Recently in Communications Category

Note: While I agree that we must protect ourselves from Cyber-espionage and Cyber-warfare, having full access to the US Internet "plug" is not warranted. How about we just take our military systems offline? Do they really need to be connected to the world-wide-web?

Internet companies and civil liberties groups were alarmed this spring when a U.S. Senate bill proposed handing the White House the power to disconnect private-sector computers from the Internet.

They're not much happier about a revised version that aides to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, have spent months drafting behind closed doors. CNET News has obtained a copy of the 55-page draft of S.773 (excerpt), which still appears to permit the president to seize temporary control of private-sector networks during a so-called cybersecurity emergency.

The new version would allow the president to "declare a cybersecurity emergency" relating to "non-governmental" computer networks and do what's necessary to respond to the threat. Other sections of the proposal include a federal certification program for "cybersecurity professionals," and a requirement that certain computer systems and networks in the private sector be managed by people who have been awarded that license.

"I think the redraft, while improved, remains troubling due to its vagueness," said Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, which counts representatives of Verizon, Verisign, Nortel, and Carnegie Mellon University on its board. "It is unclear what authority Sen. Rockefeller thinks is necessary over the private sector. Unless this is clarified, we cannot properly analyze, let alone support the bill."

Representatives of other large Internet and telecommunications companies expressed concerns about the bill in a teleconference with Rockefeller's aides this week, but were not immediately available for interviews on Thursday.

A spokesman for Rockefeller also declined to comment on the record Thursday, saying that many people were unavailable because of the summer recess. A Senate source familiar with the bill compared the president's power to take control of portions of the Internet to what President Bush did when grounding all aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001. The source said that one primary concern was the electrical grid, and what would happen if it were attacked from a broadband connection.

When Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced the original bill in April, they claimed it was vital to protect national cybersecurity. "We must protect our critical infrastructure at all costs--from our water to our electricity, to banking, traffic lights and electronic health records," Rockefeller said.

The Rockefeller proposal plays out against a broader concern in Washington, D.C., about the government's role in cybersecurity. In May, President Obama acknowledged that the government is "not as prepared" as it should be to respond to disruptions and announced that a new cybersecurity coordinator position would be created inside the White House staff. Three months later, that post remains empty, one top cybersecurity aide has quit, and some wags have begun to wonder why a government that receives failing marks on cybersecurity should be trusted to instruct the private sector what to do.

Rockefeller's revised legislation seeks to reshuffle the way the federal government addresses the topic. It requires a "cybersecurity workforce plan" from every federal agency, a "dashboard" pilot project, measurements of hiring effectiveness, and the implementation of a "comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy" in six months--even though its mandatory legal review will take a year to complete.

The privacy implications of sweeping changes implemented before the legal review is finished worry Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "As soon as you're saying that the federal government is going to be exercising this kind of power over private networks, it's going to be a really big issue," he says.

Probably the most controversial language begins in Section 201, which permits the president to "direct the national response to the cyber threat" if necessary for "the national defense and security." The White House is supposed to engage in "periodic mapping" of private networks deemed to be critical, and those companies "shall share" requested information with the federal government. ("Cyber" is defined as anything having to do with the Internet, telecommunications, computers, or computer networks.)

"The language has changed but it doesn't contain any real additional limits," EFF's Tien says. "It simply switches the more direct and obvious language they had originally to the more ambiguous (version)...The designation of what is a critical infrastructure system or network as far as I can tell has no specific process. There's no provision for any administrative process or review. That's where the problems seem to start. And then you have the amorphous powers that go along with it."

Translation: If your company is deemed "critical," a new set of regulations kick in involving who you can hire, what information you must disclose, and when the government would exercise control over your computers or network.

The Internet Security Alliance's Clinton adds that his group is "supportive of increased federal involvement to enhance cyber security, but we believe that the wrong approach, as embodied in this bill as introduced, will be counterproductive both from an national economic and national secuity perspective."

Update at 3:14 p.m. PDT: I just talked to Jena Longo, deputy communications director for the Senate Commerce committee, on the phone. She sent me e-mail with this statement:

The president of the United States has always had the constitutional authority, and duty, to protect the American people and direct the national response to any emergency that threatens the security and safety of the United States. The Rockefeller-Snowe Cybersecurity bill makes it clear that the president's authority includes securing our national cyber infrastructure from attack. The section of the bill that addresses this issue, applies specifically to the national response to a severe attack or natural disaster. This particular legislative language is based on longstanding statutory authorities for wartime use of communications networks. To be very clear, the Rockefeller-Snowe bill will not empower a "government shutdown or takeover of the Internet" and any suggestion otherwise is misleading and false. The purpose of this language is to clarify how the president directs the public-private response to a crisis, secure our economy and safeguard our financial networks, protect the American people, their privacy and civil liberties, and coordinate the government's response.

Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for an on-the-record answer to these four questions that I asked her colleague on Wednesday. I'll let you know if and when I get a response.

It really shouldn't be this much of a media sensation, but let's face it: Everybody's talking about how Facebook is finally letting members reserve vanity URLs, letting them customize the Web addresses that lead to their profiles. The feature goes live at 12:01 a.m. EDT on Saturday (9:01 p.m. PDT on Friday) and already, the pundits are going mad.

"This is more than 200 million users, already engaged, simultaneously scrambling in the greatest territory dash since the Oklahoma Territory's land run of 1889, albeit with fewer shotgun injuries," author Douglas Rushkoff wrote in an editorial piece on The Daily Beast about the occasion.

Well, it's not quite that momentous. The thing about vanity URLs is that they're nothing new: MySpace has made it possible for members to replace the string of numbers in their profiles with for years now. Aside from the fact that your profile may have more "Google juice" and it'll be easier to tell people how to find you on the social network, this isn't going to be a huge deal for Facebook members--yet. Except that we all get possessive, and the territory battle for your full name, your old college nickname, or your AOL screen name circa 1996 could get ugly.

The potential difficulty for some users is that Facebook is leaving a lot of questions unanswered. So here's CNET News' quick cheat sheet to what will and what might happen--in case you were wondering.

What happens when the vanity URL feature goes live?

Until this point, Facebook members' profiles have been accessible by unique URLs, but they're hard to remember because they use identification numbers rather than custom names. But starting Saturday at midnight Eastern, Facebook will start bringing up an alert message to members who visit the site--unless they're members who registered after 3:00 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, or brands that created "fan pages" after May 31. If your Facebook account falls under these criteria, there may be a delay because of Facebook's concern that people will snap up names just to "squat" on them and sell them. That's been a problem in the domain name business for about as long as the Web has been around.

So, assuming you fit Facebook's timeline, the alert message will pop up and give you a number of options for selecting your new custom name: your full name, your first name and last initial, your first initial and last name, or other options that happen to be available. You can also type in your own, provided it's at least five characters long and doesn't include any characters besides letters, numbers, and the dot symbol (though presumably you can only use the dot in between alphanumeric characters). It doesn't appear to be a mandatory switch, though Facebook will probably keep bugging you about it if you don't switch immediately.

Are any names taken already?

Yeah, if your name is "Mark Zuckerberg" but you aren't that Mark Zuckerberg, you might not get what you want even if you're the first guy logging in at 12:01 a.m. Some Facebook employees have already started using their vanity URLs, and some very popular brands' "fan pages" have them set already as well. Facebook has a request form for businesses that want to make sure their trademarks stay out of other members' user names.

More recently, Facebook also reserved names for some public figures who were at the risk of impersonation or URL squatting, and additionally offered names early to some journalists and analysts covering or working with Facebook--which means that, yes, is reserved already. (For what it's worth, Facebook told me I could accept that user name that they'd reserve, but if I wanted any other one I'd have to wait until the public name selection became available.

So it doesn't have to include my real name?

Facebook has always been adamant about making sure that members use their real names in their profiles. That's not the case with the new vanity URLs; you are officially allowed to use a nickname, your Twitter username, or the results from what happens when you run your name through a pirate name generator, as long as nobody's claimed it already. If it contains obscenities, though, Facebook will probably flag it for removal.

Is it really true that I can't change it?

That's what it sounds like. Facebook has well over 200 million members. Customer service has never been its greatest strength, either. Good luck getting them to accept your extremely urgent need to add your middle name.

Will Facebook's servers hold up?

We don't know. But considering the PR disaster that would ensue if Facebook crashed during the "land grab," it's safe to assume that the social network has been working very hard to make sure it can withstand the onslaught of members eagerly logging on as early as they can.

"We underwent testing before announcing the feature and we are taking steps to handle additional traffic," Facebook spokesman Larry Yu said in an e-mail. "It's hard to get into specifics since it's difficult to predict what traffic will actually be like."

For a second opinion, we sent an e-mail over to a representative at uptime monitoring firm Pingdom to see if it thinks there's a serious possibility that Facebook could crash entirely. Its answer: probably not.

"What I suspect is that we won't see any slowdown, and if we do it won't be much," the company's e-mail response read. "But who knows? The only ones with a clue right now are Facebook's engineers. However, if they have enough of a performance margin for several months of organic growth in their user base, they should be able to handle the increased number of visitors tomorrow."

Where will this go from here?

Facebook user names could go in a heck of a lot of directions; the post announcing the vanity URLs coyly hinted that "we expect to offer even more ways to use your Facebook user name in the future." It's a good guess that at some point you'll be able to log into the site with your user name, rather than your e-mail address. This, obviously, could then be extended to sites using the Facebook Connect or even the site's forthcoming virtual currency.

So what do I do now?

If you care enough about Facebook vanity URLs to have read this all the way through, I guess it's time to set an alarm clock.

Note: Not good! This is my primary means of off road (ATV) navigation and geocaching.

Mismanagement and underinvestment by the U.S. Air Force could possibly lead to the failure and blackout of the Global Positioning System (GPS), a federal watchdog agency says.

The risk of failure starts in 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report quoted by PC World.

The failure would impact not only military operations, but also the millions of people and businesses who rely on the satellite-based navigation systems built into cars, boats and cell phones.

"If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to," the GAO report states.

The report says the Air Force has struggled to build successful GPS satellites within cost and on schedule.

• Click here to read more on this story from PC World.

Note: I followed this story because I've been considering outsourcing (cloud computing) several core applications and services. When a provider like Google has a massive outage like this, it requires that I further scrutinize hosted service providers.


Updated at 12:25 p.m. PDT with word that Google has confirmed an error on its end caused the outage, and at 3:30 p.m. PDT with Google's comment on McAfee's description of the events.

Widespread outages involving several Google services--including search, Google Docs, and Gmail--were caused by an upgrade gone awry inside of Google, according to engineers.

Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research for McAfee, said that Google this morning attempted to make changes to key Internet routing numbers--known as autonomous system numbers--as part of its ongoing transition from an older networking standard to a newer one called IPv6. An unknown "bug" inside Google's network involving some sort of hardware failure or glitch prevented Internet service providers from finding Google's new ASNs on the Internet--effectively sealing it off from many customers, he said.

Not all Internet users were affected, but some that use larger providers--such as AT&T or Verizon--appeared to be disproportionately hurt because large ISPs "peer" with Google, or interconnect their networks with Google's networks in order to improve speed and reduce bandwith costs, Alperovitch said. Not all customers at those providers were affected, and smaller ISPs that didn't interconnect their networks were able to route around the problem. But just like when a bad car accident shuts down a key highway, the ripple effects were felt elsewhere.

The outage began at 8:13 a.m. PDT, according to McAfee's data, and was fixed by 9:14 a.m. PDT. The issue was discussed inside forums dedicated for ISPs and their engineers, such as the North American Network Operators Group. McAfee's customers reported the issue to the security company, which monitors network traffic for some customers.

Google is a major fan of IPv6 and makes many of its services available through the new network technology. However, IPv6 has been slow to arrive overall, in part because it's a very difficult transition from the current IPv4 network.

Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya wouldn't confirm what caused the problem but said the company plans to detail what happened in a company blog to be published "shortly."

Update at 12:25 p.m. PDT: Google has confirmed that "an error in one of our systems caused us to direct some of our Web traffic through Asia, which created a traffic jam." The company did not elaborate on what caused the error in a blog post, but claimed just 14 percent of users were affected.

"We've been working hard to make our services ultrafast and 'always on,' so it's especially embarrassing when a glitch like this one happens. We're very sorry that it happened, and you can be sure that we'll be working even harder to make sure that a similar problem won't happen again," Google wrote.

Updated 3:30 p.m. PDT: Google has denied that work on the transition to IPv6 is to blame for this morning's outage, but will not specify what was to blame. "This issue is unrelated to any work we are doing in transitioning toward supporting IPv6," a spokesman said. McAfee said it obtained its information from Google on a private mailing list for networking professionals of which Google is a member, but declined to provide a copy of the thread in question.

Digg's release of a pervasive, software-free toolbar last week brought with it a sweet little surprise: the capability to jump to a random site or story that was recommended by other Digg users. For a site that's run entirely by its community, this puts the power of browsing in the hands of an algorithm that does the deciding for you. Digg wasn't the first site to do this, though. So what are some other tools that let you randomly explore the Web? I've put together a few of my favorites below.

StumbleUpon: Calling StumbleUpon just a random site generator may not be fair. While it does a great job of taking you to random sites, most of its links have been vetted by a large user base of people who go through and weed out some of the bad or outdated stuff. It's also got a built-in recommendation engine that will tune its "stumbles" to your tastes as you give sites a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

In addition to being able to use the site with a special toolbar that remains no matter what site you're on, you can get a similar experience right from StumbleUpon's site, which brings with it a software-free toolbar. You can also access StumbleUpon for sites, and video on various gaming consoles, including the Nintendo Wii, for which StumbleUpon coded a special version of the site to work with the Wii's remote and your living room's TV set.

Mangle: Next to StumbleUpon, Mangle is one of the oldest sites on this list, having launched in early 2002. While it's not much to look at, it does a good job of letting you randomly hop to big sites, personal pages, images, and even maps. You can access all these verticals either through bookmarks, or by installing Mangle's browser toolbar, which also throws in the option to show random sites that match up with keywords you've entered. Worth noting, however, is that the toolbar hasn't been updated in a while, so it won't work with the latest version of Firefox.

Delicious Randomizer: Delicious may be all about organization (which some people take to an obsessive compulsive level), but it's also got a wild side. It has a random links feature that will take you to a link that's either recently been created or bookmarked by another Delicious user. You can click on it again and again, and it will give you random results based on the pulse of the site. To do it, just save this link to your bookmarks toolbar or bookmarks list.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

DiggBar: Digg's software-free toolbar has a large, orange random button, which as you might guess, takes you to a random page. Where Digg differs from some of the other services on this list though, is that all stories or sites it takes you to have been featured on the front page of This may keep you from finding some real undiscovered gems, but for the casual user you at least know you're being taken to something worthy of a quick look.

Rolling the dice takes you to a new site based on topical sites you've visited recently.

(Credit: CNET)

Google Toolbar: Users with the Google Toolbar installed can add on a special random page button that goes to a random site recommended by Google based on your past browsing history. It looks at what you've been searching for, and pulls up 50 related links, which it cycles through at random whenever you click the button. You can also hop to one of its suggestions by choosing from a drop-down menu, although the first option is way more fun.

If you don't feel like giving Google more of your browser than it already has, you can accomplish the same thing with this Firefox add-on, which also feeds from the same list.

Minthink: Minthink generates a random site to go to with the press of a button. What's nice about this one compared to some of the rest is that if you're accessing it from its standard site, you can preview what the URL is before you click on it. However, if you're a Firefox user and feeling bold, there's an extension, and a script for Ubiquity that will take you directly to the site without you knowing what it is first.

That Random Website: This one may not be well and truly random since it's working off a database, but the folks behind it were smart enough to see the success of the Million Dollar Homepage and go for something similar by selling off slots at $1 a pop (which goes to charity). Every time you visit it or hit the refresh button in the browser it'll take you somewhere new, along with the option to hop back to That Random Website's homepage which makes it feel like a Web ring of yore.

Random Website: (not to be confused with That Random Website) lets you click on a giant face to be hurtled towards a new site. You can also add any of your own URLs to its database, which will go out to other users after being approved by its creators. There's no fancy toolbar, but you can save its bookmark, which will open up a random site in a new browser tab.

Web-O-Random is another service on that list that isn't the prettiest, but it makes up for it with neat AJAX tricks. It will load up random pages in a frame on the bottom of the page with slick fades. It also has a carousel of alternate links if you want to control your destiny a bit more. Technology demo aside, I ran into some problems with it spitting out pages that either weren't alive anymore, or weren't in English, which may not be a problem if you've got Google Translate handy.

Note: Not being much of a web designer (not even close), I found this posting quite interesting and hope to incorporate some of it into my site:

Xobni, the Outlook e-mail helper launched at the TechCrunch 40 conference in 2007, is finally leaving its official beta phase. It's getting some needed updates in the 1.0 release, although no major new features. Xobni is also announcing that it's closed its B round of funding.

Xobni logo

The software updates for Xobni are all in the performance and compatibility areas. The product is now faster, co-founder Matt Brezina told me. In other words, it should work acceptably quickly for users with large e-mail installations, such as Xobni investor Josh Kopelman. Passing "The Kopelman Experiment," Brezina says, was a key milestone during development.

The product now has caching and other performance tweaks so it doesn't drag Outlook performance down during message switching, and it has a feature that allows it to be installed but not automatically run at Outlook start-up; users can turn on Xobni when they want it, or turn it off to free up resources.

Download Xobni here.

It's also supposed to be more compatible with key products that interact with Outlook, such as Microsoft's Dynamic CRM and Outlook Business Contact Manager, and the enterprise versions of McAfee virus scanner, version 8.5 and up (I'm sad to report it doesn't work with version 8.0, which is what I have installed on my laptop).

"We truly needed this beta period," Brezina said as he ran down the tweaks the team made with the product. Installed software, he reminded me, is much harder to develop than Web apps, since the compatibility testing is so much more complex.

Cisco is in
The company has also closed a $10.5 million second round of venture funding, led by Cisco ($5 million) (previous story), with participation of the Blackberry Partner Fund ($3.2 million) and all the previous investors.

Cisco's participation in the Xobni project is telling, and hopefully will help push Xobni beyond the world of just Microsoft e-mail and toward creating products for other platforms. Brezina told me the company's vision is to diversify its products but keep a focus on helping people index personal (as oppose to the world's) information.

Xobni "hasn't made a penny yet," Brezina said, but it will be announcing a premium product this summer, as well as paid online services. Brezina would not elaborate on these plans.

Read previous Xobni coverage.

Application of the day: XOBNI

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Use Outlook? Need a better way to quickly find an email or attachment?

Try XOBNI . INBOX spelled backwards. Plugs directly into Outlook as an Add-on.
CNet News

Skype plans to announce on Tuesday that it will be working with SpinVox to provide its users with voice-to-SMS messaging in four languages. This adds another option to Skype's messaging notifications for both Windows and Mac, which also includes a free e-mail notification or a simple SMS notification when a contact leaves a message.

Converting the messages from voice to text won't be cheap, however. Users will pay 25 cents per message, not including the standard Skype text message rate, and long voicemails could be spread out over as many as three messages. If the entire voicemail won't fit into three texts, then the message will be cut off. Also, if the message is garbled or otherwise unconvertible--because of poor signal quality, for example--SpinVox and Skype will still charge you for the failed conversion effort.

Words that cannot be understood will be converted into question marks or spaces in the body of the message. Fortunately for the cost-conscious, there are several options for cutting down on quickly running up a massive bill. Users can configure which of their Skype contacts will have their voice messages converted, so it's not an all-or-nothing deal. Messages will also only be sent after a 10-minute delay, so you don't have to worry about getting a text if you walk away from your desk for a few minutes. You'll have the option of configuring a maximum number of voicemail conversions per day, too. An obvious problem with that is missing that must-get voicemail, but at least the option will be there.

SpinVox with Skype will support English, Spanish, French, and German, and there are plans to incorporate SpinVox's current support for Italian and Portuguese, as well.

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