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Facebook denies that private message bug ever existed

Published on September 28, 2012
Tags: Internet Security, Internet Communication

After rumours emerged on Monday evening that private messages were being displayed on Facebook users’ walls, the internet was up in arms about the latest privacy issue to be related to the social networking giant. A number of reports, most of which originated from France, suggested that messages from 2009 were being posted to users’ walls and were therefore visible to all users.

On Tuesday, Facebook came out and declared that this was untrue, stating that every message it had investigated was simply an old wall message which its users had forgotten about, therefore assuming they must have been private messages. The company said it had checked very report and found them all to be entirely false, adding: "A lot of the confusion is because before 2009 there were no likes and no comments on wall posts. People went back and forth with wall posts instead of having a conversation."
The users in France had been concerned that messages which appeared to have been sent between 2007 and 2009 were suddenly made public; something which alarmed a great number of Facebook users around the world. Facebook responded by saying that there was no way in which private messages could be published to a user’s wall due to them being handled completely separately by Facebook’s servers. Despite this, a number of users are still sure that a number of their wall posts were originally private messages.
The news comes on the same day that US financial publication Barron’s declared that Facebook’s public stock was only worth somewhere in the region of $15 per share - well below the flotation price of $38 per share; a price which has fallen drastically since the company was floated earlier this year. Shares ended down on Wall Street by 9.1% to $20.79, having fallen more than 11% earlier in the day. Although Facebook was only floated in May, its price has plunged more than 40% in just four months, worrying investors all around the world.
The social networking giant has not been without its recent controversy, much of which has been related to privacy issues which continue to dog the company. The introduction and implementation of a controversial facial-recognition tool which would automatically tag Facebook users in photographs uploaded to its website caused uproar in many circles, with a number of users saying it breached their privacy and control over their own photographs and which images would be available to their friends and work colleagues.
This week, Facebook announced that it was suspending the facial-recognition tool in Europe in order to concentrate its efforts on implementing changes recommended by the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland last year. The tool will be discontinued for users in Europe by 15th October and is already unavailable to new users signing up for Facebook accounts in the interim. The feature was also criticised in Germany, with German data privacy authorities opening an investigation into the facial recognition tool.
The feature, named Photo Tag Suggest, uses facial recognition algorithms in order to work out who is in a picture based on previously-tagged photographs of that person. The system was introduced to make uploading and tagging photos much easier, as it is often seen as a time-consuming and laborious aspect of Facebook profile management. Users are able to opt out of using the feature, but critics have said this does not go far enough and have demanded that the database should be destroyed in its entirety.
For a company which was valued at over $100bn just four months ago, the road has been a rocky one and CEO Mark Zuckerberg certainly has a number of issues which he will need to address in order to assuage investors in his company, who are likely to be worried at the news of more controversy for Facebook and a number of problems which have meant that the stock price for the technology company has nosedived by over 40%. Many critics think the company will never manage to reach its flotation price and have advised against investing in the social media giant. Others, however, see it as a minor blip and are buying up shares at what they see as a rock bottom price.

By Chelsey Evans

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Java security hole could leave a billion computers at risk of infection

Published on September 28, 2012
Tags: Internet Security

A security hole has been discovered at the heart of a type of computer code which is used on more than a billion PCs and Macs worldwide. The critical hole, which has been called the ‘zero day’ vulnerability, exploits all versions of Oracle’s flagship Java software and could potentially allow hackers to take control of a user’s system.

 Java is an extremely common programming language which is used by many websites and pieces of desktop software and includes cross-browser integration with Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. The implications of the security hole could be massive due to the wide-ranging use of Java on computers across the world.
The security hole was discovered by Adam Gowdiak, the CEO of Security Explorations, a Polish firm which seeks to discover and fix holes in popular pieces of software and programming languages. The news comes hot on the heels of another ‘zero day’ discovery in Java last month. The security holes are named ‘zero day’ because there is no known cure available, which is even more worrying news for Oracle and users of the Java platform.
It is thought that no hackers have access to the vulnerability yet, and the source code has been sent back to Oracle for analysis in the hope that a patch can be released in order to plug the security hole. Oracle are yet to make a statement on the matter, but it should be noted that they were quick to push out an emergency fix last time such a bug was discovered.
Oracle was founded in June 1977 in Santa Clara, California, with Oracle Version 1 being released the following year. Introducing SQL database systems in 1979 as well as a number of other groundbreaking technologies, Oracle has risen to become the industry leader in patent enterprise systems. In January 2010, Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, becoming a manufacturer of both hardware and software. It was Sun Microsystems who originally developed the Java environment in 1990 as an alternative to the C++ and C programming languages. The bulk of Java implementation was released under the GNU General Public License (GPL) in November 2006.
It has come under fire a number of times in the industry due to its design choices and handling of certain aspects of software. Performance was a major factor in the early days of Java, but it is now considered one of the fastest language platforms available in recent benchmarking tests, often up to three times faster than C/C++. Security holes in Java began to be exploited in 2010 when the environment became a common target for computer hackers, targeting the Java virtual machine in particular. Oracle has encouraged its users to always update Java in order to ensure they are protected by the latest security fixes.
However, surveys have shown that many users are unaware of what Java is and many do not even know they have it installed, with the majority not knowing how to update it. As many corporate firms and businesses restrict software installation on their computers, updates are often slow to be deployed which can affect security enormously in corporate environments. However, with Java being able to run on any system due to its cross-platform capabilities, it is widely used as a platform in more than a billion computers worldwide. The platform is even used in many types of mobile phones as well as routers and mainframes, requiring very few adjustments. Its far-reaching nature and worldwide appeal is what can often make it an appealing target for hackers. This is widely assumed to be a primary reason for it having been a target in recent months and years.
This latest security hole will affect worry the majority of users since it is believed that no hackers have actually managed to exploit the hole. With Oracle widely expected to release a security patch in due course, there should be no risk to users but it is unlikely to inspire confidence in those who use the Java platform regularly, particularly after a number of security risks and threats in recent months and years. 

By Chelsey Evans

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Making your website more trustworthy

Published on August 10, 2012
Tags: Web Design London, Internet Security

You may have seen in the news recently details of a survey carried out by the company Mancx, which discovered that 98% of Americans ‘distrust information on the internet.’ The study also found that 93% of people could be more satisfied by the information they find online. These figures raise an interesting point: why is it that so many people don’t necessarily trust the information they find on the internet? This is an issue that should concern anyone who works in the industry, so this seems like a good time to look at ways we can make our website designs more trustworthy – and hopefully start to address the concerns of the ordinary web user.

After all, almost 60% of the people in the survey discussed above said that one improvement they’d like to see was for the information they view on the web to be trustworthy. The content of our websites is one obvious issue to address when making sure they are trustworthy. One of the most important things we can do is to make sure everything we put on our websites is high quality; we have looked at this issue many times before, often in relation to SEO, but we should never forget that it is just as important – if not more so – in relation to gaining the trust of the people who use our sites.

For example, we probably all have websites that we visit on a regular basis for information because we know them and we trust what they have to say. The quality of the content undoubtedly plays an important part in that, and it’s definitely something we should bear in mind for our own websites.

There are also a few practical, simple content issues we can look at to make our sites more trustworthy. For instance:

  • Go over all of the content on your web design and check for spelling and grammar errors – and fix them. Ideally, we shouldn’t put any content online in the first place if it has errors, but it’s human nature to miss things from time to time and so a review can be helpful.
  • Make it clear who you are. Make sure there is contact information on your website so that people can get in touch if they need to – and ideally ensure the email contact on your site goes to an address related to your domain name, rather than a free service.
  • Allow users to post comments on your site, whether it’s in the form of customer feedback or comments on blogs.
  • Keep the content fresh, so your website remains relevant and useful for the people who visit the site looking for information.

A slightly more complex content issue but an important one when we’re talking about issues of trust is the idea of authority. Setting up your website as an authority on a particular subject (for example, web design, or whatever your own personal speciality might be) is something that can take time, but if you are consistently reliable and informative on a particular topic, it helps to build up trust for your site.

However, it isn’t just the written content of websites that we need to be careful with when it comes to ensuring they’re trustworthy. The design of the site can also have an impact. Imagine landing on an unprofessional-looking website, for instance. No matter how good the content was, it would still be likely to leave you feeling a little wary. Good web design is certainly a worthwhile investment that helps to give your website credibility.

Also consider issues such as adverts – the survey discussed at the start of this article found that 59% of people said there were too many ads online, so avoid utilising too many on your website. Even issues such as the speed at which your website loads could potentially affect its perception of trustworthiness – a site that takes a long time to load could appear to be suspicious to some web users.

Overall, trustworthiness is a complicated issue on the internet, taking into account web design, content and linked factors such as brand and reputation. There will probably always be sites on the internet that are untrustworthy, but we have the tools at our disposal to make sure our own websites are great places to visit that inspire faith and trust in web users. Ensuring our sites are trustworthy is good business sense, and it is something we should consider in every new design we create.

By Chelsey Evans

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Internet Cookies and the EU Privacy and Communications Directive

Published on August 12, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law, Internet Security, Internet Communication

There has long been tension between the need to protect consumers’ privacy on the web and businesses’ desire to grow their online operations in any way they can. One of the things that have led to some of the most heated debates is internet cookies. There has been growing concern among some consumers, for instance, that they are effectively being stalked on the internet. This can be seen in the way a product you might have looked at on one website suddenly appears in adverts on subsequent websites that you visit.

This is the result of internet cookies and, while some cookies are relatively harmless and can in fact be useful (such as by remembering your preferences and log in details), some are not so welcome. As a result, the European Union introduced a new regulation called the Privacy and Communications Directive. The aim of the Directive was to put more guidance in place so that websites know how much information they can collect on their visitors without having to ask their permission.

The Directive is also sometimes known as the ‘cookie law’ and it was due to be implemented by governments by May 2011. At the time of writing, hardly any of them had done so. Only the governments of the UK, Denmark and Estonia had taken any steps to bring the Privacy and Communications Directive into law, and Denmark has since put its draft laws on the back burner.

In the UK, things are quite a bit better, with fairly comprehensive guidelines being given out – but firms still have a year to comply with the new ruling. This means that the ‘third party cookies’, which are thought to be causing a lot of the problems faced by consumers, can still often be found and tailored advertising online still abounds.

Here’s how it works. Say, for instance, that you look on a website for a new power tool. You don’t buy it, but the internet cookies register that you have looked at the product and were interested in it. You leave the website and spend some more time browsing, when you suddenly notice that something keeps happening: adverts for the power tool you were looking at earlier – and perhaps similar products - keep popping up on websites. The aim of businesses, of course, is to try and persuade you to click on one of those adverts and then make a purchase. The concern for web users, naturally, is the extent of the information companies are apparently able to collect on them.

This is what the EU Directive is supposed to help solve, by dividing internet cookies into two groups: those cookies that are ‘strictly necessary’ for services to operate and those that aren’t, which would require users to give their consent before they could be used. As you might expect, many people working in the European marketing industry do not like the Directive as it confuses what they are and aren’t allowed to do.

One thing that has caused confusion is over what the Directive actually requires websites and businesses to do: are they supposed to actively alert users whenever a cookie is placed on their machine, or is it enough to simply make them aware of their security options within their browser, thus leaving it up to the user to alter their security settings if they so wish? Part of this issue arises because the EU’s definition of ‘strictly necessary’ is very narrow, to the point where a cookie that remembers what language you typically view websites in would be likely to fall outside the ‘strictly necessary’ category.

This makes it harder to comply with the law. If you were to assume that the requirement of the directive was that notification had to be given of all cookies outside the ‘strictly necessary’ group, this could potentially lead to a high volume of pop up alerts asking for users to give their permission to continue. This leads to another problem: a lot of browsers block pop ups as a matter of course, and even if they don’t, the vast majority of web users loath them.

However, there is still the problem of users being concerned about their online privacy. There’s also the issue of how the Directive, if fully implemented, would affect businesses: many rely on cookies to work out the extent of their return on investments and believe that tailored advertising actually enhances the user experience. All of this means that companies are now faced with trying to explain to customers the value of using third party cookies.

Even more confusing is the fact that different EU governments are determining the Directive in different ways, so while some countries propose that web users should actively give their consent to individual cookies, others are much more general. Perhaps then, once thing is clear: while a stab at a coordinated effort has been made in order to reassure web users that their privacy is protected, more action and more coordination is still needed to make sure there is a workable policy and that it won’t harm ecommerce in the process. With 27 countries in the EU that all need to be working together, it seems as this could be one that’s set to continue for a good while yet.

By Chelsey Evans

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Why Should I Have the Latest Web Browser Version?

Published on June 24, 2011
Tags: Usability, Internet Security

We wrote a few months ago about the way in which out-dated web browsers and other technology can cause problems not only for web designers, but users as well. After all, if there is a major discrepancy between the latest web trends and what a user’s browser can handle, there is highly likely to be some impact on performance and display. One of the biggest browser culprits here is IE6 (Internet Explorer 6.0), which is still a widely used browser, despite the fact that Microsoft has been urging people for some time to upgrade to newer software.

Now, though, it looks like web users are going to have to take note, as Google recently announced that it intends to phase out its support for older browsers. These include IE7, Firefox 3.5, Safari 3 and all of their predecessors. This means that people using those browsers and trying to access anything from Gmail to Google Docs and Sites will begin to notice issues with their performance from 1 August 2011 – and eventually, Google will withdraw its support for these browsers all together. Research from StatCounter suggests that 17% of web users will need to upgrade their browser as a result of Google’s announcement.

So why have Google made this choice? There are a couple of reasons they have done so. One is that newer browsers tend to be more secure, more efficient and generally offer better performance. Another is because if web designers and coders are going to make use of all the latest technology, it helps if everyone is using a browser that can support HTML5. Ultimately then, this is something that should ultimately benefit everyone and, considering how long Microsoft has been waging a campaign to persuade people to ditch its own IE6, relatively drastic action such as this appears to be the sensible option.

More than this, Google has said that this programme of phasing out support for old browsers will continue. This means that when, for instance, a new version of Internet Explorer makes an appearance, support for the third oldest version of IE will gradually be withdrawn to encourage people to make the upgrade to the new one (or, as Google would most likely prefer, switch to Chrome instead).

This also has the added benefit of making things easier for Google, as it means they won’t have to carry out lengthy compatibility tests with older browsers before releasing new sites, features and updates. The development is also significant as Google is something of a market leader in many areas of the web, so their announcement that they won’t be supporting older browsers suggests that other corporations and web designers will soon be able to follow suit, especially as the new rules have an impact and (hopefully) users start to move to newer technology.

The developments also add to an increasing array of actions undertaken by internet giants in order to modernise the web. As well as campaigns by Microsoft to reduce IE6 use and an extensive effort by Firefox to get its users to upgrade from version 3.5 of its browser, other changes are afoot in the online world. A new batch of IP addresses – IPv6 – is scheduled for release very soon. ICANN, the internet’s domain name regulator, has just launched its plans to massively extend the domains on offer (adding more choice to the current system of .com, .co.uk and so on).

All of this is very interesting and the fact that all these developments are happening around the same time suggests that maybe, in some ways, the internet has exceeded whatever expectations people might previously have had for it. One of the main reasons IPv6 is being released is because the world is running out of IPv4 addresses, even though previously there was thought to be plenty of those addresses to keep us going for quite some time. The world’s appetite for the online world seems to have been underestimated.

It also shows that new developments are being made in online technology all the time, but that developing that technology in the first place is only half the problem. Once the ability to do something has been generated, there is then a second wave of activity while internet companies attempt to get users to agree that things are a good idea. It’s practically inevitable that there is going to be a delay between invention and adoption of ideas.

Perhaps, though, Google has just touched on part of the solution. If people are going to be persuaded to adopt newer browsers, then if conventional approaches don’t work, the option for older browsers has to be taken away. Change has to happen, or else the internet will stagnate, leading to problems not just in compatibility and design, but also security – something that it is more important than ever to be aware of. So, it might seem drastic and some web users might not be thrilled about it, but ultimately it has to be said that Google’s decision to reduce its support for older browsers is, in the long run, for the best.

If you haven’t updated your browser to the latest version, the following links will help you. Do bear in mind that upgrading is free, will make your computer more secure, will make web sites you view more usable, and generally the browser will run faster and more smoothly - even on an old computer!

And if you’d like to see how your website looks on older browsers, take a look at: Spoon.net

By Chelsey Evans

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