Internet

Zero-day exploits, spies, and the predictive power of Sci-Fi

Reading the NY Times over coffee this morning, I noticed the article "Nations Buying as Hackers Sell Flaws in Computer Code" which details how nations (and, in particular, their secrete service organizations) are now bidding for and buying zero-day exploits from hackers and security experts worldwide.

Certainly a very timely article, as the world still comes to grips with the evolving role of the NSA and what we've learned in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks. It also reminded me of a Science Fiction series I read in the late Nineties and turn of the century: Tom Clancy's Net Force.

TomClancy's Net Force

Set in 2010 this was a gripping story about a new fictitious FBI division created to combat threats in cyberspace. The storyline quickly evolved from criminal investigations into cyber espionage and cyber warfare. These were the days of the early web and people still used AltaVista as a search engine - so a lot of the ideas in Net Force seemed pretty far out back then.

Interestingly, in the real world, in 2010 the US Army activated their Cyber Command.

And when people talk about Cyberspace in the media today, let's not forget that that term, too, was coined by Sci-Fi authors such as Vernor Vinge and William Gibson in the early Eighties. Like many other geeks of my generation, I devoured those books back then.

Musing about these things over coffee on a beautiful Sunday morning reminded me of an interview I gave to Erin Underwood at the Underwords blog a year ago, in which we talked about the importance of Sci-Fi for young adults and the oftentimes predictive powers of Sci-Fi literature…

Ingress - an AR-MMOG created by Niantic Labs at Google

I don't often write about games on my blog, but this one deserves an exception, because it is extremely innovative, unique, and a harbinger of things to come. On November 15 Google launched a closed beta of Ingress, a sci-fi themed game currently available only on the Android platform.

Ingress defines a new category of game that could probably be best described as AR-MMOG (Augmented Reality - Massively Multiplayer Online Game). The basic premise is that an alien influence called Shapers are trying to control human thought and are entering the world through portals that are often associated with historically significant locations, statues, or public displays of arts. These portals are associated with Exotic Matter (called XM in the game) that needs to be collected to energize the player as well as the portals.

Players must move through the real world and visit these portals with their GPS-equipped Android smartphones to play the game.

The objective is to hack the portals, link different portals, and create so-called control fields by forming triangles of linked portals. After completing a few training missions, players must choose a faction and either side with the Resistance, who are trying to protect mankind and prevent further Shaper influence, or side with the Enlightened, who consider Shaper influence to be beneficial and usher in the next logical step in the evolution of mankind.

Enlightened vs. Resistance

I was very happy to receive my invite to the closed beta on November 21 and found some time on the morning of Thanksgiving Day as well as on Black Friday to play the game on my Galaxy SIII. Doing so allowed me to take some extensive walks on both days and burn off a lot of the food calories that would have accumulated otherwise.

Playing the game is extremely addictive. I decided to join the Resistance and explored the available portals in and around Marblehead on the first day. Capturing my first few portals was fairly easy, but then I encountered some Enlightened portals that gave me a good challenge right away. Most of the portals are directly taken from the Historical Marker Database, so you learn a lot more about the history while playing the game. I also found that having a car to drive to neighboring towns and some remote portal locations is a huge bonus - especially when you get to deploy higher-level portals that have a range of several kilometers available for linking.

For example, on one of my excursions I took a stroll through downtown Salem in my quest to capture more portals and found one above the statue of Roger Conant:

Approaching a portal in Salem

By hacking and capturing one portal after the other, I was able to not only collect the required items for linking portals together, but also the necessary weapons for attacking portals of the opposing faction. And it didn't take long for me to eliminate all of the Enlightened influence in my area and connect several of the portals in Marblehead to create the necessary control fields that are then shown on the display of the Ingress app:

Control Fields in Marblehead

As I leveled up, I was able to create more powerful portals that allowed linkages over several kilometers distance and so I used Black Friday for some further excursions into Salem as well as trips to Swampscott and Nahant that allowed me to create a much larger field to protect all the inhabitants in my immediate vicinity:

Larger area control fields

Now it is only a matter of time until the Enlightened students at MIT try to increase their influence further north and will begin their attack on the North Shore. I am sure a battle of epic proportions will ensue in the days to come:

Larger Boston Area Intel

Ingress is extremely well done for a beta version of a game. I can only assume that Google has done some extensive internal testing before opening up the beta to people outside. And the combination of GPS, mapping, the historical marker database, and the many different web properties (see list below) combine to provide a truly addictive game-playing experience.

Even before you get immersed in the actual gameplay - and while you anxiously await the arrival of your invitation to participate in the beta - there are several websites that provide hints at the background story, videos, and artwork by fictions characters that appear to exhibit signs of Shaper influence.

One can easily see how Google's Project Glass will be used in a future version of this game that takes augmented reality game-play to a whole new level…

Obviously, there are also some privacy implications in such kind of gameplay and several bloggers have already questioned Google's motives in creating this game. Allegations range from creating an optimized database of walking paths for further enhancing Google Maps to more sinister data collection for advertising purposes.

Be that as it may, for the time being I will continue participating in the beta for a very simple reason: the game is actually a lot of fun to play!

Further information on Ingress can be found here:

Also see blog posts on AllThingsD, Engadget, pandodaily, The Verge, TechCrunch, and others…

P.S. Don't ask me for an invite, as I don't have any to give away, sorry!

The Emperor's New Clothes - a "New iPad" Review in a "Post-PC World"

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I love gadgets and usually am an early adopter of the latest and greatest toys that tech companies produce and I often share my opinions about these devices with the world. I bought the original Kindle, the Kindle 2, the Kindle Fire, all generations of the iPhone, various Droids, the Xoom, the original iPad, the iPad 2, and now… the new iPad.

IMG 4202

When Apple did their big announcement on March 7th, I immediately went online that afternoon, pre-ordered one in the largest configuration (WiFi+4G 64GB), and it arrived yesterday afternoon. I am not going to repeat the benefits and new features of the device, since they've been aptly covered by Walt Mossberg and many others. And the new screen with its super-high resolution is really stunning.

Instead, I wanted to put Tim Cook's claim that this is now a "post-PC world" to the test and decided to set up my new iPad without connecting it to either PC or Mac and use my iCloud backup of the old iPad 2 to set up the new iPad.

Restore from iCloud

To prepare for the migration from my iPad 2 to the new iPad I made sure that I had previously upgraded my iPad 2 to the latest version 5.1 of iOS and also completed a backup to iCloud over my Wi-Fi network at home on the previous day.

I also should probably say at this point that my home Wi-Fi network is 802.11 g+n and my home is connected to the Internet via a Verizon FIOS connection at 50 Mbps. Therefore, running SpeedTest or similar apps on iPhones or iPads typically report latencies of only 64ms, downstream bandwidths of 17-18 Mbps and upstream bandwidths of 16-17 Mbps on the home Wi-Fi network. So by any means, this is not a slow network. One would think that this is the ideal environment for iCloud to shine in a "post-PC world".

After unpacking the new iPad and attaching the cover I started it up, connected it to my home Wi-Fi network, and entered my Apple ID to connect to my iCloud account. As expected, the iPad offered me the choice to restore from iCloud or to restore via iTunes on my computer. I elected to put the iCloud Restore to the test.

To my initial great delight, the iPad showed a download progress bar, and after a short period of 2-3 minutes proceeded to restart the device, show another progress bar underneath the Apple logo, and completed the whole process in about 5 minutes.

Or did it?

When the iPad came back from its reboot, all my apps were in their usual places, but every single one of them had an empty progress bar underneath. And then I was greeted with a rather unspecific message that said "Restore Incomplete":

ICloudRestore

Not only did the message not inform me of which apps or what data I would be missing, it also left me with the uneasy feeling that this was perhaps not restricted to just apps, because it said "Some items could not be downloaded".

I was still optimistic that all the apps would now quickly download and I could start using my new iPad soon. However, as it turns out the entire process of restoring all the apps from my iCloud backup took more than 3½ hours. Given that I have about 22GB of apps on my iPad and the available network bandwidth mentioned above, the process should have taken less than half and hour!

4G LTE Activation

The next step was to activate the new high-speed 4G LTE data network option. Based on my poor experience with AT&T activations in the past, I decided to go with Verizon this time around. Furthermore, I was looking forward to using the iPad as a mobile hotspot, and presently only Verizon is offering that feature at no extra cost.

After entering all my credit card data and choosing the 5GB data plan, the iPad informed me that it would take up to 15 minutes to activate the new data plan. What really happened after about 5 minutes, however, was that I got the following "Data Plan Activation Failure" message:

IMG 0064

A second attempt to "Try Again" just produced the same message after a several minutes of no information and no progress bars. On my third attempt I then got this rather interesting message about the need to "reprovision" my device:

IMG 0065

I followed the steps prescribed in this screenshot and was soon greeted my another cryptic message - this one more surprising than all of the others before, because I had not touched the SIM card slot at all and so the card was most definitely still there:

IMG 0066

Indeed, after another 15-20 minutes or so, the problem disappeared entirely on its own, the iPad finally connected to the 4G network and also properly activated the data plan. As a next step I wanted to see how fast the 4G network really is…

4G LTE Performance

Living on the Boston Northshore, I've always had network coverage issues in certain rooms in my home, so for this test I went to a window in the attic facing in the direction of the closest cell phone towers and was rewarded with 3 out of 5 bars of LTE signal strength. I ran the trusted old SpeedTest app and to my great delight found downstream bandwidths of 17-18 Mbps, which is indeed as fast as the Wi-Fi connections at my house. Network latency was a bit poorer with 117ms vs. the 64ms on Wi-Fi, and upstream bandwidth was much lower as expected. By comparison, on my iPhone on AT&T's HSPA+ network in this area (which now also shows up as "4G" on the iPhone, even though it is technically just 3G) I get downstream speeds of 2.8 Mbps and upstream speeds of 1.1 Mbps with a latency of 181ms. So these LTE speeds are indeed about 6 times faster than typical 3G speeds and that is quite impressive.

IMG 0092

Next I wanted to put it to the real test and download an app over 4G. I picked Infinity Blade II - one of the new apps that were just recently released and optimized for the new high-resolution "retina" display. Imagine my surprise when I got the following message on my screen:

IMG 0087

The astonishing thing about this is that Verizon advertises their LTE network with the words "Verizon 4G LTE means real-time responsiveness. Apps. Games. Movies. Seamless streaming". And even though I just signed up for a 5GB data plan they are not letting me download a 791MB game? I could certainly understand the need for a warning message that would advise people that this game has a certain size and ask them if they were sure they wanted to download it over LTE. But to not allow them to download it at all makes little sense.

Similarly, as has already been mentioned in various other blogs it is not quite understandable why FaceTime would not work over the LTE network:

IMG 0093

More specifically, there is no technical reason for this arbitrary restriction. As I now have an iPad 2 and the new iPad, I was easily able to turn on the Personal Hotspot feature on the new iPad, create a Wi-Fi network from it, then connect my old iPad 2 to that Wi-Fi network an successfully make a FaceTime video call to Europe from the iPad 2. So the LTE network is easily able to carry the data traffic for FaceTime.

So it seems that while the new iPad does indeed shine technologically on the LTE data speeds as well as the beautiful screen resolution, the whole "post-PC world" hype is to a large degree bogus and it will take quite a while until even the new iPad can be used to its full power on the LTE network.

Some will probably argue that the "post-PC world" meme is not just about smartphones and tablet becoming untethered from computers and directly connecting to the cloud. The idea is supposedly that you can now do certain things on the tablet that required a computer just a few years ago. However, if you look at what the best-selling applications on tablets actually do, then you quickly find that 95% of them are games and the remainder are mostly social media apps or consumer-level tools for editing photos, videos, or organizing personal to-do lists.

For example, while the iPad versions of iMovie and iPhoto are certainly impressive and give people the ability to edit their photos a bit, they are at best useful for hobbyists and when you look at the features available they simply cannot even being to compare to the state of the art of professional photo or video editing tools that exist on computers today.

Summary and Clarification

Just to clarify, I really enjoy using iPads, and continue to believe they are great media consumption devices. I love to read books on them. I love to read magazines and newspapers on them. I even watch the occasional movie or play a game. And for all these purposes, the improved screen resolution of the new iPad as well as the 4G LTE network capabilities are fabulous improvements.

But for any expression of creativity, for software development, for photography, for cinematography, for journalism, blogging, marketing, science, engineering, architecture, … in other words for any serious work … tablets are somewhere between mediocre to useless. For all of these fields the PC - be it Windows, MacOS, or Linux based - has been and will be the essential tool of any creative mind. Therefore, I firmly resent the hubris of people proclaiming this to be a "post-PC world".

The reality distortion field

It is amazing to see the efficiency of the Apple PR machinery at work and how all major newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the NY Times are praising the new iPad and giving its launch such huge coverage. And all the bloggers are doing their part to extol the virtues of the new features by endlessly repeating the same mantra: "insane Retina screen resolution, faster GPU, 4G LTE, same long battery life".

Apparently the reality distortion field is alive and well, even after Steve Jobs has passed away.

But doesn't anyone see that the emperor is wearing nothing at all?

Postscriptum

P.S. Kudos to Joe Brockmeier of ReadWriteWeb for publishing a critical article last week on what we lose in a "post-PC" world.

P.P.S. For comparison purposes, I also set up my wife's new iPad yesterday and in her case used iTunes on her MacBook Pro to install it, activate, it, and restore the backup from her old iPad 1 via the computer. The entire process worked seamlessly with none of the errors I encountered and was completed in about half an hour. She was happy to read her email, go on Facebook, and play Boggle on her new iPad in no time, while I was still waiting for hours for my "Restore from iCloud" to complete…

Google Voice Review

Google announced Google Voice today, it quickly became the top story on techmeme.com, and as an existing GrandCentral user for the past two years my account was immediately upgraded today, so I am in the lucky position to be able to provide you with an actual in-depth personal review of the new features in Google Voice.

Before we begin, let me say that I already liked GrandCentral a lot. In fact, for the past year I've only given out my one GrandCentral number to all business contacts - and it is the only number that is printed on my business cards. The most important aspect of GrandCentral for me was that with just one phone number to give out to people, they could reach me on any of the following four physical phones: office phone, iPhone, second line at the home phone, and my car phone. And I would get my voice mail in my e-mail inbox. Those two features alone made GrandCentral the best telephony solution for me.

But Google Voice takes it to a whole new level:

Google Voice Inbox

Not only has the web-based UI been completely redone (and now perfectly fits into the GMail and other Google App paradigm), but there is a host of new features that Google Voice has added to the mix, which are all quite amazing:

Voicemail Transcription

Without any doubt this is the coolest feature in the book. Every new voicemail is automatically transcribed into text and delivered to your Google Voice inbox as well as your e-mail inbox. While this feature can be turned off, I have no idea why anybody would want to do that. In fact, this is the biggest time saver ever. I am a big e-mail person, and I do in fact prefer e-mail over voice mail, because I can scan an e-mail inbox much quicker and pick out the relevant and important messages, than I can scan my voice mail system. Now, every voice mail is just another e-mail and can be scanned as rapidly as other messages.

How accurate is the transcription? Well, this is the first version of Google Voice with transcription, so my expectations weren't too high. In fact, when I recorded a test message with some background noise, the transcription came through with quite a few errors, but - in my opinion - that doesn't impact the usefulness of this feature at all. I don't expect to not listening to the voice mail - all I want is the ability to quickly scan through a full inbox and identify the important messages, and for that purpose the accuracy and quality of the transcription is easily sufficient.

One interesting aspect is that in the Google Voice web-based UI the confidence of the transcription is indicated by a change in the text color (see above screenshot), and the words in black were indeed all correct. This is a very helpful way to present the transcription. However, when you look at the same message in your Outlook inbox, that information is presently lost and the whole transcription appears uniformly in black font:

Google Voice Transcription

SMS Support

This may sound trivial, but is really important. The Google Voice phone number now supports SMS text messages. In the past, when I gave people my GrandCentral number as the only phone# they would ever need for me, they often tried to send SMS to that number, since they assume it is a cell phone number. With Google Voice this finally works. Yay! You can also send SMS through the web interface, and you have access to a full log of incoming and outgoing SMS through the UI:

Google Voice SMS log 
Conference Calling

Another useful feature is the ability to do instant conference calls. Instead of having to provide people with a dial-in number and access code for a conference calling system, I can now set up a conference call and simply ask all parties to call my Google Voice number. Once I am on the call with one person and the second caller dials the same number, I can simply press '5' and connect them to the same call. This is incredibly useful, since I can never find my wallet-card for our corporate conference calling system anyway.

International Calls

Google Voice also offers international calls now, and the process to load some money into your voice account is pretty easy. In my case, since I already have a Google Checkout account associated with my credit card, it was literally a matter of just 2 clicks to transfer $10 from my credit card into the Google Voice account. I was then able to place an international call to a colleague in Vienna, Austria, by using the Call button in the web interface and the call was immediately established (by ringing one of my phones first, then the other phone). A female computer voice informed me that the charge for this call would be 19¢ per minute, and I was connected right away. The voice quality was quite good, although the connection was a bit choppy on one of the test calls - something that is typical of most VoIP systems. After the completion of the call, it immediately shows up in your outgoing call log with the cost of the call, and any call that is not answered is also not charged - here is the call log after three international test calls I made, including a nice 6 minute conversation with my dad:

Google Voice Placed Calls

The same rate of 19¢ per minute was charged to both calls to a mobile number in Austria and to a land-line number, which is a bit unusual and appears to be different for other European countries. However, it is still quite a bit cheaper than the $1.49 that Verizon is charging per minute, or the $1.70 that AT&T is charging. In fact, it is probably more akin to Skype costs. However, both Verizon and AT&T offer a world-wide value calling plan that charges a monthly fee of $3-5 and then the rate drops to 9¢ per minute. Bottom-line: if you make the occasional international call, Google Voice is a very good deal, but if you need to make calls to one particular country frequently it may still make sense to check with your land-line provider to see if you can't get a calling plan that gets you a rate that is even lower. Of course, Google Voice is fully integrated with Google Contacts, so you can type a name into the "Call" or "SMS" box and it will present phone numbers from your contacts. Likewise, if you go to the Contacts tab in Google Voice, there are now "call" and "sms" buttons next to each phone# stored for any of your contacts.

Call Widgets

While the old GrandCentral system already had a web-call button, the new Call Widgets in Google Voice make it even easier to add a "Call Me" button to your blog. In fact, there is one on the right sidebar of this blog, so if you want to talk to me, feel free to use that (no prank calls, please!).

 

To sum it up, I'm very happy about these new features. It makes a service that was already invaluable even better. And with the new calling and conferencing features, all I can say is: good-bye Skype, hello Google Voice!

3G FemtoCells to provide iPhone service in AT&T dead zones

AppleInsider reports that AT&T will launch a new device that people can install at home to create a FemtoCell (a very very very small cell) on the AT&T 3G cellular network that can service 10 phones with up to four simultaneous voice or data connections. Exactly what the modern family with four iPhone users needs!

Cellular Network

The idea is that you buy the Femtocell home base station, connect it to your broadband Internet connection or home network, and register all the 3G devices that you will permit to use the Femtocell (so that your neighbor doesn't get a free ride). The device then creates a 5,000 square foot hot-spot for 3G service in your house. Just as with picocells and full scale cellular antennas, a femtocell automatically passes a mobile user's phone connection to the next nearest existing cellular towers as they leave the local signal area provided by the base station. So when you leave your house and get out of the dead zone, you should be picked up by the nearest cell tower automatically.

My guess is that this device will sell like hot cakes in Marblehead and Swampscott, which have historically been experiencing enormous dead zones on the 3G network in the past.

More discussion about this new feature is also on techmeme.com.

New Microsoft 2D barcode released at CES

In a surprise move Microsoft released a new 2-dimensional barcode format today at CES. Yes, a barcode. The lines that are on the bottom of your milk carton, when you scan it at the supermarket checkout. And no, today is not April Fool's.

Two-dimensional barcodes are nothing new, and are most often seen on attendee badges at conferences or trade shows, but Microsoft's format is the first to use color and to be aimed at a specific reader device that most people already own: a cell phone with built-in camera.

The system is called Microsoft Tag and the idea is that you can encode URLs, vCards, phone numbers, or any arbitrary text in such a tag. The user then needs a reader application on their cell phone - and those are available already for all major cell phone platforms, including Symbian, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, and Blackberry - and once they scan the barcode, they get the encoded contact, are redirected to the website with the specified URL, or can call the encoded telephone number, without having to enter that number or URL or contact info into their cell phone manually.

MissionKitBarCodeFor a quick demonstration, download the beta version of the reader from http://gettag.mobi and install it on your cell phone, then use it to snap a picture of this barcode on the left and it will take your mobile browser to retrieve product information about the Altova MissionKit for Software Architects from our website. Clearly, it doesn't make sense to use these in a blog, but imagine reading an article about the software in a developer publication and being able to go directly to the website without having to type in a URL...

Btw, if you are using an iPhone, you can get the reader application through the familiar AppStore on your iPhone by searching for "Microsoft".

Microsoft envisions that such tags could in the future be printed on business cards, shown in print ads,XMLAficionadoBarCode on billboards, or even shown on TV, and the system is supposedly so flexible that it can deal even with out-of-focus or tiny versions of these barcodes. Hmm, so I created a new tag already for the URL of this XML Aficionado blog, and now I need to think where I should affix this to - maybe I'll print a T-Shirt with this new design and will wear it at the next conference I go to...

Further information and other blog reactions can be found on TechMeme.

Impressions from PodCamp Boston 3 (#pcb3)

DSC04154 I was at PodCamp Boston 3 yesterday and wanted to briefly share a few impressions here. The funny video is at the bottom, so if you have no patience and just want to hear Chris Brogan, you may scroll down a page or so... :)

The event was held at Harvard Medical School and was completely sold out. Bloggers, Audio and Video Podcasters came together to discuss and present all aspects of Social Media in a community-oriented style.

Even though there was a schedule of formal presentations, a lot of the real action happened in the hallways, coffee breaks, and in several impromptu sessions.

I found most presentations to be very good (e.g. Stever Robbins aka the Get It Done Guy), but some were also a disappointment and I walked out - only to run into people in the hallway and strike up a great conversation. One panel discussion was almost putting me to sleep.

DSC04165 Being a rather podcasting-oriented event you could always find people in the hallway being interviewed by others, and in some cases the interviewer and interviewee would trade roles after a few minutes - it was actually pretty funny to watch.

One thing that was pretty amazing during the event was to observe others in the audience during the presentation sessions: about half the people were working on laptops during the presentation, the rest was on Blackberrys, iPhones, and I saw one person even working on a PSP. I also noticed one person holding an old-fashioned paper-pad. Most laptop and iPhone users were on Twitter reporting live from the event, or looking up whatever the presenter was talking about on Wikipedia, Google, etc. and taking notes.

DSC04167 Probably the best session I was a part of wasn't a scheduled presentation at all. As I took a quick break in the cafeteria, an impromptu event formed (and was promptly twittered about) where a couple of people came together and started a discussion on Old Media vs. New Media. It was a lively discussion that encompassed everything from advertising, journalistic styles, different ad sales strategies and staffing levels, to how Social Media is affecting the way we consume media, respond to advertising, and making purchasing decisions. Several people were recording the session with high-quality video equipment, but then stopped after a while - I guess their memory cards must have been getting full by then.

So I whipped out my trusted old Sony DSC-T50 digital camera and recorded about 20 minutes worth of raw 640x480 video. Not a quality that video podcasters would aim for, but sure enough in those 20 minutes I captured this great statement from Chris Brogan:

I apologize for the bad audio-quality (since I only used the built-in mic), so if you are having trouble hearing it, this is Chris Brogan's insight: "Wait a second. I buy my media. And I watch ads for free. Hmmm..."

The other conclusions reached during the discussion were:

  • that Social Media actually causes large companies to lose control of their brands - and some even argued that they are only losing the illusion of ever having been in control of their brand;
  • that Social Media actually forces companies to focus on creating a great product, because anything less than a great product will be exposed very quickly;
  • that any Old Media company who doesn't "get it" will soon be reduced to irrelevance.

PodCamp Boston 3 is still going on today, but I unfortunately can't make it into town due to the new puppy. If you are also missing the event, you can follow live updates from PodCamp Boston 3 using Twitter Search (aka Summize).

Talking of Twitter, if you'd likee to follow my updates, you can do so here...

Fifth undersea cable cut: Coincidence?

When I received an e-mail from my father a couple of weeks ago that a ship off the coast of Egypt had severed a fiber-optic undersea cable that carried Internet traffic between Europe, Africa, and Asia, I was, of course, curious to learn that it actually was the second cable being damaged in the area and that it already had a measurable effect on Internet traffic for some organizations: my father is editor-in-chief for Monatshefte Chemie (Chemical Monthly), and he told me that he had already noticed that Chemical Monthly was no longer receiving articles, submissions, or reviews from China, India, Iran, and Egypt.

Imagine my surprise, when I learned last week that a third cable was affected in the region. I was not the only one starting to think that a pattern might emerge here - especially after it became clear that no ships were in the area, which is clearly marked on charts as being a no-anchoring zone.

Even with three cables damaged there is still some value in applying reasonable doubt, and assuming that a natural phenomenon, increased dragging of anchors due to storms in the area, or other accidents might have been contributing factors.
Today, however, the count increased again, as we are learning that a fourth and fifth cable in the region have been damaged. The Khaleej Times has reported the following summary of all the cables involved in the outage:


"A total of five cables being operated by two submarine cable operators have been damaged with a fault in each.

These are SeaMeWe-4 (South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-4) near Penang, Malaysia, the FLAG Europe-Asia near Alexandria, FLAG near the Dubai coast, FALCON near Bandar Abbas in Iran and SeaMeWe-4, also near Alexandria."


For the locations of these undersea cables please see the map on the Engadget blog today, which also lists the date of the respective cuts that range from January 23 until today. FLAG also has an update on the status of their two cables on their website and a map showing the FALCON cable locations.

However, it appears that initial reports on Slashdot today that these outages have cut Iran entirely off the Internet are exaggerated and do not appear to be true.

So where does that leave us: the loss of five cables in just two weeks is an awful lot to be a coincidence. As a result, there is an explosion of conspiracy theories trying to explain this, and you can find some of them in the comments on Bruce Schneier's blog. However, as Robert Graham points out in the Errata Security blog today, there isn't necessarily a pattern here, because normally undersea cable outages are not reported widely, so what we are seeing might still be a normal statistical fluke.

So it remains to be seen over the next several days what is behind these cable failures, as we learn more about the repair of these cuts and get reports on what factors might have been contributed to the damage in the first place. Stay tuned to your favorite blog, news website, or check out TechMeme.

One thing is clear, however: the undersea cables are an important part of our global Internet infrastructure, as we are carrying about 90% of the international traffic over these fiber-optic submarine routes, whereas satellites account for just 10%. Nonetheless, traffic is presently being rerouted around those damaged areas and frequently has to take longer routes - sometimes via the US - resulting in lower connectivity ratings on the Internet Traffic Report.