Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

December 4, 2013

A summary of the article that made me care about the NSA issue

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:33 am
Tags: , ,

I’m going to admit that I didn’t really care that much about the whole NSA spying thing for a while.  Maybe because I’d assumed it was always already kinda happening.

Then I read an article by the New York Times, which made me care, as it explained exactly how the NSA had managed to do all this spying, including weakening international cryptography standards, which I found most alarming.  If you have time, I highly recommend reading the article, N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web, by Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane (September 5, 2013).

If not, I’ve attempted to summarise the main points here, with a little restructuring of information to get around newspaper format, which can be repetitive and/or confusing.  I’ve copied text straight from the article when convenient and skipped parts people might already have known/suspected.


In the 1990s the NSA attempted to legally insert a government ‘back door’ into all encryption (the Clipper Chip).  This means that they would be able to bypass encryption efforts so that they would be able to access anything they’d want, but the proposition was deeply unpopular and they eventually backed down in 1996.  But rather than stopping there, they went on to try to gain access to anything they wanted through stealth and trickery.

Working with, coercing and deceiving companies

The NSA hacked into computers to retrieve messages before they were encrypted, used super fast computers (I take it they mean supercomputers) to break codes and worked with technology companies in the US and abroad into building in back doors into their security.  Some say they were coerced, and there are cases where companies shut down rather than compromise themselves and their customers.  Lavabit, an e-mail encryption company closed while Silent Circle ended its e-mail service.

According to a leaked intelligence budget document, the NSA spends more than $250 million a year on its Signit Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make the “exploitable”.  In one instance after learning that a foreign intelligence target had ordered new computer hardware, the American manufacturer agreed to insert a back door into the product before it was shipped.

Still others have been compromised without them knowing it.  In 2012 GCHQ (the British NSA counterpart) had developed new ‘access opportunities’ into Google’s systems.  Google denied giving any government access and said it had no evidence its systems had been breached (This later article describes what might have happened).

The agency maintains an internal database of encryption keys for specific commercial products, which can automatically decode many messages.  Independent cryptographers say many of the keys are probably acquired by hacking into companies’ computer servers where they are stored.  To hide what the NSA were doing, only keys that have been acquired through legal means (i.e. not hacking) could be shared with other agencies.

Weakening Cryptography standards

Another tool the NSA have been attempting to use to aid them in obtaining information is to introduce weaknesses into encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world. This is a dangerous game for the NSA to play, because although by weakening cryptography standards they are able to access communications from potential enemies, they’re also compromising the security of American communications.

The NSA wrote a standard for cryptography which was adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2006 and later by the International Organization for Standardization, of which 163 countries are members.  In 2007 Microsoft cryptographers found fatal weakness in the standard, which classified NSA memos appear to confirm were engineered by the agency.  The article claims the standard was aggressively pushed on the international group.

September 4, 2013


Filed under: Computers,Economics,Geekery,Hippiery — zarazilla @ 10:57 am

As an environmentalist, an economist, a computer scientist – I’m a bit obsessed with efficiency.  I just wanted to write a little bit about how I think about efficiency from different points of view.

Perhaps one of the things that divides a programmer from a computer scientist that programs is that a computer scientist will strive for efficiency.  They’re going to try to use the least processing power and the least amount of memory (you could say it uses as few resources as possible), because that makes for an efficient program, which means that it runs as quick as possible.

In the field of economics ‘efficiency’ takes on a slightly different meaning – an efficient society is one in which no one could be better off without making someone else worse off (this is called Pareto efficiency).  It could also mean that you get the greatest amount of benefit from a single unit of cost (you can’t get anymore output without any additional input).  If you think about it, that’s what a computer scientist does – they try to use the least amount of resources to do get the result they want.

I try to live my life efficiently – the greatest amount of well-being from the least amount of discomfort/time, and this sometimes overspills to friends and family – say I want that last slice of cake but I know I don’t want it as MUCH as my boyfriend does; but he is trying to be nice by letting me have it.  I’d prefer he has it because our total joy would be larger.  On the other hand, if I’m sure I’d enjoy it more, I’ll let him know how much I’d like it and, unless I’ve underestimated how much he wants it, I usually get it. :)

As an environmentalist, we must completely be mindful of efficiency.  In our lifestyles we try to be efficient to produce as little waste as possible and to make as little impact on the environment as possible.  In bigger considerations we want to be efficient in how we spend our energies and the budgets for environmental conservation.  An idea might sound good but actually cost a lot and produce very little benefit, while another idea could produce a lot more benefit with less cost.  A good example of this is climate change mitigation – it might sound like a good idea to place solar power panels on every available surface you can find, but actually the cost of producing the panels, in both energy and monetary terms could probably be better off going into building a better public transportation system which will remove cars off the road.  That’s just an example, by the way.  I’m sure there are more efficient ways to use energy and money.

Lastly, my favourite comic offering on efficiency: SMBC addresses the best use of Superman.

*For those of you who are not familiar with the field of economics, we measure benefit not by monetary terms  but by well-being.  It’s just that for the most part it’s actually kind of difficult to measure well-being, so we use monetary terms as a proxy.  Of course a lot of things are missed by looking at just hard currency, and these things are called ‘externalities’.  Environmental economists attempt to measure these externalities through a number of different methods.

August 30, 2013

Why are smartphones so expensive? (and why they’re about to get a lot cheaper)

About 3 years ago I finally gave up carrying a Nokia-brick equivalent around and acquired my first smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S1.  3 years later and it’s pretty much asking me to put it out of its misery.

So I’ve been looking around and considering my options.  The new Samsung Galaxy (the S4) 16GB will set me back about £500 from a reputable store (and there are many fakes going around, so you want that reputable store),  and lets just set that as the benchmark as I’m sure the iPhone 5 is more expensive and I think the HTC One is too.  That’s a lot of money for a jobless person, but luckily I have much cheaper options.

For instance, picking up a 7 inch tablet instead, such as (to stick to Samsung for a fair price comparison) the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 16gb which ALSO MAKES PHONE CALLS and retails for £310.

In other words, the  Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is a 7 inch smartphone which is 65% the cost of it’s 5 inch counterpart.  Which one might consider a bit strange, seeing as it has 2 inches more display, albeit probably slightly crappier specs than the phone, including a non super-amoled screen and crappier cameras.

But then again we might imagine that miniaturization costs more, hence why the 5 inch phone is more expensive than the 7 inch tablet.  But then… if that’s so how come the Samsung Note II costs more than the normal sized phones?

So not knowing much about the cost of parts and miniaturization and random technologies here’s my take on what’s going on here.

  • The cost of the highest end smartphones have always been high (some say the costs of them are coming down but the S4 costs today what my S1 cost 3 years ago).  Similarly, when the first tablets came out, they were also very costly.
  • Then in the middle of 2012 Google came along and crushed the market* with the very affordable Nexus 7 at £160 for an 8gb and £199 for the 16gb.  To put this in context the iPad 2, which had already been succeeded by the iPad 3 was still retailing for £329 without 3G (these are prices I pulled off an email discussion with my sisters talking about which tablet to get my Dad for his birthday)!  This instantly made tablets a lot more affordable while installing an ‘anchor’ price on 7 inch tablets.  Competitors had to stick to the general area of this price or customers would just not give their product a second glance.
  • So now we have very expensive smartphones** and very cheap tablets.  While before there was some overlap between the markets, they were pretty much separate markets, so it was okay.  But now tablets have the ability to make phonecalls… which I foresee many customers whose phones have come to the end of their lifespan (such as myself) switching to the 7 (or 8, thank you Samsung) inch tablets (and a bluetooth headset) instead of getting a much more expensive smartphone.

This means that the smartphone market will start experiencing a high customer dropout which means that demand will fall which means… in about a year or two our smartphone prices will drop to tablet prices or even lower.

That’s my guess anyway.  And why I’m going to be trying to prolong the lifespan of my already tortured S1.

*How did Google make such a low cost tablet? Well I’m guessing there was some economy of scale/using lower specs but mostly they just sold it pretty much at cost.  Now why they did that is another topic for discussion… but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with taking tablet market share from Apple. This guy’s theory sounds good, anyway.

**So following on from the above asterisk, yes, smartphones are probably so expensive because you, or enough people, are willing to pay them that much, and therefore manufacturers are probably making pretty large profits off of them.


Oh are you still reading?  I also want to say something real quick about customer differentiation! That’s what companies do when they’re trying to get the most money out of each customer.  As you know, everybody has different preferences and also different willingness to pay for things.  So say someone with a lot of money is willing to pay a lot for the highest end product because it looks good and probably functions pretty well.  Someone with less money is probably going to spend a lot more time researching their options and weighing up what they get versus what they pay.

So I’m thinking the technology companies have done something like this.

  1.  Rich customer/customer who cares a lot about their tech/Customer who wants to look hip with the latest high-end tech – High-end smartphone AND high-end tablet (costs lot, big margins)
  2. Poorer customer who just wants a smartphone or tablet – low-cost smartphone OR low cost tablet (pretty cheap, small margins)
  3. Savvy customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (bigger) budget – High-end smartphone
  4. Savvy poorer customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (smaller) budget – Low-end phone tablet

June 22, 2011

Protecting the internet’s freedom of information

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:37 pm
Tags: ,

A while back I was sitting on the tube, and a woman sat down next to me who was perusing a Daily Mail app on her phone. It was only then that it occured to me that none of my friends or colleagues actually read the Daily Mail (apart from to make fun of it). It was then that I realised just how much I live in my own little bubble, where my friends agree with me on most of my political views. I mean sure I have an ex-classmate on facebook who is a member of the Tea Party and a friend who has recently come out on the Austrian side of economics, but he still believes in many of the same things I do and she and I agree on…

Okay. There is not much politically that the Tea Party member and I agree on, including abortion, immigration and climate change. We do, however, agree on at least one thing – the freedom of the internet.

And that is what I am writing about here because, unfortunately, her views and posts on all these things are slowly getting erased from my facebook News feed. I say ‘unfortunately’ unsarcastically (if that is a word) because I believe in looking at all sides of the debate for informed opinions and her posts have kept me informed on the Tea Party arguments. I may not click on 99% of them, but I like having them amongst pictures of babies and cousins’ vanity pictures and vague status updates about the night before to peruse.

Of course if you’re on Facebook you know that they have a very select filtering process. I have 476 ‘friends’ (it’s a TCK thing) and there is no way I am seeing facebook updates from, say, 90% of them. So when I’m not clicking on the posts on guns and why Obama is an asshole, Facebook decides her posts are not worth my time and starts filtering them out of my news feed.

This, however, is not merely a Facebook phenomenon. My main search engine, Google, has been busily filtering things specifically for me too. Pushing things it thinks would be more interesting to me up the search results.

This, to me, is a huge threat to the internet that promised so much in the past decade with the ability to give the average layperson (in a relatively developed country) free information and opposing viewpoints in order to make informed decisions – on purchses and politics (and probably other things but I can’t think of them right now!). The provision of comparison sites have made markets in music, flights and insurance (to name a few) much more competitive, the provision of information from global sources has been a lifeline to many in propaganda-pushing countries.  No wonder one of the first things Egypt’s beseiged government did during the Egyptian demonstrations was cut off the internet. It’s also why I think internet astroturfing is such a huge threat.

But this ‘filter bubble’ is a threat too – because unless we are actively looking for information or views outside of what we are normally exposed to, or are happy with, we won’t get it. How many people will say they actively look for it? This is a danger because many opinions on subjects we are not very informed about are formed through what we, probably unconsciously, pick up from the people and information that surrounds us.

I listened to a great talk on this subject by Eli Pariser, who recently released the book ‘The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you‘. One thing I found particularly interesting is the danger of the Facebook ‘like’ button – and the use of the word ‘like’!

You can download the podcast from the LSE website.

If you are interested, Pariser has also given 10 tips on how to get as unfiltered an internet experience as possible.

March 25, 2010

April 12, 2009

MMOs for Economics research

Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. I can’t claim this idea for my own, but I was talking to some guy called Ian while at EnvEcon. Unfortunately I didn’t pick up his last name but he is currently a masters student on Imperial College’s Environmental Technology course and speciailising in Environmental Economics and Policy (yes, the same course and option that I did).

Anyway, he mentioned the idea of testing out economic theories in Second Life. Which, when I thought about it, sounded like an absolutely astonishing idea. Obviously there would be many caveats, a few of which I will discuss, but, unless someone can point out something I am missing, it seems like an stonking good idea. Data from everquest and WOW has already been pulled for study by social scientists ( ), so it is perhaps only another step to design economic experiments in Second Life.

The obvious caveat would be that second-life characters are virtual. Unless you are one of the truly obsessed, the welfare of your second-life character is not going to be as important as your own welfare. Furthermore, the wealth of your character doesn’t (and I am guessing here, I have never played second life or even read that much about it) affect the health of your character. You will also probably take higher risks with your character than you would in your real life. This all said, I know there are people out there who put a lot of time and energy into their online virtual characters, which may change reduce these issues somewhat if you could somehow cherrypick your players.

Then there are the moral implications – if you design an economic experiment in second life, do you have to tell the players? If not, are there moral implications in the fact that people are participating in an experiment without knowing it? If you do, will this change behaviour due to Observer Effect?

Then there are the socio-economic factors in play. Who are the people playing second life? My guess is that the majority of the population is made up of young/middle age (Late 20s to 40s) people, probably middle class, and probably at least slightly geeky. This will undoubtedly affect the decisions they make for their characters.

Links: Article talking about whether Second Life’s economy is in recession – Showing that yes, Second Life does have an analysable economy.
Google search for second life economics

Having said all this though, I think it is a very interesting concept and lots more thought should be given to it. Perhaps social scientists and computer scientists can get together to build a MMO specifically designed to carry out social experiments and selectively invite people to play with a bit of cheap talk*?

Comments, discussion?

(H/t Tom for first coming up with the articles on social scientists data mining MMORPGs).

* Cheap talk is used in suveys that ask participants how much they are willing to pay for a service or a good to get more realistic amounts. This is achieved by saying something along the lines of “In these kinds of surveys many people say they are willing to pay more than they actually are willing to pay. Please think carefully before stating your amount, evaluate your finances, and ask yourself whether you really are willing to pay the amount you state”. In this case, of course, it would be something along the lines of “Look, we know this is a game, but pretend the outcomes really affect you, and act accordingly”.

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