Looking back to 8-bit computing to move forwards

In my third essay looking at increase breaches of personal information through malware and questionable security practices, I will now take a look at existing computing systems.

As security breaches have become common practice with companies and governments ‘loosing’ personal data, a new way of thinking and working with IT systems is required. There has been some recent high profile data losses, notably with eBay, Orange France, voice recording technology used by emergency services worldwide and the fallout from the Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL program’s code is still an unknown quantity.

Security researchers have complained about how the recent introduction of US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), is making it difficult to track down potential security vulnerabilities and exploits. The dichotomy of policy makers within government can be seen with another recent story where the “White House and NASA gear up for National Day of Civic Hacking”. Citizens are encouraged to find solutions to problems, technological or otherwise. This is at odds with government wanting to suppress security analysts from researching flaws through CFAA enforcement.

With the ever increasing threat from malware effecting modern operating systems of all flavours, should we all be looking at either not storing personal information on computing systems or returning to less complex operating systems? Should we be reviving 8-bit home computer booting practices to protect personal data?

I recently wrote about George RR Martin’s use of a DOS based computer running WordStar to write Game Of Thrones novels. The lack of connectivity and the use of a less advanced computer system protect Mr Martin’s work. I suggest in this article that maybe we should be looking back to the 1980s and early 1990s of 8bit and possibly 16bit home computing to look forwards again. Continue reading

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Ubiquity and pervasiveness of SQL DBs

In my second essay looking at increase breaches of personal information through malware and some questionable security practices, I will now take a look at the harbinger of the modern Doomsday Book, the pervasiveness of SQL databases.

There is much about data loss and compromise in the news today, almost on a weekly basis it seems. There was a recent data breach with Orange France in May, who lost the personal information of approximately 1.3 million customers. When questioned, Orange France was unable to confirm whether the data they held was encrypted; this is very serious. It is not like asking someone how long would it take to fly a rocket to the moon, making a best guess. Data either is or is not encrypted when stored within ubiquitous database systems. Orange should have encrypted this data. Not being able to provide an adequate answer, demonstrates to customers that their personal information is not safe with this company. Being able to trust in the security of computing systems is paramount in this information age. It is crucial that companies and governments provide evidence that proves our data is kept safe, unfortunately all too often the contrary is occurring.

Rik Ferguson vice president of security research at Trend Micro recently told the Guardian:

“effective security is no longer about designing architecture with the aim of keeping the attacker out permanently, that’s a pipe dream. If they want to get in, they will get in.”

Is this a lack of imagination in protecting personal data or a consequence of how data is stored in the early 21st Century? If we take Mr Ferguson’s advice, then we should stop using computer systems for all personal information. However there are ways of designing computing architecture to reduce the surface area of an attack.

Many online services are far from safe and some are known for not using encryption on personal information stored; remember the Sony hack of 2011. Worse still, many companies not only use web services with associated SQL servers containing personal information connected to the Internet, but also whole networks. This enables their employees to email, process data and surf the web, while also having access to your personal data. As a consequence, crackers and other malfeasants can also gain access. Continue reading

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London Technology Week event at Dragon Hall

As part of London Technology Week, Dragon Hall Trust (Covent Garden) in the heart of London’s West end district hosted a ‘Tech Day’ showcasing the launch of their ‘Innovation & Technology Hub’ with an aim to bridge the digital divide for children and young people. This event was open for children within the age range of 8 to 11 years old from 4pm to 6pm, and for 12+ age (including young people and adults) from 6pm to 9pm.

We will be showcasing the work we are doing with Young People to Bridge the Digital Divide and give them access to technology including 3D Printing, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Coding, 3Doodler Pens, Makey Makey, Internet Radio, Mobile Application Development and more.

During this event, many exciting technology workshops and demonstrations were available for people to interact with, getting hands-on experience with an introduction to Scratch, 3D printing technology, creating smart phone applications, and other technologies being showcased.

STEMettes (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) an organisation who’s mission is to

inspire the next generation of females into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields by showing them the amazing women already in STEM.

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Personal data, bugs and security breaches

This is the first in a series of 3 essays, looking at malware’s far reaching consequences to personal information and questionable security practices some organisations implement.

Protecting one’s personal data is becoming more difficult as security breaches of many companies and governments advance at pace. Their has been some recent high profile data losses, with eBay, shoe retailer Office, music service Spotify, and gaming platform Steam over a two week period. What one might think would normally be a trickle of data breaches has turned into a torrent.

With this increased threat from malware exploiting bugs within software code and some organisations implementing poor security practices, a basic understanding of how one can protect personal data from the next hack like eBay is necessary. There are many news articles on ways one can protect personal data following an attack and breach of a database containing approximately 233 million customer records on eBay’s systems.

eBay said the breach, which was detected two weeks ago, had not given the hackers access to customers’ financial information. But it did affect a database holding encrypted passwords as well as customer names, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth which were not encrypted. The site has 233 million customers worldwide, including more than 14 million active in Britain.

After the hack of Sony’s unencrypted personal user records, in July 2011 I wrote a brief security guide on protecting your login identity. While this article requires some updating, much of this guidance remains valid and relevant with the increasing use of SQL databases, while companies and governments are amassing huge dossiers on individuals with their computer systems being breached.

Before the first dot-com bubble bust period roughly around 1997-2000, companies with an on-line presence would generally only request an email address and a password to use their service. Wind forward 10 years and the use of on-line services from game playing, shopping, booking hotels, email services, government services… ask all sorts of personal identifying information. If this trend of intrusion into personal data continues from companies and governments, it will not be long before ID photos are requested along with collecting personal data on one’s eye colour, etc. With personal information being stored on private networks often with public access, and worse on public facing servers too, the scope and scale of malicious attacks will increase. Continue reading

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As BASIC celebrates 50 years, a revival is needed

On the 1st May 1964 BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language was initiated when at 4 a.m. Professor John G. Kemeny and student programmer Thomas E. Kurtz (who later became a professor) simultaneously typed RUN on neighbouring terminals in the basement hall of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. When they got back the correct answers to their programs, BASIC was officially born. This innovation implemented the concept of time-sharing on computer systems and set in motion a chain of events which would lead to computers becoming available to all.

At the time, computers were generally used by science and mathematics students, and required custom written software. Data and programs were often stored on punch-cards and paper tape [Footnote 1], with magnetic tape being introduced in 1951. During the 1970s there was rapid growth in different flavours of BASIC, additional functions were added with extra structuring keywords and advanced floating-point operation features.

With the introduction of 8-bit home computing, from the ZX-81, Commodore VIC-20, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro & Acorn Electron, Amstrad CPC 464 and other models and makes of the 1980s, versions of BASIC became widespread and were often integrated into the computer’s firmware (ROM chip) along with an interpreter and operating system commands. Cassette tapes were used for data storage and retrieval initially and later floppy disks.

ZX Spectrum BASIC example

ZX Spectrum BASIC example

Upon powering on a home micro an interpreter prompt would be displayed, this enable writing BASIC programs or executing commands built into that hardware platform’s operating system. For example, to load a word processor package (e.g., Tasword) one would type LOAD “” and press Enter. Then play the tape. Friends with attached Interface 1 + Microdrives or floppy disks with the later ZX Spectrum +3 (Amstrad) would be able to load data at a much faster rate than cassette tape.

With the growth of 8-bit home computing, complete source code for computer games and other programs were published in magazines and books. In the UK the BBC embarked upon a Computer Literacy Project using BBC BASIC. Over the years BASIC has continued to develop, notably with Microsoft’s Visual Basic. Some teaching guides such as the AQA A/AS Level Computing books still provide examples in Microsoft Visual Basic, however this version of BASIC is closer in structure to Python or Pascal rather than 8-bit computer BASIC.  Continue reading

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WordStar used to write Game of Thrones

BBC News reported on 14th May that Game of Thrones author, George RR Martin, still uses WordStar 4 on a DOS based computer.

The Game of Thrones author has revealed that he did not want a modern word processor amending his writing as he typed, did not fear a virus (malware) from deleting his work, or have auto-correction spell checker change words not recognised in a fantasy novel.

Mr Martin said:

“I actually like it, it does what I want a word-processing programme to do and it doesn’t do anything else. I don’t want any help, you know?

“I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lower case letter and it becomes a capital. I don’t want a capital. If I’d wanted a capital, I’d have typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key. Stop fixing it.”

Mr Martin further expanded his explanation saying:

“I actually have two computers. I have the computer that I browse the internet with, that I get my email on and I do my taxes on. Then I have my writing computer, which is a DOS machine not connected to the internet. Remember DOS? I use WordStar 4.0 as my word-processing system.”

Prior to Mr Martin talking on the Conan O’Brien show about his use of WordStar 4 on a DOS based computer, he previously revealed in a blog posting in February 2011:

“I am a dinosaur, as all my friends will tell you. A man of the 20th century, not the 21st.”

Why should such revelations produce a mini media storm? Well possibly because many have bought into the idea of upgrade to the latest product and throw out the old. However newer does not always mean better, different, sometimes less complex, but generally more complex. Having used computers since the days of the 8bit home computer, from the ZX Spectrum onwards, it is refreshing to hear what I believe to be a positive IT story.

There is much about data loss, bugs and potential compromise in the news currently, almost on a weekly basis (and sometimes daily) it seems… Orange France, Heartbleed, PayPal and eBay… to mention a few recent stories.

An important issue of connectivity has been overlooked with this micro media storm. The very lack of connectivity and complexity George RR Martin employs for writing, is the very same thing which protects his work from malware, cyber espionage, buggy software and frustrating “features” found in many modern word-processing applications and IT.

However, Mr Martin is no ‘dinosaur’.  Continue reading

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Fishing for asteroids while reaching for the stars

Ideas of going into space have been a dream of many for a long time. Notions of space travel appear in European literature during the 1800s in the verging genre of science fiction. However in the 20th Century, rocket spaceship travel took off in literature with the publication of pulp fiction magazines, and comics. Public imagination was captured and by the 1950s some dared to dream that space travel is possible. With rocket knowledge being limited to a few, private companies started to make a push for space in Britain and USA; Russia’s space programme was state sponsored.

Normandy-SR1

Normandy-SR1 Spaceship, © BioWare

After the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the United States Government was energised towards the space race. The then British government did not pursue an astronaut space programme, or help British enthusiasts and rocket engineers to establish a national programme. Successive British Governments from the 1960s until 2011 held back from pursuing national space policy, although throughout this period, government space interest existed in space research, European Space Agency involvement and unmanned commercial interests, mostly in engineering satellites and components.

So why are individuals and businesses not encouraged, helped and championed to create businesses for a British-based astronaut programme? Protectionism of certain industries and policies by government at the cost of paying higher taxes, or favouritism for one business venture over another are part of the problem. As is red tape and bad policy decisions by governments: historically the evidence sits before us. One is reminded of this from “This Sceptred Isle, Gladstone’s First Budget,” (Episode 187/216).

With the British Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget announcement on 21st April 2012, the top rate of income tax will be reduced from 50p to 45p in the pound in April 2013. If the top rate remains at 50p, that 5p could be used to invest in scientific and technological research and development centres, fund innovation and provide infrastructure for a wide range of scientific endeavours. Britain would have a greater competitive edge against the emerging scientific and technological markets of China and India. Knowledge clusters could be built in the UK to promote hi-tech industries, innovation and space exploration.

Protectionism in itself is not inherently bad, choices on what to protect can make a positive outcome. With globalisation, mass communication, information dissemination, and global corporations, some good can come in the form of philanthropy. This can be seen with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Globalisation combined with scientific knowledge and its application in the form of technology and especially information technology, has allowed individuals around the world to break orthodoxy, think of impossible things, and think globally on how to find solutions to some of the world’s problems.

With the recent success of SpaceX ferrying items to the International Space Station, the news of Virgin Galactic‘s space flights and the future proposed moon flights by Excalibur Almaz, interest in space flight has been ignited once again. However with all the recent excitement and success of SpaceX’s first mission to the ISS, one cannot help but feel that many government policies, not only in Britain, but also in the USA, Russia and beyond, are acting like a damp squib, stifling innovation, ideas and dreams of many, compounded with nay-sayers, while pouring an inky mess on progress (or should that be damp squid). This can be exemplified with the struggle engineer Alan Bond has experienced with the Sabre engine and Skylon project. Continue reading

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