Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Fire, robbery, obscene phone calls and April 1st - but nothing shocks Rupert this week quite as much as true confessions from Microsoft

Monday 29/3/2004
Deep in the bowels of Manchester, something is smouldering. A mile-long tunnel thirty metres below the ground catches fire -- how does a tunnel catch fire? -- and hundreds of fibres are burned away. The result is a massive loss of connectivity across the city and large parts of the adjoining countryside, and a great many unanswered questions. Is the tunnel really part of a nuclear bunker network? Is it lined with asbestos? Can BT not back up a mile of fibres? Even hundreds of the things will fit into a modest sewer, after all.

It's this last question that's particularly puzzling. Not just landlines but mobile phone networks, data systems, broadband backbones, relays between radios and other services ran through that tunnel, meaning people who thought they had belts and braces -- ISDN fallback for their ADSL Internet feed, or a mobile phone as well as one in the hallway -- found everything had failed. You can and should make contingency plans for your main system going down, but when most of your options are later piped through a single point you're going to be vulnerable no matter what you try and do.

How many choke points like this are there in the UK networks? What happens if bad people find out and decide to blow them up? Has anyone got any idea what the topography of connectivity in this country actually looks like?

Things should get better once we get public wireless data networks up and running. Of course, these will probably use fibres to link base stations together, but they should be encouraged to develop and use high-bandwidth wireless point to point links to increase reliability.

Me, I'm keeping my ham radio licence up to date and my batteries charged. We don't need no feelthy backbone.

Tuesday 30/3/2004
There's nothing the mainstream media likes more than a good scare story involving new technology. If it's expensive personal new technology, so much the better. You may remember that Walkmen made you deaf, videogames gave you RSI, mobile phones gave you brain cancer and Rolexes encouraged people with machetes to give you a wrist manicure -- thus obviating the problem with the Nintendonitis, at least.

Much the same sense of enjoyable outrage is now attaching itself to the lucky owners of iPods, and in particular the honky headphones that come with it. One outraged chap from Manchester -- presumably standing out like a beacon in the smoke from the tunnel due to his alabaster attachments -- described how a bloke came across the street, looked at his chalky cables and said "You listening to an iPod then?" "Why, yes. Yes I am" said the iPod person, at which point the interrogator pulled out a knife and relieved him of his portable property.

The police have used this in their advice to iPod owners not to use the supplied wan wires, but instead to buy a pair of something less gaudy. I think it's possibly more advisable, when confronted by a stranger enquiring after your personal possessions, to lie.

Nonetheless, I do see the public flaunting of those ivory integuments as a sign of base stupidity. Although I can't believe Apple really said -- as reported -- that "our users would rather show off their iPod than not be mugged", there is no doubt that were I to wander through Kings Cross on a Friday evening waving my 'Pod about like they do in the adverts, I would last around three minutes.

But the real reason the sane should junk the pearly plugs is that they're not very good. Even a fifteen-quid pair of Sony in-ear jobbies sounds better (and don't fall out), and for twice that you can get some that are not only anonymous and black but give much better results than your collection of dodgily ripped MP3s deserve.

The truly paranoid can thread the remote control -- and its giveaway colourless connection -- under the shirt like a radio mike, clipping it to an inside edge beneath a button. It does mean you get to stab worryingly at your own chest from time to time when you need to change track or up the volume, but if you combine this with some angry muttering you'll find you're given a very wide berth by all. And you won't get better advice than that.

Wednesday 31/3/2004
"Windows 95 was a joke." So saith Frederico Baumhardt today, senior consultant for infrastructure and security. I doubt there'd be much disagreement among the cognoscenti -- there certainly wasn't in the audience of security professionals at the event addressed by Mr B. The only surprise is that it was a Microsoft event and Frederico the Frank is a Microsoft employee.

His talk -- as exclusively revealed to ZDNet UK by a security professional in slack-jawed attendance -- continued in much the same vein. 95 was a way to hook desktop bits together, which it did, but with no inkling that anything nasty would ever slither along into the Gatesian garden of Eden. When the Internet turned up, it was a ten-lane blacktop highway to Hell -- and when the good folks at Microsoft rushed to defend the walls of the 95 Village, they discovered that not only had they forgotten to build the walls, the houses didn't have any locks and even the safe in the village bank had a Welcome mat outside.

I exaggerate, but not by much. Not content with vividly describing the state of play then, Baumhardt proceeded to point out flaws in firewalls, IP addressing, tunnelling, and just about every normal security assumption under the sun. It was very entertaining, although my spy reported with a sigh that as he got closer to the present day the critiques of MS products grew ever fainter.

The final conclusion? Old-fashioned ideas are as much a problem as old-fashioned technology when it comes to protecting us all against the evil hordes.

All fine and dandy, and there's no doubt that in Frederico Microsoft has a fine security guy. But if the company's going to start admitting the same things that everyone's been saying for years, we could be in for a lot more dropped jaws in the near future.

Thursday 1/4/2004
Memo to Google: don't announce a brand new service with lots of weird ideas on April 1st. While everyone expects BMW to pull a fast one -- the in-car cookery control was a fine example -- and the BBC doesn't do it full stop, Google is still funky enough to be something of an unknown.

But it seems as if it's serious about GMail, a free email service supported by advertising. So far, so Hotmail: Google's unique selling points are -- for the users -- a gigabyte of storage and for the advertisers, directed messages targeted as a result of the contents of the email.

First reaction: I don't want a computer spying on my email. It feels wrong, and as our silicon toys get ever smarter the question of what, exactly, is reading our mail will get ever more spooky. Second reaction: that's what spam filters do anyway, so what's the problem? Having an email system that can cope with a gig of data -- free or not -- is a fine idea: you wouldn't believe number of problems I have getting Powerpoint or Acrobat documents from PR companies that think the best way to present twenty facts is to wrap them up in twenty megabytes. I can cope with a few adverts and -- hey -- who knows, perhaps my spam filters will mop up the ads that Google shoves in.

But if everyone does that, will Google's business model collapse? Or what if we start to add a thin layer of scanner-crippling encryption? And will Google start publishing top-ten lists of email subjects?

With Google now owning the Web, Usenet and substantial blogging assets, it makes sense that it should step in and attempt to add the world's email to its Monopoly board of data repositories. What's left for it? Instant messaging? Voice? Media streaming? Online music sales? The Bible says that not a sparrow falls, but God knows about it -- we may be heading towards a time when not a bit moves but the Google monster makes a note.

Friday 2/4/2004
Seeking a break from the Glastonbury madness, a small group of us detach ourselves from the office for a five minute breath of fresh air. As we relax, a middle-aged gentleman from one of the other businesses in the building starts chatting away to us when his phone goes off. "Oh no!" he says. "Not that girl again!" Now, our co-habiting friend has a certain careworn dignity about him but there's more of the air of a deputy head of department at a fusty independent school about him than someone who still has problems with girls. "Here," he says, handing me the ringing Nokia. "You answer it."

Blimey. "Hello," I say, "British Museum."

"My friend fancies you rotten," says my new correspondent in pristine Esturine English, to a background of giggles. "She'd like to…" and then she describes certain acts which have no place in a wholesome outlet such as this. She finishes with a brief yet forceful epithet, and hangs up.

"They've been doing that for days," sighs our bemused buddy. "It's doing my head in. And me battery."

He has our sympathies. Another friend of mine had the same problem, only with a great deal more viciousness: she was a young woman living alone, and was informed on a regular basis by a group of blokes over the mobile that they knew where she lived and that they were coming to rob her -- and more besides. It was terrifying.

I expect a lot more people will be enjoying this sort of jape as the school holidays kick off. There are various things the networks could do to reduce the temptation -- if they stored caller ID and let it be known that it would be released if good cause was shown, if they implemented the 'choose to refuse' option whereby your phone wouldn't respond to calls without ID, or if they had a 'three strikes and you're out' where caller ID barring would not work after three calls to the same number. There may be valid objections to all of these approaches, but some innovative thinking that returns a degree of privacy to phone subscribers is badly needed.