Information technology security and business

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Technology has had an undeniably colossal affect on how we do business. We can now communicate with people around the world in real time, pay for goods with the swipe of a card or click of a mouse and download files from the cloud with the push of a button.

Like with most things in life though, technology does have its downsides. Historically, technological problems have centred around speed and reliability. Thanks to advances in programming, processing power and cabling, technology is now faster and more reliable than it has ever been. This is also in part thanks to more people becoming ‘tech savvy’. People expect more of technology, and more people are working to improve it. As such, the age old issues of speed and reliability which have plagued almost all forms of technology, are no longer under the spotlight. I would argue that security is now a bigger issue.

A padlock on an ethernet cableThe growth of the global tech savvy population means that more people understand how technology works, which is great in some respects, but from a security perspective, it can be concerning. If your employees know how to access confidential files you store on your server, or your customers are able to apply 99% discounts to products in your online shop then you have a problem.

In 2014 eBay was one of the most high profile victims. Vulnerabilities in Javascript and Flash code on some listing pages enabled hackers to steal users information, post fake listings and redirect visitors to fake payment pages. In 2013 Sony was fined a quarter of a million pounds by the ICO in the UK for compromising customer details in a 2011 data breach.

In it’s recently released business security e-book, Dell state that they believe many of the security problems we face today are because businesses use fragmented systems and they use a different security solution to protect each one. Whilst your payment system might be completely watertight, if it’s linked to your website, which happens to contain some vulnerable Java technology, then hackers may be able to crawl into your systems. To quote Dell’s Director of Product Marketing, Bill Evans “Patchwork solutions that combine products from multiple vendors inevitably lead to the blame game“. He goes on to say that when using fragmented systems, each vendor “is responsible for only part of the problem” making it very difficult to properly secure your systems.

There are many different solutions for companies out there. As a business you could ground yourself firmly in the first half of the 20th century and refuse to adopt technology of any kind. After all, if all the details on your client, Mrs Jones, are kept in a file in filing cabinet 35B on the sixth floor of the of your customer information storage centre, a hacker cannot squirrel their way into your network and then publish Mrs Jones’ details on the Internet. That does however mean that when Mrs Jones pops in to see you, you have to keep her waiting for 20 minutes whilst you go to find her file – as opposed to typing her name in and pulling up her details on your tablet.

There are often benefits of using software and technologies from different vendors, and it would be foolish to dismiss a good business system just because it has a few minor potential security floors. The challenge then is to find a security system than can protect your new technologies.

A security key on a keyboardUsing a single, comprehensive security system, such as Dell Endpoint Security to protect all your information technologies would help top alleviate many of the problems that arise when using a patchwork network of security systems. Using one system would instantly eliminate conflicts between security software. It can also be much easier to manage one unified system than trying to juggle several separate schemes.

Naturally each individual security system may have some specific advantages that one universal security system may not, but the fact that a universal system is just that, universal to all your businesses technology, is a huge advantage.

Dell believes that all good universal security systems should: protect the entire business both internally and externally; comply with all internal policies and indeed national laws; and enable employees to adopt technologies with confidence and ease, promoting efficiency and innovation.

What are your views on business technology security? Let us know in the comments below.

Nanotechnology Regulation

Nanotechnology applications chart

Last week I did not post as I was preparing to chair a session at a plenary for the European Commission in Brussels. Full details are available here, but today I would like to pose a few issues that were raised during the event.

This is not the first time I have spoken at conferences about nanotechnology regulation, nor is it my first Technology bloggers post on the matter. Readers might like to take a look at these posts going back to 2012.

But as an overview my interest is in regulation. And the problems raised 3 years ago are ever more pressing. Nano products are everywhere (see the diagram above, and that is old), they do not have to be labeled, and there are still questions about health and regulation that have never been answered.

Last week’s topic was the Responsible Nano Code, a document drawn up to offer guidance to nanotechnology producers as a guide. It is voluntary, has no legal standing (I will come on to that though) and is a set of principles rather than a regulatory code.

The code can be freely downloaded here.

The principles address issues such as Director Board accountability and involvement, stakeholder involvement, worker health and safety, public health, safety and environmental risks, wider social, health, environmental and ethical implications and impacts, engaging with business partners and transparency and disclosure. And if you read the code you find nothing that anyone wouldn’t agree with.

The preparation was a serious endeavour too, it took several years to come to its final draft, and involved a lot of people. Founders included the Royal Society, Nanotechnologies Industries Association, Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network and Insight Investment.

Upon completion the code was presented across the world. In the USA however several problems were seen due to the nature of the law there. One problem is the risk of being sued. If a company states that they follow a code they become liable to legal action if someone can demonstrate that they did not in fact follow some aspect of the code. So companies are reluctant to state that they follow a code unless it is mandatory.

Also if a code is followed by a group of companies, it becomes the benchmark, so all companies are then judged according to that code, even if they do not participate. So implementation carries some really serious consequences.

In the US, nanomaterials are regulated in the same way as any other materials, and not specifically as nano, which to some seems problematic. Health issues have been raised (see my first nano post through the link above) and never resolved. And we must bear in mind that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of products in all sectors. In order to follow through on the pledges in the code, producers would have to educate and look after not only their own workers, but anyone who deals with these products throughout their entire lifespan. This includes, transport workers, salespeople, shopkeepers, waste collectors and disposal workers, end users, the list goes on.

And if there is a need for regulation, who is going to write it? I can’t write it, so do we need an expert? But can we get a nanotechnology expert who is probably positive about the undoubted advantages of pursuing a technology to write the regulations? Will they be balanced? Or should we ask a member of Greenpeace, or anyone else who might hold serious doubts about the processes and politics involved?

These are open questions, and although I cannot myself offer any answers it is something that we can and should all discuss. And it makes for an interesting line of work!

The cost of sending a Samsung emoji

A few months ago, my Galaxy S4 Mini (click this link to go to my series about it) updated to Android KitKat – from Jelly Bean. KitKat was released in 2013, but because Samsung like to fiddle with Android before they roll it out to users – or as I now like to say, apply their Disney layer – kudos to David – it takes a while for their handsets to get the updates.

Apart from a few minor interface changes – some good and some not so good – I didn’t really notice much of a difference with the KitKat upgrade. Some of my icons changed colour, my screen mirroring functionality seemed to stop working and GPS got renamed Location. There were a few other changes but at this moment they escape me.

Oh and how could I forget, that annoying emoji/emoticon button! KitKat added a terribly annoying button to my keyboard, a smiling face, which whenever you accidentally click on it, becomes the default extras button; that’s the lovely little button next to the space key that gives you the option of voice typing, pasting, visiting settings, and now also adding an emoji.

Samsung emoji keyboard

The emoji on my Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini keyboard

Now I’m not against emoji, some of them are pretty cool… :-)

…what I am against is Samsung emoji. The super-duper Samsung upgrade to KitKat may have enabled me to send emoji – yay! – but it came at a cost: MMS. If I want to send an emoji, Samsung very kindly converts my text message (an SMS) into an MMS.

This isn’t a problem if you get a large number of MMS messages included in your contract, but most people (at least here in the UK) don’t. I’m not someone who does either, so when I tried to send a message (no bigger than one standard text message) with an emoji in it, I got charged 33 pence by my provider and worst of all the recipient was unable to receive MMS messages, so they didn’t even get to see my 33p text!

The BBC and Money Saving Expert are just two sites that have recently been warning consumers of the hidden costs linked to emoji usage.

Cue Textra.

Textra SMS

iPhone owners don’t suffer the same fate as I did, because Apple’s default messaging application doesn’t treat emotion icons as images. They may take up more than one character, but you can use them in SMS messages. Not wanting to be outdone, I went on the hunt for a better SMS app.

First I tried Google Hangouts. I have never got along very well with Hangouts, but when I started using it for text messages, I didn’t find it quite so bad. I could send emoji as text messages, and I could type as many characters I liked and it would just send multiple SMS messages; Samsung’s default messaging app converts messages larger than three texts into MMS messages too.

After a week or so, Hangouts’ lack of features and general design started to get on my nerves, so I was out on the hunt again for another alternative. After reviewing a handful of very viable alternatives, I decided to give Textra SMS a try.

Textra SMS quick reply

When you get a new text, Textra SMS enables you to reply quickly, without opening the full app.

To put it simple, Textra is fantastic. You can do pretty much everything you can with Samsung’s standard messaging app, and more. You can customise the look and feel, you can send as may characters as you like without it converting into an MMS, and you can send emoji!

One of the awesome features that got me hooked on Textra is the message preview. Say you are browsing the web and you get a text. Texra has the option of a notification which appears at the top of your screen; the notification is basically a message preview. If you ignore it and it disappears after a few seconds, but if you click on it and it opens a small version of the app over the top of whatever you were doing previously. You can type a reply and then as soon as you click send, it disappears and you are back to what you were doing.

If you are looking for an alternative texting app for Android, I would definitely recommend Textra.

Bacteria, Fungus and Decomposition (and growing new materials)

Maurizio

Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.

Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.

A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.

Materials

The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.

Grown Pellet

A Grown Pellet

The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.

For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.

Synthetic Biology

And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).

other forms

other forms

I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.

Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.