Monday, September 27, 2010

Better Internet Wiretapping?

The New York Times today posted an interesting article titled U.S. Wants to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet. The article discusses a bill the Obama administration plans to submit to Congress next year. Here’s a quote from that NY Times piece about the bill.

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

We’ve actually got a rather dated law like this in place right now. Back in 1994 the federal government passed the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). Under the law, telecommunications providers must have hardware and/or software installed that will allow law enforcement agencies real-time surveillance of any telephone or Internet traffic.

Originally, CALEA only applied to telephone networks, but in 2004 several federal organizations filed a joint petition with the FCC to expand the ability to monitor voice over IP and broadband Internet connections. Lawsuits challenging that the ruling was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment were filed by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Council on Education.

There are several gaps in CALEA that the Times piece discusses including the use of offshore services and “freeware” applications created and maintained by volunteers. These are some of the holes the new law will try and address. The Times piece claims officials are coalescing around several of the new proposal’s likely requirements:
  • Communications services that encrypt messages must have a way to unscramble them.
  • Foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States must install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts.
  • Developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception.

My biggest concern is technology backfire - hackers taking advantage of wiretapping holes. I understand the need to monitor traffic in some cases but based on the way the Internet has been put together and works I don’t see how real-time surveillance can technically be accomplished without eventually exposing holes that could (and would) be exploited by hackers. Be sure to read the entire New York Times piece linked here.


Update 9/27/10 - I received the following message from Kyle at

Hello Gordon,

I just finished reading your take on how federal officials want to improve internet wiretapping in the very near future. I really enjoyed how you citied the New York Times as well as offered your own opinion on how this opens the door for a different kind of security risk: hacking. It's kind of interesting that by increasing monitoring of the internet, the government could also open doors as you say for hackers to exploit. In terms of security, that's a pretty big issue to deal with right there.

I think you would enjoy this video from, it analyzes what the national media is saying about this possibility in a 2:30 video. The video actually references the same Times article that you talk about with mention to the three major requirements the bill will request.

Here's the video:

Multisource political news, world news, and entertainment news analysis by

Thanks for passing this along Kyle.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

U.S. Slow Path to 4G Technologies

Last week I wrote about AT&T and Verizon plans to roll out fourth generation (4G) Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless technology. Today, Rahul Gaitonde, Deputy Editor at had a short post titled U.S. Slow to Catch On to LTE Technologies

In addition to AT&T and Verizon plans, Rahul's post mentions Sprint's WiMax (a competing 4G technology to LTE) and t-Mobiles HSPA+ (sort of 3G on steroids - up to 56 Mbit/s downstream and 22 Mbit/s upstream) deployment.

His post also mentions that Vodafone Germany announced that by December it will offer service in 1,000 municipalities and another 1,500 by March 2011. Also, TeliaSonera launched a network in Norway in September 2009 and a second network in Sweden in December 2009.

Friday, September 17, 2010

AT&T and Verizon Wireless Upgrade Rollout Plans

FierceWireless had a good short post yesterday titled AT&T to launch LTE by mid-2011 that detailed Fourth Generation (4G) Long Term Evolution (LTE) plans for AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The AT&T details come from a presentation by AT&T Operations CEO John Stankey at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2010 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference. Here’s some highlights from the post:


  • Is readying a nationwide HSPA+ (this is 3G technology) upgrade for this year, which AT&T executives have said will allow the carrier to deliver real-world download speeds of 7 Mbps. In the meantime, the carrier continues to upgrade backhaul to cell sites it has upgraded to HSPA 7.2 technology.
  • Network upgrade efforts have been hampered by continuing parts shortages from key vendors. Stankey said company is currently dealing with $300 million worth of backlogged network equipment.
  • By Oct. 1, will have added 600 additional radio carriers in San Francisco, which has been a trouble spot for the company.
  • Currently conducting LTE trials in Baltimore and Dallas and is is spending $700 million in capital expenditures on LTE this year.
  • Stankey said AT&T is working on a different kind of implementation for LTE than other carriers, and needs to carry forward its UMTS services (3G) to ensure that voice and data services can work simultaneously on both UMTS and LTE.
Verizon Wireless 4G (LTE)
  • Intends to launch 25-30 commercial LTE markets in the fourth quarter of this year, covering 100 million POPs. Verizon has said it plans to double the number of its LTE markets 15 months after its initial launch this year.
Check out the FierceWireless post for details and to see key slides from Stankey’s presentation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Pew Report: The Rise of the Apps Culture

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a new report on September 15 titled The Rise of the Apps Culture. The report takes a look at cell phone use in the United States and how it has increased and changed over the past decade. The project surveyed 1,917 cell phone users. Here’s a list of some of the key findings from the report:

  • Eight in ten adults today (82%) are cell phone users.
  • About one-quarter of adults (23%) now live in a household that has a cell phone but no landline phone.
  • 11% of cell phone owners are not sure if their phone is equipped with apps.
  • 35% of adults have cell phones with apps, but only two-thirds of those who have apps actually use them.
    • 29% have downloaded an app to their phone, and/or
    • 38% have purchased a phone with preloaded apps
  • App use still ranks relatively low when compared with other uses of cell phones.
  • One in ten adult cell phone users (10%) had downloaded an app in the past week; 20% of cell phone users under age 30 download apps this frequently
  • One in eight adult cell phone users (13%) has paid to download an app
  • Among cell phone users with apps, the average adult has 18 apps on his or her phone.
The report also includes data from a December 2009 Nielsen Company Apps Playbook survey that included 3,962 adult cell phone subscribers who had downloaded an app in the previous 30 days. Here’s some basic findings from the Nielsen survey:
  • Most recent apps downloaders said they used their apps daily but for short periods of time, and used them in a variety of situations.
  • Different people may use apps in different ways.
  • Cell phone screen real estate is valuable.
Check out the entire 46 page Pew report PDF linked here for details.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Blocked Caller ID Calls Are Not Really Blocked

You may think turning off, or blocking, your caller ID can make you anonymous to the person you are calling. Well...... it can but..... not really. Linda Scott out at the Education Development Center in Newton, MA paased along a link to a service called Trapcall. This service can be used to unmask blocked and restricted calls, allow users to blacklist harassing callers, and can also record incoming calls. There is no software to install and the service will work on mobile phones from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint.

Here’s a piece on how TrapCall works from a 2009 Wired article:

TrapCall takes advantage of a loophole in Caller ID blocking that’s long benefited corporate phone customers: Namely, calls to toll-free numbers are not blocked, because those calls are paid for by the recipient.

TrapCall instructs new customers to reprogram their cellphones to send all rejected, missed and unanswered calls to TrapCall’s own toll-free number. If the user sees an incoming call with Caller ID blocked, he just presses the button on the phone that would normally send it to voicemail. The call invisibly loops through TelTech’s system, then back to the user’s phone, this time with the caller’s number displayed as the Caller ID.

The caller hears only ringing during this rerouting, which took about six seconds in’s test with an iPhone on AT&T. Rejecting the call a second time, or failing to answer it, sends it to the user’s standard voicemail.

And, here’s a short video from HousholdHacker demonstrating the service:

If you think this stuff is not very popular take a look at the YouTube view counter for the video - almost 2.4 million views as of today.

In my 2003 book Introduction to Telecommunications Networks I wrote the constitutionality of caller ID has been repeatedly challenged in court with people having three major concerns:
  • The right to be left alone
  • The right to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures
  • And, the right to not be subjected to unreasonable government intrusions
Privacy works both ways for me. I don’t think I’ve got much to hide so don’t worry too much about having to block my caller ID. If I do have concerns about my number getting out I’ll just use another phone with a public number. If someone does call me from a blocked number, I typically just let it go to voicemail.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

iPhone Antenna Signal Strength Measurement Is Back

On January 26, 2010 I wrote a post here titled How To Put Your iPhone Into Field Test Mode & Compare Signal Strength Bars To Actual Signal Levels. That post received a lot of attention including a mention in The Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy Carl Bialik's blog.

The blog by Carl was titled The Case of Apple and the Mysterious Bars and focused on the antenna problems iPhone 4 users were having. Before he wrote the piece Carl and I talked - discussing antennas, signal strength and measurement. We also talked about how Apple had disabled field test mode with the release of iOS 4.0 back on June 21. This meant if you had purchased a new IPhone 4 and thought you were having antenna problems, you had no way of determining your signal strength - all you had were bars to look at.

Here’s an edited section of my January 2010 post:

The iPhone has the ability to go into something called Field Test mode. Once in this mode you can look at signal strength in both signal bars (what we are all used to seeing) and also in dBm. To put an iPhone into Field Test mode just punch in the following “number “on the phone keypad, including the "star" and "pound sign" keys:


After you punch these numbers and symbols in, hit the Call button on the keypad and you'll end up with your iPhone screen looking like this:

Take a look at where you usually see the signal bars and you'll see a negative number - this is the actual cell signal strength your phone is receiving in dBm referenced to 1 mW. In the above screen shot I'm measuring -102 dBm. Touch that signal strength number once and it toggles to the familiar signal strength bars. Touch it again and it toggles back to the signal strength number.

What constitutes a good signal? Here's some rough signal strength guidelines:

Full Signal:-70 or lower

Optimal Signal:-70 to -75

Fair Signal:-75 to -85

Poor Signal: -85 or higher

Remember, as a negative number increases in its numeric value it is actually decreasing with reference to zero. This means a -70 dBm signal is stronger than a -85 dBm signal.

This is interesting to experiment with - check your signal strength in different locations see and how it correlates to the numbers of bars you are getting.

To exit out of Field Test mode on the iPhone just hit the Home button.

On September 8, Apple released iOS 4.1 and they’ve turned Field Test mode back on. You access it exactly the same way.

Once you’ve updated your iPhone to iOS 4.1 be sure to give Field Test mode a try.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11/01: Remembering Nine Years Ago

I first published this two years ago. It brings back some not so good memories and the same raw feelings of 9 years ago.

I was walking into the office when our technician told me a plane had hit one of the towers - he said "they think it was a small plane" and I did not think too much about it. 20 minutes or so later I was in a meeting and the same tech came in saying it was an airliner. We all left the meeting and turned on a small television in our lab. I also made sure I had a computer close by so I could watch email.......

At the time we were running a national listserv for a large group of faculty and administrators involved in a Working Connections grant with Microsoft and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). I've pulled out a few emails that came to the list. Here's one of the first from Mete at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC):

11:50 AM, 9/11/01
It is chaos here, but everybody at BMCC is OK. We are closed for the day and the roads/subways to in/out of Manhattan are blocked. I am in Brooklyn (home) now and the sky is dark from smoke/ash/soot. I have a feeling it is going to take a long time to recover from this one.
Hope all is well with everyone around the country,


BMCC is on Chambers Street, next to ground zero and a college building was damaged from the attack. Mete was on the subway on his way in when the attack started and I believe he walked home to Brooklyn.

Here's a reply message from Lynn at the AACC in Washington, DC::

12:05AM, 9/11/01
We are ok here, but our office is closing so people can try to get home. The smoke from the Pentagon is visible from our 4th floor conference room. Most of the federal offices have now closed, a couple of subway stations near the Pentagon are closed, the streets are crowded with people driving and walking home from downtown offices, and cars with sirens go by every 5 minutes or so. Folks who live near Capitol Hill are sticking around the office until things calm down in that part of town.


A flurry of emails went back and forth during the day from people all around the coutry. We were all worried, frustrated and upset about the attacks and our friends in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Here's a sample of the response from Paula at Richland College in Dallas:

11:50AM, 9/11/01
Thank you both for taking the time to provide us with an update of your safety. Our prayers are with you and all Americans during this tragedy. As in other states, thousands are donating blood. A major sports arena in Dallas has been setup as a blood donation facility. Churches are conducting special services. Please assist us to remain informed as to organizations/drives that are established that will provide direct support.


This came from Chris at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City a few days later:

10:50AM, 9/14/01
FIT is safe and sound and open for business but few classes are running normally. It is hard to describe the experience of walking south on Manhattan's avenues and seeing a column of smoke where the World Trade Towers should be. When the wind shifts, the smell of the fire comes to Chelsea with a light dusting of the cement that is ankle deep a few blocks away.

We are glad to hear that all are well at BMCC and in Washington.


Here's a followup from Mete that was also sent on September 14:

12:36AM, 9/14/01
The building that we (CIS) dept was suppose to move this Sept., (but did not because of delays) is quite damaged. They are using our main building as command/triage/morgue center. We will be closed until the end of next week. The cleanup is going very slowly and there is very limited access to downtown Manhattan.

The subways are not running and all the outer borough are choked with traffic with people bringing their cars and parking them as close to Manhattan as possible. The air quality is bad, there is possibility that some more buildings (including our own that was next to a collapsed building) may come down aggravating the situation.

There are a number people that I know, with families, that perished in the bombings (we were going go to a 10th bday party this weekend, but the mother is missing - what do we do now ??) from my daughter's school and our neighborhood. But they are defiant, and most of the businesses try to operate as usual with a backdrop of surrealism...

Thanks for all of your e-mails and good wishes. We appreciate it and find comfort in them.


Hundreds of emails went back and forth over the next few weeks and things slowly went back to as close to normal as they could get.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Community College Students

By far the best part of my work at our National Science Foundation funded ICT Center is getting to meet lots of great people. I especially enjoy meeting students. It’s great to hear them talk about their backgrounds and experience - where they are from, where they are now and where they see themselves going after graduation. I’m always amazed at their focus, drive and ambition and often walk away feeling a little (admittedly) jealous.

Here’s a short video with some examples of the kinds of things community college students are doing from ATETV, a web-based video series and interactive network designed to connect students and professionals with careers in advanced technology. This 7 minute and 50 second episode includes an interview with a Fuel Cell Technology major embarking on a new career, discusses the importance of writing and communications for any technical career, and takes a look at the aviation field -- from a woman's perspective.

The ATETV weekly video series highlights success stories from community colleges and National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (ATE) programs nationwide.

Great stuff and great people!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Gender Issues: Education, Technology, Entrepreneurship & Silicon Valley

As the father of two young women interested in technology, I found a New York Times piece published on April 17, 2010 and titled Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley pretty interesting. The piece was written by Clair Cain Miller and focuses on gender issues and gaps in technology and entrepreneurship. Here’s some highlights:
  • Research indicates that investing in women as tech entrepreneurs is good for the bottom line. Venture-backed start-ups run by women use, on average, 40 percent less capital than start-ups run by men and are increasingly involved in successful initial public offerings of stock, according to a recent white paper by Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist who compiled data from 100 studies on gender and tech entrepreneurship.
  • Women own 40 percent of the private businesses in the United States, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. But they create only 8 percent of the venture-backed tech start-ups, according to Astia, a nonprofit group that advises female entrepreneurs.
  • Just 1 percent of girls taking the SAT in 2009 said they wanted to major in computer or information sciences, compared with 5 percent of boys, according to the College Board.
  • Women now outnumber men at elite colleges, law schools, medical schools and in the overall work force. Yet a stark imbalance of the sexes persists in the high-tech world, where change typically happens at breakneck speed.
  • Only 18 percent of college students graduating with computer science degrees in 2008 were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
  • In a study of 493 undergraduate engineering majors’ intentions to continue with their major, men tended to stick with their studies as long as they completed the coursework, while women did so only if they earned high grades.
  • According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 56 percent of women with technical jobs leave their work midway through their careers, double the turnover rate for men. Twenty percent of them leave the work force entirely, and an additional 31 percent take nontechnical jobs — suggesting that child-rearing isn’t necessarily the primary reason women move on.
There's lots more. The piece, along with the links/references are excellent and a recommended read.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

1200 bits per second on an IBM PC

Silicon Alley Insider put up an interesting post today titled AOL To Launch New Ad Campaign – Here Are The Best Old Ones. The post links ten old AOL ads dating back to 1996. It’s pretty interesting to watch them (my favorite is number 6! :)

This got me thinking about how far we’ve come regarding bandwidth and (for many of us fortunate to have broadband service available) the old days of dial-up. Poking around for a couple of minutes on YouTube I found this video of an old IBM PC running DOS 2.0 connecting to a Bulletin Board Service (BBS) with a Hayes Smartmodem 1200. I had the exact same system minus the color monitor around 1982 or so.

Memories of DOS, dial-up sounds and the old AT command set...... I paid around $700 just for that modem and have still got it sitting on my desk as a curiosity piece. Just can't bring myself to tossing what still looks like $700 (in 1982 money) to me!

Thanks to vintageibmnet for posting the video.