Sunday, April 06, 2014

#TechSeven - The Windows XP edition

I was back on-air this past Friday for our regular tech segment with CJAD 800 Radio in Montreal. Anne Lagace Dowson was sitting in for Barry Morgan, and we had a great chat about obsolete hardware and why it really isn't worth it to keep old tech hanging around much past its best before date. Listeners also called and texted in some great questions, and a good time was had by all.

In case you missed it, here's what we covered:

ONE - Windows XP dies on April 8. Why should you care?

Microsoft's Windows XP operating system for personal computers was first introduced way back in 2001. In technology terms, it's ancient. It's might "just work" for a lot of people - shockingly, almost 30% of Canadian PCs are still running it - but the world has changed significantly since 2001, and keeping it going is like trying to drive a horse-drawn carriage on the 401. Not smart, as you're just asking for something bad to happen.

So Microsoft is finally pulling the plug this coming Tuesday (April 8) when it will release its final security update and stop providing dial-in and online support. While Microsoft will provide anti-malware updates until April 2015, if you continue to use XP after next Tuesday, you'll be at increased risk of being hacked.

If you think that's not a major deal, think again. Hacked machines can be used as launching pads to attack other machines. If your machine is compromised, hackers will use it to go after other machines on your network, as well as friends and family from your contact list. You don't want to be the one who ruins it for everyone else, the one who gets a panicked call from your favourite uncle asking why you sent him an email that linked to a malware-infested porn site (this happened to a good friend of mine. Mortifying.)

So what do you do? Well, if it's an old machine, don't even bother buying an upgrade to the operating system (likely Windows 7 or Windows 8), as the hardware in all likelihood won't be strong enough to handle it. For most users, this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back and forces them to finally buy a new PC. The good news: PCs are a lot cheaper now than they were in 2001.

If you're not sure what you're running, hit up and it'll tell you whether or not you're running the soon-to-be-obsolete operating system.

TWO - But Microsoft is hoping you'll download their new Windows 8.1 Update 1...

Got a relatively recent desktop or laptop PC running Windows 8? You're in luck: the company, as part of its big Build conference for developers in San Francisco this week, announced an update: Windows 8.1 Update 1, that fixes a lot of the little things Windows users have been complaining about. The tile-based desktop is now much more customizable and easier to use, with buttons for settings located in easier-to-find places.

Will it fix the whole PC-is-dying trend? Not on its own, but it's a free update, so grab it as soon as your PC lets you. And if you're still running XP, this gives you another reason to buy a new machine altogether.

Oh, and to steal a Steve Jobs-ism, one more thing: The Start Menu will return later this year. Long a staple of Windows desktops since Windows 95, its removal when Windows 8 bowed in 2012 has been hotly debated by users ever since. Their complaints have been heard.

THREE - ... and try their new Siri-killer

Microsoft also demonstrated an update to its mobile operating system - Windows Phone 8.1 - that includes something called "Cortana". It's Microsoft's answer to the Siri voice-activated personal assistant. Talk to her (it, whatever) or ask her any question and, like Apple's Siri, she'll reach back into her Bing-powered bag of tricks and give you an answer.

On the surface, it's a better Siri - better integrated into your other apps and activities, so it can be more proactive and predictive in how it works. For example, if you're running late for a meeting, it'll suggest sending invitation change notices to invitees, then suggest an alternative map/routing so you can get there faster. It doesn't just answer questions, it thinks ahead, and actively initiates and completes complex, personalized, localized activities.

All good, but Siri's been around for 2-and-a-half years, and unless you're a geek who compares Siri, Google Now and Cortana with a feature-for-feature spreadsheet, most users don't care.

The glaring hole in Microsoft's mobile strategy - that it doesn't have a lot of apps available for it and developers aren't exactly breaking down the doors to leave Apple and Google - remains. It's why Windows Phone continues to have 3.6 per cent global market share, and why people line up for iPhones and Galaxy S5s and not Nokia Lumias.

FOUR - Can you trust the government with your data? Um, no

Bad news on the security front: the federal government is reporting a shocking number of data breaches. A report to Parliament confirms the number of data breaches has skyrocketed - in the last 10 months along, more of them have been reported than in the past 10 years.

According to an IT World Canada summary:
"During the period between April 1, 2013 and January 29, 2014, federal departments and agencies reported no less than 3,763 data breaches including incidents where taxpayers’ information were lost, compromised or mistakenly released, according to a report by the Privacy Commissioner’s Office. That figure is slightly higher than the 3,000 data breaches reported by the government in the last 10 years."
In fairness, during this period, the Canada Revenue Agency began reporting data breaches for the first time. Unfortunately, the Department of National Defence (DND) refused to release security breach data to Parliament, claiming that to do so would be a threat to national security.

So can you trust the government with your data? No. Can you do anything about it? Strangely, yes. Some tips:
  • When submitting anything to government, back it up and store it locally before sharing it.
  • Use unique, secure passwords when accessing government sites.
  • Check the URL carefully to ensure it's a legitimate site.
  • Look for https-prefixed addresses as well as the lock icon whenever accessing a government site.
  • Only use government-built or sanctioned apps to access online services.
FIVE - Did the U.S. government create a "fake Twitter" to stir Cuban dissent?

An investigation by the Associated Press suggests a U.S. government agency that's part of the U.S. Department of State created a text-message social network - called "ZunZuneo", and also known as a "Cuban Twitter". The network ran between 2009 and 2012, and had 40,000 subscribers before the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) ran out of funding for the project.

Cuba's communist government tightly controls citizens' access to telecommunication services, including the Internet, and all media within the island nation is state-controlled. An underground Twitter-like network would, in theory, give dissenters an opportunity to learn more from the outside and communicate with each other, all outside the close watch of the central government.

What does this have to do with us? Lots. Turns out most users in Cuba had no idea it was funded by the U.S. government. Shell companies were set up in Spain and the Cayman Islands, and servers were set up to look like traffic was being routed outside the U.S. USAID created a website and paid for fake web ads to make it all look legit.

So if you're ever wondering who's behind that app you just downloaded, you may want to dig a little deeper to ensure it isn't some covert government agency.

SIX - Tesla cars can apparently be hacked

Tesla electric cars are revolutionary in many ways. Aside from being the first electric vehicle that can easily outperform most internal combustion-powered cars, its Model S is also a rolling tribute to technology. There's only one button inside - for the hazard lights, and only because government rules require it. Everything else is electronic, and the central console is dominated by a massive screen the size of two full-sized iPads stacked one on top of the other.

Tesla regularly sends software updates wirelessly and remotely to its vehicles to introduce new features and fix bugs. Now, hackers can do the same thing. Researchers have uncovered a number of vulnerabilities in the car's architecture that could allow hackers to find the car, then unlock it, They still won't be able to drive it, but simply being able to geolocate the car, then open it up and steal whatever's inside - without actually having to break in - is creepy enough.

Since cars are often repositories of personal data - synced data from your smartphone, passwords to home security systems, etc. - this could also be a new way to launch identity theft attacks or other crimes.

Earlier, hackers demonstrated a way to remotely take over a Smart Car's steering, brakes, windows and headlights, and as cars in general become more heavily loaded with electronics, the risk - and the appeal to criminals - will only grow.

I'll be back on-air next Friday at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Point your browser to if you'd like to tune in.


Unknown said...

This is amazing, Carmi. My doctor's office uses XP and has a fairly complicated application, as you can only imagine. I wonder his his system will be affected?

Anonymous said...

As a photographer i need XP to rum my Nikon Scanners, as Nikon has not updated and left the market. Have a machine that only does that.