20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – NSA Taps into Fiber Optic Cables

WebIt’s the sort of thing you would have expected if George Orwell and Jules Verne had been contemporaries and collaborated on a novel.  The Department of Defense creates a vast Hypertext Transfer Protocol Network and allows the private sector to take it over and expand it worldwide. Rather than passing through the pesky step of securing private data through the system’s service providers, the government simply taps into the data as it passes through the undersea fiber optic cables stretching from one continent to another. Suddenly the World Wide Web is one vast party line, at least from the NSA’s perspective.

That’s the theory presently being promulgated by investigative reporters with the New York Times. According to The Times‘ article, NSA May Have Hit Internet Companies at a Weak Spot , the data centers belonging to companies like Yahoo and Google are “are locked down with full-time security and state-of-the-art surveillance, including heat sensors and iris scanners.”   If anything, it’s easier for government spies to tap the Level 3 Communications Infrastructure, the so-called backbone of the  World Wide Web, made up of  high capacity optic fiber cables owned by companies like Verizon, the BT Group, and the Vodafone Group.

Nearly everything you and I do online passes through this backbone in route to its final destination.  I  guess you can say that the NSA has taken up global  spinal tapping: sampling the flow of information for infectious or inflammatory elements.

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Vernes wrote “The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe… It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.”

This statement is perhaps more true now than ever before.  The sea is a very busy place indeed. And the NSA is one very busy body.

International Travel Alert: Your Laptop Can Be Seized by Federal Agents Without A Warrant

tsaDid you know that at the United States Border, U.S. agents can legally seize your laptop, iPad, and other electronic devices without a search warrant and without probable cause? Not only can they seize it and  search its contents, they can take their own sweet time doing so. You may not see your laptop again for weeks.

Based on legal precedent, the Fourth Amendment — the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures — does not apply along the border. Furthermore, said border can extend one-hundred miles into the interior of the country. 

There have also been cases of laptops being seized from airline passengers returning from foreign countries. The  government may be backing off on this particular invasion of privacy, however, as it has just reached a settlement with Human Rights Activist David House, whose laptop, camera, and USB drive were seized when he returned to the United States after vacationing abroad.  In the settlement, the government  has agreed to destroy all data it obtained from his laptop and other electronics.

Then again, the government is not paying any restitution and, according to the terms of the settlement, House is responsible for his own legal fees. So what is to stop agents from doing the same thing in the future?

Some travelers with computers containing confidential or proprietary information now scrub their hard drives prior to traveling internationally (not terribly practical if you’re traveling on business).  Others have  an expert encrypt their data behind a secure password.  The catch is, should your laptop or iPad be seized, neither of these strategies will help you get it back any sooner. On the contrary, I’m willing to bet that if the contents are encrypted, government agents are likely to hold it all the longer as they attempt to hack it.

In addition, there is also a possibility that your computer may be returned to you with a few freebies added. As I discussed in a previous post, the NSA has been intercepting laptops in transit and installing malware on them which can record what users are typing across their screens.

Using a malware compromised computer offline may not necessarily protect you from prying eyes. It has recently come to light that the NSA has embedded some computers (mostly those owned by foreigners or by suspected terrorists) with with tiny circuit boards or USB cards that emit radio waves, enabling them to spy on offline computers.

True, you may be the last person in America security personnel would ever mistake for a spy. Then again my clean-cut, professionally dressed brother with an Italian surname was once detained and interrogated for hours at a Canadian airport because his name closely resembled that of a suspected terrorist on their no-fly list. I guess there’s a branch of the family we don’t know about.

I have dealt with this issue by purchasing a travel-laptop. On it, I only store those files I will absolutely need while traveling.  If it gets seized, damaged, lost, or stolen, the harm is minimal; my regular laptop is waiting for me back home. If you do this, you can carry along any confidential data you may need on a thumb-drive (hopefully they don’t seize that as well!) or make use cloud storage to access your data from anywhere in the world.

Happy travels.

Is Social Media Blitzkrieg Hindering Innovation?

The Three B’s

Bubble BathThere is a common consensus among scientists that the world’s greatest discoveries occur in the Three B’s: the bed, the bath, and the bus. Why? Because it’s not when you’re running actual experiments, performing mathematical calculations, or analyzing data  that the mind makes its quantum leaps. It’s during the downtime between those activities, when your mind is at rest, that it intuits the pattern or the breakthrough discovery spawned by those hours of work, study, and experimentation.

 The Social Media Blitzkrieg

 What happens when there is no downtime? How many bus and train riders today spend their entire commute texting, tweeting, or surfing the web on palm-size electronics? How many people sleep with their cell phones next to their beds or even nestled beside them in bed?  You don’t have to be Theodore Twombly to fall in love with your Personal Device.  And Personal Devices can be among the most jealous and possessive of lovers.  When surveyed half of workers age twenty-one to thirty-one, say they would circumvent any company policy banning the use of personal devices at work or for work purposes

Even those employees who don’t live on their Personal Devices find themselves buried under avalanche after avalanche of plain old-fashioned e-mail.  We are in a state of constant sensory overload.  How can we have an inventive, work-  or life-changing thought when we can’t even hear ourselves think?

Playrooms

Ping Pong at Google It’s ironic that the very industry that landed us in this midst of this constant e-noise is the one that has recognized it must carve out a time and a place for its employees to play or to chill or to simply be. High Tech companies are creating spaces which encourage employees to rest their overworked brains, so that they can logoff, shutdown, and reboot.

Most Silicon Valley companies feature ping pong and foosball tables in their offices. The most popular way to get around Google’s block-size New York office is by scooter. And see those bookcases along the wall? They’re secret passages:  doorways which open onto reflection rooms.

This trend of creative spaces has already made its way across the pond. Mind Candy in London has a Wooden Tree House Room and a Gingerbread House for holding meetings.  Its offices also include a “coloring wall and quiet areas that look like Hobbit holes.” Ticketmaster’s London office sports “ a metal slide that staff can take to reach the bar area, where table football, a jukebox and pinball machines await.

Touchdown!

 The nights Germany carpet bombed London, the city’s citizens  shut off every last light. Maybe what we need to do is forge a daily social media blackout of, say, thirty minutes in our workplaces. During those thirty minutes all employees will take a furlough from all forms of social media. They can get up and walk around, talk to each other face to face, get a cup of coffee, or even work (imagine how much work you could get done in thirty uninterrupted minutes!). And imagine, just imagine, if  some employees took  a few deep breaths and stared  into space, or opened their blinds and looked out the window, or constructed a goal post out of pencils and rubber bands and thumb-kicked a triangular folded-paper football over it, what creative breakthroughs they might have?  Fresh products. Cutting edge services. New and improved ways to reach their customers.

Me? I’d kill for an office with bath. One of those deep Victorian tubs with bear claw feet and a bar of French milled soap and some bubbles.  Logoff. Shutdown. Reboot.

With Virtual Interviews and Gamification on the Rise, Will the In-Person Interview Become Obsolete?

I had nearly forgotten about the three-martini lunch, that oh so popular ritual among the businessmen in the New York neighborhood where I grew up. Then Mad Men came along with its high-definition window on what our  fathers had been up to all day at their Manhattan offices in the sky.

martini

Is the in-person interview destined to become as much of a nostalgic oddity as the three-martini lunch? The first whiff of an applicant’s cologne, the strength and sincerity of a handshake, and those intangible signals emitted by an applicant’s body language may soon become obsolete.

What is taking their place? Two new millennia approaches to interviewing and screening applicants are becoming more popular by the day: virtual interviews and gamification.  

 Some virtual interviews (aka online interviews) may be held live using a platform like Skype.  In other cases, the recruiter will e-mail the candidate a link to a series of pre-set questions. The applicant is recorded on a webcam as he gives his answers. According to Dave Zielinski’s SHRM article, The Virtual Interview,  “Hiring managers review and rate the video profiles, share them with co-workers for comments, and move contenders to the next round.”     Recruiters like this process because they can view the interviews at their own convenience, be it at the office during work hours or at home in the evening.

 Gamification is the process of evaluating job candidates by having them participate in video games involving tasks or simulations which test for particular behaviors, skills, and strategies.   No doubt, this selection tool delights a whole generation of gamers whose parents told them, over and over, that playing video games was a huge waste of time.

If you have never played a video game in your life, you may want to find a young person to show you the ropes.  You’ll likely be surprised by how sophisticated and educational some of the modern  games are.

Should you find yourself at the applicant-end of an online interview, check out  Dawn Dugan’s sage advice, “8 Tips for Acing Virtual Job Interviews.”  

Whether you find yourself facing a live Skype interview, a recorded virtual interview, or a challenging video game, wait until after you’ve logged off to indulge in that triple-martini.

Cheers.

When Smartphones Aren’t So Smart

Forbes contributor Kevin Kruse has just posted an article on “Why Successful People Never Bring Smartphones into Meetings”. 

While Kruse’s first three points state the obvious (lack of respect, lack of attention, lack of listening), I found his fourth point the most interesting: lack of power.  As Kruse puts it, if you frequently check your phone, “You are like a modern day Pavlovian dog who responds to the beck and call of others through the buzz of your phone.”

The reason I always  wear a watch when I’m teaching a class or attending a meeting is so I can glance at the time (especially important when I am pacing a lesson), without “checking my phone.”   This works for me even if some people make fun of my anachronistic accessory!