E-tales: Anti-social behaviour?

Corporate culture and security back doors

Anti-social behaviour?

In the UK, an ASB order (or ASBO) has nothing to do with regular payments to or from your bank account. That’s because UK public order agencies use the acronym ASB for anti-social behaviour. Spam might easily be so described.

Companies with a big enough PR budget try to craft their “media statements” to sound like matters of genuine public interest, even when they’re just thinly-disguised sales pitches. These days the art is more crucial, with spam-filters guarding every email inbox against any hint of commercial purple prose.

Journalists generally set their filters to a fairly tolerant level in case there does turn out to be a useful news nugget buried even in the more promotional bulletins. So not much aimed genuinely at Computerworld’s writers gets diverted to the spam bin.

Hard luck ASB Bank; it was only when double-checking his junk folder that our E-taler spotted the bank’s announcement of the new “dedicated financial help team to assist ASB customers”. Funny, we thought that was an existing function of any bank.

The more things change…

Mark Bregman, chief technology officer with security and storage specialist Symantec, has been around the senior ranks of the IT industry for a long time. This included a stint at IBM, working closely with Lou Gerstner, the CEO who made major changes to that company when he joined from outside the computer industry in 1993.

On a brief visit to New Zealand recently, Bregman was persuaded to comment on that period of his career. Gerstner had made radical changes to the old, bureaucratic, IBM, he says; but Bregman told him before he left, “it’s like China” — like countries. Large companies have a style and this transcends the personal style of any president, prime minister or chief executive.

Looking at IBM more recently, Bregman says, he can see definite signs of the old bureaucratic monolith creeping back.

Raised incorruptible

Conversation with the Symantec CTO moved onto the subject of apparently politically motivated mass cyber-attacks, such as that on Estonia in 2007, and apparent intrusions into government files by hackers rumoured to have been working for rival regimes.

It would be difficult to tell, says Bregman, whether any hack came from an individual with access to a botnet, from organised crime or from “a state actor”.

Our E-taler took the chance to check another recurring rumour; has Symantec ever been asked by government agents to leave out of its software the signature of viruses exploiting a certain vulnerability, because the hole was useful for espionage or domestic law-enforcement?

“There have been some very vague conversations of that kind,” Bregman says; “we’ve been asked ‘would you be willing to leave this open’?”

Symantec has always refused, he says, hinting that even “friendly” governments ought not to entertain the idea that an international company would be corruptible in this way. After all if they were, he has told the inquirers, “the other guys” (whose nationals also provide the company with major income) might make them a more attractive offer.


Sighted through a pointer on someone’s Twitter stream – an article on Google in the UK’s Guardian last week, which questioned — again — the giant search-engine operator’s respect for its users’ privacy.

Our E-taler at first thought the Twitterer had mistyped the headline, but no, it reads: “Google: friend of [sic] foe”. He read on down, hoping that it was a clever play on words, along the lines of “friend-of-a-friend”.

But no, it appears the word should have been “or”.

Some of the blame, though, must fall on the shoulders of Christopher Scholes, the designer of the “qwerty” keyboard layout, which seems almost intended to facilitate confusion of the commonest English words.

The proximity of S and D can turn a present tense into past with a two-millimetre mis-strike of a finger.

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