The Week of Leaks

Wikileaks this week let fly with a gusher of data, and at 90,000 documents strong, it’s being called the biggest informational leak in the history of the U.S. military. The site has published tens of thousands of sensitive reports, memos and files regarding the war in Afghanistan, and analysts are just beginning to pick through them, digest them, and assess their full scope.

The documents reveal details about the involvement of countries like Iran and North Korea, as well as uncensored accounts of friendly fire incidents and the killings of civilians. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, says they contain evidence of war crimes and that insurgents in Afghanistan have been receiving aid from Pakistan, even though Pakistan receives aid from the U.S. In other words, if that analysis is correct, the U.S. is backing both sides of the war, in a roundabout way. Assange also said there’s more material on the way.

The New York Times’ take on the documents is that while they don’t glaringly contradict the major points of information the government has been feeding the public in regard to Afghanistan, they do indicate that certain statements about notable incidents may have been misleading — whether insurgents were seen using high-tech weaponry in a fight, for example, or whether Afghan troops or U.S. commandos should have been given credit for a mission.

Public reaction to the leak went all over the map. Some called it straight-up treason, others said Wikileaks did the world a favor by putting the truth out there. After the amazement over the sheer magnitude of the leak blew over, some began questioning whether any of this stuff was really all that explosive in the first place. Another view is that it at least called attention to the Afghanistan war — it’s amazing how many people forget there’s still fighting going on there.

The release of the Wikileaks Afghan War Diary has frequently been compared to the release of the Pentagon Papers. Generally, the same debate has surrounded both events — whether publishing stuff like this needlessly puts peoples’ lives at risk or whether it can change the direction of a war for the better and end up saving lives. Since we can’t visit a parallel universe in which Wikileaks doesn’t exist, we don’t get to know the answer to that question.

Listen to the podcast (12:48 minutes).

DMCA in Focus

If you love to argue endlessly about the ambiguities of sweeping federal laws that collide sharply with the fast and jagged progression of technological innovation — and I betcha do! — then you probably know all about the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law has these huge gray areas and squishy bits on which businesses and consumers often disagree.

For instance, is it really illegal to rip a DVD if I don’t share it with anyone else? Isn’t that fair use? Realistically, if you do it in your own home, nothing will happen to you. If you head up a small project to build software that breaks DVD encryption, you probably won’t get sued into oblivion — applications like Hand Brake and a half-dozen others are still going strong. But if you’re an actual company and you try to make an app like that, the MPAA will do what it takes to make sure it never reaches the market. Just ask RealNetworks.

Same goes for any other form of DRM for any other medium. As long as I’m not stealing, who the eff cares if I convert an AAC into an MP3 or make a dozen backups of my music collection just because I’m a paranoid little twerp?

And how about jailbreaking your own phone, whether to use it on another network or just to get some apps that the manufacturer hasn’t personally blessed? The iPhone is probably the most relevant device in this instance — there’s a whole squad of hackers called the Dev Team that puts out tools to free iPhones from Apple’s control, but in the past, Apple has insisted that’s illegal. But hey, your phone, your choice, right?

Two decisions were made this week that provide a little more clarity to these sorts of questions.

First, the Library of Congress exercised its right to do a little hair-splitting on the definition of “fair use” as it applies to the DMCA. Ripping a DVD? Completely kosher, as long as you don’t share it with others, which would make you a filthy little pirate. Keeping it to yourself just means you’re a harmless digital packrat, so rip away.

It also specified that jailbreaking doesn’t violate the DMCA either, so you iPhone tinkerers can finally come out of the underground and see your children again. Jack Bauer is not waiting to arrest you.

That general stance was then underscored by a judge in the Federal 5th Circuit, whose ruling in MGE UPS Systems v. General Electric stated that breaking DRM — in this case, on a piece of software — was not a DMCA violation if it was all done in the interest of making copies that weren’t subsequently pirated.

Granted, the 5th Circuit isn’t the Supreme Court, but now that these great big federal people have said their peace, what does all this mean for the typical desktop tinkerer? Very little. If you’ve spent much time with computers, there’s a good chance you’ve violated the DMCA once or twice without even trying, yet there you are, not sitting in a federal prison (I presume). Even if you’re all gung-ho about ripping DVDs for personal use and jailbreaking your iPhone, arrest or litigation is probably not a big concern of yours.

The big concern for jailbreakers is warranty and support — Apple will disown the phone if you jailbreak it, so don’t go crying to them if something goes wrong and it doesn’t work anymore. Apple and other companies are under no obligation to change that policy, librarians be damned. They also don’t have to make it easy for hackers to break DRM or bust through device firmware. So the cat-and-mouse game will probably continue, and you’ll still have to search out weird little pieces of software to make the stuff you already paid for work the way you want it to work. You just don’t have to go around looking over your shoulder while you do it — not that you were before.

Make It Rain

Security researcher Barnaby Jack showed off a neat little trick at this year’s Black Hat conference: He performed a virtual Heimlich maneuver on an ATM and made it cough up big wads of cash.

A lot of automated teller machines are hooked up to the Internet, so Barnaby used a little homebrewed exploit he calls “Dillinger” to bust inside. That’s where he planted a rootkit named “Scrooge,” which gave him administrative privileges.

Scrooge allows a hacker to do a lot of things with an ATM besides just make it puke money. It also enables a thief to skim information from unsuspecting users’ swipe cards.

Just to be clear, though, Jack isn’t an actual bank robber — not to the best of my knowledge, anyway. This was all done in a controlled environment. The Black Hat conference is a place where a lot of security researchers get together to say, “I’m not a criminal, wink wink, but if I was, here’s how I’d completely take over your system and steal all your cookies. So think about fixing it someday.”

In fact, Jack said that the companies that make the two ATMs he demonstrated on have already issued patches for the flaws he found. But other ATMs out there could be hacked using very similar methods. Also, just because the companies sent out patches doesn’t necessarily mean the admins overseeing those ATMs have installed them.

Screen Shortage

Life as an Apple supplier isn’t easy, especially when you hear Steve Jobs say the word “magical” and you just know he’s gonna bang out some new product that everyone’s going to drool over and that’ll no doubt tie your whole production line in knots for months. Apple’s going to place a huge order for some oddball component that’s never been made that way before — at least not on the massive scale it’ll take to properly satisfy all the iZombies.

Thus is the story of LG Display, the folks who make the screens for the Apple iPad. Right as the iPad was about ready to kick off in a bunch of new markets, its CEO, Kwon Young-soo, told reporters that shipments to some countries might be delayed because LG couldn’t kick out the screens fast enough. They’re looking into expanding capacity, but that kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight, and it may be late 2010 before iPad shortages stop popping up.

It’s getting to be a familiar problem. Whenever Apple comes up with a new product, or even a significant hardware change on an existing product, it comes up short. Erring on the conservative side in production planning can be a moneymaker under the right conditions. Nobody likes to have excess inventory lying around, and it’s not like anyone who really, really wants an iPad has a whole lot of options at this point if the store’s sold out. With Apple, hearing about a product shortage just seems to make some buyers even hungrier.

But another element of Apple culture also might play into this: secrecy. Its suppliers get to to know about a product before the general public, and leaks are a capital offense in Cupertino. The fewer suppliers know about it, the lower the chance for leaks, so a small handful of vendors get a whole lot of work piled on their laps.

Finally, there’s the quality issue. Apple has some pretty strict standards, and it probably doesn’t want to see a relapse of that little jaundice problem it had last year.

Is Motorola Ready to Roll?

Android has definitely served Motorola well. The company pulled itself out of its years-long, post-Razr slump with the Droid line, and currently its Droid X is one of Team Android’s top starters.

But are we ready to call the comeback complete? Motorola’s gearing up for a major reorganization that’ll split its handset division off from the rest of the company. How ready is it to swim on its own?

Hard to tell based on the numbers. On one hand, its recently reported Q2 revenues were down from a year ago, but they did beat Wall Street forecasts. Actual smartphone shipments tell the opposite story — up from 2009, but short of analyst expectations.

Motorola is treading on shaky ground right now, though up to now it’s mostly been sure-footed. The original Droid was big, the Droid X has been well-received, and there’s some anticipation brewing for the Droid 2 — though it is a little odd that X came between one and two.

The Backflip wasn’t a hit, but perhaps the stakes weren’t as high. The Backflip went to AT&T, and we know where their loyalties lie. Maybe it wasn’t so much a failed attempt to make a smartphone — perhaps it was more like an attempt to stuff Android into a halfway-bright feature phone for people who’d freak out at anything more complex. But when you hear “Android” and see a dumbphone, there’s some mental dissonance that’s just hard to ignore. Anyway, Motorola’s best stuff goes to Verizon, and Verizon gives it a lot of support because it needs powerful iPhone altnernatives.

Going forward, Motorola can’t make any mistakes if it want to keep its head above water. It’ll also have to figure out a way to stand out in the Android crowd. HTC and Samsung are the other two big-name Android makers of the moment, and the hardware on all the top models has begun to look very similar. But these companies can make their mark on a phone by giving the Android OS their own special twist. Motorola’s personalized version of Android, Motoblur, may be attractive for the kinds of users who need a constant social network IV drip, but that’s definitely not everyone. Others find those widgets just as annoying as the crapware you usually get on a new PC.

Three for the Price of One

Even if the so-called US$100 laptop never really made it down to an actual MSRP of $100, the dream of super-cheap computers hasn’t gone away. In fact, officials in India claim they’ve put together a touchscreen tablet computer that beats the $100 laptop by two-thirds, at least in price.

India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development says that if their prototype computer goes into production, prices will start at just $35. That’s about as much as Apple used to charge for a hunk of rubber … before it started having to give those away for free, but different story. Anyway, the $35 tablet would be aimed at university students, with delivery planned by 2011.

Guess the OS? Yep, Linux. Apparently there’s no hard disk, just a memory card. Manufacturing will probably happen in India. Naturally, nobody’s expecting these things to be state-of-the-art — in fact, for some users, they may be downright disposable. It would certainly be much more affordable than even the cheapest laptops already out there, but whether it will ever arrive in markets like the U.S. or Europe is uncertain. The analysts we spoke with had deep doubts that interest in those places would be high enough to make exporting a $35 computer worth the effort.

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