What is Shodan?

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 75th post on Technology Bloggers! Jonny was a complete newbie to blogging when he wrote his first post (about prosthetic limbs) but he is now somewhat of an expert – although he probably wouldn’t agree! – note by Christopher

Recently a couple of articles have appeared on large US websites about a type of search engine called Shodan. This search engine has been about for about 3 years, but it is different from Google and its cohorts in many ways. I looked at it and could not understand it at all, so what is it then and why is it causing such concern?

A screenshot of the Shodan website

Expose online devices

I have seen Shodan described as “The scariest search engine on the Internet”. This CNN money article explains that Shodan navigates the Internet’s back channels. It’s a kind of “dark” Google, looking for the servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet.

What interest could there be in such capability? Well a lot apparently. The system allows an individual to find security cameras, cooling systems and all types of home control systems that we have connected to the Internet. (See Christopher’s series about his British Gas system here).

One serious problem is that many of these systems have little or no security because they are not perceived as threatened. Shodan searchers have however found control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium. Cybersecurity researchers have even located command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron by using Shodan.

Hacking apart it turns out that the world is full of systems that are attached via router to the office computer and web server, and on to the outside world. Access for anyone who can find them and might like to turn of the refrigeration at the local ice rink, shut down a city’s traffic lights or just turn off a hydroelectric plant.

The Shodan system was designed to help police forces and others who might have legitimate need for such a tool, but what when it gets into the wrong hands. Security is non existent, just get your free account and do a few searches and see what you find.

See this Tech News World article for a further look at the ethical and practical issues that such a freely available product might bring

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in these types of problems through my work at the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. I am not sure how the development and marketing of such a tool could be seen as responsible behaviour, but as I have been told on many occasions during interviews there are plenty of other ways of finding out such things. These types of systems are gathering already available information to make it usable, nothing more, so not doing anything wrong.

Do you agree?

Internet Explorer 10 puts Microsoft back in the game

A few months ago I posted an article entitled ‘Stop using Internet Explorer‘. I still stand by most of the points I made in that article, however since writing it IE 10 has been launched, something which has changed my stance on Microsoft’s browser.

Last Sunday, I went to the Gadget Show Live at the NEC in Birmingham. For this I owe thanks to British Gas, as they provided me with tickets to the sold out event. I will be posting more on the event soon.

When at the NEC, as a blogger I was invited to use Microsoft’s bloggers lounge, where I was made to feel very welcome by a friendly team of Microsoft employees. During my time there, I was given a (very impressive) demonstration of Surface by Robert Epstein, Senior Product Manager for Windows at Microsoft UK, who also demonstrated Internet Explorer 10.IE 10 LogoI didn’t think that the new IE would impress me, but it did. I was told how even Microsoft realised that IE was a little behind other browsers, and that when designing 10, they decided to completely start again. IE 10 isn’t just an update, it is a completely new browser.

Internet Explorer was one of the first browsers ever released, and was designed for a very different web to the one we use today. Internet Explorer 6 was initially released in 2001, and IE 7 in 2006. Firefox launched in 2004, and Chrome in 2008. That means that when IE 6 went live, neither Firefox or Chrome existed; probably why so many people (including myself) used it.

It is easy to point out how bad IE 6 is compared to other browsers. Today, it isn’t considered a very good browser, however when it was launched in 2001, it was, and that’s because compared to the competition at the time it really was.

Internet Explorer 10

Microsoft started again with Internet Explorer 10. They scrapped all that had gone before and built a completely new browser. Some aspects of the interface are the same, but that’s it really – oh, and you use it to access the web! 🙂

I have now installed IE 10 on my Windows 7 desktop, and was blown away by how fast it is. From warm, Internet Explorer 10 (on Windows 7) opens faster than Firefox and Opera. The difference is marginal, however IE does come out on top – just. IE 10 and Chrome 26 seem to take the same amount of time.

Internet Explorer is the fastest browser on Windows 8. IE 10 is available on both the start screen (or ’tile’) version of Windows 8, and the Desktop version; however the two browser interfaces are very different. The Desktop version offers an interface similar to that seen on the Windows 7 version, whilst the start screen version has a clean, minimalistic interface, with the focus primarily on content.

Improvements

Design improvements and faster boot time are not the only areas Microsoft have improved. For starters, the overall speed of browsing is much faster, giving an experience similar to that which you can experience using Chrome: responsive, fast and slick. IE 10 is currently the fastest Windows 8 compatible browser.

Microsoft IE at the Gadget Show

The Internet Explorer section of Microsoft’s stand at the Gadget Show Live

In terms of compatibility, Microsoft have fixed most of IE 9’s issues, IE 10 now handles HTML5 much better than its predecessors. Having tested the blog, I can confirm that it now appears correctly in Internet Explorer. So you can now visit Technology Bloggers and see things how they should look correctly using Internet Explorer, just make sure you are using 10!

The new browser is fully touch compatible, and is even multi-touch compatible. Microsoft have created several websites, (and helped upgrade others) which are touch compatible, and designed to register multiple points of contact at once.

One website which is now touch compatible is games site Atari. Many of the games require more than one point of contact at a time, and having tried some of them myself, IE appears to handle it very well.

Another new feature which capitalises on the touch capabilities is flip ahead. To quote Microsoft:

“Flip ahead allows you to explore favorite websites like you would a magazine. By implementing flip ahead, you enable your users to flip through a news article or an online catalog, regardless of their actual location on the page. Visitors no longer need to click a Next button to go to the next page.”

I was shown a demonstration of how it works on MSN news, and it looks very promising; just find some empty space, drag your finger from right to left, and you load (or flip to) the next article. I feel that flip ahead has real potential for blogs and news sites, hence why we are currently working with Microsoft to make Technology Bloggers flip ahead compatible.

UPDATE: Technology Bloggers is now flip ahead compatible! You can flip forwards and backwards between articles. Currently it only works for posts, however we may look at implementing it on (date/category/tag) archives in the future.

Issues

Okay, IE 10 is much better than previous versions, but it isn’t 100% problem free. The major issues surrounding the new browser involve bugs. Lots of software experiences the issue of bugs, however IE seems to have a reputation for them!

One of the bugs IE is facing media scrutiny for is issue of the Windows 7 version of the browser being incompatible with many hybrid graphics cards. Another reported bug seems to link installing IE to disabling the Aero interface on Windows 7. I haven’t experienced either problem myself, however if you search for the issues, there are quite a few people claiming to have problems.

When I started using the browser I felt that there wasn’t much room for tabs – on Windows 7. Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera all have a separate area for your tabs, however IE tries to squash them in next to the URL bar. You can increase the room available to tabs, but you loose URL box space. It is possible to put the tabs on a separate row, but doesn’t come as default; just right click on the headers and from the menu select ‘Show tabs on a separate row’. I would personally prefer tabs to be on a separate row by default.

Conclusions

Don’t touch any version of Internet Explorer that is below 10. On Windows 7, IE 10 seems very promising, and you should seriously consider it as a browser, it seems fast, safe and sleek. I am still using Firefox, however were I using a Windows 8 powered Surface, I think I would be using Internet Explore; but I don’t have a Surface, so I can’t be sure.

%CODETWEETTB2%

Internet Explorer 10 is a completely new browser, that has put Microsoft right back in the browser war.

Where will it go from here, will IE start to steal back dissident users?

Watch this space.

Using White Space for Internet Coverage

Google launched an interesting experiment this week, offering free “super” wi-fi connection to the Internet for several schools in Cape Town South Africa. What is interesting about that you might ask? Well they are using the unused frequencies in the broadcast TV spectrum.

White Space diagram

A diagram of a white space network

The TV broadcasting frequency spectrum is currently divided between many channels, but between each channel there is a gap, a frequency space, often known as “white space’, and the hope is that this space can be used to broadcast high speed wireless Internet access. This experimental system is not without it doubters though, TV companies are not keen because they think there might be interference in their picture, so what better than a small experiment to try it out?

We can all imagine how this experiment might revolutionize Internet use though. In the countryside where infrastructure is lacking but TV is visible the companies could offer a service. In the city where cables are all in use they could do the same. One great advantage is that low frequency signals can travel over long distances, so the coverage potential is massive, and they penetrate buildings and other natural barriers much more efficiently than other frequencies currently in use.

Here in the US many telecommunications carriers have been complaining that there is not enough bandwidth for them to keep up with consumer demand, and so the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to free up spectrum space. They approved rules in 2010 about the use of such white spaces and databases have been set up to monitor spectrum use to see how it can be improved. Google are one of the leaders in this database organization too, as this article explains.

Experiments are being conducted here too, with this article describing how the system is being used in a small North Carolina town, and results reported in the UK claim that the system can deliver 16 megabits per second over 10KM (see Christopher’s comments on this related article for an explanation of what that means), but this is a delivery similar to what we know as 4G.

Potentially great improvements in coverage might be just round the corner through a more efficient use of an already existing infrastructure.