Russian Hacking

The media is overly excited about the Russian hacking using the SolarWinds update process.

First, was it Russia?  It seems likely that it was Russia, but not certain.  Anyone who is good enough to develop the SolarWinds hack would be smart enough to cover his tracks.  He may not have covered them perfectly, and we may be able to track down the hacker, but he may also have successfully covered his tracks.  He could be a Chinese hacker who copied the trademark signatures of the Russian hackers and who routed his hacks through Russian servers or websites.  It could be a hacker anywhere who did the same thing.  It requires computer expertise, but there are a lot of computer geniuses out there, including in the Middle East and Latin America.  I am surprised that no one has mentioned Edward Snowden in connection with the hacking.  He is a computer genius living in Russia who knows American computer security extremely well.  Is it possible that the Russians have gotten some help from him?

Second, I think that whatever this was, it was not an attack or the start of a war.  It looks more like intelligence gathering and testing of hacking techniques.  The test worked pretty well, since it went undetected for six months, but of course there may be other hacks out there that have been even more successful and have still not been detected.  In any case, nothing major has been damaged.  They have not even emulated the ransomware hackers, who have captured and held important data from hospitals and government offices for ransom.  They have not shut down the electric grid or turned off the water or sewage treatment in any cities.

I doubt that the hackers knew exactly what organizations they were going to be hacking into.  They knew that SolarWinds had lots of important clients, but they probably weren’t sure exactly which ones they would end up getting access to.  They may have succeeded far beyond their expectations, or it might have gone exactly as planned.  We don’t know.  Were their main targets government agencies, or private companies?  We don’t know.  The fact that the hackers did not steal money indicates to me that they were probably government-backed, and not private citizens hacking for fun and profit.

Sen. Mitt Romney compared the hack to the US invasion of Iraq, when we took out many of Iraq’s communications hubs with our missiles.  I do not think this is an appropriate comparison.  The hackers did not use their weapons, if indeed they have weapons that could bring down facilities in the US.  It was like developing and demonstrating new missiles, putting the enemy on notice that you have these capabilities and can use them if you choose to.  But they (whoever they are) have not chosen to.  But just as Saddam should have been wary of provoking the US, we should beware of provoking these hackers.

As nations develop new weapons they often turn to arms control to prevent the new weapons from leading to war.  We don’t have much experience with arms control type agreements for computer hacking, but some of the same principles apply, like Reagan’s maxim, “Trust buy verify.”  I am not sure how you verify an agreement to control hacking.  Bombs and missiles usually need to be tested in the open, where detection by satellites or other means is often possible.  Hackers can experiment on their own internal networks, which may be difficult or impossible for outsiders to monitor.  Of course the best test would be to see if you can penetrate the actual defenses of the country or business you might want to attack in the future.

Nevertheless, arms control agreements are like speed limits.  Not everyone obeys them, but they set standards of behavior and provide a basis for at least discussing violations, if not definitively proving and punishing them.

Another complication is non-state actors who hack for their own personal purposes.  It is a lot easier for an individual or small group to hack into a network than it would be for them to develop a bomb or missile.  Governments have developed systems for dealing with violent terrorists that are different from those for dealing with other governments.  We already have criminal penalties for individual hackers although they may be hard to apply to hackers operating from foreign countries.

I think it is worthwhile to begin discussions of some kind of arms control agreement covering hacking to get some idea of what’s possible and what’s not.  In an ideal world leading tech countries would work together to control individual bad actors and well as to monitor each other’s conduct.

5G Cellphone Upgrade

The 5G upgrade still has a long way to go.  This Wired article explains that 5G operates in three different radio frequency ranges, basically low, medium, and high.  The real, revolutionary changes expected from 5G really come from use of the high frequency ranges, in the millimeter band.  The higher the frequency, the higher the rate of data transmission, and 5G is all about fast data.

The problem is that shorter wavelengths have shorter ranges and cannot penetrate much of anything, like walls.  To get the higher speeds, there would have to be cell towers very close together, many more than we have now, and very close to the people using their phones.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the new cell towers are already running into resistance as they are installed across the US.  The Journal also reports that in one of the countries most wired for 5G, South Korea, it doesn’t work that well.  One place 5G is supposed to be available is in NFL stadiums. This is partly because there are no walls blocking spectators off from the 5G cell transmitters.  Even there, it sounds like the coverage is not universal, as Venturebeat reports.

5G will probably work in the lower, slower parts of the new 5G wavelength spectrum, but that does not offer the quantum leap in capability that the high end offers.  And you wonder, if 5G receptivity is spotty, can you depend on it to drive your AI car?   Venturebeat reports that Qualcomm has doubled its 5G mmWave range to 2.36 miles for broadband modems, but the announcement says it is specific to broadband modems, not to smartphones.  Current 5G might be more suitable to small, compact facilities, like college campuses or industrial parks, rather than to general public use.  Perhaps further breakthroughs in mmWave technology will make it more generally available.

 

Dreamweaver FTP Connection

I have been using an old version of Adobe Dreamweaver to edit the code for my websites. Suddenly it quit working. Standalone FTP programs like FileZilla and Coffee Cup FTP worked. I tried changing all the Dreamweaver settings I could think of, but nothing worked. I found other Dreamweaver users had the same or a similar problem:

Dreamweaver 9/CS3 FTP stopped working, cannot connect any more

FTP Errpr in Adobe Dreamweaver

This question had no working answers, but as some of these answers suggested, I contacted my web hosting company WebHosting Pad.com, and they gave me the answer. I had not changed the FTP settings for weeks, maybe months, before the FTP quit working. The answer to the question, “What folder on the server do you want to store your files in?” had been /home/me/public_html. It turns out that the correct entry was only public_html, without the folders above it.

A Book DataBase

I have posted a new website, A Book DataBase, (abkdb.com) that uses MySQL, PHP, HTML, Bootstrap, and other coding to catalog the books in a personal library.  If it works correctly, since I am still testing it, it should allow you to log in, enter, list, edit, or delete books that will be associated with your login ID.

I will keep working on it to try to make it more attractive and easier to use.

You are welcome to try it out.

OneDrive Is Poorly Designed

I found Microsoft OneDrive to be poorly designed.  I have Word 365 that I pay for every month to run in the cloud or on my PC, but I have found that OneDrive is not backing up the Word files from the folder that Word automatically puts them in.  I am changing my OneDrive settings to see if I can make it back up the files that Word creates, but it is pretty bad that the designers of Word and OneDrive did not work together.

I can’t tell either from my PC folders or from the OneDrive website exactly what OneDrive is doing with my files.  Often I can’t rename folders or delete them. I have found SyncBack and SecondBackup to be easy to use, logical and reliable, unlike OneDrive.

I have given up trying to use OneDrive in the way that I thought it was intended.  I will continue to work on files in the folder that I want to work with on my C: drive.  It doesn’t look like OneDrive will automatically back it up; so, I will use SyncBack to back it up to OneDrive, which apparently will just act as an external hard drive.

Facebook’s Libra versus Bitcoin

Facebook has announced that it will introduce the Libra cryptocurrency, which will be pegged to several international currencies and will be backed by several well known financial organizations, including Visa and Mastercard.  It appears to be something like a cryptocurrency dollar.  Bitcoin is more like cryptocurrency gold.  It has no set value, but it does a limit on how many Bitcoins can ever exist, making it more like gold, something whose supply is limited and that has a value depending mainly on how much people are willing to pay for it.  Thus, the value of the Libra should be fairly steady, while the value of Bitcoin may vary wildly.

A story in the Verge examines some of the downsides of Libra.  One of the first questions is whether the Libra will work at all.  It seems likely that it will, but its blockchain technology is different from Bitcoin’s.  Bitcoin’s chain is basically open to the world, allowing anyone to create a block in the Bitcoin chain through “mining,” i.e., using computers to create identifiers for the blocks.  It sounds like only a few insiders will be allowed to maintain the Libra blockchain, and that the Libra blockchain may not be a chain at all, but just one big block.

The most serious problem, however, may be privacy.  Facebook is notorious for ignoring privacy concerns, and if users use Libra, Facebook may have access to everything a Facebook user buys, enormously increasing Facebook’s power to target ads, alert sellers to who is looking for their product, report how much money users have and spend, and expand other invasions of privacy that Facebook users already see every day.

Bitcoin’s main early use was to pay for illegal transactions, such as buying drugs.  Hackers have used it because it is supposed to be untraceable to individual users, although the Mueller Report apparently was able to track some Bitcoin payments back to Russian hackers.  Still it is frequently used, most recently by hackers who encrypt important data for cities or hospitals, and then demand ransom in Bitcoin to restore it.

If Facebook tried to protect users’ identity, it could make it even easier for criminals to transfer money for activities like drug dealing, but also in huge amounts for money laundering.  The US government requires banks to release certain information about account holders’ identities and transactions to search for money laundering.  Would Facebook have to meet the same requirements?

Despite the downsides, it seems likely that the Libra will be widely accepted and used.  What then will be the implications for central banks like the Federal Reserve.  Much of their operation depends on increasing or decreasing the money supply. To what extent would the Libra be outside of their control and limit their power to regulate the economy?  Many Bitcoin users are techies who dislike government in general.  They like the idea that it is unregulated and uncontrolled except by the market.  For government regulation, will Libra be more like the dollar or more like Bitcoin?

Here is an additional explanation of Libra from the British version of Wired.  https://www.wired.co.uk/article/facebook-libra-currency-replacing-cash.    

Bitcoin & Blockchain

The excitement over bitcoin and blockchain is overblown.  Blockchain may be a relatively secure way of storing information about transactions, but it is not cost-free.  The electricity and computing power used to create blockchains is expensive.  If you are tracking something that is very valuable, it may be worthwhile. but otherwise, the expense of creating the blockchain may it unreasonable to use blockchain.

Several sources (Morgan Stanley, CNBC)   say the breakeven point for mining Bitcoin is about $8,000 to $8,600.  Currently, the price of Bitcoin would not cover the cost of mining it in most places in America.  It may still be profitable in some places where electric power is really cheap. Another Bitcoin-friendly site puts the cost at just under $5,000.  Where power is cheaper, the cost is much less; in Venezuela, it is only a little over $500.

Blockchain works by creating codes that are hard to break.  The cost comes from the amount of time and computing power needed to break the code and add a transaction as a link in the blockchain.  Presumably, a blockchain could make the code easier to solve, thus requiring less computing power and energy, but then the blockchain would be less secure.  The current Bitcoin-blockchain formula sets an upper limit of 21 million Bitcoins.  Thus, using Bitcoins as currency would be like using gold, or any other item with a finite or limited supply.  The money supply could not keep up with increased production and economic activity, creating deflation.  This was one of the main reason the US dropped the gold standard.

The blockchain concept is not necessarily linked to Bitcoin.  For example, the Litecoin network uses a blockchain formula that requires only 2.5 minutes to create a new block, versus Bitcoin’s 10 minutes.  Litecoin can accommodate up to 84 million coins, versus Bitcoin’s 21 million.

Apple’s Lack of Innovation

Apple’s new hardware and software is less than overwhelming for the iPhone and iPad, as well as the Mac.  Apple hardware is still good, but the difference between Apple and other brands is no longer as great as it used to be.  Perhaps the most glaring is the failure to build a Mac with a real touchscreen.  My wife, who uses her iPhone and iPad all the time, has difficulty using the mouse pad on my Mac when I try to show her something on it.  Apple should make a Mac that has a touchscreen that works just like an iPad and that will run iOS apps made for the iPhone and iPad.  From advertising, it looks like the Microsoft Surface has beaten Apple in this race, although I have never used a Surface.  I’m not sure exactly what features it has, but has certainly ended the perception that Apple is on the leading edge of technology.

Apple hardware is still among the best, but it is not without difficulties.  Highlighted is the inability to easily replace batteries or upgrade memory.  The iPhone is the most obvious, because weak older batteries have prevented older iPhones from running new software well.  Apple’s decision to slow down older iPhones certainly points to Apple shortcomings, whether in hardware, and in sales techniques, since it looks like Apple is forcing users to buy new phones when the phones worked perfectly well with the old software.

Apple has not had any new, exciting features to demonstrate either in hardware or software for the last few years.  Amazon’s Kindle makes Apple’s iBooks look bad as both hardware and software.  It’s hard to find iBooks, and they play on very few devices.  Apparently Apple thinks the people who use their devices are too stupid to read, and only listen to music.  Using facial recognition as a password has turned out to be interesting, but not a game changing development.  The Mac has been a neglected stepchild.  The iPhone is Apple’s bread and butter, but it hasn’t changed that much since it was first introduced.  It’s smarter and more powerful, but the voice features still don’t work well; it’s a better tablet than a phone.  I don’t think that adding emojis and cartoons has made the iPhone more productive, although it has made it more of a toy.

Basically, Apple has become the new Western Electric that builds sturdy, reliable, unimaginative hardware, like the phones that Western Electric built for the old Ma Bell AT&T.  Without Steve Jobs, Apple is just another phone company.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cloud and Mainframes

Yesterday IBM stock was up, apparently because of the success of a new mainframe it has introduced and because of its success in the computer cloud.  To some extent this illustrates how computer technology has fluctuated between centralized computing and stand-alone computing.  

First we had mainframe computers with dumb terminals connected to it by wires.  Then PCs came along, and everybody worked on his own computer at his own desk.  Then PCs began to be networked, so that they could talk to each other and to central database computers.  They could operate as stand-alone computers, or as dumb terminals connected to a mainframe.  Then the PCs shrank down to telephones, which had moderate computing power, but little storage for data nor enough display for complicated documents or data.  The telephones then began to connect to data in the cloud.  The cloud may be a warehouse full of servers, but it is still centralized computing, appearing much like the old mainframe with dumb terminals attached.  If you want to do any meaningful data processing on your phone, you have to connect to some centralized computing facility.  A distributed storage system like blockchain breaks up the central storage facility, but your phone is still pretty useless unless it is connected to some external source of data.  So, it’s not surprising that we are coming full circle back to the old IBM mainframe.  

A lot of the phone’s computer power is spent on internal processing of graphics or artificial intelligence functions, like Siri.  Despite having more computing power than the capsule that went to the moon, phones are still dependent on external computing power, mainly in cloud server farms.