Twitter and the Congressman

Posted June 7th, 2011 at 1:43 pm (UTC-4)
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And The Lesson That Never Gets Learned

As news stories go, the tale of Congressman Anthony Weiner and his recent online activities seems rather limited.  It’s not a story about war, or disease, or a major environmental disaster.  But given what it hints at  – online sex – there’s little surprise it’s front page news in the U.S.

In a tearful press conference Monday, the six-term New York Democrat admitted to sending provocative photos and exchanging intimate messages with at least six women via online services such as Twitter.

“I’ve made terrible mistakes,” Weiner said, recounting that for several years – before and since marrying his wife Huma Abedin – he had used various social networks like Facebook to meet and start up online relationships with women.   Expressing “deep regret” over his actions, Rep. Weiner confirmed a story that he initially denied; namely that he had sent a picture of himself wearing little else than underwear to a college-aged woman in Washington State via Twitter.

When the photograph first emerged last week, the congressman denied it was his picture, saying his Twitter account had been “hacked” by someone clearly trying to make fun of his pun-worthy last name.  But his less-than-clear denials only fueled suspicions, for example when he told one news cable network that he couldn’t say “with certitude” whether or not the picture was of him.

Now that the world knows the truth, it’s natural to ask, ‘Why would he do it?’  But the ‘it’ here doesn’t refer to sex; politicians all over the world have been caught in similar scandals.  Rather, the question now is ‘Why would he do this on the Internet?’  How could someone as smart as a U.S. congressman get so publicly snarled on Twitter? Read the rest of this entry »

UPDATE: Syria Cuts The Internet

Posted June 3rd, 2011 at 2:02 pm (UTC-4)

Why Nations Block The Web, And What May Follow

UPDATE: 1500 hours UTC Friday: Earlier we posted about the near flat-lining of Internet traffic within Syria, wondering whether Damascus was adopting a tactic tried earlier this year by Egypt.  As detailed earlier this year, Egyptian authorities squeezed the Border Gateway Protocols – the road maps of the Internet into Egypt, if you will – essentially erasing Egypt from the web.  (One Egyptian ISP, Noor, was not affected, mostly like as the government’s last life-life to the Internet.)  It was a neat disappearing trick that, for several days, made nearly every Egyptian web address invisible to the rest of the world.

One of the key early indicators was the complete elimination of any data traffic coming out of Egypt. While data traffic has slowed to a near trickle in Syria, there still is some small amount of traffic, suggesting the BGPs are still in place.  More forensic data analysis will be forth-coming, but it’s possible at this point that Syria isn’t copying Egypt, but rather Libya.

Recall that in early March, as detailed by the Internet analysis firm Renesis, Internet traffic into and out of Libya came to a near halt.  This was likely in response to a “Day of Rage” protest that organizers had been planning there, similar to what was planned in Syria for Friday.  But as James Cowie makes clear, a near-halt isn’t a complete halt, and had Syria erased it’s BGP pathways, like Egypt, all web traffic would have been impossible.  Although it’s still early, there are signs now that the Syrian Internet, while crippled, is still alive. Read the rest of this entry »

Farming With Phones

Posted May 31st, 2011 at 4:10 pm (UTC-4)
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Fighting Hunger and Poverty with Mobile Technology

Steve Baragona | Washington, D.C.

Developing world farmers receive tips on improving crop yields by watching how-to videos on their mobile phones.

Mobile phones are the latest weapon in the fight against hunger and poverty.  The devices provide a new way to deliver information to developing world farmers in hard-to-reach places.

A group at the University of Illinois has produced several videos that demonstrate simple, low-cost ways to improve the lives of people in the developing world. One video shows farmers how to make a natural insecticide out of seeds from the neem tree.

Spreading the word

“There’s been a dramatic revolution in the way that we can share information,” says the University of Illinois’ Barry Pittendrigh. “And that’s come about both through the Internet and through the dramatic increase in the use of cell phones, especially in developing nations.”

Cell – or mobile – phones are everywhere in the developing world and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Read the rest of this entry »

Fingers in the Dike

Posted May 24th, 2011 at 5:29 pm (UTC-4)
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Did Washington Block Discussion of a Security Patch?  Should It Have?

Reports of cyber-attacks and security hacks have been filling the Net lately.  Sony’s “Playstation Network” has suffered a very public series of crippling hacks that may have compromised the personal information of the network’s 100 million users – and cost the electronics giant over 14 billion yen ($170-million dollars.)  South Korean officials announced they were stepping up Internet security barriers in the wake of what it says are accelerating attacks from the North.   And at the other end of the globe, Ireland has been struggling to fend off computer attacks intended to infect otherwise clean local servers with malware.

Now comes news of a potentially debilitating security hole in certain industrial control systems that could possibly lead to massive industrial espionage – or worse.

As first reported in Wired, the flaws affect the “SCADA” systems of various Siemens control devices – many of which can be found in very high-level industrial, processing and generating facilities around the world.  SCADA stands for ‘supervisory control and data acquisition’ –  systems that allow users to both monitor and control a wide variety of processes – and not surprising for a company valued at $80 billion dollars, Siemens products can be found everywhere.  Nuclear plants, natural gas pipelines, waste-water treatment, chemical production – with a big enough security hole, all these and many other facilities are potentially at risk from hackers seeking to take control of the plant. Read the rest of this entry »

Inventing the Future

Posted May 18th, 2011 at 3:22 pm (UTC-4)

100 Years of IBM’s Technological Innovation

For one of the world’s foremost inventors, Bernie Meyerson is a fairly modest guy.

Perhaps that’s because his game-changing invention of silicon germanium – basically the stuff that makes every modern computer chip work – began as an accident.

“Many, many years ago,” says Meyerson, “when I was a grad student, I dropped a silicon wafer.  If you have goobers hanging from this piece of silicon, you probably don’t want to heat it up and make a real mess, so I washed it under water to clean it up.”  And here’s the puzzle: no matter how much water he used, the silicon wouldn’t get wet.  “Something wild had just happened.  It violated all the literature of the day.”

But Meyerson had work to do, so he “filed it away under odd things” in his mind and returned to his tasks.

Years later, while an employee at IBM, he returned to his dry silicon mystery.  The answer was complicated: it turns out the wafer had been treated with hydrofluoric acid, which combined with the silicon to form an atomic-level protective layer that kept everything – water, contaminants, even air – out.  Still, his response was immediate:  “That was my ‘Aha!’ moment.” Read the rest of this entry »

Syria’s Internet Hijack

Posted May 12th, 2011 at 4:35 pm (UTC-4)

Using a “Man-in-the-Middle” to Target Activists

Given the civil unrest roiling the Middle East, Syria’s recent decision to unblock Facebook seemed…well, puzzling.  After all that’s been made of the social network’s role in helping organize the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, why would Damascus choose this moment to open it up?

Perhaps now we have the answer.

Illustration: German Ariel Berra

Peter Eckersley with the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports it appears Syrian authorities have launched a cyber-attack against Facebook aimed at intercepting messages and targeting activists inside Syria.  Calling it “very much an amateur attempt,” Eckersley says forensic data analysis makes clear that an unknown culprit – but one with Syrian fingerprints – has compromised Facebook’s security by using one of the oldest tricks in the spy-book: a “man-in-the-middle”, or MITM, attack.

In essence, an MITM hack is an electronic form of code-breaking between two people online who have been tricked into believing they’re communicating over a secure connection – such as https – but are actually passing messages through a third hidden party, where they can be recorded, blocked or altered.   That may seem like a mouthful, but it’s actually a lot less complicated than it sounds.  Let’s unpack it a bit. Read the rest of this entry »

When News Isn’t News

Posted May 10th, 2011 at 6:03 pm (UTC-4)

How Long Before “New” Media Becomes “Old”?

This morning began with an experiment.

Rather than pick up my daily newspaper, flip on the radio or even look at the television, I decided to get all my news solely from my iPad.

photo: David Byrd

It was different…and honestly, not very satisfying.

For example, browsing through Google News there were at least a dozen different reports on Microsoft’s impending purchase of Skype – a story that broke too late for newspapers but surely would have been on the radio – but not a single preview of today’s Senate hearing on mobile phone privacy.  I skimmed through Twitter and found it long on opinion and short on news.  It was still too early for most of my Facebook friends to have shared any current stories that interested them (but did catch some funny dog videos) so I scanned the websites of several news sources I trust.

All the reports in print were no doubt there online – assuming I had the patience to thumb through them all.  But after five or six headline links, my eyes started to glaze.  Headlines began to blur into each other and within 10 minutes or so I simply gave up, left to hunt out that morning’s paper edition of the Washington Post.  Newsprint in hand, in just a few minutes I learned about the current U.S. Congressional debt ceiling debate, the outing of a CIA station chief in Pakistan (and who might be responsible), a closed-circuit TV news program in local prisons, and a few other items I never would have found on the Internet.

Old-fashioned?  Perhaps.  But it turns out I’m not alone. Read the rest of this entry »

A Vaster Wasteland?

Posted May 5th, 2011 at 5:10 pm (UTC-4)
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Is the Internet Better, or Worse, Than TV?

It’s one of the most cited speeches of the 20th Century…or, at least, two of the most quoted words.  However the man who delivered it, Newton Minow, says we’re remembering the wrong two words.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy had only been in office for only four months.  Minow, his new Federal Communications Commission Chair, was slated to make his first public address before the nation’s broadcasters at the prestigious, annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.   It was usually an opportunity to mix policy proposals and gentle blandishments – a wonk’s dream, if slightly snoozy affair.

But Minow’s address was anything but snoozy.  More like a fire alarm.

“When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better,” he began.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse.  I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you – and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off.  I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Punctuating his point, Minow decried the “…game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons,” that daily poured from his television.  “Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better?” Read the rest of this entry »

The Tweet Heard Round the World

Posted May 2nd, 2011 at 3:04 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments!/ReallyVirtual

(Doug Bernard returns Tuesday to Digital Frontiers)

A software consultant living in Abbottabad, Pakistan may have been the first to alert his neighbors (and the world) to what was happening in his town when he  inadvertently tweeted about the Navy Seal raid on a nearby compound, in which the FBI’s (the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation) most wanted terrorist was killed.   Under the user name “Really Virtual,” Sohaib Athar tweeted May 1, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”

Athar went on to admonish the helicopter for hovering above as he tweeted, “Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/”  After learning that the helicopter crashed, he apologized to the pilots for the swatter comment.

From FBI website

The Twitter feed goes on for several hours with Athar and neighbors trying to figure out what’s  happening in Abbottabad, as the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound begins and then ends with the death of the al-Qaida leader.

Now, the Abbottabad tweeter is being inundated with media requests for an interview.  Yours truly included.

Athar also has a blog.  His last entry is titled The Guy Who Liveblogged the Osama Raid Without Knowing It and simply says, “is what I am for the next few hours on Twitter.  I am too tired and sleepy to blog or talk about it though, but I guess it is finally time to revive this abandoned blog. Maybe tomorrow…”

–Rebecca Ward

VOA’s Asia editor was monitoring the tweets overnight, Washington DC time.  He later spoke to Paul Westpheling, host of the English radio program “International Edition,” about the 33 year-old tweeter and the town in which he lives.

On Our Site

Posted April 27th, 2011 at 5:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Digital Frontiers’ Doug Bernard is out of the office at the moment, but DF would like to draw your attention to a few stories elsewhere on  The first is from Dorian Jones in Istanbul, and this story describes a web trend in Turkey:

Turkey already bans more websites than any other European country. Now the government is set to introduce new controls that officials say are needed to protect children. Critics fear they represent an effort control the web.

The Turkish government calls its new Internet controls Safe Use of the Internet. They are scheduled to take effect in August and will require all Internet users to choose from one of four filter profiles operated by their server provider.  Law Professor Yamman Akdeniz at Bilgi University in Istanbul says the measures open the door to government censorship of the Internet.

“We are concerned that the government [will] enforce and develop a censorship infrastructure,” said Akdeniz. “Even the standard profile is a filter system and the problem is government mandated, government controlled and there are no other countries within the EU or Council of Europe that has a similar system. And the decision also states if anyone who tries to circumvent the system, further action may be taken.”

In another story on, Curt Nickisch looks at how a social network for scientists aims to use the technology to speed up scientific progress:

Social networks like Facebook allow users to keep in up with their friends. Now, a social network for scientists hopes to use the technology to speed up scientific progress.

As he worked on a medical imaging experiment a few years ago, Harvard researcher Ijad Madisch kept running into problems. It could have been the algorithms he was using or the way he set up the experiment but, whatever it was, something wasn’t quite right.

“These are the small things, which in science, you know, cost you a lot of time,” says Madisch.

His advisor didn’t know why the experiment wasn’t working. Nobody in his lab worked on the same stuff and none of his researcher friends could help.

“I was so frustrated. I said there has to be something online where I go, where people can present themselves as a scientist, and where they put their information about their research and their publications and you can search for it.”

That’s when Madisch got the idea for a social network for scientists.

And VOA is also reporting on the use of satellite technology in human rights cases:

In May of 2009, when the Sri Lankan army had insurgent Tamil Tiger forces flanked in the country’s Northeast, analyst Lars Bromley pored over two sets of satellite imagery for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had turned to AAAS because they were concerned about the safety of civilians.  Two sets of images were captured – one at the start of a heavy battle on May 6, and one when fighting abated on May 10.  Bromley says visible shell craters offered possible evidence Sri Lanka was firing into an area it had designated as a civilian safety zone.
“We were basically able to basically locate multiple mortar locations that corresponded with the locations of the craters and the pattern of the ejecta [material ejected] from the craters. They were Sri Lankan Army positions,” he said.

Some stories we’re following for you around

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