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Taking a second look at the news so you don’t have to

Leave It to the Irish

For many European governments, paying for licenses and ongoing upgrades to proprietary software seems to be annoying and prohibitive. The city of Munich, the French Ministry of the Interior, and Hungary’s Ministry of Education, for example, all have begun using products that support Linux.

Despite this neighborhood trend, Mary Hanafin, Ireland’s Minister for State, recently announced that the Irish government is opting for open standards software instead of open source software for its Public Services Broker, an electronic mediator between customers and public service agencies. According to its estimations, the initially more affordable open source software is likely to be more expensive in the long run as modifications and developments tend to result in a decrease in interoperability. Better to pay up in the beginning and spend less on roll-your-own upgrades.

After saving civilization, are the Irish now about to save proprietary software?



The Tammy Faye Scam

Really, verifying that you’re Citizen X by flashing your unflattering photo ID card, butchering your signature with a digital stylus, or whispering your mother’s maiden name is simply silly. Thank goodness that more recent high-tech biometric approaches such as hand geometry, and fingerprint scanning are seriously getting down to business. It’s getting to the point that you can’t even look people in the iris anymore without making them jumpy. For instance, an iris recognition system designed by Byometric Systems GmbH and Oki Electric Industry is already in use at Frankfurt/Main Airport as part of a multinational pilot project. Imagine.

We don’t advise getting all comfy thinking that the most sophisticated scanning techniques are going to save us from imposters, however. Consider the United Kingdom’s pilot program on national ID cards, which will help the government decide if biometric ID cards should be compulsory. Approximately 10,000 volunteers will have been registered by August. Each of these good citizens’ irises is photographed, and then details are stored on a microchip embedded in a biometric ID card—as well as in a database. If this ever becomes a reality, the biometric information will be compared against on-site scans collected at a checkpoint, say Immigration. Preliminary trials report unacceptably large error rates. It’s not just the lighting and camera position; tears, long eyelashes, and even contact lenses can actually stop the scanner from working.

How long before a red-eye flight, coupled with a theatrical display of makeup and tears Tammy Faye–style, becomes the easiest way to cross a country’s border with a stash of black-market goodies?



Throttling Back Network Attacks

At this point, even techno-toddlers believe that hackers will always gain the upper hand in any Internet war against worms. How long can we continue wasting valuable resources fighting wizardry with mundane heroics?

Perhaps a solution is at hand. Researchers at Hewlett-Packard in England have tested various ways to halt these ne’er-do-wells in their tracks, concluding that simply slowing them down is the most successful way to fight back. “Throttling” the number of connections a computer can make to one per second seems to cast the right spell, as opposed to 400 or 500 per second measured for Nimbda or Code Red. The worms can still spread, but not faster than we can track them.

Don’t kiss this virtual arms race good-bye just yet. Might black hats turn this practice back at us? A slow-moving worm might be able to fly under the radar, not activating the throttle, and infect millions of machines—and a million computers attacking together need to connect only once-per-second in order to create a million-connection-per-second firestorm.

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Originally published in Queue vol. 2, no. 5
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