|National Edition||Volume 14 #8||August 2004|
China has begun filtering billions of mobile telephone text messages to ensure that people do not use the very popular communication tool to undermine one-party rule. The action, announced by the official New China News Agency, comes after text messages sent between China’s nearly 300 million mobile telephone users helped to expose the national cover-up of the SARS epidemic last year. Text messages have also generated a large amount of popular outrage about corruption & abuse cases that had received very little attention in the state-controlled media. It is a sign that while China has embraced Internet & mobile telephone technology, the government has also substantially increased its surveillance of digital communications & adopted new methods of preventing people from getting unauthorized information about sensitive subjects. Government officials began making daily inspections of short-message service providers, including Internet sites & the leading mobile telephone companies. They had already fined at least 10 providers & forced at least 20 others to shut down for not properly policing messages passing through their communication systems, the news agency said. The news dispatch also said that the actual reason for the filtering was to stop the spread of pornographic messages & false or deceptive advertising as well as to block illicit news & information. All companies that are delivering mobile telephone service which includes text messages are being required to install filtering equipment that can monitor & delete messages that contain key words, phrases or numbers that authorities consider suspicious before they reach the intended end user. The companies must contact the relevant authorities, including the Communist Party’s propaganda department; to make sure they keep up with the latest lists of banned topics. Although text messaging is still in its infancy in the US, it has become a primary means of communication in China. Chinese mobile telephone users sent 220 billion text messages in 2003, or an average of 7,000 every second, more than the rest of the world combined, China Telecom data indicates. Many people with mobile telephones like text messaging because it is quieter & less expensive than making telephone calls. Messages can also be sent to multiple people—much like email—at once and, at least until this new government directive, were considered too unimportant or too technologically difficult to monitor. The authorities have become increasingly attuned to the threat posed by mobile messaging, as it has become not only a convenient way to talk & gossip, but also a competitor to the government run news business.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has reached a settlement with two individuals that it alleged were using Spam to drive unsuspecting consumers to a sexually explicit Internet site. The FTC claimed that the two people in question sent deceptively bland subject line messages along with false return addresses & empty reply-to links in an attempt to drive business to an adult site called Married But Lonely. The settlement bars the two individuals from further using the tactics & they agreed to give up over $100,000 in ill-gotten gains. The charges predate the Can-Spam act that did not go into effect until this year.
Many people think that the popular search engine Google has very good capabilities but they only know part of the story. In addition to the many search features that Google has it also has a built in calculator. Many people find this out completely by accident. The search engine also will convert units such as gallons to liters. The Google calculator will perform all normal calculator functions—add, subtract, multiply & divide—plus some others. These include raising to a power, percent, & square root. It will also do some functions that are not often found on a hand calculator & these include—trigonometric functions, logarithms & factorial. Parentheses can be used as in normal math. Results can be provided in most common units that you just have to name. You can also use hexadecimal, octal & binary numbers. The calculator understands many physical & mathematical constants. They can be used with either the long or short name. For example, km & kilometer both work, as do c & the speed of light. The Google calculator is a useful tool that most people do not know they have. Complete instructions for it can be found at www.google.com/help/calculator.html.
Microsoft & Oracle are two of the largest & oldest rivals in the software business. Now for the first time they have hammered out an agreement that will greatly help Oracle users running the Windows Operating System to write programs for Oracle databases. The move is considered by many to be a win/win for both companies. Oracle knows that at least 40% of their users are running their software under a version of the Windows operating system. By providing them better tools to write programs for the Oracle database they have a much better chance of holding on to those customers. The availability of the programming tools will also make prospective customers more likely to acquire an Oracle database. For Microsoft the agreement is just another step taken to improve its relations with the rest of the software industry that they have dominated for so many years. Officials at both companies said that this ice breaking agreement could lead to other agreements in the future.
After 25 years, COMDEX (computer dealer/distribution exposition)—which had become the world's largest trade show at the time it was sold by its founder & then falling on hard times—has been canceled for 2004. Media Live, the current owner of the show announced that its plans call for a return of the show in 2005 & an advisory board of vendors has been formed to help guide it to that goal. Media Live hopes that by repositioning the annual event they can rebuild the market's trust.
Media Live claims that they could still run a profitable COMDEX this year but it does not benefit the industry to do so without broader support of the leading technology companies. Many of the computer industry’s largest companies decided not to participate this year. In order to give the advisory board the time & opportunity necessary to partake in the redesign of the show it was thought that it was best to postpone this year's show.
COMDEX was launched in 1979 by Sheldon Adelson, who at the time was the owner of the small Needham MA based Interface Group. Adelson came up with the idea for the show after reading an issue of Computer Systems News, a former CMP Media publication that ultimately became Computer Reseller News. He saw the need for an overall event for the computer industry. The event's acronym originally stood for Computer Dealer Exposition & the show was launched as an event for the indirect computer industry channel.
Adelson grew COMDEX into a worldwide franchise with multiple venues before selling it in the mid-1990s to Softbank, which at the time also owned Ziff-Davis Publishing, for $867 million. At the time of the sale, the main show that was always held in Las Vegas, usually the week prior to Thanksgiving, attracted almost 250,000 attendees & had over 2,000 vendors displaying their newest products.
It was largely because of COMDEX that the city of Las Vegas undertook a major expansion of its convention facilities in the 1990s. It was said that there was no other place that had the necessary convention space with the required hotel rooms to host the show. Because of the crush of people the show was known for legendary tales of two-hour taxi lines & a show floor so crowded that it was very difficult to walk. The hotels in that part of Las Vegas would triple their prices for the week of the show. Top line hotels would be going for about $300 a night & even motels such as Motel 6 would charge about $100 per night.
At the time Softbank purchased the show it had several other venues around the world in addition to the main show in Las Vegas. It also had some specialty shows that were created to cater to certain parts of the computer industry. After Softbank sold the show a few years later COMDEX has had a string of owners, during which time the show has continued to shrink each year.
The show was held in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks & the results were not good, as attendance was very poor. Even some vendors pulled out at the last minute. The normal five day—Monday-Friday—show was reduced to four days in 2003. Bill Gates would usually kick off the show with a keynote speech Sunday evening & would be followed by many of the other top executives of the computer industry the next few days.
The industry downturn of the past several years caused many former exhibitors to rethink their trade show spending, & many have instead focused on smaller, more highly targeted events. At its height, COMDEX will always be remembered as the place to be in the computer industry once a year. The show created an energy & buzz that made it the place where virtually all IT vendors unveiled new products & announced their strategic directions for the coming year.
Criminal investigations into corruption & waste in the E-Rate program, a federal plan to bring Internet access to poor schools & libraries, yielded their biggest legal settlement to date. NEC Business Network Solutions, a subsidiary of NEC, the computer giant, agreed to plead guilty to two federal felony counts, one for wire fraud & one for antitrust violation, & to pay $21million in fines & restitution.
The settlement, announced in federal court in San Francisco, comes amid increasing scrutiny of the multibillion-dollar E-Rate program. Congressional hearings on the program may be held, according to Congressional staff members. Lawyers involved in the case said there were likely to be additional, & even larger, settlements with other technology vendors.
The general counsel of NEC America said in a statement: “We made mistakes with E-Rate. We have acknowledged & accepted responsibility for those mistakes, cooperated fully with the government & taken action to ensure that these problems can’t happen again.”
Established with great fanfare in 1996, the E-Rate program added a tax to telephone bills, with the proceeds to be distributed mostly to poor & rural schools. The program has been used by school districts to pay for network infrastructure, like routers & switches to direct Internet traffic, computer servers to manage the system & cables to connect them. The program gave schools the ability to seek competitive bids from vendors. But there is mounting evidence that some companies hired to provide equipment & services persuaded schools to forgo competitive bids, inflated their prices or defrauded administrators of the E-Rate program when presenting the final cost for services.
The case in question that includes NEC involved several companies & individuals who were accused of conspiring to defraud the San Francisco Unified School District & several other districts across the country. The case led to criminal charges filed by the US attorney in San Francisco, & a civil lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Unified School District.
According to the civil lawsuit, which was filed in 2001, the scheme was engineered by a company called Video Network Communications. That company, which was working with several computer companies, helped to bribe at least one school district employee to forgo competitive bids for the network infrastructure, according to the lawsuit.
That employee was the custodial supervisor of the district. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud last year & was sentenced to 21 months in prison, according to the lawyer for the school district. The suit against Video Network Communications is still pending.
According to the complaint, several computer companies, including the NEC subsidiary, persuaded the district to purchase more equipment than it needed, charging rates that yielded twice their normal profit margins, They sold the SF district stuff it didn’t need, didn’t want or didn’t know what to do with.
In a typical example, NEC persuaded the district to stock individual classrooms with powerful computer servers when the district needed just a handful of servers to manage the entire system. In addition, NEC then sent a bill to the E-Rate administrators, a quasi-governmental agency called the Universal Services Administrative Company, for tens of millions of dollars more than the actual cost of the equipment should have been.
The scheme affected five school districts in addition to the San Francisco district: two in Michigan & one each in South Carolina, Arkansas & Wisconsin. Under terms of the settlement, NEC will pay a $5million criminal fine & $16 million, including $6 million in equipment & services, to settle the suit brought by the San Francisco schools. Congress established the E-Rate program to help educate the underprivileged. However this criminal attempt to steal funds from the program comes at the expense of underprivileged children across the country.
The E-Rate program has helped millions of underprivileged schoolchildren around the country connect to the Internet. However increasing charges of fraud are tarnishing its image. A report released in the fall of 2002 by the inspector general of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that the E-Rate program was subject to an unacceptably high risk of malfeasance through noncompliance & program weakness. The inspector general office complained at that time of not having enough employees to monitor the program. They said that the program has had serious problems almost from the start because of a lack of oversight. Companies would routinely approach these poor schools & talk them into paying for computers & technology that was way beyond anything they actually needed. School districts would often end up getting stuck with a system they don’t need, or a system they could not maintain.
A spokesperson for the House Energy & Commerce Committee said that staff members had been looking into irregularities in the E-Rate program since early last year. Hearings by the Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee could start by this summer.
Smaller companies have been involved in a handful of other legal settlements of allegations of abuse of the E-Rate program, & 40 criminal investigations are continuing. The NEC settlement is the largest fine to date. Late last year, the former director of information technology for the Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to charges of fraud in connection with the E-Rate program. As part of his plea agreement, it has been reported, the official agreed to forfeit ownership of three vehicles, a new boat & seven properties.
The US Supreme Court rejected the latest attempt by the Congress to curb children's access to sexually explicit material on the Internet. However at the same time it gave the Bush administration a second chance to defend the law as a trial on its constitutionality continues to go forward in US Federal District Court in Philadelphia.
The 5-to-4 decision kept in place an order that the US District Court had issued in 1999 effectively blocking enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) until its validity can be resolved. The six-year-old law which imposes criminal penalties of as much as $50,000 a day on commercial Internet sites that make pornography available to those younger than 17, has never taken effect due to the major question of its constitutionality.
The decision was handed down on the final day of the Supreme Court's 2003-2004 term. Justice Anthony Kennedy in writing for the majority, said that the government must now show why the voluntary use of filters to screen out material unsuitable for children would not work as well as the law's criminal penalties. Filters "impose selective restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restrictions at the source," Justice Kennedy wrote. The opinion strongly suggested that the government would not be able to demonstrate that the penalties were better than filters. Not only are filters less restrictive, but they "also may well be more effective," Justice Kennedy further wrote, because they can block pornography from anywhere in the world, while the statute applies only to pornography posted on the Web from within the US. Even so, the court kept open the possibility that the law might ultimately be upheld. "This opinion does not hold that Congress is incapable of enacting any regulation of the Internet designed to prevent minors from gaining access to harmful materials," Justice Kennedy said.
Under the US Supreme Court's own First Amendment precedents, government-imposed restrictions must go no further than necessary to accomplish a compelling government interest—in this case protecting children from harmful material on the Internet. The government must show that it is using the least restrictive means to achieve its goal. It is the case of not using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.
The coalition of Internet publishers & free-speech groups that filed suit to block the law have argued that the existence of filters showed that criminal fines & prison sentences were not the least restrictive approach. A year ago, the US Supreme Court upheld a law that required public libraries to install Internet filters as a condition of receiving federal money.
In the dissenting opinion, mainly written by Justice Breyer, it was stated that there was little reason to suppose that filters would achieve the purpose of shielding children. It further said that the filtering software lacks precision & depends for its effect on parents' willingness to pay for it, install it & monitor their children's computer use. It also said that the COPA imposes a burden on protected speech that is at most very modest affecting only borderline cases.
The US Supreme Court & Congress have had a tangled relationship on the question of Internet pornography. In 1997, the court unanimously invalidated Congress's first effort at a law to control sexually explicit material in cyberspace, the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Congress responded quickly by passing the COPA in 1998, responding to a number of the court's concerns by defining pornography more precisely & limiting the reach of the statute to commercial Internet sites. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had organized the successful challenge to the first law, sued to block the new law as well, & won in both the US Federal District Court & the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia. The Third Circuit found then that the law's reference to contemporary community standards would give the most puritan of communities an effective veto over Internet content. The Supreme Court, in a 2002 decision, disagreed with that analysis & sent the case back to the Third Circuit. This time, the appeals court ruled that the law did not meet the First Amendment's least restrictive means test. The Bush administration then appealed that ruling to the US Supreme Court, leading to the current decision in Ashcroft v. ACLU.
A multimillion-dollar Microsoft reward program designed to encourage people to identify computer virus writers has led to the arrest of a teenager in Germany on suspicion of writing the infamous Sasser computer worm. Police in the northern German state of Lower Saxony arrested an 18-year-old after a search of his parents' house in Rotenburg. He has confessed to creating the Sasser worm & is also being investigated on suspicion of creating the Net Sky worm, says the Lower Saxony state crime office. The arrest came but a week after Sasser was first noted.
The worm exploits a flaw in a component of the Windows XP & Windows 2000 operating systems called the Local Security Authority Subsystem Service, or LSASS. The vulnerability was identified by Microsoft on April 13 at the same time as the company released a software patch available at www.microsoft.com to correct the flaw. Sasser is estimated to have caused trouble for millions of computer users & to have been responsible for disruptions of service at American Express, Delta AirLines, & several major universities. A reward is said to have enticed the Tip that led to the breaking of the case.
The investigation got its big break when Microsoft Deutschland was contacted by individuals who asked about the possibility of receiving a reward in exchange for information about the creator of the Sasser worm, according to Brad Smith, senior vice president & general counsel at Microsoft’s main headquarters in Redmond WA. Microsoft's investigators informed the individuals that the company would consider providing a reward of up to $250,000 if their information led to the arrest & conviction of the Sasser perpetrator, according to Mr. Smith.
The identity of the individuals isn't being disclosed. However, Smith does offer some clues as to who they are. These were individuals who were aware of who the perpetrator was, Smith says. They did not stumble upon this simply through technical analysis or some other means of searching. They knew who this individual was. But beyond that, Microsoft officials said that they were not in a position to disclose their identity.
The second clue according to Microsoft is that the number of informants was fewer than you could count with one hand. As a result of the conversation, the informants gave information to Microsoft & to local authorities in Germany. Microsoft's US headquarters was alerted to the information within minutes & an investigation was begun by the software maker, the FBI, Secret Service, & German law enforcement authorities.
Within 48 hours of the informants coming forward, the Microsoft investigators & the German police were able to identify the perpetrator of the Sasser virus & to take him into custody. This individual is believed to be responsible for all four variants of the Sasser virus.
Based on the investigation police suspect the same individual may be responsible for the Net Sky worm that first appeared in February. Ultimately there were 28 variants of the Net Sky worm & the German authorities are alleging today that all of these variants are connected to the individual who they have taken under arrest. Antivirus researchers already noted a connection between the Sasser & Net Sky worms. A new version of Net Sky that appeared in May includes a message within its code directed at antivirus companies that claims responsibility for Sasser. "Hey AV (antivirus) firms, do you know that we have programmed the Sasser virus? Yeah, that’s true," the message reads, in part.
Despite the arrest the investigation into the worm continues, Smith says. However, he declines comment on any details regarding the ongoing work of Microsoft or other investigators.
The Microsoft bounty program was roundly praised by many computer experts around the world. Microsoft launched its virus-author bounty program, initially funded with $5 million, in November last year. Hopefully, people will see this reward announcement as reason to come forward when they have information. The more information that people can provide to law enforcement, the more likely we will have an arrest & a conviction for a malicious code launcher. Microsoft was very pleased with this fast progress & the ability of law enforcement to arrest the perpetrator within seven days of the launch of the worm.
If you can use a number of good laughs—can’t we all—then the Spam Letters will prove to be a boon for you. Of course you must be willing to laugh at a situation that to many people is upsetting. That is of course the receiving of many commercial solicitations—Spam—in your email inbox.
The book is promoted as humor that fights Spam one email at a time. The book has received much media coverage including The NY Times & Entertainment Weekly. The author—Jonathan Land—claims that he receives about 400 pieces of Spam a day.
The book covers every type of Spam I knew of & some that I did not know of before reading the book. The different types are too numerous to list here but just reading the subjects was pretty funny. It still amazes me that people will fall for these promotions. It is true that the rate of response to Spam is rather low—estimated to be around one half of one percent—because of the low cost of sending it out it is still a profitable business.
The Forward itself is one of the funniest parts of the book. It is supposedly written by a Spammer or as he signs the Forward, Name Withheld, Multi-Level Marketer. One thing he states in the Forward is that many think that they pray on the elderly & the stupid. However: it is not his fault that so many fools & their money are so easily parted.
The book does not purport to be solution to Spam. It also will not reduce the amount that you receive. What it may do is change the way you look at Spam. This of course could have significant affect on how much you are annoyed or troubled by Spam.
From cheap Viagra to the get rich lures of Nigerian con men this book provides a better alternate to just clicking on the Please do not Spam me again button which usually is unfruitful. I would say that it is surely worth a look. A free sample of one chapter can be found on the Internet at www.nostarch.com/download/spamletters_ch5.pdf. The full Table of Contents is located on the Internet at www.nostarch.com/spamletters_toc.htm.The Spam Letters