Viewpoint: Online security with a smile

IT security experts go to war but they're not serious so don't get your Alans in a twist.

Online security with a smile

It's war out there, with computer security experts embroiled in ceaseless - and escalating - battle against increasingly sophisticated legions of cyber criminals. But sometimes you have to pause for a giggle at some of the strange stories that get reported (provided you're not the victim, of course).

Here are three tales of the absurd that I have heard recently, and that acted as a pleasant distraction from the run-of-the-mill security stories...

In Texas right now there is a hacking epidemic taking place. No, not against Windows computers - but against electronic road signs. Some scallywag is breaking into the software running construction road signs at the sides of the highway and displaying bizarre messages such as 'OMG the British r coming they r watching you' and 'Caution! Zombies ahead!'. Hacks like this are illegal, naturally, and you can imagine how messing around with road signs could lead to a dangerous accident.

No doubt the authorities are looking closely at the nearby University of Texas to see if the pranksters might have planned their hack from there.

At first I thought it would be great if hackers took a 'gap year' from attacking computer systems, and concentrated their efforts on road signs instead - but imagine how many marriages would be ruined as stressed husbands and wives tried to navigate around the M25 in the UK?

In late 2008, a Japanese woman who was addicted to the online game 'MapleStory' was arrested after breaking into her virtual husband's account, and killing his avatar.

The woman was alleged to have committed the virtual murder after her fellow player and online lover 'divorced' her in the game without warning.

So, if you have ever wondered why the cops aren't fingerprinting your car after it gets broken into, you will be reassured to know they are all creating bare-chested six-foot four-inch demigods to slip in unnoticed among the citizens of 'Second Life'.

Lastly, we all know that password security is a serious business. You should always use a non-dictionary word that is hard to guess. Steve Jetley, a customer at the Shrewsbury, UK branch of Lloyds TSB bank, was disappointed last year, however, when he tried to change his online password to 'Lloyds is pants' after a dispute.

The bank responded by changing it - without his permission - to 'no, it's not'. This jolly wheeze amused Mr Jetley at first, until he was told he couldn't change it back to 'Lloyds is pants' or his suggested alternatives of 'Lloyds is rubbish' or 'Barclays is better'.

He eventually tried to change it 'Censorship' - only to be told it was too long to be a password, and should be no more than six letters. And they call this security? Thank heavens for people with a sense of humour like Steve Jetley who expose this kind of idiocy.

By Graham Cluley, Sophos.

Did you know the toff techie?

Alan Whicker is probably the only TV journalist whose name has entered into the lexicon of Cockney rhyming slang ('Don't get your Alans in a twist, missus', 'You owe me ten Alans, mate'). That distinction notwithstanding, I commend to E&T readers (with £13 of discretionary income to spend) the second DVD volume of 'Whicker's World' released this month. It contains ten of the master travel journalist's TV shows, in which he visits subjects as diverse as the Boat People of Hong Kong to the street in Vienna "where sex was invented". Of particular interest to technologists will be the very first programme of this selection, 'The Aristocracy Business'.

Made in 1968, it features interviews with divers dukes and lords of the day who explain how the social-political changes of that decade were imposing profound change on the landed gentry. First in the frame is the 11th Viscount Downe, aka John Christian George Dawnay, a jovial, cherubic-faced, then 33-year-old fellow who seems a bit nice but dim as he lolls jollily on the regency sofa chatting to the Whicker man.

However, as the programme progresses we discover that there is much more to this vivacious viscount than first meets the eye.

In the voiceover, Whicker tells us that Dawnay is, in fact, "a boffin" who has set-up a "space age electronics laboratory" in the East Wing of his 18th century home in North Yorkshire, Wykeham Abbey, and who is managing director and chairman of a UK electronics company called Brookdeal Electronics. Other business interests included ventures in the fields of optical fibres and microbiology.

"What we're doing here is trying to build equipment which is in advance of the state-of-the-art on the world market," Dawnay explains, sitting surrounded by stacks of serious-looking test and measurement equipment, circuit boards, signal generators, soldering irons, and oscilloscopes. "At the moment I'm working on a signal processing system that has an accuracy of better than one part in a thousand - under all circumstances - and can look at pulses about ten nanoseconds long."

I was intrigued. Who was this 1960s toff techie?

Disappointingly, facts were thin on the ground - and indeed on the Web. His engineering credentials were established by the fact that in 1965 'JCG Dawnay' co-authored two papers for IEE Electronics Letters, 'Distortion in class a transistor amplifiers' and 'Characteristics of silicon transistors'. He was a part-time member of the JJ Thomson Physical Laboratory at Reading University, I discovered, and a liveryman of the Company of Scientific Instrument Makers.

His Daily Telegraph obituary - Dawnay died in 2002 - revealed a broad range of interests, including a passion for Aston Martin cars and steam engines. But it was his achievements in the electronics field that seemed most of interest.

Beyond the fact that Dawnay's firm Brookdeal Electronics was bought by US company EG&G Technical Services in 1972, I've drawn a blank. Can any E&T readers add to our knowledge of this signal-processing peer, this coroneted circuiteer, this nano-savvy noble?

Email James Hayes at

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