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Acoustical Spying Techniques Cooked up in Lab

So you’ve got your firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-key-loggers solidly installed. Think you’re safe? Think again. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shown they can retrieve up to 96 percent of the characters you type, just by recording your taps and clicks with a cheap microphone. Software developed at Berkeley learns to recognize the audio prints of different keys on the keyboard, which—though not as unique as the tones on a phone keypad—are quite distinct. (To obtain such a high accuracy rate, the same audio data had to be fed into the software up to three times.)

It’s obvious what the malicious potential is here: someone installs a microphone in your office and soon gains access to your pins and passwords. No real-world accounts yet of such malicious, acoustical “information extraction” (see article in this issue for the real deal), but we can be sure criminals are cooking up all sorts of schemes. Acoustical spying technology, especially the microphone, cannot be installed through your network, which should alert us to one of the most overlooked types of security breach: the inside job. And you thought the janitor was just cleaning your keyboard…


.ODF Delivers Crushing Blow to .DOC

Tapping away in Emacs or Latex, computing professionals often can remain blissfully unaware of the ubiquity of Microsoft Office formats such as Word. But in the rest of the world, .doc is king. Take resumes: most job applicants will send a Word attachment without even confirming their potential employer’s preference. And usually they need not do so—the format is just that common.

Aside from large factions within the above-mentioned computing community, resistance to Word’s hegemony has been fairly low. That changed recently when Massachusetts announced that beginning in 2007 all its state agencies must use software that conforms to standards body OASIS’s ODF (open document format). Massachusetts’s decision has been heralded as a victory for open standards, but some criticize the state’s simultaneous endorsement of less-open formats such as Adobe’s PDF. Grinning through all of this is Microsoft competitor Sun Microsystems, which recently released the latest version of its ODF-compliant desktop productivity software, StarOffice 8. Conveniently enough for those who will soon be transitioning formats, it’s also highly compatible with Microsoft Office documents.


Wikibooks—Coming to a Classroom Near You?

The collective effort to digitize print media has many offshoots and a history that predates the Web. One of the most visible efforts has been that of, which first gave us the ability to view a few scanned pages of a book, and then stepped things up a notch by allowing full-text keyword searches over an ever-growing catalog of titles. Last year, Google followed Amazon’s effort with the announcement of the Google Print project, which ultimately seeks to make the contents of all books accessible via Google’s popular search engine. Neither company purports to be in the business of providing full, free access to book content, but their liberal book-scanning practices have been criticized by the book publishing industry.

The latest challenge to the industry’s hold on the world’s information comes from Wikimedia, the organization behind the popular online user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia. Its latest project, Wikibooks, aims to create a comprehensive collection of copyright-free online textbooks for all topics and grade levels. Unlike Amazon and Google, the Wiki folks actually are in the business of providing full-text access to information. But since the content they provide is either created by volunteers or copyright free, they are immune to legal scrutiny. As Wiki’s “open-ended curriculum” grows, it promises to provide a challenge to the textbook publishing industry.



Originally published in Queue vol. 3, no. 9
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