What’s in Your Computer (and phone, and WiFi)?



This week the news is full of Lenovo, a computer manufacturer that has been selling machines that they have already fitted with what some call Malware or just Adware. Magic in the machine indeed!

The mal/adware in question is made by a company called “Superfish.” The software is essentially an Internet browser add-on that injects ads onto websites you visit. Details here.

Besides taking up space in your computer, the add-on is also dangerous because it undermines basic computer security protocols.

That’s because it tampers with a widely-used system of official website certificates. That makes it hard for your computer to recognize a fake bank website. This means that you are more likely to give all of your personal data away, let nasty things into your computer, and allow people to monitor your use.

No good I hear you say, and all so that they can feed you adverts while you are browsing.

Hidden Extras?

But this news does bring up another question, what else is in the computer? What else is it programmed to do? The simple answer is that I and probably most of you do not know. We have bought a machine that does the things we want it to do, but who knows what else?

Now as I eat my breakfast, I like to read the ingredients on the side of the packet. It is good for language skills as it is usually in several languages. But can I do this with my computer? You don’t get much in the way of documentation with a $400 laptop. Certainly not considering what is inside it.

So the computer company in question have disabled something at their end and the problem is resolved. But if they tell you that they fixed the problem are you going to believe them? After they did something that put your computer and everything saved on it at risk? Or should you put a new operating system on the new machine, wipe the hard drive and start again?

Why do we trust these manufacturers when they consistently do things that are not in our interest? WiFi providers that con your computer into trusting fake certificates so that they can block certain sites (and read your mail or follow your searches)? Samsung that record your voice through your smart TV and send it non encrypted over the Internet to unnamed third parties, social media sites and search engines that collect your data, mobile phone companies that map your every movement, the list goes on.

So if you cannot trust wifi, or computer manufacturers, or Google, or Facebook, or Samsung to treat our data securely and correctly, who can you trust? And more to the point why are we giving them our lives to play with?

I don’t speak Dutch (yet)

Dutch Humour

Ik spreek niet Netherlands.

This week I moved to the Netherlands after 3 years in the USA. It is not the first time I go to live in a country where the population speaks another language however. In 2000 I moved to Italy.

I must admit that I sometimes fail to see my own limitations. I was under the impression that after a year or so I would be able to speak Italian. It would just soak in through the skin, like osmosis, and come out in perfettamentally formed sentences.

Alas after a year I was just about able to order a cappuccino at the bar, so I had to ditch the osmosis strategy.

I enrolled in a school for foreigners wanting to learn Italian. 6 hours a week. I continued for 4 years, and became remarkably good. 3 years in the USA and my Italian is now a little rusty but I can still speak very well, and at least me English ain’t as pour as it were thanks to an American education.

So 3 days in and how is the Dutch learning plan unfolding you may ask. Well experience taught me something, because I tend to only make the same mistake about 50 or 60 times before I learn, so I am not going to try osmosis. I took some lessons in the US before coming, and I was going to enrol on a course.

That was until I discovered Skype and their new toy, the voice translator.

Now this technology may be still under development, but Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Gurdeep Pall (the vice president in charge of Skype), demonstrated the technology last week. Watch the video here. There is a demo and an explanation of how the technology learns, including a description of its brain like capacity to relate one language to another, improving both.

It’s quite an incredible demonstration. Until the end of the conversation when a couple of errors creep in to the translation I was sure it was all a fake. Given the fact that so many of us work via computer today, a reality that is sure to expand even more, I think this technology could be a real breakthrough.

Now early stages in technological development means a 15 year history in this case, far longer than my foray into foreign languages. And technology develops quickly, the translator may even be on the market by the end of the year. My brain is not so quick, I will still be on chapter 3 of the first book by the end of the year. And I am sure that within a year of its release the technology will become completely mobile, I will be able to buy a battery operated portable translator and wear it like a fake moustache under my Google Glasses, by next summer I will be fluent!

The development of this technology may however also have the downside that it might help people avoid learning another language, and lead to a reliance on technology that might then make face to face interaction more difficult. Also we may miss out on the great advantages that speaking more than one language brings to an individual, the respect that other people have for you if you learn their language, the ability to appreciate a wider perspective and even more importantly, understanding the Dutch sense of humour.

The stolen iOS

Apple are great at marketing. Well, Steve Jobs was at least. Apple are also great innovators, although that is more debatable.

A few weeks ago I came across a video of the Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone. I found it quite comical how the audience gasped and clapped at some of the features; the idea that you could use your finger on a screen instead of a stylus, the ‘amazing’ elastic band scrolling effect, and by far the most impressive, the iPhone could handle the web like a computer, not a mobile phone. Steve Jobs even mentioned that Apple planned to make 3G phones in the future.

The fastest network the original iPhone was compatible with was EDGE, which at the time would download at speeds of up to 473.6 kbit/s; that’s about 2,214 times slower than today 4G 1Gbit/s speeds!


Apple, Google and Yahoo! all working together on one device – I doubt that will ever happen again.

How far Apple has come since it launched the smartphone that changed the world in 2007.


The original iPhone was unique. There was nothing like it and it was undoubtedly the best smartphone on the market at the time. iOS7 on the other hand is arguably just a cheap imitation of Android OS. That is the extreme view of course, I would also argue that Apple are only learning from Samsung, see what your competitor does well, then improve it, repackage it and sell it yourself.

iOS 7iOS 7 came with a few bugs and hiccups, but then most new software does so I am not criticising Apple for that. Aesthetically, childish icons, illegible fonts (due to poor colour schemes) and the motion sickness some people complain of because of the whizzy new interface, are all problems that are down to bad design.

In terms of technical problems, the inability to downgrade to iOS6 and the battery issues many users of older devices are facing when they upgrade are also Apple’s fault. Whilst I say they are Apple’s fault, they almost certainly weren’t accidental. If you don’t let people to downgrade, you force them to use to your new OS.

Free Upgrades

Apple now offer free upgrades to the latest iOS which you could argue is good for owners of older iPhones, but not so good for Apple’s bottom line. However if you look at the tests, generally older phones perform better on their original operating system than they do on iOS7; for example the iPhone 4 loads faster on iOS 6 than it does when running iOS 7.

If you have an iPhone 4 running iOS 7 and your friend has an iPhone 5C or 5S and your phone runs like a dog but theirs flies, it kind of makes you want to buy the latest phone.

Free upgrades also give users the perception that sticking with Apple is a good idea, because Apple look after them. Additionally having access to iOS7 will mean more users are familiar with the interface, so buying a new phone isn’t such as big a jump.

Bad Now, Better Later

Here’s a thought, why have Apple failed to address the battery problem that plagues all smartphones? Old mobiles used to last for weeks between charges. I still own a Nokia 3510 which was released 12 years ago, yet if I fully charge it and leave it (switched on) it will last for a good few weeks – my S4 Mini can do about 60 hours tops. I believe many smartphone manufacturers are holding things in the bank for future. Better batteries are available, but it is more profitable to release better features gradually than to give consumers one fantastic upgrade every 3 to 4 years.

iPhone battery lifeMaybe Apple want iOS7 to look a little childish and have a few faults, so that when the next iPhone (or the one after that) comes out with a brand new OS, it looks so much better.


When anything first comes out there is a lot of hype about it, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but often a mix of both. Those who ‘love’ the iPhone (or those who have been sucked in by Apple’s marketing) will stick with the phone for a long time to come. Those who are more critical won’t stop viewing things differently either. At the end of the day Apple is just a bunch of people trying to make money for another bunch of people – just like almost every other company.

US Border Laptop Searches

This week in the US many news outlets are reporting a story that relates to how private the data on your computer, hard drive or mobile phone may be when passing national borders.

In a legal ruling a judge has in effect supported immigration officials’ rights to look inside your computer if you want to bring it in to the USA. The court ruling relates to an incident in 2010 when Pascal Abidor, a student crossing from Canada, had his laptop confiscated and searched.

A Laptop Search

A Laptop Search

The student claimed that this was unconstitutional as the 4th amendment states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….” The US has long held however that this amendment cannot be upheld when dealing with people entering the country.

The judge ruled however that “The agents certainly had reasonable suspicion supporting further inspection of Abidor’s electronic devices”. What is not widely reported is the circumstances that lead to this decision. Abidor has both French and US passports, and upon entering he chose to show the passport that did not contain Visas that demonstrated that he had visited Lebanon and Jordan,  giving officials the impression that he was trying to hide something.

Agents spent five hours searching his laptop and USB drives, and then demanded that he write down his passwords and hand over the laptop and storage media. The laptop was returned by post 11 days later.

There are rules about what the authorities must do with data seized in these cases. All data that is deemed innocent must be destroyed within 7 days of seizure unless permission is given to keep it for longer. Many blogs however cast doubt upon whether an unregulated and poorly reported system can actually enforce this however, an online search of the story gives many different perspectives. The Homeland securities News Wire has one of the most informative.

I presume that like me many of you keep a great deal of personal data on your laptops, from tax returns, bank details, love letters and personal photos, and all of these things may be accessed in a case like this. One issue that has come to the fore has been brought by researchers and reporters, who may not be able to reveal sources of information for ethical, security or legal reasons, but may unwittingly do so by leaving evidence of their informers’ identities on their computers.

The line is blurred here, as today smuggling must include information smuggling and authorities may need to search information media, but an individual must be aware that all information carried over an international border is open to search. This must have repercussions in terms of industrial as well as personal privacy.