Weekend news roundup

8 Nov 2010

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

Revenue uses Google Maps to catch offenders

The Sunday Independent reported how Google Earth and StreetView are the latest tools to be used against tax evaders by the Revenue Commissioners snooping to find evidence of undeclared wealth or illicit earnings.

The satellite and street view images may be used to provide evidence of major home extensions, swimming pools or other assets that could indicate wealth above the levels indicated by a person’s tax returns.

With tax returns having fallen off a cliff, the Revenue Commissioners are under increasing pressure to squeeze every last cent owed by taxpayers. Tax collected by the State has fallen from €47.3bn in 2007 down to less than €30bn forecast for this year. Revenue sources have indicated that a variety of tools, including Google Earth and social media sites, such as Facebook, could be used to probe individual cases during an investigation of undeclared income.

The use of Google Earth as a wealth-snooping tool was pioneered by the Greek tax authorities in the wake of the EU/IMF bailout of the country. Greek investigators used the satellite imagery to pinpoint swimming pools in the back gardens of people claiming welfare.

Inside Microsoft’s war room on pirates

Microsoft’s Dublin operations featured in the New York Times over the weekend where it was revealed that a crack A-Team of security sleuths are playing a leading role in battling software piracy.

Microsoft has adopted a hard-line stance against counterfeiting. It has set up a sophisticated anti-piracy operation that dwarfs those of other software makers; the staff includes dozens of former government intelligence agents from the United States, Europe and Asia, who use a host of “CSI”-like forensic technology tools for finding and convicting criminals.

Microsoft’s pursuit of software counterfeiters begins in Dublin, at one of the company’s 10 crime labs.

Donal Keating, a physicist who leads Microsoft’s forensics work, has turned the lab into an anti-piracy playpen full of microscopes and other equipment used to analyse software disks. Flat-screen monitors show data about counterfeit sales, and evidence bags almost overflow with nearly flawless Windows and Office fakes. Keating serves as the CD manufacturing whiz on what amounts to Microsoft’s version of the A-Team, clad in business-casual attire.

The undercover operative of this group is Peter Anaman, a lawyer who was born in Ghana and educated in England; he taught hand-to-hand combat to soldiers during a stint in the French army and then taught himself how to write software. Anaman has applied his software skills and training to explore a shift in piracy from groups that make CDs to those that offer downloads online.

Through three online personas — two female and one male — Anaman chats with and sometimes befriends hackers in Russia and Eastern Europe who use stolen credit card numbers to set up hundreds of websites and offer products from Microsoft, Adobe and Symantec. “It is part of gathering human intelligence and tracking relationships,” Anaman says.

A tech-led recovery?

The Irish Times reported on Saturday how EU Commissioner for Internal Markets Michel Barnier said the concentration of technology and financial services companies in Ireland will help the country “bounce back.”

Barnier also confirmed to the Oireachtas European affairs committee that Ireland will maintain control over its domestic taxation policies despite new EU plans to overhaul the Single Market.

The commissioner also met with Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan yesterday during a visit to Dublin which he described as a “sign of solidarity”.

“My conviction is that Ireland has a lot of trump cards,” Barnier told reporters, after addressing representatives of the financial services industry. “I personally am a very strong believer in your country.”

“First of all, the population of Ireland – courageous, hard-working people – have good training and good education,” he said. Ireland also has a good record of attracting high-tech companies, “which is not the case for every other country”.

Internet TV hurting cable business?

USA Today reported how TV subscribers are ditching their cable companies at an ever faster rate the past few months, and many aren’t signing up with a satellite or phone competitor.

Their willingness to simply go without pay television could be a sign that internet TV services such as Netflix and Hulu are finally starting to entice people to cancel cable, though company executives blame the weak economy and housing market.

Third-quarter results reported this week by major cable and satellite TV companies show major losses, but don’t settle the question of what’s causing them.

If “cord-cutting” in favour of internet video is finally taking hold, that has wide-ranging implications. Consumers who use the internet to get their movies and TV shows bypass not just the cable companies, but the cable networks that produce the content. The move could have the same disruptive effect on the TV and movie industries as digital downloads have had on music.

Rave culture re-emerges on the web

The Observer reported how the organisers of last week’s huge illegal rave in London say the phenomenon is driven by the lawlessness of the web and the politics of opposition. The inaugural sound check happened at around nightfall. Those present cheered. Across the city, hundreds of revellers waited, watching the web. Shortly after 7pm on 30 October, a pay-as-you go mobile number surfaced on a rave blog. Within moments, the digits were circulating through cyberspace. London’s most audacious rave for years, Scumoween: The Squat Monster’s Ball, was officially on.

Callers heard an excitable message: “Tonight’s party is on Shaftesbury Avenue, just opposite where the End used to be which is West Central Street. We’re setting up now, there’s a couple of rigs banging out music, give us a couple of hours so we can carry on setting up and you can have the biggest f—— rave to hit central London.”

By 9pm, huge crowds were assembling outside the disused parcel-sorting office on the periphery of the West End. Word spread that something “phat” was about to kick off. Encouraged by a fresh slew of texts and tweets, more ravers began descending upon the building. At 11.15pm, police were alerted that a colossal, unlicensed party was under way, triggering a chain of events that would culminate in a stand-off reminiscent of the illegal raves and the law 20 years ago.