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Space Ritual

12 Feb

I’m not a great lover of Apple products. To me, they’re an over-priced triumph of style over function. Now, I appreciate that not everyone shares that view and they’re entirely entitled to their opinion. You can’t knock that kind of success, right?

Bearing that in mind, I was surprised that a recent announcement from the Cupertino Kids caught my eye. In fact it made me very happy. Having started this waffle off by saying that I’m not an Apple fan I have to admit that I own an iPod. The iPod Classic. No, I didn’t buy it, it was bought for me as a gift and the fact that the most efficient way to manage music on it is through iTunes causes me great pain. You try iTunes for Windows – it’s a horrible piece of software. Anyway.

The great thing that the iPod Classic has going for it is the amount of storage space it has – 160GB on the model I own. It’s about 3/4 full, all music, and has just over 14,000 songs on. When you consider that this includes 30 or 40 minute versions of things like Space Truckin’ and No Quarter (Google them if you don’t know them!) then that’s a lot of vibes, man. An entire music collection that 30 years ago would’ve taken a small room to hold, stored on something that’s about the size of a pack of 20 cigarettes. Do I need to carry 14,000 songs around with me? Am I going to listen to all of them before I get back home again? Obviously not. Don’t be silly. The point here is about choice. I don’t want to sit at home in the evening and load songs onto a low-capacity player, only to get onto a bus the next day and find that I fancy listening to something that’s not on there. If I own music ranging from Abba and Bach to Yost and ZZ Top why should I have to pick and choose in advance?

I hear you – “Spotify“, you cry. “Grooveshark“, said someone. There’s more than a few people there with Amazon Cloud Player placards as well. You can keep ’em. Cloud storage is all very well but it presupposes that I have constant access to some kind of internet connection and that if it’s not a Wifi network that I have a device with a truly unlimited data plan. That’s not always practical, possible or desirable. Internal storage. That’s what I want. Space.

Which brings me back to Apple and my iPod. If you’re looking for a high-capacity media player then your choices are limited. Just check. Go on, do some research. See? The iPod Classic is pretty much your only choice if you want to carry a shitload of music around with you. Fine, so I like that my iPod has deep pockets. The trend recently has been to the cloud. This is why I was so pleased to read that Apple has announced a 128GB version of the fourth generation iPad. Am I going to buy one? Hell, no. I wouldn’t want any kind of tablet computer. My point is that if a major player like Apple (and I’ll concede that that’s what they are) are launching a version of one of their flagship devices with that amount of onboard storage then there’s a fair chance that some of the others might just tag along. There’s a market there, clearly. It ain’t only me!

So, on this occasion, yay for Apple. Now someone bring out a 128gb micro-sd card that’ll go in my phone and I’ll be laughing.

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There is no unlimited

20 May

Lots of UK ISPs offer ADSL (Broadband) packages that have an “unlimited bandwidth” option but this is nowhere near realisticly unlimited. As I have mentioned in “iPlayer and BitTorrent: The truth about so-called unlimited broadband” you are likely to get the same throughput (bandwidth) as a cheaper “limited” package but with a decreased quality to stretch it out over the month. New technologies are exposing this “unlimited” bandwidth and showing us that simply is not there.

“The Ofcom Consumer Panel has called on regulators to pull their fingers out and demand that ISPs are more honest with us about the limitations of broadband.

“The group wants a new mandatory code of practice to force providers to qualify their dodgy ‘up to’ speed claims, which accompany virtually all broadband marketing. The slowdown effects of contention, distance from the exchange, and network status should be made clear, it argues.”

Your “up to” 8 Meg line might run effectively at 4 Meg, or maybe only 64 Kbps and this is within the product description. That “up to” is a way of ISPs promising you everything but then not having to give you anything. If you try to complain that the speed is not as advertised they will tell you that your speed is reliant on the conditions of the cable and your distance from the exchange. What they do not tell you is that if they are unable to provide what they offered you will need a damn good solicitor to sue them for breach of contract because the terms and conditions say that whatever they offer you get whatever you get. Sorry.

The full truth is even more shady. You have no actual way of knowing how fast an effective speed (after network errors, throttles, shaping, resets, delays and network lag are taken into account) you get. Your ISP can choke the effective speed down to save the budgeted bandwidth for business users (who pay better).

In “The truth about so-called unlimited broadband” I examined how the BBC had braught this issue to a head:

If you live in the UK you will be sure to be aware that the BBC (known fondly as Aunty) has launched it’s own peer-to-peer media player. The BBC’s iPlayer uses software called Kontiki (similar to BitTorrent) which also powers “Sky Anytime” and “4od”. This enables the BBC to off set the massive requirements of distributing it’s “free” media by having the consumers take part in providing the stream.

Kontiki is basically a peer-to-peer system and so like BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer programs it sends lots of data accross the network.

Plusnet, according to Bob Pullen from plusnet (see my blog post for more on that), tells me that plusnet do not offer an unlimited package and that they use a “quality of service” system to give priority to things like Aunty’s iPlayer while thier site says peer-to-peer traffic is down at the bottom of the priority list. Take from that what you will.

ISPs have to transmit the packets through their networks and they do not really like it. The issue here is that the previous monopoly (BT) charge ISPs in a bizzar way. When ISPs get connected to the BT network the only cost to BT is the man power and connection equipment. Once it is set up it is effectively cost free but for the ISP the cost is just starting as they are charged for every packet of data that passes through that connection.

This increase in bandwidth usage is not so sudden and should have been easily predictable by the ISPs but they have been caught with their pants down. What they should have been doing is investing heavily in scalable solutions so that as the demand increased so could they. Woops no – they are worried that if you use what you paid for they will go bust.

What ISPs see as an answer is called “traffic shaping” – they throttle the bandwidth so that the connection speed might be 7.5 Mbps but your effective speed is sometimes likely to be more like 0.4 Mbps. When it comes to peer-to-peer they get even more aggressive and attempt to block your use of such services (such as peer-to-peer services iPlayer or BitTorrent) using a range of techniques that can include data fraud and spying. Some ISPs may actually “spy” on every packet of data you transmit through their network and when they see peer-to-peer packets they inject extra data into the steam as it passes through which is a “reset signal” that disconnects you from peers.

This inspection is not so different to automated wiretapping and definitely threatens your privacy. This may or maynot be against the law but this has never been tested. One answer is to use an encrypted connection whenever you can but not all sites have https support and not all peer-to-peer clients support it but as the ISPs get more aggressive in not giving you what they promise so to the users are getting smarter.

This is not an issue that is going to go away and without strong calls for increased transparency over the methods used to “shape traffic” ISPs will do whatever they like. Where does this leave us?

Well… it leaves us asking more questions and seeing few answers. I’m going to quiz Bob as he has stepped up to join in so keep an eye on me here and else where as the answers start to arrive (or fail to).

Why I Must Learn French

16 May

I am thinking that I must learn to speak french. I don’t just mean “Bonjour” and a spattering of phrases I’m talking chattering away in french as if there was nothing to it.

I feel I must because I want the option to get the hell out of the UK when it completes it’s transformation into a nazi state.

They can fingerprint me and record personal data about me if I commit a crime but not otherwise. I do not see a good reason to hand over every form of data about me to a group that can not even keep my name and address a secret.

Let me tell you about that.

When I wrote “Open Letter to The British Government Regarding the Loss of Sensitive Personal Information on every household with a child under 16 years old.” it was with the hope that I would be able to show just how badly the govenment does not understand IT.

I pointed to a free peace of technology that would allow me to store whatever I felt on a hard drive tot he point that all of MI5 with the help of the CIA, the FBI or any number of 1337 script kiddies would never be able to break into with plausible deniability to it’s existence in the first place. I officially have no encrypted volumes and I do not store notes in them.

Meanwhile as regular power users are able to store our data so safely that even if you steal our computers you will find nothing at all the Government idea of secure is text based password. Even vista has disk encryption as standard (if you switch it on).

So let’s talk about your password protect file that I (in theory) have on my theoretical hard drive.

A dictionary attack will open most files inside six minutes – that’s just enough time to fix a cup of coffee. Failing that if I know what some of the locked text says (or if I can see the encrypted password) a rainbow table attack will break most very quickly.

Let’s talk password locks for a moment. Not all password protected files are unreadable it is just that the software asks you to give the password. All I need to know is the file format (or a good guess at it) and I’ll have half the content out of the file while you were scratching your head.

Let me remind you that a dedicated attacker with access to criminal “botnets” (used by many kinds of “cyber criminal” for activities such as blackmail, spamming, Distributed Denial of Service attacks or “brute force” password attempts) or other large co-operative systems might be able to make the work of years in to the work of a few days. With access to a modern Mainframe computer this can be done many times quicker still.

So while the UK govenment does not even understand how to make safe use of passwords I know how to make my files unfindable forever – forget trying to break in – you have to find it first.

No let us talk network security. Most networks are secured using passwords. All I need to break in is (a) to guess your password, (b) trick the password out of you, (c) steal the password using a virus, keylogger or other malware or (d) use “smart” brute force methods to systematically guess a password. If I don’t fancy any of that lot I can look for an exposed computer that is not up to date and exploit it or I could get a job (I have no criminal record) or pay someone else to get a job working inside or I couldblackmail a junior worker, line manager or similar. Frankly there are more ways into a govenment network than there are people working on that network.

If I’m good I might even set up some back doors to the system and document all flaws for next time.

There is no way that a system so badly set up that disks are sent in the post with nothing more than a human generated password to “lock them” is secure. I would bet money that there are right now over one hundred ways into every file the government keeps.

So when they indicate that they want to keep track of enough data that someone with half my skills could get at and then use to pretend to be me I know it is time to give up my citizenship and move out.

Don’t even get me started on the privacy and human rights side of the debate…

Further Reading on the Great Data Debacle

24 Nov

Contributor Matt, has been promising to post his article about the recent loss of child benefit data by Revenue and Customs, but he is a naughty blogger and hasn’t. So, here pop over and read it here. Then, take a look at his post discussing the wider implications of the data debacle, and the technological side of the proposed id card scheme.