Category Archives: Computing

More about Google in China

In follow up to yesterday’s Gmao post about Google’s compromised search results for the Chinese government, here’s a little scary comparison of historical denial:

In Tiananmen Square in 1989 there was a spontaneous student protest against the oppressive government. The protest itself was then violently disbanded by armed troops, including the use of tanks, with an unknown number of resulting deaths (between 400 and 7000, depending on your source). This is considered to be one of the worst atrocities committed by the People’s Republic of China, although it is possible that it is instead just the most public one. I’d like to think that things have improved since then, with increased relations with the rest of the world leading to a society with a more flexible structure, but there are still serious and significant problems there. Clearly it would be desirable then for the people of China to have wider access to information, which is why there is such an issue over Google trimming its search results to government-ideologically approved websites.

So, here’s a scary example of what this produces:

The most famous symbol of the Tiananmen protest is ‘tank man’, otherwise known as ‘the unknown rebel’.

There he is, many, many times. Let’s have a look on the Chinese version of Google:

Just as the real man has vanished (some say executed in the following months, some say he’s in hiding in central China), so has all trace of his landmark protest. He was voted by Time magazine as being one of the 100 most important people in the 20th century, but in China he just doesn’t exist. In politics as with people, denial is never a healthy thing.

Pointed out here.

Google have gone too far!

House International Relations Subcommittee, subcommittee chairman Chris Smith recently said that Google ‘would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck’. ‘Enable evil’? It makes it sound like an option in your operating system… You go to your start menu, open the control panel, then in the I.O. menu (Ideological Orientation) click ‘evil’. Yes, China does have some very, very serious human rights issues, and I agree with Smith’s general view, but does he have to sound like a George W. Bush clone? He is a Republican, but, just because his leader is incapable of thinking in anything other than a Manichean good/evil binary, that’s no reason that he should do this too.


Milliondollarhomepage attacked

You have probably heard about milliondollarhomepage. It’s one of those moments that every web-developer says ‘I wish I’d thought of that’. The guy was selling advertising in perpetuity on the web for one dollar per-pixel. Weirdly, it worked, and they’ve all sold. That much was reported around the world.

The new bit is that he’s been receiving blackmail threats for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that would take down his site. Sure enough, a group has gone ahead and done this. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s a bit sad to hear that as soon as a person makes a success they then get attacked by others wanting to steal from them. Currently the site is struggling to stay online after the attack, but it will return again in the future.


Mata: the new Liam Neeson

I’ve been having a fun five minutes with a PC-only download called Star Estimator. You pick a picture from your hard-drive, choose the gender and point to where the eyes are, press ‘start’, and off it goes to compare your picture to the ones of ‘stars’ stored on its server. After trying this with two different images I discovered that on average I look most like Liam Neeson:

Mata looks like Liam Neeson

He’s a bit old, but I’m not disappointed with the comparison. I’ve no idea who that ‘Matthew’ bloke is, but he looks vaguely familiar. I’ll stick with trusting the second suggestions more because they’re taken from a better photo 😀 I’m quite happy about the Stephen Dorff comparison too…

Well, as you do, I then tried the female comparison:

Mata as a female star

I don’t know who Monica Keena is, and I doubt she’d like the comparision, but I see where they’re going with that one. How odd.

So this got me thinking:

Samurai Lapin looks like Hugh Grant!

Samurai Lapin looks like Hugh Grant! Well, he does have a British accent…

LGG looks like...

The Little Goth Girl looks like a cross between Shannen Doherty and Linda Evangelista. I’d always suspected as much. I had them in mind when I was drawing her, can’t you tell? It’s the curves.

Mittens looks like...

Mittens looks like Keanu Reeves. Actually, I can see what they mean on that one.

Mr Snaffleburger looks like...

Mr Snaffleburger looks like a cross between Ashton Kutcher and Michael Caine. Err… No, I don’t really see that one myself.

And finally, because I had an image floating around on my hard-drive:

Christian Bale is the Nine Mouthed Baby!

Christian Bale is the Nine Mouthed Baby! That’s going to traumatise several people that I know, including my girlfriend. Mwahahaha!

Have fun!

Fun screensavers and desktops

Fancy having other people’s dirty confessions streamed to your desktop? (they get bonus points for making a Mac version too)

Here’s the one that I have as my desktop wallpaper:

Earthwatcher creates a new image of the earth, as seen from space, every twenty minutes. It’s really quite humbling to watch as the lights come on along the Trans-Siberian railway. As I write this the sun is going down in east India. This was mentioned by a person on my forums last summer and I’ve loved it ever since.

Of course, if you want to do something good with your spare PC runtime then get the FightAIDS@Home screensaver/distributed processing software:

Download it from here
(Currently Windows and Linux only. No plans for the Mac have been mentioned.)

Once you’re set up you can click this link and join the Matazone team so we can see how we’re doing together! Currently there are seven members of the team and we are ranked 1,072 in the world for our collective contribution to the study of AIDs and illnesses related to the human genome.

More info on that one here.

2005-and-a-bit & Spam maths

This year we’re getting a leap second added on to the final day to account for a something to do with the earth’s rotation. I’m not quite sure what precisely, but boffin-type people seem to know what they’re talking about so I’ll leave them to it. Apparently the important clocks of the world will tick over to 23:59:60 before moving on to 00:00:00.

On related ‘end of the year’ stuff, AOL say that spam email these days is usually scams about money, such as fake mortgage offers, and drugs for sex or painkillers. I’m not sure if this means that porn has become old fashioned, or perhaps it’s just the evolution of the internet that more money can be scammed in other ways. Apparently 8 out of 10 emails going through their system are junk, which seems about right when compared to the amount that I get that are usually offering me junk bonds, some drug called Cialis (whatever that may be), and fake Rolex watches (with ‘98% Perfectly Accurate Markings’!)… And that’s with junk filters turned on at my server. Ho hum.

AOL say that they are blocking 1.5 billion spam messages every day, so with the extra second that’s been added to 2005 there will be another 17,361 spam emails blocked. Now that’s what I call a happy new year.

Email is better than drugs*

*if you are in organised crime.

Yep, apparently last year computer related crime, covering such nasties as corporate espionage, child pornography, stock manipulation, extortion, and piracy, generated more income for the criminals than the sales of illegal drugs. Together it is thought to have made $105 billion, that’s around £65 billion. Blimey.

Well, sort-of-blimey. This would be a great story if it wasn’t for the simple question of how on earth they calculated these amounts. The point of crime is that it’s hidden from authorities and as such they might be catching 5% or 95% of the criminals without ever really knowing for sure.

I love the next bit though:

Asked if there was evidence of links between the funding of terrorism and cybercrime, McNiven said: “There is evidence of links between them. But what’s more important is our refusal or failure to create secure systems, we can do it but it’s an issue of costs.”

Of course there would be evidence of links between them. There’s always evidence of links between anything naughty and terrorism these days. Funny that, isn’t it? Could it be that this is just a way of scaring people and trying to justify government funding? Oo, perhaps.

Let’s also look at that list: ‘corporate espionage’ that’s got to be a fairly specialist market there, child porn is seriously nasty and I can’t imagine (and I certainly hope) that there are very few people involved with that, then tacked on at the end of the list we have ‘piracy’. Hm. Bearing in mind the competing definitions of piracy that could potentially be almost every person who has ever used any sort of media. Lending a CD to a friend could be classed as piracy, by some company’s perspectives, and the amount of non-licensed copies of Micro$oft Windows floating around is astonishing although clearly that really is piracy. On the list you’ve got some significant but essentially small, organised markets, and then a huge group that probably covers most computer owners in the world. I can’t help but feel that skews things a little.

We all know that ‘cybercrime’ is a problem, but this kind of story is just scaremongering: yes! Lend that CD to your friend and you let the terrorists win!

Am I the only person who, on hearing the word ‘cybercrime’, envisions a devious looking robot that’s twizzling a 1920s silent-film bad guy moustache?

Source here.

Fight AIDS with your PC

You may have heard of SETI@home, a distributed computing project that allowed people over the world to let their computer use its spare processing cycles to help analyse radio signals from deep space in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Now there’s a similar project that’s working on something a bit more practical: finding a treatment for HIV/AIDS.

It’s very easy to download and install and does research into genes and an illness that is killing millions around the world.

Download it from here
(Currently Windows and Linux only. No plans for the Mac have been mentioned.)

Once you’re set up you can click this link:

and join the Matazone team so we can see how we’re doing together!

More info here.

$ony agrees to exchange any infected CDs

Back in the world of the Ditigal Rights Management (DRM) software put on CDs by $ony, which turned out to change deep-files in your operating system and exposes it to trojan infection, $ony have now agreed to run an exchange program for CDs containing the DRM software. The wording on the page is wonderful:

You may be aware of the recent attention given to the XCP content protection software included on some SONY BMG CDs. This software was provided to us by a third-party vendor, First4Internet. Discussion has centered on security concerns raised about the use of CDs containing this software.

We share the concerns of consumers regarding these discs.

Let’s rephrase that into normal English:

You may be aware of the recent attention given to the XCP rootkit software that we installed on your PC without telling you and that can be found on all recent SONY BMG CDs. This software was provided to us by a third-party vendor, First4Internet, so we are pretending that we didn’t really know what it did. Discussion has centered on security concerns raised about the use of CDs containing this software. We are avoiding stating that we knew that it hides its own files and alters a PC’s configuration, as well as the fact that it could not be removed without specialist knowledge at the risk of breaking the entire operating system.

We share the concerns of our lawyers regarding these discs.

I think that’s a bit more accurate.

Getting to grips with the $ony rootkit

$ony have halted the inclusion of what is being called the ‘XCP virus’ on its CDs after the number of legal problems that it’s facing increases.

EFF has put out a guide to how to spot if your CDs contain XCP. That site has a list of 19 of the 20 titles that $ony have put this trojan onto, but, as is pointed out in Geoffrey McCaleb’s blog, the official number of 20 is being spoken in legalese: $ony might only have released 20 CDs containing the rootkit, but $ony subsidiary companies currently have 47 titles (that have been found so far). For a list of the titles currently identified, check out his blog post.

$ony says that this problem is only on CDs sold in the US, but, with the international market being what it is, it wouldn’t be surprising if this is a global problem. $ony are being invetigated by the Italian police for distributing malicious code, so at least one other country is taking legal action other than the US.

Currently there doesn’t appear to be an easy solution to removing the software, but Mirco$oft have decided that the code does indeed count as spyware so will be releasing an addition to their anti-spyware software in the next month (source) and other spyware comapanies such as Sophos say that they will have a removal system in place inside a week.

‘Have you heard of DRM?’, or ‘Back to $ony’

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Essentially this is a system that is set up to prevent you copying CDs on a PC. Sometimes this stops you from being able to rip the tracks to an MP3 player, but mostly it’s about restricting what you can do with the music that you have legally paid for. As you can probably guess from my tone, it’s not something I’m a big fan of.

Many years ago, manufacturers took a group of individuals to court because they had cracked the DVD encryption system. The manufacturers argued that doing this was an aspect of computer piracy and was therefore illegal. The silly thing is that you don’t need to crack encryption to copy a DVD; you just need to copy the information. Cracking the encryption really makes no difference to the whole process. The people were being prosecuted for being inquisitive about something that they had legally purchased in shops.

This brings us back to DRM, because the issue is what rights do you have to use the things that you own? If DRM is correct then the company still owns the music that you have bought from them because of the format it’s recorded in: if you want to listen in a different format then you need to buy it in a different format. Hm.

So, Sony have produced a little bit of software on their CDs that installs itself in your machine without telling you when you listen to it on a Micro$oft Windows PC (I’m not sure if this is also the case for Mac owners, but generally they get away with most things like this). This bit of software makes certain files invisible to the user and operates without the user’s knowledge to filter content that is played on that machine. If it thinks you’re doing something that it doesn’t want you to then it will prevent you from doing it. It hides all files that start with $sys$ so that the user and other programs can’t locate them. This behaviour is commonly associated with another type of software called a ‘rootkit’.

A rootkit is a piece of malicious code that integrates itself with the Windows operating system to hide itself and any other files that it fancies running, such as trojans and viruses. Rootkits are really nasty pieces of work and notoriously hard to remove. Guess what? There is currently no known way to remove the Sony rootkit and current methods will break Windows to such a degree that you have to wipe your entire hard drive and start again. This is some bad hoodoo.

To summarise what we’ve got so far: Sony have published a piece of software that automatically hides files on your computer on the basis of their file name, that destroys your machine and all files on it if you try to remove it, and apparently this is legal.

Installing a rootkit on a machine is quite tricky, but once you’re there you own it completely and can run whatever you want without the system ever knowing.

It was only a matter of time before the next step happened, but, now that Sony are kindly installing rootkits on their customers’ machines without their consent, a trojan has appeared that gives itself the file name $sys$drv.exe in the Windows directory, and anyone with the Sony rootkit installed won’t be able to see it while their machine is merrily used for distributing junk email, recording credit card numbers typed into websites, or simply sending out any files stored on your machine such as website passwords.

Congratulations Sony, through your dedicated interest in preserving your own profits to the massive detriment of your customers, you have once again re-earned your appellation ‘$ony’. And they were doing so well

The trouble is, because $ony have made the rootkit, it’s uncertain whether blocking it is an illegal act. Anti-virus software manufacturers know that this software is a problem that essentially mugs a computer and leaves it bleeding in the gutter, but they also know that DRM companies have a strong history of over-zealous litigation and extremely deep pockets. So what do you do? Protect your clients’ machines and risk bankruptcy or allow the rootkit to be installed and struggle to find a way to overcome the massively exposed system flaws that it creates?

A little more about the trojan here.