Monthly Archives: February 2012

In Attack on Vatican Web Site, a Glimpse of Hackers’ Tactics


SAN FRANCISCO — The elusive hacker movement known as Anonymous has carried out Internet attacks on well-known organizations like Sony and PBS. In August, the group went after its most prominent target yet: the Vatican.

The campaign against the Vatican, which did not receive wide attention at the time, involved hundreds of people, some with hacking skills and some without. A core group of participants openly drummed up support for the attack using YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Others searched for vulnerabilities on a Vatican Web site and, when that failed, enlisted amateur recruits to flood the site with traffic, hoping it would crash, according to a computer security firm’s report to be released this week.

The attack, albeit an unsuccessful one, provides a rare glimpse into the recruiting, reconnaissance and warfare tactics used by the shadowy hacking collective.

Anonymous, which first gained widespread notice with an attack on the Church of Scientology in 2008, has since carried out hundreds of increasingly bold strikes, taking aim at perceived enemies including law enforcement agencies, Internet security companies and opponents of the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks.

The group’s attack on the Vatican was confirmed by the hackers and is detailed in a reportthat Imperva, a computer security company based in Redwood City, Calif., plans to release ahead of a computer security conference here this week. It may be the first end-to-end record of a full Anonymous attack.

Though Imperva declined to identify the target of the attack and kept any mention of the Vatican out of its report, two people briefed on the investigation confirmed that it had been the target. Imperva had a unique window into the situation because it had been hired by the Vatican’s security team as a subcontractor to block and record the assault.

“We have seen the tools and the techniques that were used in this attack used by other criminal groups on the Web,” said Amichai Shulman, Imperva’s chief technology officer. “What set this attack apart from others is it had a clear timeline and evolution, starting from an announcement and recruitment phase that was very public.”

The Vatican declined to comment on the attack. In an e-mail intended for a colleague but accidentally sent to a reporter, a church official wrote: “I do not think it is convenient to respond to journalists on real or potential attacks,” adding, “The more we are silent in this area the better.”

The attack was called Operation Pharisee in a reference to the sect that Jesus called hypocrites. It was initially organized by hackers in South America and Mexico before spreading to other countries, and it was timed to coincide with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Madrid in August 2011 for World Youth Day, an international event held every other year that regularly attracts more than a million Catholic youths.

Hackers initially tried to take down a Web site set up by the church to promote the event, handle registrations and sell merchandise. Their goal — according to YouTube messagesdelivered by an Anonymous figure in a Guy Fawkes mask — was to disrupt the event and draw attention to child sexual abuse by priests, among other issues.

The videos, which have been viewed more than 77,000 times, include a verbal attack on the pope and the young people who “have forgotten the abominations of the Catholic Church.” One calls on volunteers to “prepare your weapons, my dear brother, for this August 17th to Sunday August 21st, we will drop anger over the Vatican.”

Much as in a grass-roots lobbying campaign, the hackers spent weeks spreading their message through their own Web site and social sites like Twitter and Flickr. Their Facebook page called on volunteers to download free attack software and implored them to “stop child abuse” by joining the cause. It featured split-screen images of the pope seated on a gilded throne on one side and starving African children on the other. And it linked to articles about sexual abuse cases and blog posts itemizing the church’s assets.

It took the hackers 18 days to recruit enough people, the report says. Then the reconnaissance began. A core group of roughly a dozen skilled hackers spent three days poking around the church’s World Youth Day site looking for common security holes that could let them inside, the report says. Probing for such loopholes used to be tedious and slow, but the advent of automated tools made it possible for hackers to do this while they slept.


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Social Media as Community


Dominique Browning and Eric Klinenberg extol the virtues of living alone. In so doing, Klinenberg correctly points out that living alone is only common in cultures where prosperity makes this arrangement economically feasible. However, this has not slowed arguments that social media is increasingly a part of these same prosperous societies, and that this new tool is responsible for a growing trend of social isolation and loss of intimacy.

Neither living alone nor using social media is socially isolating. In 2011, I was lead author of an article in Information, Communication & Society that found, based on a representative survey of 2,500 Americans, that regardless of whether the participants were married or single, those who used social media had more close confidants.

A recent follow-up study, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives” (Pew Research Center), found that the average user of a social networking site had more close ties than and was half as likely to be socially isolated as the average American. Additionally, my co-authors and I, in another article published in New Media & Society, found not only that social media users knew people from a greater variety of backgrounds, but also that much of this diversity was a result of people using these technologies who simultaneously spent an impressive amount of time socializing outside of the house.

A number of studies, including my own and those of Matthew Brashears (a sociologist at Cornell), have found that Americans have fewer intimate relationships today than 20 years ago. However, a loss of close friends does not mean a loss of support. Because of cellphones and social media, those we depend on are more accessible today than at any point since we lived in small, village-like settlements.

Social media has made every relationship persistent and pervasive. We no longer lose social ties over our lives; we have Facebook friends forever. The constant feed of status updates and digital photos from our online social circles is the modern front porch. This is why, in “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” there was a clear trend for those who used these technologies to receive more social support than other people.

The data backs it up. There is little evidence that social media is responsible for a trend of isolation, or a loss of intimacy and social support.


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Yahoo Warns Facebook of a Potential Patent Fight

Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Tony Avelar/Bloomberg NewsYahoo’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.


As Yahoo struggles to keep up with younger competitors, the Web portal company is weighing a new tactic: threatening legal action over its patent holdings.

Yahoo is seeking to force Facebook into licensing 10 to 20 patents over technologies that include advertising, the personalization of Web sites, social networking and messaging, people briefed on the matter told DealBook.

The two companies spoke on Monday to discuss the issue, with Yahoo contending that Facebook is infringing on 10 to 20 patents, according to these people, who were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. Yahoo is asking Facebook to pay licensing fees or risk facing a lawsuit.

“Yahoo has a responsibility to its shareholders, employees and other stakeholders to protect its intellectual property,” a Yahoo spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. “We must insist that Facebook either enter into a licensing agreement or we will be compelled to move forward unilaterally to protect our rights.”

Barry Schnitt, a spokesman for Facebook, said in a statement: “Yahoo contacted us the same time they called The New York Times and so we haven’t had the opportunity to fully evaluate their claims.”

Patent fights are nothing new in Silicon Valley, with the realm of smartphones having become the most visible backdrop for such battles. Google paid $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility last year largely to get access to the phone maker’s intellectual property. And a consortium of companies led by Apple and Microsoftpaid $4.5 billion for more than 6,000 patents held by Nortel, the defunct communications equipment maker.

Apple, Samsung and other smartphone makers have also been locked in an array of courtroom brawls around the world over various patents.

But intellectual property battles have yet to arise en masse among social networking players.

It is unclear when Yahoo and Facebook began discussions over possible infringement of the former’s intellectual property. But Yahoo’s saber-rattling happens to come at a delicate time for Facebook, which is preparing to go public this spring in one of the most anticipated market debuts in years.

Yahoo talked up the value of its more than 1,000 patents late last year, amid a strategic review that included potentially selling a stake to outside investors.

The patents at issue include some of the first awarded to Yahoo, people close to the company said. It also gained a trove of intellectual property from the 2003 purchase of Overture Services, a search-advertising company that sued companies like Google over patent issues.

In its statement, Yahoo said that other unspecified Web technology companies have already licensed some of the patents in question.

It is unclear how much money Yahoo could wrangle out of any potential agreement with Facebook. After purchasing Overture, Yahoo settled the acquired company’s battle with Google in 2004, receiving 2.7 million shares in the search giant before it went public.

Last year, IEEE Spectrum, a technology publication, rated Yahoo’s patents as the most valuable among those for communications and Internet services.

Some investors believe that Yahoo’s intellectual property could give the company ammunition against Facebook. Eric Jackson, a managing member of the hedge fund Ironfire Capital, argued on Forbes in November that the Web pioneer should use its patent armory to wring a handsome payout from Facebook.


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Technology Companies Confront a Scourge of the Internet


For all the engineer-poaching and trash-talking going around Silicon Valley these days, there has also been a surprising amount of behind-the-scenes collaboration.

For the past 18 months, engineers at PayPal, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and nine other technology companies have spent their off-hours (and some on-hours) working hand in hand to tackle the problem that plagues them all: e-mail phishing.

E-mails about getting little blue pills, problems with your bank account and urgent money requests from stranded “friends” in Madrid have transformed in-boxes into cesspools of malicious links. These e-mails cansteal passwords, empty out bank accounts, or recruit computers into “botnets”—networks of computers that have been co-opted by hackers to crash Web sites in some cases, or destroy Iranian centrifuges in others. Over one hundred thousand accounts are hacked each day, according to the Online Trust Alliance.

So, a year and a half ago, security experts from the big e-mail providers, financial services firms and e-mail security providers started meeting informally at security industry events, holding bi-weekly conference calls and getting together at least once every few months to confront the e-mail scams.

On Monday, the informal working group says it will introduce a new industry standard for e-mail authentication and spam reporting called Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance — or simply, DMARC. The goal is not only to keep malware out of in-boxes, but to also get a better sense of the threat landscape: who’s behind e-mails scams, where they lurk, how they spoof and who they target.

Among the companies whose employees helped create DMARC, and are now signed up for the initiative: PayPal, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, LinkedIn, American Greetings, Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and e-mail security firms ReturnPath, Agari, eCert, Cloudmark and the Trusted Domain Project.

Starting Monday, other companies can adopt the new standard by registering with Once they sign up, e-mail senders — whether they be a mom-and-pop bakeries or The Gap — will have a way of constantly communicating with the big e-mail providers at Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL about which e-mails purporting to be from their domains should be allowed into in-boxes, and which should not.

DMARC requires that members adopt e-mail authentication policies whereby any e-mail that claims to be from their domain must pass one of two authentication tests. If an e-mail doesn’t pass muster, a sender can tell the e-mail providers to quarantine the e-mail or reject it outright. In turn, senders can get real-time reporting on the state of their spoofing problems.

They can also request reports from one of the e-mail security providers — ReturnPath, Agari, eCert, Cloudmark or the Trusted Domain Project — that detail how many e-mails purporting to be from their domains are sent each day, which Internet addresses they are sent from and, through a third party, send any malicious links back to Web browsers (like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer) — for blocking.

“This is a full-court press by the world’s leading companies in consumer security to take on what has been a longstanding vulnerability for the benefit of the entire ecosystem,” Brett McDowell, a senior security manager at PayPal and chair of, said in an interview last week.

While the DMARC standard is new, the technologies involved are not. Two authentication technologies — one called “Sender Policy Framework” (SPF) and another called “DomainKeys Identified Mail” (DKIM) — have been widely deployed by e-mail senders for years.

After a big problem with phishing in 2006, PayPal started reaching out to major e-mail providers to instruct them to block any PayPal e-mails that had not been authenticated either by SPF or DKIM. In 2007, PayPal set up a formal partnership with Yahoo and in 2008 did the same with Gmail.

The process was crucial to combat phishing, but impossible to repeat on a larger scale, Mr. McDowell says. It had to be done through tedious, one-off partnerships with each e-mail provider and required lots of meetings and lots of paperwork.

Meanwhile, with the exception of PayPal, e-mail receivers were left guessing which e-mail senders used which authentication technologies and had no scientific way of knowing which unauthenticated e-mails were harmful and which were legitimate.

“DMARC fills that gap for us,” says Paul Midgen, an engineer with Microsoft’s Hotmail team. “It basically is a statement by people who publish that record that says ‘We authenticate all of our mail and if you ever get e-mail that hasn’t been authenticated, here is what you do with it.’”

As for the major e-mail senders, whose brands invariably suffer anytime they get spoofed, “We now have a way of saying: ‘This e-mail with this Facebook notification really is from us,’” says Mike Adkins, a Facebook engineer.

“This is not your everyday industry collaboration and innovation launch,” adds Mr. McDowell. “This effort covers the vast majority of the world’s in-boxes.”


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Trademarks Take On New Importance in Internet Era


PRINCETON, N.J. — As a serial snack-food entrepreneur, Warren Wilson is no stranger to the challenges of running a business.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Warren and Sara Wilson, the inventors of Pretzel Crisps, are being sued by the snack food giant Frito-Lay.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Frito-Lay, a unit of PepsiCo, argues that Pretzel Crisps cannot be registered as a trademark because the name is a generic term.

In the early days of his first enterprise, selling funnel cakes at fairs, there was the time when, tired of losing money on inclement days, he bought weather insurance — and proceeded to lose even more money than he had when it rained. In the 1990s, he and his wife and business partner, Sara, once had to mortgage their house and sell off investments to make their company’s payroll.

But it still came as a bit of a shock when the Wilsons made what they thought was a routine move to register the trademark of their hot product — a flat pretzel snack called Pretzel Crisps — and it was contested by none other than Frito-Lay, the 800-pound gorilla of the snack food market owned by PepsiCo.

“This is so different from anything else we’ve faced because we’re not fighting a product in the supermarket, we’re not fighting against an institution like a bank, we’re not dealing with an act of nature,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview at his company’s headquarters here. “This fight is about a big company that wants to dominate the snack food category by crushing a little company like ours rather than by competing with us.”

Frito-Lay, whose Rold Gold pretzel products and Stacy’s Pita Chips compete with Pretzel Crisps, declined to discuss the case, citing the pending dispute with the Wilsons’ company, Princeton Vanguard.

But in its filings with the Patent and Trademark Office, Frito-Lay contends that Pretzel Crisps cannot be registered as a trademark because it is a generic term. “Like ‘milk chocolate bar,’ the combination of ‘pretzel’ and ‘crisp’ gains no meaning as a phrase over and above the generic meaning of its constituent terms,” the company wrote in a 2010 motion.

The dispute is still pending with the trademark office’s trial board.

Trademarks, which are names or symbols associated with a specific company or product, can be tremendously valuable to companies building a brand. Think of Kimberly-Clark’s Kleenex facial tissues or Nike’s swoosh logo.

Brand experts and trademark lawyers say the value of simple, easily understood brand names has escalated in the Internet era because consumers are more likely to find such products while doing searches on the Web.

“You’d rather have a name like Moviefone than one like Fandango because that’s what someone is going to plug into a search engine, but without a doubt, you are going to be challenged,” said Allen P. Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, a brand design firm.

With so much at stake, companies are much more likely to fight over trademark rights. For example, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are embroiled in a dispute over the term “app store,” for software applications, which Apple moved to trademark in 2008.

For small companies, the cost of fighting a trademark battle can go beyond dollars and cents.

“The big companies will do this to rough up their competitors,” said Barton Beebe, a professor at the New York University Law School who specializes in intellectual property law. “If they can’t win in the marketplace, they try to soften them up with legal fees and distract them. Even if they lose the case, it’s a Pyrrhic victory because the small company has wasted so many resources.”

For Pretzel Crisps, Princeton Vanguard already has spent $1 million on legal fees, hiring David H. Bernstein and Joe DiSalvo, who won control of the Vitaminwater name for Glacéau, which is now owned by Coca-Cola.

Trademark lawyers say it’s unclear how strong a claim the Wilsons have to the term pretzel crisps, even though they have been using it since their snacks first went on sale in 2004.


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American Recounts Beating by Chinese Agents Suspicious of Social Media


BEIJING — The Chinese Communist Party has long felt threatened by overseas Web sites and social media outlets, but the recent detention of a California physicist who says he was beaten by Chinese security agents seeking the password for his Twitter account suggests how far the government will go in its battle against a freewheeling Internet available only beyond its borders.

Ge Xun

The man, Ge Xun, 53, a naturalized American citizen who moved to the United States from China in 1986, said he was abducted from a street in Beijing this month and was roughly questioned by public security officers at a secret location. During 21 hours of interrogation, Mr. Ge said, the agents peppered him with questions about his blogging activity, his membership in an organization that promotes dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese and his role in maintaining a Web site that supports a blind lawyer living under house arrest in China’s rural northeast.

But Mr. Ge’s greatest sin, it appears, was his zealous embrace of Twitter, which has long been blocked in China along with Facebook, YouTube and tens of thousands of other Web sites that the government deems a threat to its hold on power.

In a phone interview on Monday from his home in Fremont, Calif., Mr. Ge described how the agents, infuriated by his assertion that bloggers in the United States were volunteers and not government-sponsored agitators, demanded that he turn over his Twitter password. When he refused, two of them unleashed a torrent of kicks and punches that lasted 30 minutes, he said. “The more they beat me, the less I felt like cooperating,” he said.

In the end, Mr. Ge and his captors came up with a compromise: he did not reveal his password but logged on to Twitter and allowed them to peek inside his account. “The truth is I have nothing to hide,” he said.

Although Mr. Ge was released and promptly deported on Feb. 2, the incident highlights the risks faced by foreign passport holders of Chinese origin when ensnared by China’s nebulous, omnipotent public security apparatus.

A number of American citizens remain in Chinese prisons on questionable charges, including Xue Feng, a geologist serving eight years for industrial espionage. Another naturalized American, Hu Zhicheng, has been blocked from leaving the country while he battles accusations of commercial espionage lodged by a former business associate. Mr. Hu spent a year and a half in jail but was released after Chinese prosecutors acknowledged that the case had no merit.

“Having an American or an Australian passport and having Chinese blood puts you at a disadvantage to those who are white,” said Wang Songlian, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

A State Department official declined to comment on Mr. Ge’s detention but said the plights of Mr. Xue and Mr. Hu would be raised during the visit to the United States by Vice President Xi Jinping, who arrived in Washington from Beijing on Monday afternoon.

The incident involving Mr. Ge was unusual because many native Chinese who hold foreign passports and publicly criticize the Communist Party are denied visas to return home. Mr. Ge, who applied and received an emergency visa to attend the funeral of his mother, said he had returned to China numerous times over the years. During a visit in 1997, he said, public security agents briefly and politely questioned him about his lapsed membership in an organization of Chinese students seeking leniency for those arrested during the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.

“The thing I really care about is basic human rights,” said Mr. Ge, who studied experimental physics at Texas A&M University and works as a technician for Mercedes-Benz. “I’ve never called for the overthrow of the government, and I don’t advocate violence.”

Mr. Ge was shocked, he said, when three plainclothes officers accosted him outside the home of Ding Zilin, a retired philosophy professor who has spent two decades seeking justice for those killed during the violent suppression of Tiananmen protesters. Ms. Ding’s 17-year-old son was killed by a bullet to his heart that June.

The officers not only knew Mr. Ge’s name but also had a photograph of him that they had downloaded from the Internet. After dragging him into a waiting Honda Accord, they refused to explain what they were after and then confiscated his cellphone, he said. Once inside a guesthouse called “The Old Cadres Activity Center,” he said, they stripped him of his other possessions, including a camera, money and a hand-held recorder.

Then they began questioning him about his activities in the United States and suggested that he had come to China to make trouble on behalf of antigovernment forces abroad. He said they simply could not believe that the Web site advocating freedom for the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, was run by volunteers. “That’s not possible,” Mr. Ge quoted one of the them as saying. “How can a Web site not belong to an organization, have no leader and not spend any money?”

It was when Mr. Ge explained the role of Twitter in spreading word about the site that they demanded his password, he said.

Not long after his pummeling, Mr. Ge said, they gave him a sheet of paper and dictated demands that he wrote down with his bruised and wobbly hand. They included a promise not to meet with “sensitive people,” not to speak to the news media and not to do anything to harm China’s image. He stuck his finger into a jar of red ink and left an imprint signifying his assent.

A few hours later, en route to the airport, he said, he endured another brief beating after refusing to hand over his laptop for one final inspection. Once at the terminal, they returned his camera and recording device, although the contents had been erased. They also handed back the bouquet of flowers he had planned to give to Ms. Ding.

As Mr. Ge limped away in pain, he said, the lead interrogator, Wang Jie, reminded him that the entire episode was a “national secret.” The agent also scribbled down an e-mail address and told him to send a note the next time he came to town. (An e-mail sent to the address seeking comment was not answered on Monday.)

Mr. Ge laughed when asked if he might return to China in the near future. “Sure, why not?” he said. “My visa is good for a full year.


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Positive Effects of Internet Usage on Child Development


Childhood is all about exploration. Through the interactive world of technology, our children are being shaped by their exploration of computers and the Internet. The modern computer and the Internet offer today’s children a powerful device that, if used appropriately, can enhance the development of the child’s physical, cognitive, and social skills. Children get interested because they can make things happen with the Internet. The Internet is a powerful tool that is revolutionizing our children’s learning, communication and play.

Impact on Physical Development

It may not seem to the naked eye that exposure to the Internet would have a positive effect on the physical development of children. However, knowledge of muscular development and motor control skills leads us to deduce that regular Internet usage would naturally enhance a child’s eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills due to keyboard and mouse usage. There is no known existing research on the topic of the relationship between the physical development of children and the Internet.

Impact on Cognitive Development

Children who use the Internet show gains in cognitive abilities such as memory, spatial and logical problem solving, critical thinking, concentration, abstraction and comprehension. The Internet exposes children to information to improve the quality of learning that they can transform into knowledge. Through the use of the Internet, children’s language and literacy development is often promoted, allowing for greater gains in verbal and nonverbal skills.
Impact on Social DevelopmentThe Internet cannot and should not replace human interaction or relationships, nor take the place of activities such as sharing verbal conversations with our children or reading together. However, if properly used, the Internet can serve as a medium for acceptable social interaction (Scoter & Railsback, 2001). The Internet allows children to socialize with other children through the use of email, chat rooms, and instant messaging, increasing the development of communication and social skills. As children use the Internet to connect with places around the world and exchange mail with electronic pen pals, they are able to share different cultures and traditions.

Often the use of Internet in classrooms allows the children to work together, encouraging the sharing of ideas and cooperative learning. Students that find conventional methods of learning difficult will frequently find learning via the Internet to be fun. From this positive experience these children improve their attitudes about learning while enhancing their curiosity and self-concept. Many parents whose children use the Internet in school believe that the Internet has improved their child’s overall attitude toward school. “Education is also the single most common motivation parents cite for their children to use the Internet from home” (National School Board Foundation, n.d., para 6). The Internet allows children to actively participate in an independent learning environment.

Besides being used as an educational tool, the Internet also provides entertainment. According to Tapscott (n.d.), “Children can use it to find inspiration, stimulate the imagination, explore the world, meet others and gain new experiences. The process is known as play. Play has its own pursuit of amusement, competition, and companionship – all which can be fulfilled on the Internet” (para. 1). Though it is no true replacement for physical social play, the Internet offers uniques alternatives, which are especially important for those that are physically disabled and unable to engage in physical play.

The Internet today is part of our children’s natural environment. According to Tapscott (1999, as cited in Affanso, 1999), “…when kids are online, they’re reading, thinking, analyzing, criticizing and authenticating – composing their thoughts. Kids use computers for activities that go hand-in-hand with our understanding of what constitutes a traditional childhood. They use the technology to play, learn, communicate and form relationships as children always have. Development is enhanced in an interactive world” (Conclusion section, para. 1). Truly, the Internet has become a daily part of many children’s lives. It is little wonder that it has such a pervasive effect on their social development.

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