Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: Rupert gets sold, GSM gets cracked, Russia gets nosy, Bill gets Scandinavian and the Flying Vicar gets going

Monday 6/12/1999

We've been sold! Or rather: we will be sold. Possibly. It's all very complicated: in brief, our lords and masters in the US, Ziff Davis Inc, were made up of a lot of bits and pieces -- Comdex, ZDTV, the print publications like PC Mag, PC Week -- and a hunka hunka debt that was given to the company by Softbank, our majority shareholders, when they bought the company from the last owners. That's high finance, apparently, but it's all thoroughly beyond me.

Now, since everything these days is online, the non-online bits of the business have been sold off. ZDTV has gone to Paul Allen (cofounder of Microsoft and now nascent cable mogul) and the print publications to a group called Willis Stein & Partners. This has raised enough readies to pay off the debt, while leaving all sorts of agreements in place to keep ZD Net and the magazines working together while owned by different people. Then Comdex and associated bits will be flogged off, and ZD Net will stand alone, ready to soar into the stratosphere with all the other dot.coms.

At least, that's what seems to be happening. It's taking a long time to sort out and, just between us girls, the exact role all us European print types will play in this brave new world has yet to be precisely delineated -- let alone us European print types who also do online stuff. As is usual when you unstitch a multi-billion dollar international concern, it'll take some time to insert tab A into slot B and there are enough rumours flying around to run a tabloid.

So, an odd way to start the run-up to the new millennium. Wish us luck...

Tuesday 7/12/1999

Some news comes as a complete surprise: some, you've been expecting for years. GSM mobile phones have finally had their voice encryption cracked? That's almost so predictable it's hardly news at all, especially to the cryptographers and phone phreaks who've been gnawing away at the officially secret algorithms for ages. In fact, it's more amazing that it's lasted this long.

Because it's ubiquitous, it's hard to remember quite what a phenomenon GSM actually is. Development started in 1987, the specification rapidly grew to some 6000 pages and the first real calls were made in 1991 -- just eight years ago. Now it's the major personal cellphone technology on the planet, and shows every sign of going much, much further. The politics is just as amazing as the electronics: it was a concerted effort by a number of international bodies who normally take years just to agree where to meet each other. The GSM designers say that the project was like putting a man on the moon ten times over, and they may not be that far from the truth -- some of the terrors and triumphs are detailed in the official history of the standard.

And the voice encryption? Well, the original design was and is effectively uncrackable -- we're still looking at about half a million years to decode a single conversation with a reasonably powerful computer. But the powers that be -- you know, the ones who wired up Gerry Adam's car with a device the size of a radiogram -- got a bit nervous about all their citizens chatting away too securely, and even more nervous about the citizens of other countries having the same ability. So the encryption got watered down, and now it takes a couple of hours' serious number crunching to steal a key. You could get right back to the original standard with a new SIM in your phone and some new software in the base stations, but my friendly quasi-spook tells me that GCHQ couldn't afford the upgrades.

Not that it matters. But watch the specifications for encryption in the third generation UMTS stuff. There'll be interesting stuff hidden there, of that I'm quite sure.

Wednesday 8/12/1999

Still, there are spooks and there are spooks. The Russian ones are a lot scarier: according to a report from Moscow today, not only have the nation's 350-odd ISPs had to give the official state monitoring bodies total access to net traffic -- something even Jack 'Boots' Straw can only dream about -- but they had to pay for most of the gear themselves. Some ISPs have refused, as the legislation is dodgy by any standards, but they've had their bank accounts frozen and their connections clipped. Now that's cheeky.

And what's actually happening? According to the American Foreign Policy Council '"In a master control room in the bowels of the Lubyanka, teams of FSB [Federal Security Service] agents spend their days intercepting private correspondence sent via the Internet between friends, lovers, business partners, politicians," the Moscow Times writes in an editorial. "And there is no one watching the watchers." The SORM-2 regulations awaiting implementation will allow the FSB "to conduct real-time monitoring of every e-mail message, credit card transaction and web page sent or received in Russia."'

Just think about that next time you send a message to HotOlga9001 in Minsk. And we're worried about GSM...

Thursday 9/12/1999

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Party time is icumin in, lhude sing hangover. Last night was the combined birthday party of three of the more notable journos in this bit of the business -- Mike Magee, Dave Evans and Peter Kirwan. Their combined ages reach back to before the discovery of fire, and they had the ferocious evil-mindedness to have the bash in a place that serves Timothy Taylor's Landlord beer -- a substance so seductive in its deliciousness and so uncompromising in its effects that if word ever got out to the Afghani opium farmers they'd uproot the poppies and plant hops instead.

I have no news to report today. Oh, some cats called Microsoft and a digital phone outfit named Ericsson announced a deal that sets the framework for the next ten years of portable datacomms for the masses, causing Psion shares to go down 40% and back up again in hours thus demonstrating the incredible instability of an uninformed market, but I don't suppose it matters. Magee, your time will come...

Friday 10/12/1999

The last issue of IT Week for the year, the decade, the century and the millennium has gone to press! And I have promises to keep -- I have to go up to visit my parents and attend the church service for the licensing of my father, the flying vicar. This has nothing to do with his activities in a Cessna over Cambridgeshire, but rather his coming out of retirement (a little) to take over the priesting in the parish where he's landed. The parents are then due to go to Africa for the Christmas and New Year celebrations -- it's their ruby wedding anniversary on the 2nd January, so they thought they'd do something a little special. I'm horrified at the thought of them being stuck out there and dependent on systems that, to be charitable, may not have had the most rigorous Y2K testing, so I've obtained an Iridium satellite phone to keep them company. Not sure what good it will do -- "Hello, Rupert? We're being eaten by lions...." -- but it's a comfort.

I'll keep you informed about their progress, Deo -- and Willis Stein -- Volente.