Internet News (February 2018)

No Moore?

Moore’s Law no more? Named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, it was based upon his observation, built on condensing chip sizes after the rapid growth of transistors which up until recently doubled every two years. The theory was loved by engineers and computer scientists alike, due to the continuing and effortless performance benefits.

Unfortunately, Moore’s Law has now faltered, as the power and growth of semiconductor technology has more recently slowed down. The multi-trillion dollar, world-wide semiconductor and electronics industry is slowly coming to terms with this, as engineers and computer scientists pose the question about how the industry will survive its demise.

Contradicting events within the semiconductor industry raised concerns of the strength of Moore’s Law and the demise of the law in itself, is not a surprise. Although it successfully created new process nodes, the rise in costs to develop new devices has also seen a rapid rise.

The blame is set firmly upon the laws of physics. Companies and Intel itself have been throwing tens of billions of pounds into the money pit trying to beat the law, and having little to show for their efforts. Also, design flaws in microprocessors such as Meltdown and Spectre have highlighted that major mistakes that have been made in systems design which have only recently come to light.

These mistakes, caused in part by the industrial need for improved performance and the use of cheaper silicon, have highlighted the two security threats. The methods behind the design of microprocessors have made a rapid U-turn following the findings that the techniques that were being used to design microprocessors could in fact be weaponised. The massive costs of Spectre and Meltdown have not been disclosed, and the outcome will push chip designers to use more conventional innovations.

Unfortunately, there are no actions that can be made to stop performance moving backwards, albeit for a short term. The reliable and steady improvements that software engineers could once rely upon are no longer clearly defined, and the likelihood will be that improvements in future computer performance initially will be less impressive than that defined by their predecessors.

GPUs and other hardware though are reported to have a more prosperous future with systems being designed to become more efficient and carefully designed, not just in terms of the hardware, but also the software. Rather than throwing money at microprocessor design in the hope that faster, better and cheaper is the way forward as it has been for so many years, the designers have now got their work cut out for the foreseeable future at least.

Grumpy Cat finally gets something to smile about

$710,000 (£500,000) has been awarded to the owners of a cat that is used to promote US coffee brand Grenade, after the company breached their agreed contract by using excessive use of the cat’s image. Grumpy Cat Limited and Grenade’s agreed contract gave permission for the cat’s – whose real name is Tardar Sauce – image to be used for the promotion of “Grumppuccino”. Grumpy Cat Limited took Grenade to court, when they claim that Grenade abused their permissions and used images of the folorn looking cat, that went viral in 2012 for its looks, for other marketing purposes to promote their “Grumpy” range of goods.

Tardar Sauce appeared in an original post on Reddit in 2012. It was the brother of the cat’s owners that put the image upon social media. The image became a viral sensation and spread worldwide as a meme. It was during 2013 when Grenade Beverage, a family owned business run by Nick and Paul Sandford, approached the owners and agreed a $150,000 dollar contract to use the cat’s image upon their packaging to promote iced coffee beverages.

In 2015, Grumpy Cat Limited took legal action for breaching that contract. Court papers claimed that blatant infringement of copyrights and trademarks had taken place, with the introduction and selling of a Grumppacino clothing range as well as roasted coffee products.

Grenade’s owners, according to court reports, counter sued this claim with a defence that the owners and the cat had not kept to their side of the agreed contract, by not promoting the brand to their full potential on social media and television appearances. The papers also included an allegation that Tardar Sauce was to appear in a movie starring Hollywood stars Will Ferrell and Jack Black. This film never materialised.

It was a unanimous decision within the California court that Grenade had breached their contract, and the owners of Tardar Sauce were awarded $710,000 in damages for copyright and trademark infringement, plus an additional $1 awarded as a nominal damage fee for breaching the contract in place. It was reported that Grumpy Cat herself made a short appearance during the trial, but did not attend on the day of the verdict.

Tardar Sauce’s perpertually peeved expression is reported to be caused by feline dwarfism, in this case as a result of a condition called an underbite (where the lower jaw extends forward). The feline now has her own company, clothing brand, calendars and soft toy range. She uses her “pet passport” to appear on television programmes across the world, and appeared in her own Festive Feline movie in 2014.

Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Gage Skidmore

Decent broadband for all at last?

The government will be imposing new regulations to ensure that by 2020, Britain’s homes and businesses will have access to high-speed broadband. It is reported that 1.1 million premises in the UK currently are unable to access or take advantage of decent broadband speeds.

The government have recently rejected a voluntary proposal from British Telecom, who proposed to improve speeds across the UK by 2020, reaching speeds of at least 10Mbps with a view of obtaining of a Universal Service Obligation (USO).

The new plan will see broadband providers facing new legal requirements to in providing high-speed broadband to customers that their customers require (subject to a cost threshold).

Ofcom, the communications regulator reported that across the UK, 4%, or approximately 1.1 million businesses and households were unable to access internet speeds of up to 10Mbps. By contrast, providers across Europe guarantee each home the fastest speeds available to them.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley thanked BT in a statement for their proposal, then explained that by governing these new regulations it will ensure that the reality of high-speed broadband will be available to residents and companies across the UK.

Ofcom reported that nearly 230,000 small businesses in the UK were unable to access high speed broadband connections. BT were willing to cover costs of up to £600 million to provide a fixed high-speed broadband service to 98.5% of premises across the UK by 2020, with an addition 0.7% accessing services delivered via a combination of wireless and fixed internet connections. The remaining 0.8%, which included the most remote and hard to reach areas would utilise satellite or on-demand internet access.

Following the government’s announcement, BT, who use their own Openreach network to provide broadband to customers and other suppliers, respected their decision and will continue to work to provide high-speed broadband to customers across the UK, by exploring commercial options to ensure that high-speed internet is provided to UK’s most rural areas. Talk Talk, one of BTs biggest rivals have also confirmed that they agreed with the decision and that the Government had made the right move.

Tristia Harrison, the Chief Executive of Talk Talk stated that that high speed broadband is a necessary utility that should be available and affordable to all. “By opting for formal regulation rather than weaker promises, ministers are guaranteeing consumers will get the minimum speeds they need at a price they can afford.”

Naughty naughty

A judgement handed down this week in the UK Court of Appeals has ruled that the Government has broken the law by using unregulated methods to obtain UK citizens information during a long-debated fight, contrary to current surveillance rules. The ruling refers to the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) that expired back in December 2016. The case was brought to the court by Tom Watson, the Deputy Labour Leader in order to challenge the current regulations in place. The ruling will mean that the new Investigatory Powers Act will in fact face significant implications.

Current laws allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telco’s (professionals in the telecom industry) to hold communications data for up to a period of 12 months and allow public authorities to gain access. Campaigners argue however that the Government are failing to restrict preservation and access.

It was reported that Ben Jaffey QC, pointed out during his submission on behalf of the first respondent, that because DRIPA had been repealed, it did not make the judgement a “pointless exercise”.

The Government have been forced to admit that sections of the Investigatory Powers Act are considered to be illegal, and a line of amendments are due to take place in order to cover up the cracks and bring the act up to expected standards.

Advocacy group Liberty, also known at National Council for Civil Liberties, labelled these as “half-baked plans”, and revealed that the plans do not comply with previous court rulings that require mandatory safeguarding procedures.

Privacy activist’s concerns include the Government’s plan to reduce the threshold for “serious crime”, with a six-month prison sentence instead of three years.

Big Brother Watch, a non-profit British civil liberties and privacy campaigning organisation criticised the Government’s reading at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and claimed that the governments “retention regime” is not universal nor uncritical. Disappointment was expressed also where the proposed Office of Communications Data Authorisations will be used to sign off requests for data in place of public bodies, something in this instance would not be a judicial body. Questions were also raised with regards to the decline in safeguarding due to allowing ‘urgent requests’ to be signed for internally with out assessments and considerations by the Office for Communications Data Authority (OCDA).

The recent judgement has not taken into consideration if the CJEU’s decision refers to national security – unsurprisingly the Government stuck to matters of serious crime, whilst campaign groups felt that they should consider the CJEU’s move. Judges felt that it was not necessary, since these measures would be considered by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and subject to talks with the CJEU.

The court ruled that DRIPA has been inconsistent with current EU law, due to not limiting access to information that was used for the purpose to fight serious crime, along with allowing access to police forces and public authorities obtaining access to data without the consent being granted by a court or an independent administrative authority.

The ruling strengthened opinions from both CJEU and Liberty Director, Martha Spurrier, representatives of Watson through the case, quoting “it tells ministers in crystal clear terms that they are breaching the public’s human rights”

Net Neutrality burgered

With the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in the United States voting to repeal the net neutrality rules put in place in February 2015 by the very same government entity, albeit with different leadership, many were unhappy with the decision and are still fighting it, even taking to the streets in protest.

Recent examples of this fight come in the form of both the states of Montana and New York, who have already decided to ignore the FCC’s ruling and insist on net neutrality at a state level, keeping the spirit of the rules alive and hopefully spreading the message in the hope that other states will follow suit.

Of course, many companies have taken the chance to jump on the bandwagon in order to (we hope) simply echo the facts and the message that net neutrality is something that should be here to stay.

One company in particular, known already for its clever and thoughtful advert that aired back in October last year for handling the subject matter of bullying, Burger King, has dipped its toe back in the waters for another go, this time focusing on net neutrality, attempting to explain the possible effects of the repeal and why it was important in the first place. It does not disappoint, as you can see for yourself…

The video opens by showing interview clips with people on the street reacting quizzically when asked about net neutrality and that it had been repealed, inferring that a large portion of the population probably doesn’t know about, or at least doesn’t fully grasp the concept of, net neutrality and what it means for both themselves and the internet as a whole.

Then cut to inside the restaurant where they filmed this advert’s “experiment”, beginning with some customers being initially confused about why others are receiving meals ahead of them in the numbers, and why they’re having to wait so long.

This quickly breaks down into a fairly obvious, or at least you would hope from the viewers’ point of view, that the joke is that the burgers are listed on the menu board as slow MBPS, fast MBPS, and hyperfast MBPS. For those that know enough about tech to realise, MBPS (Megabits Per Second) is the standard unit of measurement for internet download speeds when sold to customers, but in this case the initials stand for “Making Burgers Per Second” in order to lean into the pun.

Once the customers have it explained to them that their burger will take roughly 15 to 20 minutes before it’s ready, unless they want to pay between 2 and 5 times the regular price, they begin to question what’s happening, why is this the case, and become increasingly irate when told they would have to wait, which is the lead in for the real message to this advert.

Cue those same angered customers outside the restaurant after the interview crew outside explained to them what the purpose of this whole experiment had been. One man says it was a “power move”, another that “[he] didn’t think that ordering a Whopper would really open my eyes up to net neutrality”, while another pipes up, “the Whopper actually taught me about net neutrality, it’s stupid but true”.

The advert then closes with the heart of its message: “The internet should be like the Whopper: the same for everyone.”, quickly cutting to a clear satire of Ajit Pai’s FCC video released in December of 2017, that was seemingly aimed at making fun of net neutrality proponents and that everything would be fine and just how it was before.

The side that Burger King is on is clear, and it succeeded in making another advert that’s both informative to the general populace and good press, which definitely can’t hurt their bottom line.

The fight is not over to save net neutrality in America – if you’re a citizen and you care about using an internet that isn’t potentially slowed down behind paywalls, then make sure you do your part to speak up.

Keep fit and carry on

Fitness apps can be great. They track a whole bunch of data about you and your workouts, but what if that data was public, even in an anonymous way? The anonymity makes it harmless right? Well, maybe not completely…

There’s a ton of fitness apps out there these days, many of which track your routes when going on a run or bike ride for example, but one in particular, Strava, has been newsworthy lately, due to it publicly displaying a perfectly innocent looking heatmap that displays all location data from the usage of their app. The problem? It clearly shows the kinds of density and patterns that can easily be interpreted as personnel on military bases, not only revealing the locations of all these bases but the routines of the staff as well. The company states the heatmap gives “a direct visualization of Strava’s global network of athletes”.

With what seems to have started off on Twitter with a tweet by Nathan Ruser, who works at part of the IUCA (Institute for United Conflict Analysts), who noticed the map but also, more concerningly to him, noticed that “US Bases are clearly identifiable and mappable.”

At this point you might be thinking “So what? Google Maps and a bunch of other software has already been there and got the t-shirt”, and you’d be right, to an extent. The satellite imagery and mapping software already readily available, publicly does clearly reveal many such locations. However, the data contained here is a heatmap of location data at those locations, potentially revealing sensitive information such as the location of living quarters on a base or its patrol routes. Also, there are numerous such military bases that have been removed from places such as Google Maps for these same security concerns.

With this map being globally available, there is location data shown in some pockets of the Middle East, where soldiers are stationed in rather tumultuous locations and publicly accessible data like this could be potentially dangerous to their wellbeing. There are apparently other bases now visible on the map, ranging from an RAF base in the Falklands to even a Russian base in Syria.

The app developers at Strava were quick to point out that users of the app may disable its location sharing option in order to avoid this, but they concede that the possibility exists that not everyone who uses the app knows about that setting, then reinforcing that the data is anonymous and “excludes activities that have been marked as private and user-defined privacy zones.”

Certainly a cause for concern, and the Washington Post reports that a spokesperson for the US Air Force, Colonel John Thomas, said he would be investigating “the implications of the map.”

Google tweaks

It’s been on the cards for a little while now, Google stated this update was coming as far back as June 2017, from their recently updated blog post.

“We plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018.”

Well, that update has finally arrived with version 64 of Chrome, and here’s some details on what exactly it does.

Muting audio on a website has been a feature of Chrome for some time now. You can mute an open tab by simply right clicking on it, and selecting the “Mute tab” option, however this only affects that open tab, and is only active until you have closed it, Earlier versions of Chrome didn’t remember which website you muted for future use; now that’s changed, as the option has been replaced with a “Mute site” option which does exactly as you’d expect, by muting the entire website across its domain.

This of course can be incredibly helpful. Perhaps there’s a website with information you peruse frequently, but constantly get bombarded with auto playing videos with audio or intrusive adverts and find yourself reaching for your PC’s volume controls just to make it stop while you get what you need. Now you can mute the entire website, browse the pages you want to, even open links in new tabs for the same site, without fear of getting blasted in the eardrums again.

Of course, this wasn’t the only feature to make it into the latest revision of the Chrome browser. There’s now full HDR support for Windows users, which has been updated to the relatively recent Fall Creators update that began making its way to users back in October 2017.

After the recently discovered CPU vulnerabilities Spectre and Meltdown mentioned earlier, the Chrome 64 update also contains its own security updates to aid in the prevention of its users being the victim of another party deliberately exploiting those vulnerabilities, as well as a slew of other bug fixes and improvements in stability and performance.

 

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Internet News – January 2018

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