Hazards of a computerized world

Sometime ago I watched a movie on T.V. called “I Robot”. It was about a time when robots did human office jobs with three rules to keep humans safe. However a detective becomes concerned that not everything is as it seems when the founder of U.S. Robotics is thought to have killed himself. He enlists the help of a robot and finds that a humanoid robot murdered him, and in doing so discovers a sinister conspiracy to enslave the human race to robots.

Call it what you wish, but I think I Robot raises some interesting, if not slightly disturbing questions about the extent to which we should rely on robots. But it also touched I thought on a deeper question about how much faith we should put in computers. Because without doubt the threat of cyber crime, cyber terrorism and possibly cyber violence – where machines commit acts of violence because the computer controlling them has gone rogue.

In the world of Star Wars, where droids perform all sorts of functions as manufacturing clones, being guards at military installations, serving as the flight mechanic in the starfighters and of course being C-3PO and R2D2, flashes of a mechanized world can also be seen. I particularly remember one incident where Admiral Ackbar and Commander Wedge Antilles have a disagreement about over whether the Commander, who wants to move his squadron somewhere after an exhausting operation is told to rest or a droid will be ordered to sedate him. Whilst I don’t see droids taking the place of nurses in the immediate future, it did raise an interesting question about the ethical issues that would arise should this ever happen.

Much more immediately though there are two particularly concerning cases that have come to my attention about instances of automated transport not going as it should. One involves a car and the other an aircraft.

The self driving car may sound great in theory, but does the potential for the computer controlling one to be hijacked or go rogue without reason raise any concerns? They should.

Does the potential for the computers on board an airline to go rogue cause you any concern as a passenger? It should. A case has already happened with a Q.A.N.T.A.S. flight where the computer suddenly stalled the aircraft sending it into a potentially catastrophic plunge for several hundred feet not once but twice in a matter of minutes. Yes, it is true that millions of people fly totally safely every day around the world. It is true that aviation is the safest form of transport by a long shot. Still, if a computer controlling an aircraft can go rogue on its own, what could it at the hands of a cyber hacker or if the aircraft has no manual over rides?

The potential for cyber hackers either acting on their own or at the directive of a Government or terrorist organization to take control of vital data systems and websites was graphically demonstrated last weekend. A ransomware bug called “Wanna Cry” was set loose by hackers and it struck 100 countries over about 48 hours. It takes computers hostage and threatens the owner with the loss of their files unless they comply with demands. To recover their files in the case of Wanna Cry, several hundred dollars worth of Bitcoin currency to a specified address. To ensure it was not dismissed as a joke full recovery was only possible if the specified demands were met within 3 days; partial recovery could be enabled by typing the word decrypt in like this: <decrypt> or full recovery by paying the specified amount.

And also, do we want to end up like the Simpsons do in one episode (or maybe it is the movie), where they move to a house where nobody has to do anything – it is all done for them by robots? Having literally all the time each day to do whatever you wish might seem great, but the Simpsons came to regret it.

The need to teach our senior citizens about scams

Recently there have been a spate of phone calls from “Microsoft Tech Support” or similar. The other day my home was rung by a person claiming to be a Micosoft technician. These are where people ring you claiming to be from Microsoft tech support and ask you for access to your computer so that they can access your computer. They tell you that there is a bug or a virus on your computer and that they can fix it.

Whilst many people will not fall for these scams, there are a couple categories of people who quite potentially will. One are the elderly who are easy prey, and can be quite vulnerable if they live alone and in need of any sort of contact. They very possibly do not understand the implications of what the callers are trying to get one to do, or they believe that there really is a problem with their computers. A degree of trusting that everything is genuine makes things easy. Other instances will involve them not being strong enough to simply say they are not interested and hang up.

Smell a rat? You should. There are several warning indicators that something is not quite right about this:

First and foremost, these people who ring you are most likely scammers. Most likely they are calling from another country. By ringing you, they are in effect acting as an agent for a potential trojan horse by getting you to lower your defences so they can insert something improper into your computer.

Second, Microsoft tech support will not ring you. In fact this is what the real Microsoft says about these scams – the information might not be specific to a New Zealand audience, but the implications are clear:

  1. This behaviour is a criminal offence in New Zealand
  2. Your computer can be exposed to malware, viruses, have data stolen off it or even completely hijacked
  3. If your system is in a network or open, you might be exposing other people and their machines to whatever illegal software that was put on your computer

So how do these scams work? The caller will most probably be calling from somewhere overseas. They might provide a fake number in your country to make their scam look more believable like an 09 area number from Auckland. These callers can be very aggressive. They are probably under pressure from their boss to churn through a set number of calls during their work until they get someone who bites and does what they want. The scams might be variations of old ones, but they all purport to be from Microsoft.

The simplest and most effective thing to do is simply say “Not interested” and hang up. In the case of the phone call to my place, the person who answered asked for their phone number, and the caller said “Fuck you”, at which point the person who answered hung up. If your phone records the number, do pass it on to your phone service provider and tell them it was a scam call. This will enable them to build up a picture of illegal activity going on, and possibly help the authorities bring the scammers to court.


Drones: the good, the bad and the ugly

To the tech nerd they are possibly the new craze on the block. Anyone who has seen a drone in the There is no doubt that the use of drones will continue to increase. So too will the applications for which they are used. Most applications will be perfectly legitimate and some even beneficial. But there will also be applications for which drone use must be frowned upon. So, taking a play on the title of the movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, how do drones stack up?

The Good

Anyone who has been in Christchurch involved with the demolition of unstable buildings or ones in tricky to reach spots where foot access may not be practical, the use of drones to ascertain the layout of the property and identify hazards might well be the safest and easiest option. With a camera and live data stream back to the operator, its ability to quickly get an overview in real time and relay the data ensures that not only can the operator see what is going on, but can refer back as necessary.

I first saw a drone with absolute clarity when the Christchurch Police Station was imploded at the end of May 2015. Hovering overhead at about 70 metres, with its owner on the roof of an adjacent building it was one of several used to record the very public felling, watched both in person and on the internet by thousands of people, thanks to its data stream.

The bad

Unfortunately there are a few users out there who are likely to have malicious intents. There will also be a few out there who have not considered privacy issues, or not thought about the hazards of launching drones around facilities such as airports where public safety could be jeopardized. These are the users who need to be cautioned before they break the law or wonder why someone tried to down their drone. Most will comply, but the ones that do not should have their machines confiscated.

The ugly

Drones also have military uses. Whilst some of the uses might be good, such as conducting surveillance over large areas of territory, drones have been implicated in some very questionable attacks in the so called “War on Terrorism”. These attacks have stemmed from attempts to liquidate senior Islamic State officials as well as al-Qaida militants among others. In doing so they have exposed a very grey area of international law in terms of assassinations and invading other nations air space. But more tragically drones have murdered innocent people. Wedding parties have been an unfortunate but common target. No one has been charged with anything yet and the U.S. military says the orders come from senior military officers or the C.I.A.

And a cautionary tale

However, there are privacy issues that go with remote controlled drones, whose operator cannot be seen. In the week just ending Domino’s pizza announced it was working with the Government to develop a drone that could deliver pizza’s to a person’s door. Although this might seem economical to Domino’s as it would avoid having to pay staff to deliver the pizza’s by foot, serious and perhaps irreconcilable issues with the customers privacy may arise.  This is because the drone will be storing data necessary for it to fly to the location where the customer lives. In the time it takes at the property delivering the pizza’s it could be collecting data about the layout of the property and activities, or people living there gathered by its video feed. The customer will only have Domino’s – most likely spoken and not written – word that it wipes the data from the drone and does not store it in any form.



The Pokemon craze: a view from the fence

It is difficult to describe how fast Pokemon Go caught on other than it spreading like wild fire. In the roughly five weeks since Pokemon Go was released it has caught the worlds attention in a way no other social media app, game or other feature has managed to. Nations all over the world have caught the craze. The game has brought $160 million in revenue and rewritten the records set by games such as Candy Crush.

Overall Pokemon Go seems to have had some surprising benefits, including major surges in people visiting monuments, religious sites and surprisingly even benefits for law enforcement trying to engage with communities. But with Pokemon Go’s success are coming a number of growing problems. People with disabilities have found that the game is difficult to play because of the physical mobility required to walk places, and groups representing disabled people have sent lists of suggested modifications to the makers in an effort to enable more people to play it.

In some parts of the world Pokemon has become a problem with players being accused of showing disrespect at monuments. In the latest news the Peace Park at Hiroshima surrounding the building above which the first nuclear bomb used in war exploded has been made off limits to Pokemon players. Around key social infrastructure such as fire stations and railway stations bans have been implemented for safety and practical reasons. Numerous countries and institutions have banned or limited its use for varying reasons. In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the game is simply not available in the country because the religious authorities consider it to be a security threat and Saudi Arabia has issued a fatwa against it on the grounds of gambling (despite almost certainly having never played it).

Pokemon’s success has caused other problems as well. So many people are playing it that there has been an inevitable spike in road accidents caused by inattention as some fail to get their priorities right and focus on driving their vehicles instead of playing the game.

I personally do not see the point of Pokemon. However, convinced as I am that it will just be a passing phase I am happy to let it go as long as it does not unduly hinder what I do. Phases come and go all the time in this age of social media and my guess is Pokemon will start to wane in the next couple of months as the nobility of it wears off.


Windows 10: Making up for past failures (and hopefully not repeating them)

It is here. Windows 10, Microsoft’s much vaunted follow up to the powerful, yet at the same time sluggish, Windows 8 has arrived. Sitting in the task bar of my computer as it probably is on millions of computers around the world is a white Microsoft icon that is the doorway to an upgrade to Windows 10. The upgrade is free – the reasons for my delay upgrading are more personal than any perceived or known issue with the new Operating System. So how is Windows 10 going?

Thus far, the commentary I have seen has been very positive. And from Microsoft’s perspective, after the mediocre reception to Windows 8, which was viewed as going too far too fast, without really perfecting some of the features, it is just as well. Windows 8, to be totally fair, is actually a very powerful system and compared with the previous Operating Systems including Windows 7, but in particular the universally popular XP, quite secure. XP’s demise, now assured by the absence of Microsoft updates and security patches for over a year, was a fantastic system, which many people preferred to remain with or wait until Windows 7 came out instead of upgrading to Vista. However XP had numerous and growing security issues that made the potential danger to the user, unacceptably high.

Vista’s failures have been well documented. Although it sought to address some of the security issues and offer a newer Operating System to XP, its functionality was flawed. Many employers refused to use Vista and elected to instead wait for the roll out of Windows 7. This Operating System, has proven very popular and in many ways has been to Windows 8/8.1 what XP was with Vista – a case of the newest not necessarily being the best. However Windows 7 is now in the extended  Many are still on Windows XP. In India for example numerous Government departments were still running on XP, though that might have been more due to internal planning and operating issues in the individual departments than not being able to upgrade to a newer Operating System.

But back to Windows 10. In light of the previous Operating Systems and what has appeared to be a pattern of 2 steps forward 1 step backwards, Windows 10 definitely appears at this point to be a case of two steps forward. In order to put some distance between Windows 8/8.1 and Windows 10 it skipped Windows 9 as a name. First and foremost, Microsoft has made upgrading from Windows 7 or 8/8.1 free for the first year of Windows 10, which has certainly encouraged rapid uptake of the new Operating System. Among the improvements, Microsoft has acknowledged the popularity of the Start menu, which disappeared with Windows 8 and 8.1. Another improvement it has made is to reconcile the user interface on mobiles with desktops – something that had been like children feuding.

With this kind of feedback I can see a strong case for joining the throngs of people who are enjoying Microsoft’s latest offering. I can see that Microsoft has managed to redeem itself in much the same way it did with Windows 7 following the failure of Vista. Now it just remains to be seen whether or not the 2 steps forward 1 step back pattern continues.