FryUp: It's that time again

Has it been a very exciting tech and comms year? Maybe it's just the jaded FryUp editor, but things seem to be chugging along at rather leisurely speed

It's that time again

The end of the year is nigh! Time to adjust that rear-view mirror, and peer into it... has it been a very exciting tech and comms year? No, not really.

Maybe it's just the jaded FryUp editor, but things seem to be chugging along at rather leisurely speed, much the same as the year before. We got an anti-spam law, finally, and I hear that two spammers familiar to New Zealanders are lined up for the first prosecution under it.

It didn't stop spam arriving from overseas though, but that was a given and not really the purpose of the law. Trust me, it's excellent that spamming is illegal in the country.

Microsoft's had kind of a quiet year too, battling to get Vista under control while working on Server 2008 and Service Pack 3 of XP, not to mention all the other ambitious projects emanating from Redmond. World domination is getting closer.

Apple on the other hand is still on a roll. A mate rang yesterday, cursing until my ears turned blue and fell off because he upgraded to OS X Leopard, and got a huge amount of breakage for his troubles. But, this is Apple, it has released the iPhone, and it can do no wrong.

This is the year I started working on a production system based, from what I can tell, entirely on Open Source Software. Overall, it's been great, because yes, with some good developers at hand (you know who you are), things can and will get fixed. If only there was more emphasis on usability and aesthetics though... but perhaps this is asking too much?

Not so happy was the encounter with rigid, corporate IT policies that basically dictate how you work, not to mention when and where. At the moment, I'm stuck in a silly place in the office where I can't see the screen in the afternoons because of the sun until after Christmas, because the support dudes don't have the time to shift my network and

power cables to other plugs. Yes, I can see where the MIS people are coming from, but good grief... there are limits.

Where's our ADSL2+ and other connections? So far, the regulatory merry-go-round has delivered not much beyond hot air and no faster broadband than Ye Olde first-generation ADSL. Yes, there are more connections now, but that's not the point. Everything's too slow, both the network and the roll out of it. Next year might see things happening, finally, but aren't we officially sick of the wait yet?

Anyway, that's that for the FryUp until January next year. There will be things happening while we laze about in a summer daze, so check the website if news cold turkey sets in. Me, I need a break and more fun next year. Offers invited.

— Wikipedia: Shane Atkinson

Cartoon from xkcd

Robert X. Cringely

Data rights and wrongs

Whether you lean left, veer right, or run strictly down the middle, you have to admit that our current administration has a conflicted approach to data retention. When it comes to our data, the Feds are all over it — asking ISPs to retain subscriber data for more than a year, demanding months' worth of search terms from the major web services like MSN and Yahoo, and of course whatever the NSA was sniffing when it leeched onto the major telecom providers' backbones.

But when it comes to data generated by and for the White House, privacy and secrecy are the watchwords. Our example du jour: White House attorney Scott Bloch.

In case you haven't been following this story closely, here's some background.

Bloch heads up the Office of Special Counsel, which is empowered to protect Federal whistleblowers from retaliation by their bosses, and to enforce laws like the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from participating in partisan political activities (like fund raising) on the taxpayer's dime.

Bloch's office is investigating Karl Rove for allegedly violating the Hatch Act by giving PowerPoints to various federal employees about how they could help the Republican cause in 2006. Bloch himself is being investigated by the federal Office of Personnel Management, for allegedly dismissing whistleblowers' cases without cause and for retaliating against whistleblowers in his own agency. (Kind of like hiring Oprah to guard the Oreos.)

So what has Mr. Bloch done that's worthy of this blog? It has recently been learned that, in December 2006, Bloch placed a call to 1-800-905-GEEKS and asked a technician to give his office PC a data wipe to Department of Defence specs. The disc was overwritten 7 times with garbage data, obliterating any actual information on the disc.

Bloch claims to have called in the Geeks on Call because a virus was destroying the files on his computer. So, naturally, he ordered them to destroy the files on his computer. Apparently Bloch thought it was an airborne virus, because he also ordered files destroyed on two laptops used by his former top aides.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Phelps, who runs Geeks on Call's DC operations, acknowledges that a DoD-level wipe of a hard drive is just a bit extreme. "We don't do a seven-level wipe for a virus," he said.

Meanwhile, it seems Bloch copied some "personal" files to a thumb drive before the wipe began, which he is refusing to turn over to investigators. Now there's a loophole any garden variety criminal would love to exploit. "I'm sorry, Mr. Federal Agent, you can't have access to my computer files, they're personal."

In a letter to the editor in the Journal, Bloch defends himself (or tries to):

"After the hard drive crashed, I wanted to protect my personal files, which included personal and medical information, privileged communications with my personal attorney, my son's pictures from Iraq, Christmas lists, etc. They were moved to a flash drive, and the hard drive cleaned to remove any trace of a virus. None of this is relevant to the investigation, nor has the inspector general of OPM informed me of any such allegations."

Anybody out there want to explain how Bloch can copy personal files after his hard drive has crashed? Or why he'd call a retail tech support firm to take care of a virus on his work computer instead of his own IT guys? Or why the invoice for Geeks on Call makes no mention of a virus?

What's ironic is that Bloch's investigation ties directly into a bunch of other data discrepancies — including how the White House 'misplaced' 5 million emails when it upgraded from Notes to Outlook, and the use of non-official email addresses to either a) avoid Federal record keeping laws, or b) avoid violating the Hatch Act, depending on whose story you believe.

For David Gerwitz, this is more than merely politicians behaving badly. It's a matter of national security. In his new book, Where Have the Emails Gone?, he describes various nightmare scenarios of what could happen if, say, Al Queda got hold of one of the Blackberries Karl Rove has lost over the years, or simply tapped into the hundreds of millions of unencrypted email messages sent from White House staffers.

Gerwitz, a magazine publisher and journalist, describes himself as an independent who voted for Reagan and Bush I as well as Clinton. He says his axe isn't political, it's technical. But what he has to say is damning. He writes:

"As far as internal email operations go, the White House apparently operates like a stupid drunken sailor on crack..... The problem is not our vastly superior security and encryption technology. The problem is that all of that technology is not being in the White House needs to be fixed. It's not just about politics, it's about security."

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