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Global network security in a state of crisis

October 13th, 2011

Is global network security in a state of crisis? I think so.

I was at the RSA Conference Europe this week, with client Wave Systems (www.wave.com) where the best minds and leading commentators networked, shared ideas and worked the business.

There were enough stories of defence breach there to back the case for crisis.

But having a crisis doesn’t mean that it’s not manageable and the directions offered by the conference were confident, sanguine and believable.

We’re seeing a growing understanding that software in the device and at the network layer cannot provide the level of protection we need in this ‘anytime, everywhere’ connectable universal space.

Warwick Ashford wrote a fine article around this in Computer Weekly today. He quotes Eddie Schwartz, chief information security officer at RSA and it is a telling statement:

“One of the goals of any organisation’s security strategy should be to create new intelligence about attackers and attack methods rather than rely only on what is already known.”

How this will pan out over the next year is moot but we have to move from reaction to awareness in network security strategies.

At the same time, we should be making sure that our defences are the best. Layered software, in the device and at the network level just does not cut it. We should begin with an understanding that network security starts in the device. Secure that, and everything follows, right up to the management layers.

We’re in a war zone and it is endless. We will never find the silver bullet to solve all our network security problems because the hackers on the dark side will always be probing and testing our defences. Right now, we are making them look good because we donot implement the best solutions.

But we are better than them. We just need to wake up, move faster and keep running ahead.

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Go well, Steve Jobs – nothing good ever lasts

October 6th, 2011

One story about Steve Jobs. When I was a journalist, I tried so hard to get an interview with the man but he was “always too busy”. That just added to his value.

One time, we were sharing stories in a bar, as creative writers do. This environment is all about topping the last anecdote and a Mac magazine editor topped it that night. Steve is holding a tech-creative meeting. The guys know they’ve nailed it. It’s perfect. They play their deck. Steve doesn’t move. For three seconds. Then he slowly lowers his head to the desk. And says: “No. No. No!”, banging his head in perfect rhythm.

The man was passionate. About everything, He was also the greatest story teller we have seen in the past 150 years.

Because he understood.

I posted this video link a while back. Now everyone is using it (I stole that line from Steve :).  Go well, and thank you.

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Network security breaches move into crisis phase

September 23rd, 2011

Network security breaches are moving way beyond the ‘hacker quest for notoriety’ stage and we’re now in crisis.

While the lexicon for data breach is changing at bewildering speed, the sustained attacks from organised criminal gangs violate our network space on an hourly basis. If you have been hacked – and I was way back – you will know the sense of powerlessness, rage and fear that this brings.

In my case, it was a concerted attack on and control of a range of IP addresses that was then used by the hacking group to mount a sustained attack and penetration of NASA. My IP range was secure and safe but others in the range were not. The penetration began at the end-device level and moved from there to server-side.

Image of wasteland - results of hacked cyber-crime

Wasteland: cyber-crime steals the future

The initial attack led first to a wipe out of websites access, then barring by the naming authority, which I thought was akin to crucifying the victim of a robbery. Meanwhile, the hacker group penetrated and accessed NASA data.

But that experience taught me two things. First, the onus and focus was on the user to secure and nail down their network, whether shared or unique. Second, the software-based security solutions were not adequate.

If that was true in 2001, it’s even more valid now.

We’ve seen in the past week details of the sustained cyber attack on Mitsubishi and news around the threat of malware embedding deep in the BIOS.

I’ve been monitoring the network security landscape for two years, as part of the job at Liberate Media. It’s scary. Every week, there is a raft of stories around network breach of organisations of every type.

Worse, the number of breach reports is increasing month on month. These are only the tip, remember. Many countries do not require breach and data loss reporting, currently. That is about to change in the UK and Europe.

What this will do the breach statistics is anybody’s guess – but I would place a very big bet that the rate of breach will not go down.

The Guardian has just published a lengthy, informative blog post by author Misha Glenny that, between the scare-ware info, describes the breadth and depth of the organised cyber-crime dark side. Worth a read.

Time to wake up?

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Latest iPad 3 Rumours

September 7th, 2011

The latest iPad 3 rumour to hit the street is all about the battery. It is apparently thinner and lighter than the iPad 2 battery according to this source.

The iPad 3 is expected to hit the streets in February 2012 or it could be as early as September as indicated in this report. The new battery will be 20-30 per cent more expensive than the current battery used in the iPad 2, which might make new iPad more expensive.

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Malware variant poses new threat to financial institutions globally

August 30th, 2011

If you have ever been hacked, you will know the sense of powerlessness that this assault brings. And with it, a desire to avoid that feeling again at all costs. On the personal level, it is destructive enough, but at the corporate level, the outcomes are usually disastrous, both financially and in terms of reputation.

The war with professional hackers is escalating and it is truth that the terrain has shifted from the sociopathic individual or small groups to well-organised, commercially-focused criminal units that employ a rapidly-evolving arsenal to breach corporate network defences.

Image of computer screen and hand giving out cash ramnit-worm-morphs-into-financial-infostealer

Image: A1 Enterprise

The latest in this armoury was highlighted by TechTarget’s security wing – the Ramnit worm variant. Robert Westervelt wrote an incisive article, published last Thursday that exposed the threat to banks across the world.

The Ramnit worm was, until recently, seen as a low-level malware threat but Robert identified how cyber gangs behind the worm have transformed it into financial-focused malware capable of draining bank accounts, using what may be bits and pieces of the publicly-available Zeus malcode to make it more effective.

Ramnit has been around for just over a year and was used to infect Microsoft Windows executable files. After infection, the malware stole saved FTP credentials and browser cookies.

But researchers at Trusteer, a Boston desktop security vendor have identified a new attack method built into the Ramnit worm.

This new strand of malicious code may well emanate from the Zeus Trojan family and it supports ‘man-in-the-browser’ attacks, allowing criminals to bypass two-factor authentication, modify Web pages and covertly insert banking transactions.

We know that the Zeus Trojan family can have serious consequences. A little more than a year ago, an unnamed UK financial institution was the victim of a Zeus Trojan. The gang leading the attack stole £675,000.

We don’t know yet whether the Ramnit variant has been used to attack corporates in the wild but the seriousness of the threat is clear – the malware can syphon off bank accounts but stay invisible to users and host applications.

What is also very clear is that this variant and others like it, can be evolved rapidly, which should give corporates serious pause for thought in their network security operations.

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Tim Cook, Apple futures, the Tablet & Smartphone economies and the long shadow of Steve Jobs

August 25th, 2011

Tim Cook stepped up last night as the new CEO of Apple Computer, as Steve Jobs stood down, and if you were to find a better man to step into the shadow of the best company leader in the world, then you would be a genius.

Tim Cook has been joined at the hip with Steve Jobs since 1998 and probably mind-melded with the leader around 2003, when the retiring Apple CEO first found out that he had pancreatic cancer.

Tim is the son of an Alabama shipyard worker and at-home Mom. In the last financial year, he earned $59.1million (£36.3 million), including a $5 million cash bonus and $52.3 million in stock options. He has sold also more than $100 million of his stock options since joining Apple. He still rents his house in Palo Alto, California.

Tim Cook Apple CEO with Steve Jobs 2011

Tim Cook, Apple CEO: joined at the hip with Steve Jobs

To me, that means Tim is an Apple man body and soul, not an automobile salesman wannabe. He is the difference between Apple tanking and the company continuing to dominate and innovate. He comes from a different mould to the Apple CEOs who almost drove the company out of existence in the 1990s. He is a man I would trust with my last dollar.

The stock markets currently feel differently (bless!). They have given their totally rational, master-of-the-universe take on the news by selling Apple stock big-time. As an aside, if you were to search the ends of the earth for a CEO of the world’s biggest company by market value (Apple), you really would want to steer well clear of this highly-educated and terminally stupid class of people in your candidate selection.

The new Apple CEO comes into the job that effectively he has been co-owning for the past five years at least, with a clear understanding that the yo-yo’s in the trading houses (a.k.a The Future) have marked him down.

I doubt whether he, or the Apple board, will lose too much sleep. In the time he has been shadowing Steve Jobs, Apple stock has gone from $6.56 to $403. Currently (Thursday afternoon BST), it’s trading at $371.41. Time to buy!

That said, Steve Jobs does cast a long shadow. He rescued Apple from extinction and his rare genius in marketing has been a large part of the reason why the company has become the most powerful, influential and successful technology company of all time. Even ‘The Really Stupids’ in the stock exchange houses could see, finally, that Steve Jobs = Money.

Now, while they flail around like non-swimmers (always out of their depth), Apple is simply moving on. The Succession Plan has been written and rehearsed, and is now being acted out. Apple, with the retreat by HP from the Tablet space (which it championed for three years), now owns the Tablet/Slate market and I cannot see a single effective competitor.

The Tablet Economy is so new, and with so much potential, that we can only guess and discuss, and help its development. I believe the iPad will fundamentally reshape the business and consumer device sectors globally over the next five years because it fulfils the needs and desires of people who live in these sectors – indeed, they are the same people.

iPad in five years will be recognisable on the outside – the same beautiful design but unrecognisable in the way it connects to, engages with, and learns from the people using the device.

With the Tablet space sewn up for the next 18 months at least, Apple has a bigger battle on its hands with the Smartphone market. Android handsets continue to eat into the iPhone market share and only the recourse to law has put some temporary obstacles in their way.

While the Tablet market can be further ring-fenced through innovation that might include closer tie-in with broadcast TV – iPad link scanning of TV adverts, for example – the iPhone challenge is much more complex but it is a battle that Apple can win.

Rumours of a budget-range of iPhones abound and the idea makes good commercial sense. The biggest mobile handset players have seriously lost the plot, yet continue to own the budget handset space globally. The move into this market, with a handset that delivers the classic usability of the iPhone, the cachet of the brand, and at a reasonable price point, should prove exceptionally profitable.

In the applications space, Apple still holds sway in terms of business and entertainment apps that users love, for the right reasons. This also gives Apple an opportunity to move from the consumer space into the new, more fluid environment that it has helped to shape – where the lines between consumer and business device are being blurred.

Remember, Tim Cook was central to this movement and will be the leader of the brightest and best technology team in the world. The iPad and the iPhone resonate with our needs and untrammelled desires. The design and education sectors also respond, if not on price, certainly with desire to the unrivalled hardware and software that Apple continues to produce: Final Cut Pro, iTunes, MacBook, iMac, Mac Pro, iPod and iCloud.

There was a time, pre-Jobs’ return, when Apple aficionados spent their time waiting for the next big Fail. We’ve got out of the habit over the past decade and, do you know, there is no chance of us joining that Loser queue again.

Best of luck to Tim Cook – but I somehow think he’s not going to need it, even with the long and generous shadow of Steve Jobs.

We will have time to reflect and understand more about this Quiet Man of Apple over the coming year but for now watch a rare video of Tim Cook here:

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The security challenge of iPads and Smartphones in the networked workplace

August 19th, 2011

Image of smartphone ipad tablet business network security

We’ve seen the figures that show how consumer mobile devices, like the iPad and Smartphones, are ubiquitous in the developed economies. Like many savvy, perhaps sad, shoppers, I waited for iPhone 4.0 and still await iPad3.

As consumers, we know their value but as business professionals, we are still relatively unaware of their costs. As business networks have expanded into the wild through laptop and notebooks, the complexities of network management have increased exponentially.

The IT network security officers and their teams are working overtime to ensure that every business mobile device in their companies is safe and secure. They have a handle on the laptops and the notebooks, using a range of protective measures, but the security terrain continues to shift, and the legacy security solutions they work with struggle to provide the regulations-compliant and truly effective levels of protection.

Enter the tablets and Smartphones. These are currently as welcome to security managers as Jeremy Clarkson at a climate-change rally. These devices, wonderful and useful as they are in the individual context, offer only pain in the business world.

While these devices have embedded hardware and software processes that ensure secure authentication and protection of data within the confines set by the device manufacturers and network providers, linking them to the corporate network is fraught with challenges.

It would not be unreasonable for a business professional to request corporate network access through their Smartphone and Tablet. Indeed, many are doing so. Rob Bamforth, from Quocirca, has a good view on this in his blog post. Worth a read.

Security managers are responding to the pressure from staff who want to connect to the business network through their mobile devices by finding new layers of software protection that can enable secure connectivity.

Whether this is a stop-gap and not entirely safe process is uncertain. We can be certain that if it is not, there will be security breaches, with all the financial costs involved, together with the much more important erosion of trust.

IT security professionals struggle daily with legacy systems that they know are susceptible to breach.

With the advent of Tablets and new-generation Smartphones, the pressure on these legacy systems has become more intense.

The good news is that the network security companies have not been sleeping. Far from it. The best-in-class solutions that can embrace and fully protect the new range of corporate mobile devices are being fully tested now.

Whether these are pure-play software layered security network solutions or those based on embedded hardware, activated, authenticated. enabled and controlled from the business network security centres, we will see these in the market and being rapidly adopted over the next year. The best will win – and so will we all.

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Measuring the value of search

August 12th, 2011

Image of jigsaw piece representing Value. McKinsey measuring value of search liberatemedia

McKinsey has just published a fulsome research document – “Measuring the Value of Search” – and in its 52 pages, the study seeks to move towards a measured understanding of the economic value of Search.

The fact that the company has assigned seven associates within the McKinsey Global Institute to research, develop and deliver this detailed report speaks volumes – perhaps a final step in the migration of Search from voodoo tech periphery to central board-level acceptance.

The C-level executives want to know what’s going on with Search because they have one eye on the bottom line and McKinsey is precise, delivering the descriptive value answers for a full range of sectors, enough to convince while leaving space for further queries.

The value descriptions and supporting evidence are truly impressive and please don’t stop reading just because the UK didn’t make the final country list (Brazil, France, Germany, India, and the United States). There’s a wealth of information that we can learn from these economies. I’ll use dollars as currency mark for this post.

You’d need to register to get the full report – worth it. The team has contributed in great detail to our understanding of the economic value of search.

The McKinsey team (Jacques Bughin, Laura Corb, James Manyika, Olivia Nottebohm, Michael Chui, Borja de Muller Barbat and Remi Said) use country-level analysis as a base. The team estimates that the total gross value of Internet search across the global economy was $780 billion in 2009, equivalent to the GDP of the Netherlands or Turkey.

They suggest that, using this this estimate, each search is worth about $0.50.

The team report that $540 billion (69 per cent), around 25 times the annual value added (profits) of search companies, flowed directly to global GDP through e-commerce, advertising revenues and higher corporate productivity.

The McKinsey team puts out a peach of a statistic for the remaining $240 billion (31 per cent), which does not show up in GDP statistics; rather it is captured by individuals through consumer surplus, from unmeasured benefits, such as lower prices, convenience and the time saved by swift access to information.

The team believes that these economic benefits are valued at around $20 a month for consumers in France, Germany, and the United States and at $2 to $5 a month for their counterparts in Brazil and India.

In retail sectors, the McKinsey team estimate that the value of search in 2009 equalled 2 per cent of total annual revenues in developed nations and 1 per cent in the developing countries researched. This value flowed directly from online shopping and online research that led to an in-store sale. US retailers saw as much as $67 billion in search-related revenues, Brazil’s retailers as much as $2.4 billion.

Another top statistic: knowledge workers in the countries researched experienced search-related productivity gains of up to $117 billion, flowing from faster and more accurate access to information.

The team identified emerging sources of search-related value, including the rise of new niche (or “long tail”) retailing, as search techniques help consumers access ever-narrower product segments and new business models respond to consumers who search through their mobile devices.

The predictive element of the study is brief and understandable, given the educative nature of the document and its intended audience. I often forget, working the febrile world of social media and PR, that time is relative. With that in mind, the report cautions us that Search is “at an early stage of its evolution”, just 20 years in age. There’s much more to do.

And I respect the team’s view on the future because, well, it just seems coolly analysed and right for the audience it wants to address. The report advises: “Search technology will need to develop to keep pace with what it has helped unleash, namely, a fast-growing volume of online content: one study estimated that the amount of digital information will grow a factor of 44 from 2009 to 2020.”

That’s a wake-up call for corporates. To survive, they will need to have Search in their bones and understand every element, from SEO value and measurement through to mobile dominance, social web and search, curation and beyond. Slow is not an option.

Meanwhile, we live and die, relatively, by the rule of measurement and the McKinsey team has given us a wealth of useful data for free, which is a damn fine thing.

So please don’t think I’m being churlish but I’d really like to know how McKinsey sets up its SEO. I ran a range of terms on Google and this important data was invisible apart from the direct request “Measuring the Value of Search”. Maybe the company does not want to share its knowledge globally, content to share in a strange close garden.

But if it believes in the data from its research team, surely it would want to at least dance with Search – and measure the benefits; talking and walking.

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Looking for MIT brilliance as UK burns

August 10th, 2011

Image of burnt sofa Liberate Media MIT battery brilliance

We could all do with some decent PR distraction during the UK riots. Tony Blair and Alasdair Campbell were masters of this tactic. But I look around and can’t easily see the objects that would take people’s minds off the awfulness of our situation in the UK.

So, instead, I looked to the United States, a strange and terrifying place that refined the culture of Debt and made it Good. But at the same time it bursts with ideas and energy that always suggest hope, belief and progress.

Give you an example. I’ve been following the development of new battery technologies at MIT, from the announcement in 2009 of a liquid battery that could provide the solution to storing energy captured by solar panel farms.

The all-liquid battery: discharged (left), charging (middle), and charged (right). Molten magnesium (blue) is the top electrode, in the middle is the electrolyte (green), and molten antimony (yellow) is the bottom electrode. Image credit: Arthur Mount.

The MIT all-liquid battery: discharged (left), charging (middle), and charged (right). Molten magnesium (blue) is the top electrode, in the middle is the electrolyte (green), and molten antimony (yellow) is the bottom electrode. Image credit: Arthur Mount.

Unlike conventional batteries, the prototype was made of all-liquid active materials. Donald Sadoway, a materials chemistry professor at MIT, and his team built first versions of the liquid battery, and showed that the materials could quickly absorb large amounts of electricity, as required for solar energy storage.

It could be an answer to the biggest challenge facing large-scale solar-power energy – finding an effective way to store the energy, essential for using the electricity at night or on cloudy days, from large-scale solar farms.

The researchers hope to bring the liquid battery to market over the next five years. Connecting the batteries into a giant pack to supply electricity for a big city would require nearly 60,000 square metres of land. Such a pack could store energy from enormous solar farms, which would replace current power plants and transmission lines as they become obsolescent.

MIT is also racing ahead with nearer-term battery solutions such as fast-charging battery technology for cars, and amazing progress in the development of lithium-air (lithium-oxygen) batteries that should replace current rechargeable units (think tablets, mobile handsets) because they can hold much more energy.

These are examples of brilliance that will help to change the way we live, developed by teams of committed academics in an environment that supports, rewards and pushes for success at every level.

They are Big Ideas, not only because they are brilliant but also because they are socially focused and make you very glad to be alive.

Could Camo PR come up with positive distractions like this in the UK? I do hope so.

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It’s official! Facebook does not rot your brain

August 8th, 2011

A very black week indeed for millions of us across the world but I did see a scintilla of light at the weekend because it’s official – Facebook does not make you brain dead, autistic, sociopathic, psychopathic or any other –“ic”. Hooray!

The incredibly productive Jamie Doward (and Nick Boyle) told us in the Observer newspaper that “Logging on to computers helps us get out more, insist economists … Internet’s social networks and access to information bring people together and keep us sociable, not lonely”.

Three economists – Stefan Bauernschuster, Oliver Falck and Ludger Woessmann of the Ifo Institute in Munich – reject the claim that the internet isolates people and erodes traditional social foundations. They will explain in detail through their paper presented at the Lindau Meetings towards the end of this month (August 2011).

The trio say their work demonstrates the internet is actually making us more socially active. The study shows that a home broadband connection positively influences social activities of adults as well as children.

Yet, less than 28 weeks ago we were being reliably informed that social networking was well dodgy, as tide of cyber-scepticism swept the US and here, (but in an understated British way). The coverage around Twitter and Facebook suggested that a rising number of academics believe that social networks don’t connect people – they isolate them from reality.

These academics pointed to the way in which people frantically communicate online via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging which could be seen as a form of modern madness.

The story rolled out a leading American sociologist, MIT professor Sherry Turkle who was quoted at the time as saying: “A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological.”

Mind you, she was publicising her book, Alone Together, apparently was “leading an attack on the information age.”

Madness? Pathological behaviour? Hardly. I agree with the three economists – the internet is a force for social good. Other networks, ooh let’s say, the financial global networks, are a force for bad. These are the networks that rot our brains, make us feel powerless and stupid.

They are weapons of mass destruction and they will kill us all, slowly but surely. Perhaps Professor Turkle and her Facebook-fearful colleagues might want to turn their forensic gaze towards these networks and leave the socialising to us?

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