Friday, February 28, 2014

The Alphabet Soup of Modern Technology

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Just when you thought it was safe to watch the news now that the Troika have packed their trunks and said goodbye to the circus, along comes this bugging thing. It’s gone to an inquiry so we’re unlikely to hear any more about it until that report is due, but in the meantime the innocent nation has once more been traumatised by having to listen to people pontificate on the airwaves despite the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Not a notion.

Remember the guy who used to stand up on the bus and confess that he didn’t know what a tracker mortgage was? This past fortnight could have done with someone standing up and confessing that he or she hadn’t a breeze what a wifi network is, to say nothing about IMSI-catchers and all that James Bond stuff.

It’s alphabet soup. The telecoms industry is a holy terror for acronyms. In one way, it’s not entirely their fault, as the rate of technological progress has been so fast in the past thirty years that you’ve only invented one thing when some other pointy-head has gone and invented something else that makes your invention as useful as a butter-churn and you’re back to Square One again. When the race is being run at that speed, the technicians aren’t going to waste much time wondering if Joe Public can keep up.

Which is hard luck on Joe Public, of course. Joe Public is an easy-going sort of a fella, doesn’t like to make much fuss, likes his pint and football on telly. But the pace of the world is getting a bit hectic for Joe Public and he has to keep up with technology, even if he doesn’t want to. The whole world is wired now, and we have to make our way among the cables, whether we like it or not.

It was hard not to feel a little sorry for a prominent journalist last week who make a terrible fool of himself by trying to talk about technology that he doesn’t understand. The technology isn’t easy to understand and even those that can understand it aren’t always great at getting it across.

For instance: there was a story that briefly appeared a little before Christmas about cyber-security flaws in ten Irish hotels discovered by a vigilant IT company. So naturally people are scared and worry about their online security because they don’t know what’s going on.

People like to use hotel wifi when they’re on holidays because data roaming charges will hang you high but you’d still like to check Facebook or Twitter of an evening. But how can you use hotel wifi if it’s not secure? The company that did the survey said that hackers could find out everything bar the colour of your underpants, and that too if you’d been foolish enough to buy them online.

So you’re nervous having ready this story about cyber-security. You go online then before you go abroad to find out if hotel wifi is secure and you’re worse off than you ever were. One innocent asked a question about hotel wifi on one of the internet’s less forgiving technology forums only to be dismissively told that really, all things considered, you should only use public wifi through a VPN.

So you can imagine how much better the innocent felt after that. If he or she was unsure about hotel wifi he or she is hardly able to tell a VPN from the ICA. Thanks for nothing, fellas.

Someone sent a tweet last week of a story in a British newspaper saying that Germany was unhappy with wifi security standards, and advised people to stick with the good old cables, with which you always know where you stand. Thing is, that story was from 2007. In online terms, 2007 is old Methuselah’s time. It’s like warning people not to go to sea because of the dragons.

The most important thing to remember in trying to figure out new technology and security issues is this: There’s a considerable difference between what’s possible and what’s probable.

Is it possible to hack your Facebook account when you’re holidaying at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes? Yes, it surely is. But it would take a hacker of very considerable skills to do it and chances are you’re really not worth it.

Does that mean you can’t be hacked? No, it doesn’t mean that either. When you’re online, it’s a lot like parking your car. If you leave the doors open while you’re doing your shopping, there’s a good chance some gouger will drive off with the thing.

So be sensible. Choose strong passwords. If you’re asked to sign up to something too good to be true, don’t. There’s nothing that’s too good to be true. Use mainstream sites like Amazon or Google. Look out for web addresses that begin with https, rather than just http – it means there’s an extra layer of security. Just use the head and you’ll be fine.

Alphabet Soup: Wifi is the technology that takes you online when you don’t have a cable to plug into your machine. It was quite insecure when it started, but not so much anymore. The Hotel Splendide’s wifi is more than likely top notch. The wifi at that bar down by the docks, frequented by all those sailors with scars on the faces from bottle fights? Probably best wait ‘til you get back to the hotel.

Every phone has an IMSI – it’s an International Mobile Subscriber Identity, a means of letting the network know that you are really you. An IMSI-catcher, however, is a way of stealing your identity on the mobile networks, and they are not at all common because if they were, it’s the end of mobile industry.

Finally, a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. If you’re not planning to infringe someone’s copyright or get up to other online mischief, you’ll be fine without one. Just fine.