Life in the Clouds

Posted July 13th, 2011 at 4:33 pm (UTC-4)

The Benefits, and Pitfalls, of Cloud Computing

If you’re wondering what the latest, biggest “New New Thing” on the web may be, just look up at the sky for a clue.

It’s something called ‘cloud computing,’ and while there’s not much agreement what exactly it is, it’s clearly the topic of the moment.

“Forecast: Increasing Cloudiness” predicts the Internet technology blog Channel Insider.  “The cloud…is the long-held dream of computing,” writes Michael Armbrust with the University of California Berkeley.  “Cloud computing is hot and will only get hotter over the next few years,” says Steve Wexler at Network Computing.

It’s not hard to find praise, and predictions, about cloud computing.  Much harder, however, is finding a clear and concise definition.

“As a metaphor for the Internet, ‘the cloud’ is a familiar cliché,” write Eric Knorr and Galen Grumen at  “But when combined with ‘computing,’ the meaning gets bigger and fuzzier.”  Much like those big white things in the sky, ‘cloud computing’ may be an idea that looks fairly solid from a distance but gets less tangible the closer you get. Read the rest of this entry »

While We’re Away

Posted July 7th, 2011 at 6:06 pm (UTC-4)
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Digital Frontiers editor Doug Bernard is off this week, but while he’s away, we’d like to highlight several stories elsewhere on

Photo: AP

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama went where no U.S. president has gone before, by holding his first-ever “Town Hall” meeting using the social media network Twitter.  The cyberspace event focused on the U.S. economy and jobs.   A chief executive not known for brevity, Mr. Obama fielded questions from across the United States in a more than an hour-long session from the East Room of the White House.  Mr. Obama’s responses were summarized in Twitter posts by the White House, abiding by the standard 140-keyboard-character format, but he was not constrained in his spoken responses.

The event was streamed live on the White House web site and on Twitter, carried by major cable news networks and on the web sites of numerous media organizations.  VOA’s Dan Robinson covers the event here.

Meanwhile, there is news of a former Chinese president’s health.  Or is there?

Chinese censors are apparently blocking online discussion of former president Jiang Zemin, whose absence from a key Communist Party event in Beijing has sparked speculation that he is seriously ill.The 84-year-old Jiang was conspicuously missing from July 1 state celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party.   Mr. Jiang is thought to be undergoing treatment at Beijing’s 301 Military Hospital.  China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform on Wednesday blocked terms such as “Jiang Zemin,” “myocardial infarction” and “general secretary,” sparking a wave of online speculation about the former president’s well-being.

Some big American technology companies, such as Cisco, have drawn fire for agreeing to work with the Chinese authorities on projects that can lead to censorship and spying on the Chinese people.  VOA’s Ira Mellman spoke about the issue with Jillian York at the San Francisco based Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Find both stories on this page of

Planning a trip to Japan?



If you’re venturing anywhere near the Fukushima power plant, you can check radiation there from where you sit if you visit the website Safecast.

The home page has a constantly-updating map of Japan with little pins charting the latest radiation data.  Safecast aggregates data from official public sources and allows volunteers to upload their own Geiger counter readings.  Safecast’s instant uploads mean its data is always timely. It’s also established standards for consistency for its volunteers. For instance, they’re asked to note where they took their measurements. Since fallout settles on the ground, a reading from a roof can be different from a reading at ground level.  Deena Prichep reports with text and audio from Portland, Oregon.

Some of the stories from the digital world we’re following this week on   DF editor Doug Bernard returns on Monday.

Security or Idiocy?

Posted July 3rd, 2011 at 12:41 pm (UTC-4)
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Who, And Where, Are The Greatest Threats To Internet Security?

In this Sept. 24, 2010, file photo the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) prepares for the Cyber Storm III exercise at its operations center in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The web has been humming with talk this week – talk, concern, worry and general shpilkes – about Internet security.  There’s good reason: not only are there renewed questions about just which hacker group is responsible for what cyber-attack, but the rate and severity of computer hacks appear to be escalating rapidly.  In the last week alone the governments of Brazil, Antigua, Australia and Zimbabwe have all been hit hard, with secure and private information literally pouring out onto the web.  “Anonymous” on Tuesday declared ‘war’ on the city of Orlando, going as far as dressing Mickey Mouse up in the “Guy Fawkes” mask of AnonOps.   One day later the newly formed hacker group “AntiSec” targeted the major media firms Universal Music and Viacom, while also returning to an earlier hack – the Arizona Department of Public Safety – only this time with a new document dump of sensitive information.  It seems no-one is immune: even singer Amy Winehouse’s website was defaced Friday by a group calling itself “SwagSec”, which vows to “…take back the Internet from the white devil.”

The hacking playground has become crowded territory, and despite efforts of the FBI (also a recent hacker victim) and British authorities, there are no signs the web is becoming any less insecure.

Below are several stories we found online this week: none of them specifically concerning the Lulz-Anti-Anonymous-Swag-Sec tangle, but all that still raise serious questions of web privacy and security. Read the rest of this entry »

LulzSec Laughs Last

Posted June 28th, 2011 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)

Why the Latest, Hottest Hacker Group May Never Have Existed.

I’ll admit it.  Like many of my colleagues, I’m a sucker for a great story.  Sure, I run it through the standard fact-checking traps, and try to question and independently confirm each detail.  And always, I remind myself that if it smells too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

Still, sometimes I get taken in.  And other times…I’m not quite sure.

The LulzSec mascot, toasting the symbol of Anonymous

Latest case in point: LulzSec.

Now, if you’re in any way tuned in to the latest Internet happenings or follow cyber-security issues, you’ve been hearing a lot about LulzSec of late.  If not, here’s a short primer: when they popped up on the hacker scene just a few months back, it was hard to know what to make of them.  First, there was its mascot.  Unlike Anonymous’ iconic empty black suit, or taunting Guy Fawkes mask, LulzSec’s logo was a somewhat snooty-looking creature, complete with top hat, monocle and a glass of wine.  Then there was its name – “Lulz Security” or LulzSec for short – suggesting more mischief than activism.  As we discussed in an earlier post:

LulzSec” appears to be a collective venture whose main goal is making trouble – or in their own words, “causing lulz.”  In the lingo of the Twitter Age, ‘lulz’ is a variant of ‘lol’, which means “laugh(ing) out loud.”  However, while a lol might be applied to a joke or funny picture in appreciation of something mildly amusing, a lulz has come to mean laughs at the expense of others.   A cute kitten picture prompts a lol; someone who has their accounts hacked and private information exposed is a lulz.”

But few were laughing once LulzSec got up and rolling.  They’re widely credited with engineering a major hack of Sony’s Playstation Network, exposing the private information of potentially millions of players.  Sony was so embarrassed by the attack that the chief corporate officers offered a rare public apology, bowing deeply before the press.  And the attacks didn’t stop there: among LulzSec’s other targets: the U.S. Senate, the Arizona Police Department,, the FBI, the Public Broadcasting Service, the state of Brazil, and the CIA. Read the rest of this entry »

Turkey Battles the Internet

Posted June 23rd, 2011 at 2:07 pm (UTC-4)

Dorian Jones | Istanbul

The Turkish government wants to take more control of the Internet – and if recent events are a guide, it’s ready to battle to do just that.

The government recently arrested 32 people accused of attacking state websites.  Concerns are growing over Internet freedom in Turkey as the government proposes rules for a compulsory filtering of the Internet.

The Internet hackers’ group “Anonymous” declared Turkish state websites a target because of government proposals to introduce a filtering of the Internet.

Despite the group’s efforts, Turkish authorities appeared ready for last week’s attack, saying it only had a limited effect.  And, within days, police had arrested 32 people, nine of which were minors. Read the rest of this entry »

Hacking the CIA

Posted June 17th, 2011 at 11:20 pm (UTC-4)

And Better Blogging Through Stripping

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye.  There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.

#1: The Fight Over Airwaves.  Several facts of war are as old as battle itself.  They are ugly, bloody affairs.  Far too much that is precious is lost.  And each new war creates its own new technology.

Military history through the centuries demonstrates the winning side doesn’t have to be the richest or biggest  – but they do have to be the most adaptable to new innovations.   In Iraq and Afghanistan, that innovation has been the IED.

A controlled IED explosion in Iraq (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Read the rest of this entry »

Lying Liars Online

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 5:05 pm (UTC-4)
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Old Questions About Truthfulness in the Internet Era

Her name was Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omani, Amina for short, and for several days she was headline news.   As author of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus,” Araf wrote about the conflicts of living as a U.S.-born lesbian in Syria.  But now she was part of a different conflict – one possibly fatal.

Arraf’s frank discussions of sexuality and politics in Syria made her a popular read – and a target.  After all, she was living in a nation where homosexuality is illegal and criticisms of the government are not welcome.

And then last Monday, a scare.  In a post titled simply “Amina,” Raina Ismail – Arraf’s cousin – wrote:

“Amina was seized by three men in their early 20’s.  According to the witness (who does not want her identity known), the men were armed…One of the men then put his hand over Amina’s mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan with a window sticker of Basel Assad.  The witness did not get the tag number.  She promptly went and found Amina’s father. The men are assumed to be members of one of the security services or the Baath Party militia.  Amina’s present location is unknown and it is unclear if she is in a jail or being held elsewhere in Damascus.”

Another short update followed, detailing Raina’s frantic efforts to make contact with her cousin, to no avail.  Human rights activists, bloggers and journalists picked up the search for Arraf; very soon a Facebook group formed advocating for her release.  Her online girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria, was desparate for news.  But to all the world it just seemed as though Amina Arraf disappeared.

The truth was worse: Amina Arraf never existed.  She was made up.  She was a lie. Read the rest of this entry »

Saving Lives Wirelessly

Posted June 13th, 2011 at 10:56 pm (UTC-4)
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Mobile Devices Are Saving Lives and Money

Rosanne Skirble | Washington, D.C.

Photo: WHO Girish Babu Bommankanti

World Health officials have released the most comprehensive global survey to date of how mobile phones and other wireless communication technologies are improving health care delivery around the world.

The World Health Organization survey notes that there are more than five billion mobile phone subscribers in the world today. That means more than eight out of 10 people around the world make use of the mobile devices.

That’s more people than have access to paved roads, electricity or the Internet, says Misha Kay, head of the World Health Organization’s Global Observatory for eHealth, which produced the report. Mobile technology, Kay says, is about more than just wireless phone calls. Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s On Twitter?

Posted June 10th, 2011 at 6:07 pm (UTC-4)

Tweeting Isn’t Just For The Young – Or Rich

Researchers at the Pew Internet and American Life Project have released their latest study of Twitter use in America.  Their focus: who’s joining and who’s tweeting.  The results may not be what you expect – and they’re already being challenged by Twitter’s CEO.  More on that in a moment.

What’s not disputed is that in the past several years the micro-blogging site has gone from a puzzlement to a curiosity to a news source before becoming, at least this week, a source of embarrassment for Congressman Anthony Weiner.  And it’s big: Twitter estimates it has at 175 million registered users, and that number increases every day.

However, this likely does not mean that 175 million separate individuals are using the service.  It’s very easy to register an account with Twitter, and as Nicholas Carson writing in Business Insider recently noted, many of those accounts – some 90 million – have zero followers.  Additionally a growing number of people have multiple accounts for varying levels of public exposure and messaging  – for example, one for work, one for friends, and another for private matters.

But as we constantly re-learn, there’s very little that’s truly private on Twitter.  Yes, individuals can send private messages user to user.  However, by its very design, Twitter is meant to be almost completely transparent.  Unlike many other social networks, you don’t have to be registered to view others’ accounts and ‘tweets’.   That means once a message is ‘tweeted’ or posted, it’s visible to the entire Internet…and very difficult to erase.  Just ask comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding God Online

Posted June 9th, 2011 at 5:03 pm (UTC-4)

Has the Internet Made Finding Faith Easier, or More Difficult?

Today I put a short prayer in the Western Wall.

I also spent some time in a mosque studying the Muslim hadith with a group of students.

Later, I plan on meditating at a buddhist temple.

And all of this without ever leaving my desk.    Welcome to the age of virtual religion.

From basic technologies such as email list-servs and online bulletin boards, to social-minded applications like Facebook and QQ, to complex virtual reality experiences like Second Life, people are taking their faith into the digital world.   In ways large and small, users in search of spiritual answers are turning to the Internet – and what they’re finding is nearly as complex as the web itself.

If you have a question about what a certain sura may say, you can find its complete text – in Arabic and English – online.  If you want to offer a prayer to a Hindu deity, or spin a virtual Buddhist prayer wheel, there’s an app for that.  And if you’re just unsure about what you believe…well, there are millions of other people online just like you, believers and nonbelievers, all ready to chat.

Anthropologists teach that religion and ritual are intrinsic to the human experience, likely predating even language.  Thus it should surprise no one that as computers have become more powerful and digital experiences more lifelike, faith and spirituality are exerting an increasingly powerful online pull on those who believe – and those who are questioning.  But all this digital faith also has growing numbers of theologians, scholars and others wondering: can belief be virtual?  Can religion genuinely exist online? Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Digital Frontiers?

What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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