The Masses

I’ve been working on a story about Wi-Fi for the masses in Asia (it will be appearing in this week’s Far Eastern Economic Review; I’ll post a snippet when it comes online), looking at how Wi-Fi is opening up all sorts of opportunities to leap over the traditional problems of the rural and urban poor in this part of the world: A lack of basic infrastructure, such as roads and phone lines. It’s a great topic with some inspring characters turning talk into action.

As a follow-up, here’s an interesting piece from Robert X. Cringely, who last week pointed out that with an all-in-one router costing about $70 you could become your neighbourhood’s own wireless ISP. This week Robert chronicles (via Applied Abstractions) the things that have happened since he wrote the piece. Those include at least one guy who has, since the article apppeared, followed Robert’s advice and is running an ISP in San Francisco. Good stuff, but it was just the start.

Moments later,” Robert goes on,  ”the Chinese called, and that’s when it became clear to me that this wireless stuff is simply ideal for a high-density, low-income urban culture like that found in China. Throw a wireless router in every Chinese Internet café and you’d bring phone service and Internet to hundreds of thousands of people practically overnight. Add a little mesh networking as described last week, and the number of people served could be increased by an order of magnitude.”

Indeed. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t have computers and don’t have Internet connections. Wi-Fi is the best news for them in years.

Marketers Baffled By Spam Laws

This new spam law, so far, is taking us nowhere.

A new survey conducted by email marketing service Blue Sky Factory reckons that nearly half of email marketers aren’t sure whether the stuff they send out is compliant and more than half admit that they do not understand the new U.S. laws (called, catchily but inaccurately, CAN-SPAM). Marketers, needless to say, aren’t happy: almost 40 percent do not believe the new laws will have a positive influence on the online relationship between businesses and their consumers. (A PDF version of the survey is available here.)

This seems to be the prevailing view at a conference in San Francisco, where WIRED reports that a lot of folk are nervous, since the law carries heavy penalties not just against marketers but the folk selling the product they’re peddling. This may be no bad thing, of course: The story quotes someone from dating site Date.com as saying his company now has a “a strict policy on privacy and bulk e-mailing” in place. Others complain that the law gives too much leeway to Internet Service Providers to block stuff that looks like spam, so they find that their emails are getting stopped even when they’re complying with CAN-SPAM.

Nowhere, so far, is mentioned the alternative: RSS. To me it seems a logical step. RSS feeds don’t get blocked, control over receiving or not receiving is in the hands of the reader, and it’s cool. Get with the program, email marketers.

News: Segway’s First Hit And Run

 A Segway rider in San Francisco hit a 3-year-old girl while riding — illegally — on one of the city’s sidewalks, ABC reports. The man fled the scene (on his Segway).
 
 
The police says it expects to be able to quickly track down the suspect by contacting Segway, and obtaining a list of San Francisco Segway owners. Apparently there aren’t that many.