News Schmooze: It's a wireless world

Mobile gadgetry grabbed the spotlight, but hackers warned of the dark side to wireless convenience

This is the week every year that everybody remembers that wireless was supposed to be the next big thing, and hypes Java MIDP, IPv6, 3G, EMS and other acronyms as though, to paraphrase Prince, it was still 1999. The occasion is the 3GSM World Congress, which is like the US World Series in that it is really a way to make the locals feel like they run things. Crashing the 2002 Eurofest, as last year, was Microsoft, with its usual string of announcements, the significance of which amounted to, "We are gonna spend dollars on conquering this market until we drive all you other suckers into the ground." It hasn't made much progress yet, but hey, another year, another few billion down the drain, you've gotta spend it somehow.
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Aside from all the usual futuristic stuff, like building wireless Internet into the cars of extremely rich people, the security guys appeared like Banquo's ghost, raising the unwelcome spectre of wireless hackability. It is, as you might have guessed, yet another major security problem with wireless LANs, allowing bad guys to go around with a wireless laptop sucking up free Internet access and sensitive passwords. One wonders if the rich people in their Internet cars know about this.
Nissan driving 3G technology
Wireless network security shows cracks
The other big event of the week was the RSA Conference, which serves as a memento mori to the entire tech industry by reminding everybody how a couple of spotty kids with an 1980s Amstrad could probably bring the global computer network to its knees without even needing to consult the manual, if they were allowed to stay up past bedtime. US government security guy Richard Clarke did the honours this year, warning that if companies spend less on info-security tech than on coffee for employees, they "deserve to be hacked". So if the Nescafe disappears from the break room next week you'll know who to blame.
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Security guru: Let's secure the Net
Incidentally, hacker icon Kevin Mitnick made an appearance at the show, reminding people that all the expensive security equipment in the world means nothing if you can trick the system administrator into giving you a password. He broke into Novell's network in the early 1990s without using a single back-door.
Mitnick meets former targets
European officials are usually ignored or made fun of on this side of the channel, but this week they were churning out some regulations that are less boring than usual. One was a proposal for how patents are handled in the EU, which would include patents for any old piece of software, something violently opposed by many developers. Commissioner Frits Bolkestein (his real name) assures us the regulations won't allow software patents to be misused as they are in the States, but it's far from clear how patent officers can make sure applications really represent a new, innovative idea before approving them. More than likely it'll be left to the patent lawyers to sort out the whole mess in a whole new generation of endless labyrinthine patent lawsuits, which is why patent lawyers enthusiastically embrace the whole software-patent idea.
EC software patent proposal tougher than US law
The other regulation was a draft protocol published as an amendment to the Cybercrime Treaty by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. This body, the natural enemy of conspiracy theorists and Europhobes alike, is proposing things like making race hate language illegal via email and the Internet, and is also, more worryingly, rumoured to be labouring to make life easier for shadowy global surveillance organisations.
Ban looms for online racist material
Speaking of surveillance, Microsoft admitted this week that it keeps records of what CDs you've been listening to and which DVDs you've been watching, if you're using Windows Media Player for Windows XP. It didn't mention this in its privacy policy either, until after a privacy consultant warned about it. The problematic part of this is that Microsoft keeps a database of which media have been viewed on a particular computer, allowing it to come up with all sorts of interesting market research based on your tastes, even if it doesn't know precisely who you are. Microsoft denies everything. Well, it's good to know you have a friend in the computer business looking out for your interests... and it knows exactly what your interests are, too, whether you like it or not.
Windows Media: Watching you watching DVD
And finally, away from the conferences and Brussels, pawn enthusiasts rejoiced this week as Virgin Mobile unveiled a new phone from Sendo that includes a two-player interactive version of chess. They'd better start saving their pennies, though, as each move is sent as a 10p SMS. A Virgin representative suggested that only a novice would end up splashing out as much as £4 on one game. "Yes, a poor player would take 40 moves -- I can usually win in six," she bragged. Opening a copy of last Friday's edition of The Times at the chess page, the Schmoozer read about a classic encounter between Garry Kasparov and Viktor Korchnoi -- neither of whom could exactly be labelled as dullards -- which ended as a draw after just over 40 moves. That game would have cost a whopping £8 in total; a typical Schmoozer game, which ends with the King being chased interminably around the board by two pawns, could well cost as much as the latest PlayStation game. Perhaps the Schmoozer will be more inclined to resign in future.
Virgin looks to cash in with SMS gaming The News Schmooze is ZDNet UK's irreverent take on the week's news. Send your tip-offs to: mailroomuk@zdnet.com.


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