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IN ORBIT: World Wide Wire

IN ORBIT: World Wide Wire

Echelon finds a foe

A government report surfaced recently urging businesses and citizens to start implementing cryptography. The government body involved was the European Parliament and its concerns centred on the US-led Echelon project. For the unaware, Echelon ties together the national eavesdropping resources of the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It dates back to an agreement between the United States and United Kingdom in 1946 to continue sharing intercepted communications as the countries had done during the World Wars.

In the first war, Americans were learning the basics of codebreaking from the British. In the second war, the efforts were more balanced: the British had inherited the details of the German Enigma-machine cipher's workings from the French and Polish after their defeats, while the American military cracked the Japanese Red and Purple systems. The "UKUSA" agreement of 1946 was an effort to harness the skills of both countries in the face of the Soviet threat. Canada joined soon after, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 1977.

In many ways, Echelon is

perceived to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the US National Security Agency (NSA). When

representatives of the European Parliament visited Washington last month hoping to discuss the Echelon issue with the NSA, the spooks formerly known as "No Such Agency" cancelled a scheduled meeting. The European MPs and their staff went back to Strasbourg, France, empty-handed. But revenge is a dish best served cold, and they didn't have to work very hard to come up with a solution.

To the NSA and to the UK's Government Communications Headquarters and their Commonwealth counterparts, they essentially said "Intercept this", while calling upon their businesses and citizens to adopt open-source e-mail encryption with the specific purpose of foiling Echelon and other possible systems. A draft of the report is available at http://fas.org/irp/program/process/europarl_draft.pdf.

The part about "other systems" is food for thought. Given that France and Russia are the only major powers with the geography and money to build an intercept system on the global scale of Echelon, it might well be time for the Echelon project members to get serious about encrypting their e-mail too.

P. J. Connolly, InfoWorld.

Technology races ahead at Montreal Grand PrixThe Formula One Grand Prix in Montreal, won most recently by the two Schumacher brothers, Michael and Ralf, is as much a race between computer technologies as it is between daring drivers.

As cars - designed nearly 100 per cent by computer - scream around the Gilles Villeneuve circuit, sensors transmit a stream of data from wheel speed to ignition timing back to the teams at the pit. Wireless data enables more than 120 sensors on the West McLaren Mercedes team cars to gather two or three gigabytes of data per race, according to Sun Microsystems, whose Java technology is used to translate individual pieces of data into race intelligence.

The McLaren team has had a 14-year partnership with Sun and has signed on for at least another five years. This year two Sun Technical Compute Farm (Sun TCF) systems using 64-bit computer servers are being installed - one is up and running already - to boost the team's computational fluid dynamics (CFD) capabilities, saving crucial time at the simulation stage.

In order to take advantage of the latest technology each year, McLaren completely re-designs and re-manufactures their cars - except for the engine -- within a five-month period. During the 17-week race season, the team re-designs as much as 70 per cent.

So why did David Coulthard's engine conk out during the race last month? Look at the factors involved. A Formula One car can accelerate from 0 to 97 kilometres per hour in 2.3 seconds (or from 0 to 200 kilometres per hour in 3.9 seconds), while being able to slow from 240 kilometres per hour to a standstill in 2.5 seconds and within 80 meters. The cars' top speed is 350 kilometres per hour. The seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox can change gears within 20 to 40 milliseconds - and sometimes does so 3,000 times during a race.

The technology can only go so far before surrendering to the unpredictable: the physical pounding on the cars and the drivers, the potential for human error in the confining cockpit or at the pit beforehand, and the hand of fate.

Susan Maclean, ITWorld.

Digging into cultural wireless issues

You'd think anthropologists would be more interested in how ancient cultures used stone cutting tools than why Swedish teenagers are putting tattoos on wireless phones. But a recent anthropologists' report published by Context-Based Research Group should be a must-read for wireless carriers and content providers trying to figure out how to popularise wireless data devices and applications.

The study looked at wireless device usage among people in nine cities: Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Stockholm, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The anthropologists' conclusions noted several cultural differences, including:

- In Stockholm, wireless phone devices become an extension of users' personalities, becoming "totems".

- In Paris, users are more concerned about how the phone looks than the underlying technology and what the phone can do.

- In London, some users are adopting Short Message Service (SMS) and e-mail to overcome their shyness and reach out to others.

- Likewise, in Japan wireless usage helps citizens hurdle social barriers.

- In the US, there's fear about information overload created by being available 24x7.

But the study also discovered several similarities in worldwide wireless efforts, including:

- Carriers are not meeting expectations about the devices. For example, users in the US clearly expected their experience to be much like the wired Internet and were disappointed with small screens, difficult text input and slow network connectivity.

- People consider their wireless devices to be companions, not "tools". A PC is a tool; a wireless device (specifically a phone) is considered differently.

- Nobody's teaching anybody how to use these devices.

While the study is for wireless carriers and content providers, enterprise IT managers can also learn some lessons. As corporations extend applications to wireless devices, remembering what users want and how they interact with portable devices is key to making such efforts successful.

As Sean Carton, one of the authors of the study, says, "The greatest technology in the world is useless if nobody's using it."

Keith Shaw, NetworkWorld.


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