Once I’ve typed in a message, shared a video, or uploaded a photo to a social media website like Facebook or Twitter, I tend to forget about it. I assume that if I check back days or even weeks later, the status update or tweet will still be there, safely stored…somewhere. That “somewhere” is in one of tens of thousands of data centers, each filled with many, many servers that physically preserve the vast quantity of information flowing over the internet every day. But while it’s easy to forget about data centers, they are having a huge impact on our energy grid—and our environment.
How does the Internet work? The question is much easier to mock than to answer, but this video from the World Science Festival manages to beautifully illustrate one of the essentials of Internet communication, explaining how information stored on a server in Los Angeles travels in packets to a computer screen in England.
[via Boing Boing]
The savvy Web user knows that the Internet isn’t all fun and games. There are plenty of companies out there watching every move a user makes, with an aim to sending their way ads they will click on. But just how many companies are tracking you can be shocking, especially when you don’t know what they know about you, and you have never in your life heard of them before.
On Wednesday Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic published a piece he had been working on at least since January, when he first tweeted about Collusion, a plug-in built by a Mozilla engineer that keeps a record of all the sites you have been to in a browsing session and all of their ghostly, behind-the-scenes counterparts: the sites that keep track of what you do on each site. I installed Collusion when I saw his tweet, and I immediately saw that visiting a single site could pick me up more than 20 trackers.
Two weeks ago, an accident in the Red Sea sliced through three fiber-optic telecommunications cables that carried phone calls and connected Internet users in Africa and the Middle East. Then, on Saturday, a ship dropped its anchor at an inopportune spot off the Kenyan city of Mombasa, severing another cable. With those four cables out of commission, a single cable is left to shuttle information into and out of East Africa, slowing down connection speeds by 20% in six countries in the regions for weeks until the other cables are fixed.
It seems, in the increasingly interconnected and wireless world, like a clumsy system at best to rely on cables crisscrossing the ocean floor—particularly when two relatively small maritime mishaps are enough to throw that system out of whack. But as Clay Dillow explains over at Popular Science, these undersea links are actually an impressively efficient, powerful, and—yes—stable way to connect the globe:
If you carry classified government information or trade secrets as part of your job, traveling in China is risky. Hackers, whether affiliated with the government, on the payroll of competing companies, or operating alone, are a constant threat, and you generally have to assume that you are never unobserved online. But a piece in the New York Times makes it exceedingly clear just how far one has to go to get even a measure of electronic privacy and security in China:
When Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, travels to that country, he follows a routine that seems straight from a spy film. Kenneth G. Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution takes precautions while traveling. He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings “loaner” devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”
This is a philosophy that Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calls traveling “electronically naked”; Jacob Olcott, a cybersecurity expert at Good Harbor Consulting, calls it ‘Business 101’ for people involved in commerce in China. Read the NYT piece for more, but here’s one more nugget that emphasizes how dangerous, in terms of information security, it is to have any contact at all with Chinese systems:
McAfee, the security company, said that if any employee’s device was inspected at the Chinese border, it could never be plugged into McAfee’s network again. Ever. “We just wouldn’t take the risk,” said Simon Hunt, a vice president.
We’ve written before about hapless business owners practically handing hackers customers’ information by failing to observe basic computer security (Subway, we’re looking at you). But this is a security fail on a whole different level. A researcher has just revealed that about ten thousand systems controlling water plants, sewage plants, and other infrastructure are online, mostly unprotected and findable with a simple search.
As the 2012 presidential race ramps up, campaigns are courting voters not only at the traditional county fairs and town hall meetings, but online—and generating, in the process, an enormous amount of data about who potential voters are and what they want. At CNN.com, Micah Sifry—an expert on the intersection of technology and politics—delves in the Obama team’s extensive efforts to mine and manage the data in a way that could help them better interact with voters and home in on important issues. He writes:
What’s the News: To much fanfare, Google has released a preview version of Google+, their long-anticipated move into the social-networking space dominated in the U.S. by Facebook, whose meteoric growth challenges Google’s dominance over the Web itself. The new service lets users send messages and pictures to each other, like Facebook, but puts more emphasis on grouping and communicating with different groups of people, as with email or in meatspace (i.e., the real world).
The two consensus early reactions (from the small group of people who have access) are that the service is mostly smooth and functional, a welcome change after Google’s social flops Buzz and Wave; and that it sure looks a heck of a lot like Facebook. Will that be enough to challenge Facebook, whose enormous base of users have uploaded much of their lives to one social network and may not want to invest time in another?
The internet can fit in here, thanks to a State Department-backed effort.
What’s the News: The US government is spearheading—and funding—projects to create “shadow” internet and mobile phone systems, the New York Times reported on Sunday. These systems would allow dissidents to share information and go online in areas where governments have cut off, censored, or severely slowed access to global internet and cellphone networks.
What’s the News: The currency on the tech world’s lips these days isn’t the yen or the yuan. It’s Bitcoin, a digital form of money that’s totally anonymous and currently valued at many times the worth of the dollar and the Euro. How does it work, what can you buy with it, and why is it making people mad?