Weekend news roundup

29 Nov 2010

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

€20m state-of-the-art fingerprint system lying idle

The Sunday Independent reported that a €20m computerised fingerprinting system which was supposed to link up with British and other European police forces to detect immigrants illegally claiming social welfare is lying unused four years after it was installed in the Garda Immigration Bureau.

It was due to be operated by civil servants as part of an integrated system linked to ports and airports and would detect people using different identities to travel, particularly between here and Britain, to claim benefits.

Gardai admit they have no way of differentiating between genuine people seeking asylum or work visas here and those using fake identities to make cross-border benefit claims. They point to the fact that during the closure of air routes as a result of the volcanic ash cloud episode earlier this year, more than 3,500 claimants failed to sign on for benefits.

The Automated Fingerprint Integrated System (AFIS) was announced in 2005 and €18m was initially set aside for its installation by 2006. It is in place in the Garda National Bureau of Immigration (GNBI) offices in Burgh Quay in Dublin City Centre, and has cost a considerable amount of extra money to keep it operational even though it has never been used.

Civilian staff hired by the garda were expected to use the system but the 50 staff at the GNIB headquarters, who are members of the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU), have refused to operate it, saying it is inappropriate for clerical staff to do a job that gardai should do.

Web transforms world’s leading political radicals

A generation of political activists have been transformed by new tools developed on the internet. In The Observer, leading net commentator Aleks Krotoski profiled seven young radicals from around the world. Like the printing press, Krotoski wrote the web has already been credited with ushering in an age of enlightenment; it is hailed, too, as the most powerful harbinger of social change the world has ever seen. The latest web technologies provide a new crop of cyber-revolutionaries access to a printing press, a radio station, a cable TV channel and more. Rather than virtual pamphleteering, they are developing technologies that take seed in grassroots communities. The power, as 20-year-old blogger and political activist Jody McIntyre puts it, is with the people.

Among the radicals profiled by Krotoski are Christopher “Moot” Poole of 4chan; Kenyan activist, lawyer and blogger Ory Okolloh of Ushahidi; blogger Jody McIntyre of Life on Wheels; Chinese blogger Han Han; Peter Sunde of The Pirate Bay; Walid Al-Saqaf of Yemen Portal; and Tom Steinberg of MySociety.

Video is killing the cable carriers

The Financial Times reports that debate is raging in the US media industry about television viewers “cutting the cord” – abandoning traditional cable TV in favour of new, cheaper online video services.

Recent data appears to support the theory that consumers are shifting online. Although the number of people subscribing to TV services offered by satellite or telecoms groups is growing, cable TV subscriptions have suffered their biggest drop in 30 years, according to figures compiled by SNL Kagan, the research firm.

It points to Netflix, the DVD subscription service that also offers movies to be streamed online, and has a share performance chart most companies would kill for.

A year ago the stock was trading at $58; last week, after 12 months in which the company began to attract attention for its willingness to buy digital rights to Hollywood movies, the shares were hovering around $187.

Rebooting robot soldiers for active combat

The US Army believes war would be safer if only it were fought by robots, says the New York Times. And while smart machines are already very much a part of modern warfare, the Army and its contractors are eager to add more. New robots — none of them particularly human-looking — are being designed to handle a broader range of tasks, from picking off snipers to serving as indefatigable night sentries.

In a mock city used by Army Rangers for urban combat training, a 15-inch robot with a video camera scuttles around a bomb factory on a spying mission. Overhead, an almost silent drone aircraft with a four-foot wingspan transmits images of the buildings below. Onto the scene rolls a sinister-looking vehicle on tank treads, about the size of a riding lawn mower, equipped with a machine gun and a grenade launcher.

Three backpack-clad technicians, standing out of the line of fire, operate the three robots with wireless video-game-style controllers. One swivels the video camera on the armed robot until it spots a sniper on a rooftop. The machine gun pirouettes, points and fires in two rapid bursts. Had the bullets been real, the target would have been destroyed.

US Govt writes to Wikileaks

The Financial Times reported that US President Barack Obama’s administration has told WikiLeaks that its plans to publish a quarter of a million US government documents could risk the lives of “countless individuals”, endanger current military operations and damage international co-operation on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to counter-terrorism.

In a letter to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, Harold Koh, the US State Department’s senior legal adviser made a last-ditch plea for the group not to release its latest “document dump”, which WikiLeaks calls the “Embassy cables”.

The documents, which were expected to be released on Sunday, were said to include classified low and mid-level State Department assessments of other governments and their leaders. US officials fear the leak could damage international relations.

WikiLeaks posted a Twitter message on Sunday that its website was under a “mass distributed denial of service attack”, in which thousands of computers contact a website simultaneously and overwhelm it.

Driving digital

The Sunday Business Post reported that IAB Ireland, the organisation that was reformed at the start of this year to promote the digital advertising market, is expanding its membership beyond the publishing sector amid high hopes for growth in 2011.

New members include advertising agencies Bark, Core Media, Cybercom, Group M, GT Media, I CAN and Ogilvy, as well as digital agencies Ad2One and Trade Doubler, and sales houses Electric Media and Digitize.

Three new media owners have also come on board: TV3, Independent News & Media and Pigsback, bringing the total to 29. The IAB says it covers around 90pc of all online advertising spend.

Formed by a group of publishers including Daft.ie, RTE and The Irish Times, IAB is now almost a year old and has just published its second set of advertising spend figures with PricewaterhouseCoopers, showing a 12.3pc increase in the first half of 2010 to €53.9m.

IAB Ireland chief executive Suzanne McElligott said the figures confirmed the growing strength of online advertising, and that she believed there was considerable growth potential next year, as broadband penetration increased and people spent more time online.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years