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Across the Metaverse

Is your future in the ’embedded internet’?

Can you travel across the Metaverse? Should you?

If you ever saw The Matrix, a 1999 movie starring Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburn, you might guess roughly what this is about. In the movie, self-aware machines have trapped the human race in a virtual reality simulation.

Laurence Fishburne Doesn't Know Why 'Matrix 4' Left Morpheus Out | IndieWire

Well, now a real life version of The Matrix could be coming our way. Facebook and Microsoft have made much noise lately about their versions: an “embedded internet” meant to render the current internet obsolete.

Facebook’s Version of the Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, calls his version the “Metaverse”. A “people-first internet”, it would rely less on current forms of social media and browser search. Instead, it would rely far more on VR and AR connections that seem almost to be alternate worlds. Zuckerberg has committed himself so fiercely to this vision, he renamed Facebook as ‘Meta’.

At a recent Oculus Connect event, Zuckerberg’s troops demonstrated seamless connectivity between some of its apps, such as Messenger, and Oculus VR and AR devices. Zuckerberg emphasizes social media and personal use.

Microsoft’s Version

Microsoft, by contrast, gears its version to business and professional use. The company claims to have built a collection of tools for enabling businesses to create “immersive spaces”. Via AR and VR, these tools will facilitate more advanced online meetings. Some apps enable ‘moving’ and interacting in virtual factories and retail outlets. These apps go by the name of Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces.

Microsoft calls the software for this project “Mesh”.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, dismisses Meta’s version as unrealistic. “The public perception of The Metaverse, as a futuristic world where plugged-in people recreate their whole lives online, is still a ways off. But business uses are starting to be available now.”

What Should You Believe?

Of course, we can’t predict the future. However, we can make some educated guesses. The Metaverse is unlikely to be as sinister as alarmists predict. And it’s unlikely to benefit us as much as its promoters predict.

Every new communication medium can draw us in and tempt us to abandon reality. All can be addictive. This was true of the original internet. It was true of television. It was even true of radio. We decide how much we’re going to immerse ourselves in any medium. We can walk away if we want to.


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The Russian Hackers Are Coming! The Russian Hackers Are Coming!

Those damned Russians will stop at nothing! They stole the last U.S. Presidential election, according to highly esteemed sources close to Hillary Clinton (cough.. cough…). But now they’re up to something even more nefarious: hacking your office equipment so they can spy on you.

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The last statement actually is true. Microsoft announced last Monday that Russian hackers have been invading corporate computer networks by attacking their most vulnerable connected devices. Typically, these are devices we don’t think of as computers: VOIP phones, printers, refrigerators, and even coffee brewers.

How are the intruders getting in?

For such devices, security is often an afterthought, if thought about at all. Since IT experts seldom expect attacks on such devices, they often fail to update their security protocols. And the password for a peripheral- if it’s protected by a password at all- is usually an obvious one such as ‘password’ or a consecutive series of numerals.

The Russian hackers, who go by names such as Fancy Bear, Strontium, and APT28, are said to work in connection with the GRU, Russian military intelligence.

Their hacking activity dates to at least to 2007. It includes such infamous intrusions as:

  • the NoPetYa attacks in Ukraine,
  • attacks on NATO,
  • overriding of the French TV network TV5Monde’s programming in 2015,
  • hacking of the International Olympic Committee,
  • attempted 2018 thefts of data from U.S. conservative political think tanks.

For the Russian hackers, peripheral devices are beachheads, the weakest links in corporate communication systems. Once they have penetrated a poorly protected camera, printer, or video decoder, the hackers can easily take over other devices connected to them. This includes the supposedly impregnable central computer system.

We warned about this two years ago. We said that the Internet of Things (IoT) would multiply headaches for online security professionals– and for us.

What can you do about the threat?

The more connected devices we own: Alexa hubs, Fitbits, ‘smart’ TV sets, etc., the more avenues of attack we leave for hackers. This means we must be all the more vigilant about guarding everything.

We’re not suggesting you should panic about this. Just be careful. Use secure passwords or biometric authentication, or two-factor authentication. Be sure to keep your security protocols updated. And be sure to protect all of your devices, including the ones most of us never worry about.

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How can you protect your anonymity online?

A famous New Yorker cartoon from the dawn of the internet age features two dogs at a computer. One says to the other: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” On the web, anonymity was virtually guaranteed.

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Those canines might not be so confident about online privacy now. With each passing month, we get more disquieting news that others are spying on our web traffic. It was governments at first. But in the last few years we have learned that Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have been tracking our web usage so they can show us targeted ads. Trolls and stalkers have learned how to find the real identities behind user names we adopt for online comments.

Does this mean we should abandon hope for online anonymity? If we want to maintain our privacy, do we have to stay off of the internet?

In truth, there is only one guarantee of absolute anonymity. We’d have to stay offline entirely.

Short of this, we’re taking on some risk. Still, there are several ways to hold our odds of exposure and I D theft to a bare minimum. I will cover two of them here:

TOR, Proxies, and VPNs

One of the most effective ways to mask identity and location is to appear to be someone else at a different location. For this, you’ll need a virtual private network (VPN) or a proxy server. Not only can they mask your identity, they can enable surfing in other countries like the natives.

VPN services are easy to find. They protect traffic between your computer and internet servers, and they will mask your IP location and address. Suppose that , while working from home, you connect through your employer’s VPN. Websites will track your activity to corporate headquarters, not to your home.

For more advanced security, you may want a proxy server, a computer that redirects your web traffic. Like a VPN, it will mask your IP address. The proxy server also caches internet requests and responses, which will speed connection for your return visits to your favorite sites.

TOR is sometimes called ‘the onion router’ for its multiple layers of protection for anonymity. It provides a network of routes for data requests and downloads.

A few years ago, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had been spying on web traffic, giving special attention to TOR. But the NSA was only able to monitor its ‘exit nodes’. The agency could track what TOR was being used for, but couldn’t identify users.

Browser Security

How do you know your browser isn’t informing on you? Some, most notably Google Chrome, have been especially aggressive in tracking user traffic. Usually, the purpose of vacuuming up this data is advertising. You can’t be sure, though, that your web footprint will never be used for more sinister purposes. Since Google and Facebook have been caught censoring information for political reasons, it pays to be careful.

You can block your browsers ability to store your passwords. Of course, this can be inconvenient, since you probably have a separate password for each web service you use. A password manager can cache your passwords so you don’t have to remember them. Some password managers are free.

You could also activate your browser’s anonymous surfing mode. For Microsoft’s Explorer and Edge, it’s called In Private. For Firefox, it’s called Private Browsing, and for Chrome, it’s called Incognito. Activating the anonymous mode will block the browser from keeping records of websites you visit, your downloads, cookies, passwords, and cached material. Your browser may also offer a Do Not Track option in its settings bar. If it does, you’d be wise to activate it.

Anonymity through Browser Choice

Some browsers are better than others at protecting user anonymity.

Google is notorious for vacuuming up user data for use in targeted advertising. Bing and Yahoo also are aggressive in collecting user data.

Comodo Dragon, Comodo IceDragon, and Epic use Google’s Chromium rendering engine, but they don’t share user information with Google. DuckDuckGo, Brave, and Opera do not use Google, Bing, or Yahoo search engines. They don’t track your web usage or sell your data.

Stealth modes and specialized browsers won’t provide perfect web security. But they can keep websites from sending unrequested info to your computer, info that other sites can read to discern your surfing habits.

More to Come…

There are other steps you can take to protect your anonymity online. We will spell out these additional steps in another post.


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Mixed Reality: the Future of Computing?

Microsoft is betting heavily on mixed reality (MR). Earlier this year, it released the Hololens, a holographic computing system. The Hololens overlays virtual images on real, physical environments. Wearing the Hololens headset and looking at a table in your office, for example, you may see a 3D image of a vehicle or a building on it. You can walk around the virtual object and examine it from different angles. You can even ‘move’ it with your hands, as you can with physical objects.

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What is mixed reality?

Mixed reality differs from Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). VR is a simulated 3D environment. VR is ‘immersive’; that is, it shuts out the physical world completely.  For you, VR would be what the Holodeck was for characters in Star Trek TNG.

VR is used in advanced flight simulators and other ‘immersive’ trainers.

Augmented Reality overlays simulated images on the user’s view of the real world. The heads-up displays on automobile windshields are examples of AR.

Mixed reality, also known a hybrid reality, is a version of AR. Unlike AR devices, though, the mixed reality device scans the user’s physical environment. It then creates a 3D map of his surroundings. With this map, the device knows where to place digital content so it’s realistic and the user can manipulate it with gestures. The MR images are more dimensional than AR images- hence more ‘real’.

What difference does it make?

Computing now usually entails staring at a screen. The images we see are confined within rectangles. We can’t suspend disbelief since we can’t suspend awareness that we’re staring into machines. No matter how well designed, touch screens and keyboards are highly unnatural means of dealing with our environments.

Mixed reality promises to change this. Communication becomes more intense- more ‘real’. You could seem to share physical space with a friend thousands of miles away. You see 3D objects, not merely pictures. You can move around the objects and manipulate them.

MR computing would be much more ‘natural’ and intuitive than the forms we’re familiar with. With MR, we are less conscious of our devices, We can communicate and learn more easily and more naturally.

In a future post, we will cover some of the most important applications for mixed reality.


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Hackers defeated… This is always good news, right?

We’ve often been critical of Microsoft. Its operating systems have usually been buggy and slow, and they seem to require multiple patches to work properly. Occasionally, though, the brainchild of Bill Gates functions exceptionally well. When it does, we want to give it proper credit.

With this in mind, we call your attention to last night’s announcement by Microsoft regarding a potential security threat. Earlier in the day, a group of hackers called The Shadow Brokers released a suite of Windows ‘exploits’ which could have enabled hackers to compromise computers operating on multiple versions of Windows. But Microsoft had already moved to forestall the attacks.

In a blog entry posted last night, Microsoft described the attacks and its responses. Microsoft had repelled one, ERRATICGOPHER, before the release of Windows Vista. Another, ETERNALCHAMPION, it had patched along with two unrelated vulnerabilities.

Yesterday’s Microsoft Security Bulletin spelled out the company’s responses to The Shadow Brokers. On March 14, it patched ETERNALBLUE, ETERNALROMANCE, and ETERNAL SYNERGY. The company didn’t bother patching three others. These were: EXPLODINGCAN, ENGLISHMANDENTIST, and ESTEEMAUDIT. Microsoft left these alone because it couldn’t simulate the attacks on any systems it supports. This evidently means any systems it provides updates for- Windows 7 or newer.

The hackers apparently made the mistake of testing their exploits on a ‘clean install’ of Windows. A ‘clean install’ is a version without recent security updates. The hackers then, had no idea how their attacks would fare on properly updated systems.

We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Update your computer’s operating system often. Be especially vigilant when you hear about critical threats.

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In Blade Runner, a 1982 science fiction movie, large corporations control nearly everything. The individual is almost powerless. It’s virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable for anything important, because decision makers are faceless and remote. Bureaucracy pervades every facet of life.

Some people argue that the hellish vision in Blade Runner is our future. Gigantic corporations will consolidate their control over our economic life.

Such predictions may seem to be credible. Certain corporate giants, such as Facebook and Google, threaten to acquire near monopolies in their markets- and in control of information. Microsoft, Apple, General Electric, and Exxon are still among the world’s largest firms. If present trends continue, can you keep your independence? Is a Blade Runner type of dystopia inevitable?

In the past, size was a decisive market advantage. Giant corporations owned infrastructure, industrial machines, and factories. They owned distribution networks. They could produce much more than smaller businesses could. Their expenses were spread over a larger number of units. It was much easier to organize production within one firm than among many. In the Machine Age, massive size made sense.

Is this true today? Will it be true in our future?

It might not be. In the Information Age, the advantage of size is not as great as before. Some of the means of production, previously out of reach for individuals and small businesses, are much more accessible. Anyone with the necessary skills can write a new app. With only a computer and a web connection, he can make and sell his products from home.

Bringing new industrial products to market is no longer the exclusive domain of corporate giants. With about $20,000, you could buy a router, a CNC machine, and a 3D printer, and they’d be almost as accurate as the ones owned by industrial giants. If you can’t afford your own machines, you can rent time on someone else’s. You could even rent a factory instead of building your own. This can be true of large scale production, not just product development. Some computer chip designers have been renting capacity in chip foundries owned by others.

The Blade Runner may not have been prophecy. For every centralizing economic trend, there is a decentralizing trend, so we are not doomed to a miserable future of domination by giant corporations. In the future, we may have greater control over our lives.

We will say more about this in another post.

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Security is one of our most important concerns in use of the internet. Carelessness can expose our devices to malware and hacking, and we risk our bank accounts and our identities.

The password is a partial solution, our best attempt to limit the risk in internet use. It’s not a perfect defense, though, and it brings its own drawbacks. Passwords that are easy to remember may also be easy for hackers to guess. More difficult passwords we can forget more easily, and we can be locked out of our devices or our secured sites. With multiple passwords, we compound the burden on memory.

In the future, even the best, most complex passwords may not be adequate defenses. As hackers gain access to ever more processing power, brute force attacks could overcome even our most sophisticated encryption efforts. What, then, can we do?

In the long run, replacing the password may be our only realistic chance of protecting our data, our money, and our identities. But what will you replace your password with?

One of the most promising new security protocols is use of biometric data. Replacing your password with a fingerprint, a facial scan, or an iris scan would save having to remember a complex code. A hacker can’t duplicate your features, your fingerprint, or your retinas. It wouldn’t matter how much processing power he had. Without physical access to your computer, he couldn’t break the code.

Dell, Microsoft, Digital Persona, and a few other vendors sell fingerprint scanners for computer security. All sell at retail for less than $80.00. One sells for less than $20.00. After installing your scanner, you can log in just by pressing your finger in the designated slot. You’ll never need a login password again.

Iris or retinal scanners are commonly used for airport and military security. They are too expensive for most consumer uses, but this is expected to change. Improvements in sensor technology will drive prices downward.

One of the most important technologies replacing the password will be machine learning. Ray Kurzweil, one of the most famous computer scientists, as well as a prominent author, inventor, and futurist, said that in the future “the machine will learn you”. Advanced software algorithms will learn the habits of computer users. Eventually, your computer will know your patterns of use and the cadence of your keystrokes. Your computer could detect attempted hacking simply because the hacker’s use patterns will differ from yours. No other security protocol will be necessary.

For now, replacing your computer passwords with more advanced security tools requires time, effort, or money. Before long, you won’t need to expend extra effort or money, as all computers and (legitimate) websites will have adequate security tools built in.

Meanwhile, you may have to rely on your memory.