Weekend news roundup

17 Jan 2011

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend papers.

The art of (cyber) war

The New York Times carried an interesting story on how the Stuxnet worm originated in Israel to act as a deterrent against Iran’s nuclear development programme. The Dimona complex in the Negev desert is famous as the heavily guarded heart of Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program, where neat rows of factories make atomic fuel for the arsenal.

Over the past two years, according to intelligence and military experts familiar with its operations, Dimona has taken on a new, equally secret role — as a critical testing ground in a joint American and Israeli effort to undermine Iran’s efforts to make a bomb of its own.

Behind Dimona’s barbed wire, the experts say, Israel has spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz, where Iranian scientists are struggling to enrich uranium. They say Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms.

“To check out the worm, you have to know the machines,” said an American expert on nuclear intelligence. “The reason the worm has been effective is that the Israelis tried it out.”

Investigating the hacks who hack

The Financial Times reported that the UK Crown is about to reopen its investigation into News of the World journalists alleged to have used hacking to get stories.

The Crown Prosecution Service is to look at all evidence gathered by the Metropolitan Police in its investigation of phone hacking by the journalists, throwing open the possibility of new criminal prosecutions.

The CPS’ most senior legal adviser will study all the evidence that has come into the possession of Scotland Yard, not just information the police have submitted to the prosecutors. The news throws wide open one of the most damaging scandals to affect the newspaper industry in recent years.

It will also affect the highest echelons of the political world because it will bring new scrutiny on how much management, including Andy Coulson, then editor, knew of the illegal practice. Coulson, who has denied any knowledge of phone hacking but resigned because he decided to take responsibility, is now director of communications at No 10 Downing Street.

The decision to reopen the case followed a meeting on Friday morning between the CPS and Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the senior police officer who has already once looked at the evidence and decided that there was no need for a fresh investigation.

There has been heavy criticism of the police for restricting its investigation of phone hacking to the single News of the World reporter jailed in 2007 for intercepting the voice mail of members of the Royal household.

News International, owners of the newspaper, conducted an investigation itself which concluded that only Clive Goodman and a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, were guilty of the illegal practice.

Finding flaws in the flawless iPhone

The New York Times Joe Nocera opened a fresh broadside against Apple and its latest deal with Verizon. Nocera says the iPhone has always been plagued with serious drawbacks. The “phone” part of the iPhone has never worked very well, dropping calls with annoying regularity. Even when the phone works, the sound quality is often substandard. You would think in an age when fewer people are using landlines this would matter. Apparently not.

Meanwhile, the iPhone’s lack of a raised keyboard makes it next to impossible to do serious e-mailing. And users have to worry constantly about battery life; if they’re not judicious, the iPhone’s battery can be drained by noon.

At the Verizon Wireless-iPhone extravaganza on Tuesday — in which the two companies announced that the iPhone 4 would run on Verizon Wireless’s 3G network — Apple’s chief operating officer, Timothy D Cook, was asked why Apple wasn’t going with the carrier’s faster, newer 4G LTE network. Cook replied that doing so required “design compromises” that Apple was unwilling to make.

They never make design compromises at Apple. They make consumer compromises. Yet consumers have always been willing to overlook those compromises so they can claim they own some of the coolest products on the planet.

“People so love their devices from Apple that they are willing to put up with the stupidities,” said Larry Keeley, president of the innovation and design firm Doblin. “For many users,” he added, “especially the ones Apple loves the most, the fact that the battery gets balky is how you convince yourself to get a new one.”

Fresh fears of ATM fraud

The Irish Independent reported that customs officers at Dublin Airport have seized three ‘new generation’ skimming devices which, it is believed, can get around new ATM security equipment installed at a cost of millions of euros around the country.

A Bulgarian national, suspected of being part of a Roma gang, was detained and handed over to gardai who have been in contact with the Bulgarian police.

A customs source confirmed the three new devices were of a different design to previous ATM-skimming devices which had become largely redundant because of new anti-skimming equipment installed by the main banks.

Gardai are now concerned that a whole new round of ATM skimming could start as criminal gangs target Ireland with the new devices.

The devices are being examined to see how they work and warnings are expected to be issued to banks and the public if, as is expected, the equipment is found to be capable of getting round the bank’s new security equipment.

The number of robberies from ATMs fell off dramatically after banks installed the new counter-electronic equipment. The last major operation involved the skimming of bank card numbers at an Ulster Bank ATM in Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin last September.

It is understood the ATM in question did not have new security equipment installed – and Ulster Bank refused to say whether or not it had.

Tens of thousands were taken from customers’ accounts and the device was removed before gardai could get to the ATM. One man had €11,000 taken from his AIB account. At least 50 customers of the AIB branch in Baggot Street had money taken from their accounts.

Gardai say people should show care and cover their hand while tapping in their PIN number as the devices use a micro-camera to record the pin while the card’s magnetic strip is being copied.

The next WikiLeaks saga – financial firms to feel the heat

The Observer reports that Swiss whistle blower Rudolf Elmer plans to hand over offshore banking secrets of the rich and famous to WikiLeaks. The offshore bank account details of 2,000 “high net worth individuals” and corporations – detailing massive potential tax evasion – will be handed over to the WikiLeaks organisation in London tomorrow by the most important and boldest whistle blower in Swiss banking history, two days before he goes on trial in his native Switzerland.

British and American individuals and companies are among the offshore clients whose details will be contained on CDs presented to WikiLeaks at the Frontline Club in London. Those involved include, Elmer tells The Observer, “approximately 40 politicians”.

Elmer, who after his press conference will return to Switzerland from exile in Mauritius to face trial, is a former chief operating officer in the Cayman Islands and employee of the powerful Julius Baer bank, which accuses him of stealing the information.

He is also – at a time when the activities of banks are a matter of public concern – one of a small band of employees and executives seeking to blow the whistle on what they see as unprofessional, immoral and even potentially criminal activity by powerful international financial institutions.

Along with the City of London and Wall Street, Switzerland is a fortress of banking and financial services, but famously secretive and expert in the concealment of wealth from all over the world for tax evasion and other extra-legal purposes.

Have years of neglect hurt the Irish university system?

The Sunday Independent’s Colum Kenny points out that if you care about young people leaving Ireland then you should hope that last week’s Hunt Report on Higher Education will help them. But years of neglect and bad government have left our colleges poorly placed for the downturn. Real improvements will come slowly.

Young people are worried about work, and are already emigrating again. Some students have been sharing their anger about Ireland with me. So it was not encouraging to open the Hunt Report and see a glossy picture of Minister for Education and Skills Mary Coughlan staring out. Coughlan’s foreword is full of the high-sounding language that litters consultancy reports, of which we have had far too many instead of proper government.

She talks of creating “an innovation island” and “an international reputation of strength and excellence”, while in reality our underlying educational, health and social services are being worn down.

The Hunt Report is a step towards reintroducing fees for Irish students. Billions that might have sustained free access for the disadvantaged have gone to prop up banks and sustain their mysterious loan books. Even if politicians wanted to support the principle of equal opportunity at third level, any new government will now claim that we cannot afford to do so.

Expectations can be raised by glossy reports, but what happens on the ground is what matters. More part-time courses, online learning and performance metrics are welcome. But simply throwing more students into institutions without improved resources does not help. As universities open their doors to greater numbers, in order to boost revenue, each student gets a lesser learning experience.