The first website went online 25 years ago today

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Friday, March 18, 2016

Invented by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the first website info.cern.ch went live at CERN.

Invented by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the first website info.cern.ch went live at CERNToday the world’s first website turns 25 years old. Created by 60 year old British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, while he was a researcher at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The website still exists today and it’s address is info.cern.ch .

It still provides information about the world wide web – the platform that sits on top of the Internet, where documents and pages on the Internet can be accessed by URLs, and connected to each other via hyperlinks, like this.

“When we link information in the web, we enable ourselves to discover facts, create ideas, buy and sell things, and forge new relationships at a speed and scale that was unimaginable in the analogue era,” Sir Berners-Lee has written.

When Berners-Lee created the first website, the “internet” was a group of static documents, used almost exclusively by defence organisations and academic institutions.

His proposal was supposed to allow electronic documents on the internet to be easily searched and shared.

“I found it frustrating that in those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it.”

“Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer. So finding out how things worked was really difficult. Often it was just easier to go and ask people when they were having coffee.”

“Because people at CERN came from universities all over the world, they brought with them all types of computers. Not just Unix, Mac and PC: there were all kinds of big mainframe computer and medium sized computers running all sorts of software.”

“I actually wrote some programs to take information from one system and convert it so it could be inserted into another system. More than once. And when you are a programmer, and you solve one problem and then you solve one that’s very similar, you often think, ‘Isn’t there a better way? Can’t we just fix this problem for good?'”

“That became ‘Can’t we convert every information system so that it looks like part of some imaginary information system which everyone can read?’ And that became the World Wide Web.”

Today, he is a passionate advocate of the open web and net neutrality – the principle that all information on the Internet should be equally accessible to users, regardless of their source.

In particular, he has publicly campaigned against censorship of the web by governments.

He has also called for a new model of privacy on the web, where people legally own all their data on the web, so it cannot be used without their permission.

If you visit CERN today, you can see the orginal NeXT computer on which Sir Berners-Lee built the very first website, with the label hand-written in red ink: “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER DOWN!!”

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How @ became used for emails

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Friday, March 11, 2016

The death this week of Ray Tomlinson- the man widely regarded as the inventor of the email, raises the question of how the @ sign became used.

The death this week of Ray Tomlinson- the man widely regarded as the inventor of the email, raises the question of how the @ sign became used

The @ character is the symbol of the internet age- which is crucial for emails and social networking.

The “at sign” or was once an obscure symbol known only to bookkeepers. That changed thanks to Ray Tomlinson, the man widely regarded as the inventor of the email.

He used it from his keyboard in 1971 to go between the user name and destination address when sending a message between two computers in his office. Tomlinson chose @ because it was then rarely used in computing, so wouldn’t confuse early programs or operating systems.

In a happy coincidence, the English name of the symbol was already “at”.

“The @ symbol appeared on typewriters before the end of the 19th Century,” says Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters: Secret Life of Punctuation. “It seemed to be a general symbol that meant to readers ‘this is this many items at this price’. It didn’t have a use beyond this.”

As typewriters had it, so did the first proper keyboards for computers.

“The @ symbol was on to keyboards because it was a business tool and had a business use,” says Houston.

Those business users understood it as a symbol to indicate unit price eg 12 batteries @ £1 each.

In 2000, the Italian academic Giorgio Stabile observed that many nations use different words for the @ symbol that describe how it looks. In Turkish it means “rose”, while in Norwegian it means “pig’s tail”. In Greek it is “duckling”, while in Hungarian it is “worm”.

But Stabile noticed in French, Spanish and Portuguese, it referred to arobase or arroba – a unit of weight and volume. In Italian the name for the symbol was “amphora”, referring to long-necked pottery storage jars that had been used since ancient times.

Stabile discovered a letter sent from Seville to Rome in 1536, which discussed the arrival in Spain of three ships sailing from the New World. It stated that an amphora of wine was sold and “amphora” was replaced with the @ symbol as an abbreviation. Stabile concluded the @ symbol was a common medieval shorthand for units of measure in southern Europe, even if the precise units differed.

But the earliest yet discovered reference to the @ symbol is a religious one. It features in a 1345 Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle. Held today in the Vatican Apostolic Library, it features the @ symbol in place of the A in the word Amen. Why it was used in this context is a mystery.

It seems fitting then that the first email to be sent with the @ symbol has also been lost to time. When Tomlinson sent the first message to tomlinson@bbn.tenexa, he didn’t realise what a gamechanger it would be and so didn’t bother writing it down.

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OFCOM rules on broadband future

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Friday, February 26, 2016

UK regulator Ofcom has published its review of the telecoms industry ensuring homes and businesses get the best possible phone and broadband services.

UK regulator Ofcom has published its review of the telecoms industry ensuring homes and businesses get the best possible phone and broadband servicesIt comes at a crucial time, when consumers and governments alike recognise that broadband is nearly as vital as the water and electricity supplies.

But, complaints about net services are at an all-time high.  And for many, broadband is still slow or non-existent.

Every 10 years, Ofcom publishes its views on the UK’s digital economy. This review has focused on a number of questions, including:

Although Ofcom was keen to look at these questions, the focus has been on whether or not it would call for BT to be split up. The firm is one of the UK’s largest service providers and also owns Openreach, the business responsible for telecoms and broadband infrastructure.

Perhaps one of the most interesting conclusions was a perceived conflict of interest between having the company responsible for the UK’s broadband network part of the same company that is a leading internet service provider.

The threat of separation is still on the table, but Ofcom has stopped short of calling for an immediate split between the two.

Instead, it has called for an overhaul of Openreach’s governance and further “independence” from BT, but it did give details about how it would achieve this.

Ofcom said that it would develop a set of proposals with the European Commission to ensure that the UK’s network access was open to all.

Openreach is the infrastructure division of BT, which manages the network that runs between BT’s exchanges and peoples’ homes.

This is known as “the last mile” and involves maintaining the UK’s copper and fibre network.

The division is currently involved in a £2.5 billion upgrade of the green street cabinets that are a familiar site on the UK’s pavements.

It is using a combination of technologies, deploying:

The majority of Openreach’s connections are fibre to the cabinet, a decision which has been criticised by some.

According to the UK’s Ombudsman Services, communications complaints are increasing year on year, with the sector responsible for the second highest number of consumer grumbles – second only to retail.

Last year it received more than 24,500 complaints and had 83,000 initial contacts from consumers experiencing problems with their service provider.

One of the biggest bugbears is the fact that, while Openreach is often responsible for fixing faults, it has little or no contact with consumers who must instead deal with their service providers.

The review promises automatic compensation for faults.

Ofcom has called for BT to make it easier for rivals to access its network by opening up its ducts and poles.

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Legal ruling that computer hacking by GCHQ is not illegal

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Sunday, February 21, 2016

GCHQ is within UK law when it hacks into computers and smart phones, a security tribunal has ruled.

GCHQ is operating within UK law when it hacks into computers and smart phones, a security tribunal has ruled.
Campaigners Privacy International have lost a legal challenge claiming the spying post’s hacking operations are too intrusive and break European law.

The case was launched after revelations by US whistleblower Edward Snowden about the extent of US and UK spying.

GCHQ admitted its agents hack devices, in the UK and abroad, for the first time during the hearings.

Its previous policy had been to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of such operations.

Hackers can remotely activate cameras and microphones on devices, without the owner’s knowledge, log keystrokes, install malware, copy documents and track locations among other things, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) was told.

The Home Office has now published a code of practice for hacking, or “equipment interference” as it is also known, and aims to put it on a firmer legal footing in its Investigatory Powers Bill, which is due to become law later this year.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a panel of senior judges, said in its ruling that the code struck the right balance between the “urgent need of the Intelligence Agencies to safeguard the public and the protection of an individual’s privacy and/or freedom of expression”.

But the judges were “satisfied” the agency was already operating in a lawful and proportionate way, whatever the outcome of Parliament’s scrutiny of the Investigatory Powers

Privacy International, which launched the legal challenge with seven internet service providers, said it was “disappointed” by the ruling and would continue to challenge “state-sponsored hacking,” which it said was “incompatible with democratic principles and human rights standards”.

Scarlet Kim, Privacy International’s legal officer, said: “Hacking is one of the most intrusive surveillance capabilities available to intelligence agencies.

“This case exposed not only these secret practices but also the undemocratic manner in which the government sought to backdate powers to do this under the radar.

“Just because the government magically produces guidelines for hacking should not legitimise this practice.”

She added that hacking “fundamentally weakens the security of computers and the internet” by exploiting the “weaknesses in software and hardware used by millions of people”.

“It is akin to unlocking a person’s window without their knowledge and leaving it open for any attacker – whether GCHQ, another country’s intelligence agency or a cyber criminal – to access.”

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Women write better code

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Sunday, February 14, 2016

Computer code written by women has a higher approval rating than that written by men – but only if their gender is not identifiable.

Computer code written by women has a higher approval rating than that written by men - but only if their gender is not identifiableThe US researchers analysed nearly 1.4 million users of the open source program sharing service Github.

They found that pull requests – or suggested code changes – made on the service by women were more likely to be accepted than those by men.

The researchers, from the computer science departments at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and North Carolina State University, looked at around four million people who logged on to Github on a single day – 1 April 2015.

Github is an enormous developer community which does not request gender information from its 12 million users.

However the team was able to identify whether roughly 1.4 million were male or female – either because it was clear from the users’ profiles or because their email addresses could be matched with the Google + social network.

The researchers accepted that this was a privacy risk but said they did not intend to publish the raw data.

The team found that 78.6% of pull requests made by women were accepted compared with 74.6% of those by men.

The researchers considered various factors, such as whether women were more likely to be responding to known issues, whether their contributions were shorter in length and so easier to appraise, and which programming language they were using, but they could not find a correlation.

However among users who were not well known within the community, those whose profiles made clear that they were women had a much lower acceptance rate than those whose gender was not obvious.

“For outsiders, we see evidence for gender bias: women’s acceptance rates are 71.8% when they use gender neutral profiles, but drop to 62.5% when their gender is identifiable .

There is a similar drop for men, but the effect is not as strong,” the paper noted.

“Women have a higher acceptance rate of pull requests overall, but when they’re outsiders and their gender is identifiable, they have a lower acceptance rate than men.

“Our results suggest that although women on Github may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless,” the researchers concluded.

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Ashley Madison password protection was flawed

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hackers stole gigabytes of data from Ashley Madison including login names, passwords and website code.

Hackers stole gigabytes of data from Ashley Madison including login names, passwords and website codeMore than 11 million passwords stolen from the Ashley Madison infidelity dating website have been decoded, says a password cracking group.

When stolen data from the site was first dumped, the encrypted passwords were said to be almost uncrackable because of the way they were scrambled.

But programming changes by the site’s developers meant more than a third of the passwords were poorly protected.

The cracking group said it would not be sharing the decoded passwords.

However, it had detailed the method it used to get at the passwords which would make it straightforward for criminal hackers to replicate the work. This may mean those who reused their Ashley Madison password could see other accounts breached.

The Ashley Madison website was breached by a group of hackers called The Impact Team which stole gigabytes of data including login names and passwords of more than 30 million users.

Initial analysis of the data dump showed that the passwords were stored on a database after they had been protected using a process known as hashing that employs the bcrypt algorithm.

The way this scrambles passwords makes it hard to carry out so-called “brute force” attacks that try lots of different word and letter combinations because hashing with bcrypt takes a lot of computer power. As a result, a brute force attack on the passwords would take years.

However, an amateur password cracking group called Cynosure Prime looking through code also stolen from Ashley Madison realised that at some point the site changed the way passwords were stored. This stripped away the protection bcrypt salting on the passwords.

In a blogpost, the group said it had found two insecure functions in the site code that meant it was “able to gain enormous speed boosts in cracking the bcrypt hashed passwords”.

Instead of taking years, the 11 million passwords were cracked in about 11 days.

The insecure functions involved the use of easier to attack hashing systems and changes the site made to passwords when they were entered by users.

By focussing on these vulnerable steps the group has already managed to decipher 11.2 million passwords and is hopeful it can crack a total of more than 15 million which were scrambled with the insecure functions.

The remaining passwords from the site are not susceptible to this attack because they were hashed by code lacking the insecure functions.

The group said it would not be releasing the passwords it had recovered to “protect end users”.

Cynosure Prime said it was not sure exactly why Ashley Madison’s developers had changed the way that it dealt with passwords that introduced the insecure functions.

It speculated to news site Ars Technica that the insecure hashing system was introduced to ensure that users could log in to the site quickly.

Earlier in the year, the dating service for love-cheats had planned to cash in by floating on the London Stock Exchange.

The hack caused the firm’s founder to resign, but also had ramifications that reached far beyond the Canadian firm’s offices.

News that police believed the leak had resulted in at least two suicides highlighted the devastation the security breach had had on people’s lives.

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Top 2015 technology stories

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Saturday, January 9, 2016

One of the joys of technology is that it is constantly changing- and 2015 was a very busy year.

One of the joys of technology is that it is constantly changing- and 2015 was a very busy year.

Its highlights have included a series of mega-launches, including the well-received Windows 10, the curved Galaxy S6 smartphone, the Apple Watch and a Tesla car with doors that opened upwards.

Meanwhile, amongst the lowlights were hack attacks of the Ashley Madison infidelity service, the toymaker Vtech and the US government’s Office of Personnel Management.

Apple was sued by two Americans who claimed that the latest version of its mobile operating system was so large that iPhones and iPads had less spare space for users’ own data than had been advertised – a particular problem, they said, for bottom-of-the-range devices.

As a result, the plaintiffs alleged, device owners had to subscribe to the firm’s fee-based iCloud storage system.

Apple sought to have the case dismissed, but it is still rattling around the US legal system with the most recent papers filed by both sides in November.

Samsung raised more than a few eyebrows when documentation for its smart TVs warned owners that they might transmit “personal or other sensitive information” spoken in front of them to a unnamed “third party”.

Unsurprisingly, many found the idea of the TVs spying on their private conversations more than a little unnerving.

The firm attempted to allay concerns by making it clear that it was only referring to speech captured by its TV remotes, and not its screens, and that the third-party in question was the voice recognition tech provider Nuance.

But those efforts were somewhat undone when it was later revealed that the voice uploads were being transmitted in an unencrypted form, potentially making it easier for hackers to listen in.

American Airlines’ efforts to make its cockpits “paperless” briefly backfired when the app providing its pilots with maps and other flight information refused to work.

Dozens of the firm’s jets were grounded until the developers of FliteDeck came up with a fix. It wasn’t the only software fault to cause problems for the industry.

In both June and July, United had to ground flights because of other IT setbacks, and then in August a fault with the Federal Aviation Administration’s systems caused hundreds more planes to take off late.

Facebook was criticised by a UK-based child protection charity after its moderators refused to remove a video showing a crying baby being repeatedly dunked in a bucket of water.

There were suggestions that the footage showed a form of “baby yoga”. But the charity said the child was terrified and sobbing, and that the actions amounted to child abuse.

The case highlighted a clash of cultures between the social network, which wants to allow its users to post and comment about potentially distressing content, and those who think it has a responsibility to censor extreme examples.

As the European nights darkened, a Estonian start-up brought news that it had been able to use LED light bulbs to transmit data at speeds of one gigabits per second.

It wasn’t the first time we’d reported about Li-fi – we first discussed the concept of transmitting data via the light shone from bulbs back in 2011.

But what made this significant was that the tech firm had got it working in a normal office, where it provided both light and internet access to staff.

In time, engineers believe they can boost speeds up to 224Gbps.

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Google stores children’s data claims civil liberties group

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Sunday, December 20, 2015

Google collects schoolchildren’s personal data, including internet searches, a civil liberties group says.

Google collects schoolchildren's personal data, including internet searches, a civil liberties group says.In a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said the alleged practice broke both Google promises and trade rules.

It said Google products used in schools sent data to the company without first seeking parental permission.

Google provides schools with Chromebooks and its Google Apps for Education (GAFE) products – a suite of cloud-based productivity tools. It promises not to serve adverts on the apps and says that “users own their data, not Google”.

According to the EFF, the Chromebooks are enabled by default with a feature to synchronise the Chrome browsers installed on them.

“This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes records of every internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords,” it said in a statement.

In its complaint to the FTC, the EFF added that Google “uses the data for its own purposes such as improving Google products”. And it said Google used the data it collected to target adverts on the non-core apps.

EFF lawyer Nate Cardozo said the alleged practice contradicted the Student Privacy Pledge, to which Google is a signatory, and, therefore, represented a “violation of FTC rules against unfair and deceptive business practices”.

He said: “Minors shouldn’t be tracked or used as guinea pigs, with their data treated as a profit centre. If Google wants to use students’ data to ‘improve Google products,’ then it needs to get express consent from parents.”
‘Private and secure’

The EFF added Google had told it it would “soon disable a setting on school Chromebooks that allows Chrome Sync data, such as browsing history, to be shared with other Google services”.

It said: “While that is a small step in the right direction, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to correct the violations of the Student Privacy Pledge currently inherent in Chromebooks being distributed to schools.

“EFF’s filing with the FTC also reveals that the administrative settings Google provides to schools allow student personal information to be shared with third-party websites in violation of the Student Privacy Pledge.

“The ability to collect and potentially share student information follows children whenever they use Chrome to log into their Google accounts, whether on a parents’ Apple iPad, friend’s smartphone or home computer.”

A Google spokeswoman said: “Our services enable students everywhere to learn and keep their information private and secure.

“While we appreciate EFF’s focus on student privacy, we are confident that these tools comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge.”

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Extra screen time lowers GCSE grades

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An extra hour of screen time a day- television, internet or a computer game time in Year 10 is linked to poorer grades at GCSE, a Cambridge University study suggests.

An extra hour of screen time a day- television, internet or a computer game time in Year 10 is linked to poorer grades at GCSE, a Cambridge University study suggests.The researchers recorded the activities of more than 800 14-year-olds and analysed their GCSE results at 16.

Those spending an extra hour a day on screens saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.

The researchers analysed the habits of 845 pupils from schools in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk at the age of 14 years and six months.

The pupils heights and weights were recorded, and they had to wear a physical activity monitor for five days including a weekend.

They were also asked to complete a questionnaire detailing the amount of time they spent on:

The researchers correlated the data with the pupils’ GCSEs, taken the following year.

Pupils who did an extra hour of homework and reading performed better than their peers, while extra physical activity appeared to have no effect on academic performance.

On average, the 14 year olds said they spent four hours of their leisure time each day watching TV or in front of a computer.

The researchers found an additional hour of screen time each day was associated with 9.3 fewer GCSE points at 16 – the equivalent of dropping a grade in two subjects.

Two extra hours of screen-time was associated with 18 fewer points – or dropping a grade in four subjects.

The results also suggested extra time spent watching TV had the most detrimental effect on grades.

Pupils who put in an extra hour of homework or spent the time reading, did better in their GCSEs, scoring 23 points more than the average.

But even if pupils spent more time studying, more time spent watching TV or online, still harmed their results, the analysis suggested.

Extra time on moderate to vigorous physical activity had no effect on academic achievement.

“We believe that programmes aimed at reducing screen time could have important benefits for teenagers’ exam grades, as well as their health,” said Dr Van Sluijs, of the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research at Cambridge University.

“It is also encouraging that our results show that greater physical activity does not negatively affect exam results. As physical activity has many other benefits, efforts to promote physical activity throughout the day should still be a public health priority.”

Dr Corder suggested there could be various reasons for the link, including “substitution of television for other healthier behaviours or behaviours better for academic performance, or perhaps some cognitive mechanisms in the brain”.

The study is published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.

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Fast broadband – pipedream or reality?

By Simon Dye - Last updated: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Every UK home and business will have fast broadband.

Every UK home and business will have fast broadband David Cameron said “Just as our forebears effectively brought gas, electricity and water to all, we’re going to bring fast broadband to every home and business that wants it.”

As the government has already promised to bring fast broadband to 95% of homes via the BDUK programme, this is all about reaching the final 5%.

The digital minister Ed Vaizey gave further detail, explaining that the plan was to bring in a universal service obligation of 10Mbps for “the very hardest to reach homes and businesses.”

But does that mean every home – even those up Welsh mountains or on remote Scottish islands?

Presuming so, just as with the obligation on BT to provide a phone line, there may be some upper limit on the costs involved in hooking up a home.

Broadband campaigners have not greeted the government’s pledge with huge enthusiasm. In particular, they have derided that 10Mbps minimum as woefully inadequate.

There is general agreement that fibre to the home was the technology which should be employed, though a few pointed out that 4G was now providing better speeds in some areas than fixed line broadband.

The problem is that, even at a minimum 10Mbps, a universal service may prove an expensive undertaking and the cost of putting a 100Mbps fibre connection in every corner of the UK could be prohibitive.

When the debate about fast broadband got going, it was calculated that universal coverage might cost at least £15 billion.

A government which is implementing severe cuts in public spending will not be keen to put more money into broadband – although of course it is worth remembering that most of the cash spent so far on the BDUK programme has come from the TV licence fee.

And just about all of that spending has been channelled through BT, which was the only company to apply for the money in most regions.

Now the former monopoly telephone supplier looks likely to be a the centre of the effort to hook up the last 5%.

But even if the government wanted to spend taxpayer funds to make that happen, there will be resistance from BT’s rivals.

Virgin Media has already called for an end to subsidies for rural broadband, claiming the market can now do the job – although it isn’t clear that it will be moving to offer cable to every remote home.

Meanwhile, there are signs of a split opening up between town and country over the subsidy issue.

The director of the free market Institute of Economic Affairs Mark Littlewood told BBC Radio 4’s PM that people living in remote rural areas had made that choice, and fast broadband should not be a right.

Many of those campaigners have been deeply sceptical about BT’s strategy for rolling out fast broadband, and some have joined calls for its Openreach division, which operates the fibre and copper networks, to be sold off.

But here’s the paradox – the move to make fast broadband a right for everyone could end up strengthening BT’s hand. If it is asked to meet a Universal Service Obligation, without being offered subsidies to make that feasible, then the company will want something in return.

It is Ofcom, not ministers, which is currently pondering whether Openreach should be sold off. But the regulator will be hearing strong arguments that a divided BT will not be in good shape to help the Prime Minister fulfil his promises on fast broadband.

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