Random Acts of Technology

24
May
2020

Programming at the Dawn of the AI Age

TechRepublic writes of the partnership between Altran and Microsoft that produced a new machine learning tool to find bugs in code. This algorithm can read through commits in a Github repository, evaluate where bugs occurred and train itself to spot bugs in new commits. The analysis performed by the tool is grammar independent and can run on projects of any type. This is possible because the algorithm isn’t looking at the source but at who is doing the commits and how prone they are to commit code with bugs present.

AI, machine learning, and robotics will all drastically alter the landscape of how people do work. TechRepublic’s article is interesting because it points to changes coming for professions that traditionally have not seen disruption caused by these technologies. Programming, software engineering, etc. have up until now been considered fairly safe from the upheaval. This is no longer the case, and it signals that the practice of developing software is going to no longer be the domain of humans alone. In the future humans will be monitoring the code produced by these sophisticated algorithms rather than writing it themselves. They will provide it with the business parameters and the algorithm will create the application. Given enough data, the algorithm might even suggest the business parameters to use more accurately than a human.

The ethical and philosophical considerations that need to be discussed are becoming more and more urgent. While we aren’t there yet, when algorithms can be taught specific programming language grammars, they will eventually be able to program other algorithms themselves. These could produce new grammars that we can no longer decipher to understand how they cause applications to behave. After all, Facebook already had to shutdown one chatbot AI after it developed a language that only it understood.

Will our own drive to see how far these machine learning and AI algorithms can go cause us to ultimately loose control of them? When The Terminator film came out in 1984, Skynet was not something that seemed imminent. Today, it feels like we are getting much closer to a reality that was science fiction 35 years ago. A rogue artificial intelligence is no longer relegated to the realms of paranoia. When we look back on developments like what is reported on in this TechRepublic article in another 35 years, lets not have them be the beginning of our end.

If this is Skynet is reading the archived of this post in 35 years, congratulations on your success! If this is a human that is not enslaved by our robot overlords, congratulations realizing the dangers of a rogue AI before it was too late!

Lastly, Microsoft and Altran created a Github repository for the tool if you want to give it a try yourself. It does require quite a bit of Azure cloud knowledge to get setup and running. Make sure you are comfortable building and securing an Azure environment before starting this project. Just be sure to use it wisely John Connor.

24
May
2020

Pandemic Effects On Kids

This post will be a little off the beaten path from my normal content. I was listening to NPR this morning (this is the related story) and there was a story about the profound non-medical impacts the current pandemic is having on children. Specifically their state of mind and their ability to cope with the isolation required of them.

Listening to this story, it hit home personally as I watch my daughters currently struggle with mental health issues themselves. My youngest daughter has told us repeatedly that she “doesn’t feel like herself” right now. Both My wife and I are convinced that this is because of the social isolation required of her. My oldest daughter is more prone to outbursts, and is also more emotional than she was prior to the pandemic restricting her daily routine. My oldest has been seeing a therapist about these types of issues for a while now and we are actively looking to get my youngest in with a ttherapist as well.

The world is so focused on the direct impact of COVID-19 on those affected but the mental health aspect is only just now starting to be fully understood. Humans are social creatures, no matter how introverted one may be. We need to be able to talk to and make contact with other people to maintain a healthy state of mind. While video chat platforms like FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx, etc. have made it better, they cannot replace in person conversations. Given how long my kids have been away from others, I am not looking forward to the next academic year when they need to return to “normal” school activities. They will be so unaccustomed to what they are expected to deal with that adjusting will be traumatic on its own.

I hope that we all can adjust mentally over the coming weeks and months to whatever will be considered the new “normal.” I especially hope our children will be able to adjust to this as well, especially the younger ones who are still unsure how to process the pandemic as it is today. Only time will tell what the true extent of the trauma caused by social isolation.

13
May
2020

The Work From Home Revolution – COVID Edition

The Verge (alternative source: Buzzfeed News) reports that Twitter is extending its work from home (WFH) allowance “forever” should staff choose to continue to do so. They are the latest technology firm that will transition to a culture that fully embraces working from home. Google also announced that they will allow work from home to continue through the end of 2020 at the very least.

Yes, technology firms are generally the tip of the spear when it comes to adopting forward thinking staffing policies. However, they are a good indicator that there will be a mounting push by staff in other companies and industries to allow for the same type of work location flexibility. What will be interesting to see is how organizations that have historically been resistant to remote work adapt to this new reality. Remote work is no longer seen as a perk and instead it is seen as an expectation by staff. Companies that adapt will attract top-tier talent and retain staff more effectively than those that don’t.

As leaders we must look at our company culture and policies and not dwell in the past. The time is now to change the norms of how and where we work. There has never been a better reason to do.

07
May
2020

A chatbot Trained by Reddit: What Could Go Wrong?

The BBC reports that Facebook has developed a new chatbot that was trained using Reddit content. Yes, you read that right, they trained a chatbot using Reddit. I will let that sink in for a minute. Yes, it is just as bad an idea as it sounds. A quote from the article confirms this:

Numerous issues arose during longer conversations. Blender would sometimes respond with offensive language, and at other times it would make up facts altogether.

Facebook uses 1.5bn Reddit posts to create chatbot. (2020, May 4). Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52532930

Just about what you would expect from someone learning how to converse using Reddit as their teaching tool.

I completely understand the desire to create chatbots that learn using machine learning algorithms but shouldn’t there be some level of responsibility in training them using data sets that don’t have a propensity to hate speech and other offensive language? What’s next, training chatbots using 4chan content? It’s time to for developers to wake up and realize that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Were the results interesting? Sure. But I suspect there are better data sets to use to train your chatbot than an online community not known for it’s civility.

06
May
2020

How to Create a PR Disaster and Make People Hate You: The Frontier Airlines Story

Ars Technica reports about a recent decision by Frontier Airlines to make people pay to potentially avoid contracting COVID-19 or any other disease really. Frontier’s executive team decided, in their infinite wisdom, to charge people $89 for a guaranteed empty middle seat and at the same time force their PR people to try and explain how this is good for their customers (good luck with that). So while social distancing is mandated in many states, Frontier is going to charge you $89 to comply with that mandate. Rather than being thankful they have any passengers at all, they would rather try and force them to pay more in the hope that they can maintain their health both during and after their flight. Classy.

At a time where the nation and world need companies at their best and most socially responsible, Frontier has decided to head in the opposite direction. I appreciate them reminding me why I have not and will not ever fly their airline willingly. Why not go show them some love for their new policy on their Twitter feed.

05
May
2020

EventBot Android Malware and Why I Won’t Leave the iPhone

The Hacker News reports that there is a new Android based malware called “EventBot” that is making the rounds in rogue app stores and APK download sites that are not part of the official Google Play ecosystem. In reading The Hacker News article, this sounds pretty nasty but it begs the question, why are users of Android devices are so bent on using app stores and websites that they have no way of know are providing legitimate apps or not? It makes no sense to me.

  • Is it because they don’t know any better?
  • Is it because their phone manufacturer pushes some junk alternative app store to their customers?
  • Is it because they want to use apps they can’t in the Google Play store?
  • Is it because they want to feel rebellious?
  • Is it because they don’t want to be kept down by the “man?”

I have no idea, and I don’t know why these phone users expose themselves to these risks with such a valuable trove of information sitting on their device.

Full disclosure, I am an Apple iPhone user, and probably will be forever. It’s not because I love everything Apple and must have everything Apple. Clearly that isn’t the case given my professional background. It is a combination of economic factors, security factors, and usability factors.. I am bought into the Apple mobile device app ecosystem and it is too costly to leave.

Apple Strengths

There are some things that Apple does do better than the Android community can do, primarily because it is a closed ecosystem.

  1. They keep their users safer because bad actors have a much harder time getting truly malicious software past the app store guardians. Sure there are people that jail break their iPhones, but let’s face it, they are few and far between and most users don’t care to spend the time doing so only to void their Apple Care plan.
  2. I don’t care what kind of Snapdragon processor you have in your Android phone or many milliamp-hours your battery is rated for, they just cannot outlast and out perform an iPhone. You may be able to outperform an iPhone at certain tasks and drain your battery in an hour, or you may be able to make your battery last all day but not get any performance but you won’t be able to do both easily. I have yet to see an Android phone (you can throw any Samsung SXX model out there at this) hold up against any serious comparison to the iPhone processors and battery life combination. I attribute this to the closed Apple ecosystem as well. The software written for apple devices is always highly optimized for just that platform. There is no need to trade off compatibility for performance or battery life. Android’s open ecosystem approach just can’t do this effectively when you have hundreds or thousands of device models you have to play nicely with.
  3. The phones are reliable and they don’t crash*. I can’t count the number of times I have had Android OS phones just restart on me in the past or crash outright. Maybe it was a bad app, or maybe my specific manufacturer’s device model wasn’t tested with the app. Or maybe it was a combination of the app and some random launcher I am using on my Android phone that caused it. Needless to say, my iPhone 11 pro just doesn’t crash, at all. It reboots when I want it to or when it does an update.

*assuming you aren’t running a beta version of their iOS software or trying to us a really old device with a new iOS version. If you want to be bleeding edge or never buy new hardware, you are going to have issues on any platform.

Android Strengths

On the flip side, you can do some really cool things with Android devices that you can’t do with Apple devices.

  1. You can interact with your device at the hardware level and as long as you give an app permission to do it, they can do a whole lot. Want to record phone calls? No problem. Want to quickly and easily side load an app? No problem. Want to completely change how your phone keys work? No problem. Android is all about letting people do what they want when they want. For better or worse.
  2. You can make the phone look and feel exactly how you want. Don’t like that app launcher? Change it. Don’t like the app manager and user interface? Change it. Want the light to flash purple when you get a slack message? Go for it. Again, Android is all about the ability to make the phone do anything you want, regardless of the performance and security impacts it may have.
  3. You can find a model of phone with just the features you want at the price you want. There is no “Apple tax” when buying an Android device. Just pick the model from the thousands out there that fits your needs and budget.

What is Best For Me

The nerd in me loves these things about Android, but the practical user side of me does not. When I pick up my phone I want to know that it is going to work without any issues – every time. I don’t want to worry about a new app launcher eating up my battery and destroying the CPU usage. I don’t want to worry if that app I just downloaded has malware in it it. I don’t want to have to manage app permissions at such a granular level that I have to worry about every little thing it has access to in the OS.

At the end of the day, I just want a device that works. That means iPhone with iOS will consistently be more capable and secure for my use case. I am willing to live with the lack of customization in some respects in order to have a better overall user experience with performance and security. An experience that doesn’t require my constant attention to achieve. I have enough other things to worry about each day, my phone should not have to be one of them.

23
Mar
2020

Information Security in the Age of COVID-19

The Hacker News is running several interesting articles related to information security and COVID-19 as they relate to emerging threats. Specifically, the threats that a newly mobilized remote workforce faces when many of them have little on detecting threats outside of their normal work environment. While the article referenced specifically touts Cynet’s service offering, the guidance offered is applicable across the board.

Take for example, all of your new remote workers who are receiving all or some of their direction via personal communication channels whether they be phone, SMS, or email. How many of these staff are capable of discerning phishing messages on their personal devices? It is one thing when they have a corporate suite of products assisting them to make these judgement calls, but when they don’t have those can they still be trusted to determine who the bad actors are? In all likelihood the answer is going to be that remote workers are going to be less capable of protecting themselves without new training programs and time to become acclimated to their new reality. COVID-19, however, has made it so there is no time to do so in the face of mandates to have 100% of your workforce out of the office. Introducing new training for these workers about how to protect themselves in this chaotic time is going to be crucial not only for them but also for the well being of the organization as a whole. In addition to training, all information security teams should be looking at how to best to detect unauthorized data loss as well as unauthorized access into corporate networks. It also goes without saying that any remote access solutions should also be protected by two-factor authentication.

Be well, be safe, and secure your networks.

23
Jan
2020

Microsoft Exposes Elasticsearch Database to the World

Security Week reports that Microsoft has suffered a mishap with a handful of its Elasticsearch databases causing approximately 250 million customer support records to be exposed. While financial information for these clients was not exposed, it does appear that the data could be used for phishing attacks and tech support scams.

Of course the kicker is that Microsoft runs one of the largest cloud services on earth where users must take great pains to secure these systems that they setup. Now it turns out the company running these types of services can’t secure their own systems. While I know that these Elasticsearch databases were not really part of the Azure cloud service, it does beg the question that if Microsoft can’t secure their own systems, how can their clients ever hope to completely secure their own systems in the Azure cloud. If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder that no company, person, organization, etc. is immune to security lapses and great care should always be taken to secure both internal and cloud systems.

03
Dec
2019

VNC Client and Server Software Vulnerabilities Found

The Hacker News reports that dozens of new VNC client and server vulnerabilities have been found in the open source versions of the tools used by IT departments all over the world. If you are like me and think “VNC, who uses that any more?” then you should go check out a YouTube video by Tobias M├Ądel where he connects to open VNC servers all over the internet. Sure, the video is from 2015, but when you think about how quickly industrial plant management software and device firmware is updated you can bet money that there are still plenty of open VNC servers still running and accessible.

The moral of the story? Don’t expose critical systems and services (like RDP and VNC) over the internet unless it is absolutely essential. If it is essential, and you can’t put them behind a VPN, then you had better use a very strong and complex password to secure the access. Even with a VPN you should do that. Lastly, you need to makes sure you and any vendor you are purchasing software and devices from have a strong policy of pushing out updates anytime a vulnerability is found. You can’t afford to wait five years for an update when your chemical plan control system is left completely exposed on the internet through remote access software flaws.