Start up: talking to Barbie, BlackBerry’s criminal approach, mobile theses, tracing bitcoin, and more


I know – it’s backspace, 28 times. Photo by totumweb on Flickr.

Oh, you could get each day’s Start Up post by email. But it’s email, isn’t it? Email.

A selection of 9 links for you. Apply topically. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Talking toys are getting smarter: should we be worried? » WSJ

Geoffrey Fowler:

Maybe the best way to understand whether these toys hinder imagination is to look at their underlying technology. From an interactive standpoint, Hello Barbie is basically a voice-activated Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, in that she gives children a limited number of choices as they go down the conversational path and has a finite, albeit vast, number of dialogue lines (8,000 in total, recorded by an actress).

Once you start talking to Hello Barbie, what you soon realize is that, although she can remember details—a child’s favorite color or whether she has a sibling—the doll is not a very good listener. Many of her questions are just setups to tell a scripted story. “If you could go on vacation anywhere in the world, where would you want to go?” she asked [test child] Riley before describing her own recent vacation. Sure, every now and then she invites Riley to chime in. (“It’s a warm day and my friends invited me to go to the beach. I’m not really sure what to wear. Um, maybe some mittens and a scarf?”) But ultimately, whatever the child says, Hello Barbie sticks to her script.

Despite Hello Barbie’s inability to participate in a child’s flights of fancy, the doll is programmed to extol the virtues of imagination. “I think it’s great to exercise your imagination and creativity!” she said to Riley. Also: “We love using our imaginations. We are so avant-garde!”

So the answer to the question posed in the headline is “not yet”. But not “not ever”. It feels very much like a slice from a Philip K Dick novella.
link to this extract


Detect and disconnect WiFi cameras in that AirBnB you’re staying in » Julian Oliver

There have been a few too many stories lately of AirBnB hosts caught spying on their guests with WiFi cameras, using DropCam cameras in particular. Here’s a quick script that will detect two popular brands of WiFi cameras during your stay and disconnect them in turn. It’s based on glasshole.sh. It should do away with the need to rummage around in other people’s stuff, racked with paranoia, looking for the things.

Thanks to Adam Harvey for giving me the push, not to mention for naming it.

May be illegal to use this script in the US (not that that will stop people). Note how the sharing, trusting economy has its limits.
link to this extract


Bypass Linux passwords by pressing backspace 28 times » Apextribune

Daniel Austin:

if certain conditions are met (mostly the proper version of the OS), pressing the backspace key 28 time in a row will cause the computer to reboot, or it will put Grub in rescue mode, Linux’s version of Safe Mode.

This will provide the would-be hacker with unauthorized access to a shell, which he can then use to rewrite the code in the Grub2 in order to gain full unauthorized access to the machine.

From this point, anything is possible, since the hacker would be able to do anything he wanted to the computer.

Vulnerable versions: Linux GRUB 1.98 (from 2009) through to the current 2.02 version. (Not Linux as said in earlier version of this post.)
link to this extract


Tracing the Bitcoinica theft of 40,000 btc in July 2012 » YouTube

So 10,000 bitcoins were stolen from MtGox in July 2012. You thought bitcoin were untraceable? Not at all. Watch and learn. Though this doesn’t mean the people named here are guilty of theft (he said, covering himself against any potential libel).


link to this extract


Activation lock checker » Apple

Before transferring ownership of an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Apple Watch, make sure Activation Lock has been disabled and the device is ready for the next user.

The implication there is that it’s for you, the seller, to do the checking that you’ve turned it off – but the protection is really for buyers to make sure they don’t get a hot phone.
link to this extract


Competition is shifting to the high end » Tech.pinions

Jan Dawson:

Sony has abandoned PCs and continues to struggle in smartphones, HTC increasingly looks like it’s on its last legs as an Android vendor, Toshiba is considering spinning off its PC business, and Samsung’s smartphone business – once the poster child for success making Android phones – continues to slip. It sometimes seems as if the only vendors making Android phones and Windows PCs who aren’t struggling in some way are the licensors of the operating systems. And though we don’t have detailed financials for either company’s hardware business, they’ve both done it by focusing on selling premium devices at premium prices, and by tightening the integration between hardware and software.
What’s interesting is we haven’t seen any of the OEMs pursue this strategy. That likely reflects, in equal parts, a lack of capability and a lack of will, as these OEMs have neither the experience nor the desire to pursue the high end of the market. And yet it’s been clear for years that, while scale may be in the mass market, the margins are in the high end.

link to this extract


16 mobile theses » Benedict Evans

We’re now coming up to 9 years since the launch of the iPhone kicked off the smartphone revolution, and some of the first phases are over – Apple and Google both won the platform war, mostly, Facebook made the transition, mostly, and it’s now perfectly clear that mobile is the future of technology and of the internet. But within that, there’s a huge range of different themes and issues, many of which are still pretty unsettled.

In this post, I outline what I think are the 16 topics to think about within the current generation, and then link to the things I’ve written about them. In January, I’ll dig into some of the themes for the future – VR, AR, drones and AI, but this is where we are today.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the title is a subtle reference to Martin Luther (though he rambled on for 95 theses), but it’s impossible to argue against any of these; they simply state the ground where the world now stands. The point about mobile being 10x larger as an ecosystem now than the PC is an important one, though not the only important one.
link to this extract


August 2010: RIM’s Deal: Saudi Arabia Can Access BlackBerry User Data » DailyFinance

From August 2010, by Douglas McIntyre:

Saudi Arabia’s government announced it reached a deal with Research In Motion (RIMM) that will allow the Canadian maker of BlackBerry smartphones to continue operating its service there. Under the agreement, RIM will put a server in the nation that will allow the government to monitor messages to and from Blackberries. All of RIM’s servers have been in Canada until now so the company could guarantee confidentiality for its customers though the encryption process on those servers.

According to several news sources, similar deals will probably be sought by other countries that have voiced concerns about the Blackberry encryption procedures. First among these is the United Arab Emirates, which threatened to shut down RIM’s services there on Oct. 11. India and Indonesia have also said they’re concerned about the RIM confidentiality system and their inability to track information that they claim may not be in the best interests of their governments.

Everyone’s a criminal, after all – they just need to work out what they’re guilty of. Now read on.
link to this extract


The encryption debate: a way forward » Inside BlackBerry

John Chen, who is chief executive of BlackBerry, in December 2015:

For years, government officials have pleaded to the technology industry for help yet have been met with disdain. In fact, one of the world’s most powerful tech companies recently refused a lawful access request in an investigation of a known drug dealer because doing so would “substantially tarnish the brand” of the company. We are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good. At BlackBerry, we understand, arguably more than any other large tech company, the importance of our privacy commitment to product success and brand value: privacy and security form the crux of everything we do. However, our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals.

BlackBerry is in a unique position to help bring the two sides of this debate together, to find common ground and a way forward. BlackBerry’s customers include not only millions of privacy-conscious consumers but also the banks, law firms, hospitals, and – yes, governments (including 16 of the G20) – that use our products and services to protect their highest value resources every single day. We stand as an existence proof that a proper balance can be struck.

We reject the notion that tech companies should refuse reasonable, lawful access requests.

The “powerful tech company” Chen is referring to there is Apple, which has refused to cooperate in unlocking an iOS 7-powered phone in a federal case (which remains under seal). There’s a search warrant for the phone, which is locked.

Chen’s stance though is really surprising. He seems to be saying “sure, we’ll cooperate with the government if it asks.” But what if it’s the Chinese government? Or the Syrian government? And what’s the mechanism that lets BlackBerry cooperate? From iOS 8 onwards, Apple simply can’t decrypt a phone, no matter what access it gets. Is BlackBerry ceding that ground?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

2 thoughts on “Start up: talking to Barbie, BlackBerry’s criminal approach, mobile theses, tracing bitcoin, and more

  1. In the link about Linux security, you mention vulnerable versions as 1.98 to 2.02 (being the current, recently released version). These are versions of GRUB, not the Linux kernel, which never had a version 1.98, did have a 2.0.2 (but that would have been 20 years ago) and has a current version of 4.3.3 – and none of which have anything to do with this bug.

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