Thursday, February 21, 2013

China's growing hacking army

China may have to rein in their growing army of hackers and even admit they have been party to the widespread breaches of computer systems around the world.

This is the opinion of a former investment banker who founded the Beijing-based investment consultancy firm BDA in 1994. Speaking at The Wall Street Journal's Unleashing Innovation conference in Singapore on Wednesday, Duncan Clark suggests that Beijing would soon have to face up to the concerns surrounding hacking attacks originating in China. If not they would likely lose credibility and goodwill as it rises as a global power.

"End of plausible deniability"

Referring to a damning and recently released document detailing China's widespread hacking attacks, Clark said, "We're approaching the end of plausible deniability for this [hacking] stuff."

"It's true that other parties exploit China's internet…it's not just China. But it's pretty 'smoking gun' stuff now about the [People's Liberation Army]."

"Ultimately, they have to own these problems" if they are going to deliver on their aims of having Chinese corporations going overseas and expand their soft power, Clark says [WSJ blog].

While many observers in the West will have few doubts about where many of the cyberattacks are emanating, China continually insists that it is not responsible and maintains a line that it too is under constant attacks from other countries.

It is perhaps naive to believe, that even with growing evidence showing China to be responsible for a growing number of cyberattacks, the country might change its ways.

Smoking gun

This week Mandiant Corporation published a report detailing cyberattacks on companies spanning many industries ranging from information technology and telecommunications to aerospace and energy. These attacks were, according to the report, linked to the People's Liberation Army [PLA].

At least 141 companies had been breached, 115 in the US alone, since 2006, the report claimed. According to Mandiant Corp., the publishers of the report, a group linked to the PLA had attacked unnamed companies spanning industries ranging from information technology and telecommunications to aerospace and energy.

In a blog Mandiant said their report showed China was running an "enterprise-scale computer espionage campaign". "We consider it to be one of the most prolific in terms of the sheer quantity of information it has stolen," Mandiant said.

The details in the report convinced Mandiant "that the groups conducting these activities are based primarily in China and that the Chinese government is aware of them".


Unsurprisingly, China denies any involvement in the attacks detailed in the report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei dismissed the report. "Hacking attacks are transnational and anonymous, … Determining their origins are extremely difficult. We don't know how the evidence in this so-called report can be tenable.

Yet all signs point to China as being behind such attacks. One report in the GBTimes published this week highlights an advertisement posted on Zhejiang University School of Computer Science and Technology's website calling for computer science graduates to apply for positions at the PLA's now infamous military Unit 61398, identified by Mandiant as being the unit responsible for so many of the cyberattacks [BBC / Sky News / FT].

The 12 storey building located at 208 Datong Road in the Pudong District of Shanghai is a rather non-descript location for the centre of China's cyber-espionage  though previous reports have identified universities and other mundane locations as being the source of similar attacks in the past.

Past accusations

A report published by security firm McAfee details that a project it names as Operation Shady RAT had targeted at least 72 defence contractors, businesses and organisations including the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee. While McAfee only pointed to "State actors" as being behind the attacks, many analysts assumed that to be China.

Operation Aurora was another series of attacks said to have targeted Adobe Systems, Juniper Networks, Rackspace, Yahoo, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley and Dow Chemical. Amongst the most prominent victims was Google which publicly disclosed the attack on January 12, 2010, in a blog post and specifically identified China as being behind the hacking attacks.

One of the organisations targeted was Northrop Grumman, an American global aerospace and defence technology company which regularly publishes reports on China's cyber-espionage efforts.

In 2012 Northrop Grumman published "Chinese Capabilities for Computer Network Operations and Cyber Espionage" a follow-up to a 2009 report which also labelled China as being a major cyber-threat [USCC China Cyber-Espionage].

"Critical risks"

The document highlights Chinese capabilities in computer network operations and states that they have advanced to such a standard as to pose a "genuine risk to US military operations in the event of a conflict."

The report also underlines the ongoing cyber-espionage which posed critical risks. "The Chinese military's close relationship with large Chinese telecommunications firms creates an avenue for state sponsored or state directed penetrations of supply chains for electronics supporting US  military, government, and civilian industry – with the potential to cause the catastrophic failure of systems and networks supporting critical infrastructure for national security or public safety."

Such concerns are behind decisions to discourage or thwart business deals with companies like Huawei, a Chinese telecoms firm believed by many to have uncomfortably close ties with China's military [tvnewswatch: Mixed response to Huawei, ZTE security threat].

The PLA's hacking operations are far reaching and multi-layered according to the reports. Indeed they have adopted a multi-layered approach to offensive information warfare [Public Intelligence].

"Hacking menace"

Such threats are significant and growing. In his upcoming book Google's chairman Eric Schmidt labels China a hacking menace which will put "both the government and the companies of the United States as a distinct disadvantage." [tvnewswatch: Eric Schmidt labels China hacking menace]

Almost anyone who is connected to the Internet is vulnerable. In recent weeks Facebook admitted they had been targeted in a series of "sophisticated" attacks [BBC]

Facebook said user information was unlikely to have been stolen and that it had taken measures to prevent further attacks. "We have no evidence that Facebook user data was compromised in this attack," Facebook said in a blog post. "As soon as we discovered the presence of the malware, we remediated all infected machines, informed law enforcement, and began a significant investigation that continues to this day."

The firm also said it was "not alone in this attack" something that appeared correct after Apple later revealed it to had been targeted. Apple said they had been hit by the same hacker who had attacked the social network [Telegraph]. Bloomberg, which has itself been the target of cyberattacks said to have originated in China, reported the Apple and Facebook attacks may have come from Eastern Europe, though it is possible, even as China claims to hide the origin of attacks and make it look as though they are coming from somewhere else. North Korea has been blamed for cyberattacks in the past, though it is just as possible hacker could have made it appear as such [tvnewswatch: North Korea believed behind DoS attacks].

In the last few weeks several US newspapers have also been hacked including the New York Times and the Washington post. Just as with Bloomberg the targeted attacks are seen as retaliation for the publishing of critical articles about China.

Mitigating risk

While there is no absolute defence from such attacks, users both big and small need to take note of security notices and update software in a timely manner. Recently security holes in Java, Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader have left many open to hackers. Operating systems themselves are often found to have vulnerabilities and it is important to patch these immediately. While anti-virus software is not perfect, all computer users should employ at least some protection. Even Macs can be hit by malware, and smartphones are increasingly being targeted.


It is unlikely that the US or other countries are guilt free when it comes to cyber-espionage. However, it appears that attacks coming from China are a great deal more damage and pose a greater threat. As such it is unsurprising that some are calling for retaliatory steps. "Trade secret theft threatens American businesses, undermines national security and places the security of the US economy in jeopardy," a report published by White House this week stated. "These acts also diminish US export prospects around the globe and put American jobs at risk." [Fox News / WSJ].

The cyberwar, that appears, at least on the surface, to be one sided, is unlikely to end any time soon. Only when the disadvantages of such attacks outweigh the advantages will such hacking attempts diminish.

If, as promised by the Obama administration, the US follow through with threats of trade and diplomatic action over corporate espionage then China might reduce its attacks. But when millions of dollars of intellectual property is at stake China has much to gain, and far less to lose unless strong punitive measures are taken by its hacking victims.

see also: tvnewswatch: Cyber talks fail to reach concensus [Nov 2011] / tvnewswatch: Cyber-warfare threat posed by China [Jan 2010] / tvnewswatch: Cyberwar declared as China's attacks increase [Mch 2010] / tvnewswatch: Setting rules of engagement in cyberwar [Feb 2011] / tvnewswatch:Chinas hackers seek revenge for Baidu attack [Jan 2010] / 
tvnewswatch: Responses to growing cyberwar [June 2011] / tvnewswatch: Britain under threat from cyberattacks [Oct 2010]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Russian meteor strike provides a wake up call

Friday's meteor strike in south-east Russia has brought more than one wake up call for the inhabitants of Earth. As well as alerting Earth's inhabitants to the dangers of asteroids, the recording of the event by dashboard cameras has once again highlighted the growing incidence of staged accidents.

Hundreds injured

The meteor, estimated to have weighed around 10 tonnes, broke up some 30 km above the Earth's surface and sent fragments travelling at up to 100,000 km/h across an area of more than 400 square kilometres.

Around 1,200 people were injured in the city of Chelyabinsk, including 200 children, mostly by shattered glass which was blown out of windows from the shockwave.

The fireball was seen hundreds of kilometres away and recorded by CCTV cameras, cameras in mobile phones and also by dozens of dashboard cameras fitted in cars [BBC / Sky News / CNN].


Parts of the meteor came down inn Chebarkul Lake, 72 km from Chelyabinsk, punching holes in the ice [Twitpic]. Scientists and experts will be interested in analysing any fragments that might be able to be recovered [2013 Russian meteor event / BBC / Sky News].

While such incidents are rare, Friday's strike was a deadly reminder of the threat posed by asteroids. The meteor which struck near to Chelyabinsk was relatively small, being perhaps only 17 metres in diameter before it broke up.  It could have been far worse.

Coincidental near miss

The meteor strike coincided with the passing of asteroid 2012 DA14 which passed within 28,000 km of the Earth. The 50 metre object could have caused widespread devastation should it have collided with the Earth [BBC / NASA].

In 1908 a comet or meteor estimated at around 100 metres entered the Earth's atmosphere over Siberia causing widespread damage and a flash that was witnessed thousands of kilometres away.

Historical warnings

Known as the Tunguska event it  is the largest impact event on or near Earth in recorded history. Although the meteoroid or comet appeared to have burst in the air rather than hitting the surface, the event is still referred to as an impact.

Estimates of the energy of the blast range from 5 to as high as 30 megatons of TNT with 10–15 megatons of TNT being the most likely estimate, roughly equal to the United States' Castle Bravo thermonuclear bomb tested on March 1, 1954 or about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

The Tunguska explosion knocked down an estimated 80 million trees over an area covering 2,150 square kilometres, a circular area of around 52 km in diameter. An explosion of this magnitude is capable of destroying a large metropolitan area.

Of course such incidents are rare, but Friday's event will be a wake up call for scientists and politicians, who should be preparing for such a possibility.

Recording history

The event might also be a wake up call to motorists. The meteor strike was probably the most recorded such event in history due to the large number of dashboard cameras fitted in Russian cars.

The devices are fitted in order to help provide evidence to courts and insurance companies in the event of a crash. Staged accidents are on the increase in parts of Russia and dashboard cameras can help provide evidence where there are legal disputes [BBC / Business Insider]. 

Staged accidents

While popular amongst Russian drivers, the devices, costing between £100 and £300, are likely to grow in popularity in other parts of the world. Staged accidents are not peculiar to Russia. In Britain for example there were an estimated 30,000 such incidents in 2009, a number that is rising year on year [tvnewswatch: UK staged crashes on rise - Aug 2010]

In early February this year Essex police posted video showing dangerous tailgating on the M25 motorway [BBC]. But it is not only law enforcement who are making use of such technology to entrap dangerous drivers. Some drivers have deployed the devices in their vehicles to record their journeys and posted them to YouTube.

The quality provided by these cameras is exceptional, given the relatively low cost, and the recordings are stored on a memory card rather than tape. Some devices such as the RoadHawk even records GPS data along with the speed of the vehicle.

The use of such cameras may in the future reduce insurance premiums, if they are considered to be beneficial - encouraging drivers with the devices installed to drive more carefully.

In addition they may provide an increased amount of fascinating footage of incidents and events, though be prepared also for the claims the cameras are another invasion of privacy.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Widespread condemnation of DPRK N-test

Members of the United Nations Security Council have condemned North Korea's latest nuclear test with some calling for further sanctions against the secretive dictatorship.

"Legitimate right"

North Korea has defended its position saying the test was payback for sanctions imposed after an earlier rocket test. In an exuberant television broadcast, a presenter also talked of the test as being in response to continued threats by the United States [BBC].

"The test was carried out as part of practical measures of counteraction to defend the country's security and sovereignty in the face of the ferocious, hostile acts of the US which wantonly violated the DPRK's legitimate right to launch a satellite for peaceful purposes."  [video - BBC]

The announcer spoke of the nuclear test bringing "peace and stability to the Korean peninsula", however this was not how North Korea's neighbours, nor other leaders around the world, saw it.

China opposed

Even China, North Korea's strongest ally, was more vocal than usual and even summoned the North Korean ambassador to the Foreign Ministry for a dressing down.

China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi delivered a "stern representation" to Ji Jae Ryong and expressed China's "strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition" to Tuesday's test in a statement posted on the ministry website.

"Yang Jiechi demanded that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea side cease talk that further escalates the situation and swiftly return to the correct channel of dialogue and negotiation," the statement said.

But while China has condemned the test, its words have been diplomatic and little different from statements made only months ago soon after North Korea launched a long range missile.

Nuclear tests in 2006 & 2009 had also angered China, but this test and its timing coming during the Lunar Festival celebrations brought harsher words from Beijing. China "resolutely opposes" this action, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, echoing sentiments on the street and on Chinese microblogs.

"Crazy dog"

Outside a branch of McDonald's in Beijing one office worker expressed his disgust at North Korea's latest test. "We're all celebrating the new year, but it feels like someone just tossed a hand grenade at my front door. North Korea is just too crazy," the man told a reporter.

Pyongyang was likened to a "crazy dog" by some users of China's popular microblogging sites. Yu Jianrong, a director at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, commented on the humiliation the test had brought to China. "If you pursue an unjust long-term diplomatic policy, then people will dare to explode a stink bomb at your door while you are on holiday," he said. "You are inviting your own humiliation."

Other online commentators were less diplomatic in their use of words. One Sina Webo user named Wuyuesanren slammed the idea that North Korea's nuclear programme boosted China's security, likening Beijing's policy to "keeping a crazy dog to guard the house".

North Korea "simply doesn't trust China and is not willing to be inhibited by China", wrote another Weibo user Zhuanshengben. "For China alone to emphasise China and North Korea's so-called friendship, this is the ultimate stupidity."

Some users even hoped the US might step in. A user called Long Can declared that "if America mobilises troops against North Korea, I will give its government my entire year's salary".

Meanwhile on Twitter, which is blocked in China, one of the country's most prominent dissidents, Hu Jia, called China and North Korea "the most despicable big rogue and ruthless little rogue".

He also posted a recording said to be of a phone call he made to the North Korean embassy in Beijing, in which he told them: "I just want to say, I am Chinese citizen Hu Jia, and I want to express my opposition to your carrying out a nuclear test."

"What?" came the response from the embassy. "Are you out of your mind?" [CTV / Washington Post / NDTV]

"Provocative act"

The strongest words of condemnation came from the west. President Obama called the test a "highly provocative act" while United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said that is was an "extremely regrettable act" [video - YouTube]

In Britain the Foreign Secretary William Hague said the latest nuclear test would only bring "increasing isolation and pressure" upon the rogue state. He expressed his hoped that China, which he described as a "key nation", would help build a dialogue and step up measures against the North Korean regime. "China agreed there would be significant action if this happened so we will now look to them to discuss that with them."

China's role is certainly important, though there remain doubts over how influential they might be despite Beijing's heavy subsidisation of the isolated country. "We need China to help guide them [North Korea] out of this mess," Jim Walsh, an International Security Analyst at MIT, told CNN. But he expressed fears that the situation was "not going to get any better any time soon".

Speaking soon after the test, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the test "represents a serious threat to the United States of America" and that the US has to "be prepared to deal with that".

However, that threat was still a long way off according to Walsh. The technology needed to reach the US was still some years away, Walsh told CNN. The test was more likely an attempt by Kim Jong-Un please his own military and build national pride. The act was also an attempt to create "leverage and one of consolidation" he added.

Regional reaction

Nonetheless, the nuclear test is seen as a step too far by many countries, especially its close neighbours.

The South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye aired her grave concerns saying, "North Korea's nuclear test is a grave threat to the Korean Peninsula and international peace, hampers inter-Korean trust-building and undermines efforts for peace."

"I strongly condemn North Korea's third nuclear test that was carried out in spite of strong warnings from us and the international community," she added.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also raised his concerns and said the test was "a grave threat to the safety of our country and a serious challenge against the global framework of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation."

"It cannot be tolerated, as it will significantly damage safety and peace in north-east Asia and the international community."

Russia also condemned North Korea for what it called an "unlawful act". In a statement Russia's Foreign Ministry said "We insist that the DPRK [North Korea] cease its unlawful acts and unwaveringly carry out all UN Security Council instructions, completely renounce its nuclear-missile programmes and return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA's comprehensive guarantees."  [BBCCNN]

UN Security Council reaction

At the United Nations the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "strongly condemned" North Korea's nuclear test, branding it a "reckless act, which showed outright disregard for the repeated calls of the international community to refrain from further provocative measures."

He said the test was a "direct challenge" to the UN security council which itself is facing increasing pressure to impose further sanctions and pressure on North Korea.

President Barack Obama speaking ahead of his State of the Nation address said the US and the rest of the international community should stand together and act decisively .

"The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community. The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies," he said [BBC]. 

Media reaction

Many media organisations pulled no punches in criticising North Korea's action. The BBC referred to it as "increased threat to the US and its allies". Regional papers used similar language. Commentary in Tokyo's Sankei Shimbun described the test as "a serious challenge to peace and security in the world" which was, "simply unforgivable.".

Even Chinese media was unusually vocal and critical of its neighbour. Commentary by Xinhua's former Pyongyang correspondent Gao Haorong said, "North Korea's action in disregard of widespread opposition from the international community is bound to make the situation on the peninsula worsen further, which is unwise. North Korea ought to keep its pledge on denuclearisation and all parties should keep calm and exercise restraint." [BBCBBC]

Threat shrugged off by some

But while the detonation at the Punggye Ri test site [Globe & Mail] is a concern, many South Koreans shrugged off the latest arrogant show of bravado. "I do not think the North will wage a war against us because to me, they are just like a beggar with a knife threatening us for more food," said one South Korean soldier who, according to Reuters, appeared more concerned whether the news would affect his vacation plans.

Beyond South Korea there appears to be a sense that North Korea is inevitably on its way to becoming a nuclear power, and that the world will have to deal with its new young leader Kim Jong-Un in that context.

Of course North Korea is unlikely to abandon its provocative behaviour, and as such many are resigned to having to deal with the fledgling nuclear state. And while sanctions are perhaps important, by themselves they will do little to rein in the belligerent state. Sanctions without diplomacy are just the sound of one hand slapping, argues James Gibney writing for Bloomberg. "To get out of the current tit-for-tat stalemate, the US needs to abandon its precondition that the North give up its nuclear weapons program before the US will negotiate a permanent peace treaty," Gibney writes.

Such a prospect is unlikely, however. Even if the US were to relax in its attitude towards North Korea, there are many other countries that would need to be convinced that such a path would be beneficial. The biggest danger in the future is that of a single misstep which could result in war.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, February 11, 2013

Thoughtcrime nears with social media tracking tool

A defence company has built specialist software which will enable the tracking of people who use social networks. The news has been greeted with concern by civil rights groups who believe it is yet another step towards a 'Big Brother' state.

Targeting people's movements

The software, called RIOT [Rapid Information Overlay Technology], has been developed by Raytheon, a major American defence contractor and industrial corporation with core manufacturing concentrations in weapons and military and commercial electronics.

The company, which is also the world's largest producer of guided missiles, is now offering software which can track information posted on social media websites which might enable authorities to target criminals before they actually commit a felony.

Raytheon first began to develop the "extreme-scale analytics" system in 2010. The software allows the user to track people's movements and even predict their behaviour by mining data from social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla, and Foursquare.  

The company claims that it has not sold this software to any clients, but has shared it with US government and industry. However it remains unclear whether the US government or other parties have made use of the technology, nor if indeed it has been shared with other countries [Guardian / Telegraph / Daily Mail / Guardian: YouTube video].

Similar to UK system

In 2011 British police closely monitored Twitter feeds and other social networks in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the rioters who brought chaos to the streets of London and other cities across England. Criminals were able to avoid scrutiny however by using the Blackberry BBM instant message service which is difficult for authorities to intercept without warrants. Following the riots the Metropolitan Police purchased Geotime, software which offers similar facilities to RIOT [Daily Mail / Guardian].

Given the increasing use of technology in criminal activity, Britain is proposing to tighten its laws concerning the monitoring of phone calls, emails and Internet usage. The Communications Bill, proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May, would require additional data collection and retention of user activity by Internet service providers and mobile phone services. Companies would be required to record contact information for each user's webmail, voice calls, social media, Internet gaming, and mobile phone contacts and store them for 12 months. It is expected to become law in 2014.

Internet restrictions

Ministers insist the reforms are vital for countering paedophiles, extremists and fraudsters but civil liberties have attacked the Bill's scope and branded it a "snoopers' charter". The Bill also comes on the back of the Digital Economy Act 2010 which allows the UK government, amongst other things, to disconnect Internet connections associated with copyright infringement by copyright owners.

While pressure resulted in sections 17 and 18 of the Act concerning website blocking were dropped, the blocking of websites is still possible through use of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, though this technically only applies to websites which infringe copyright.

However civil rights campaigners believe the government is slowly working towards the building of a censored Internet. A 'Great Firewall of Britain' may be some way off, but there have already been examples where ISPs have been forced to block certain websites.


Last year VirginMedia and BT were obliged to block access to the Torrent site Pirate Bay. The High Court in London had ruled that The Pirate Bay facilitated copyright infringement and several ISPs blocked access to the site within weeks of the ruling.

BT used its Cleanfeed content blocking system. Launched in 2004 Cleanfeed was intended to block child sexual abuse content hosted around the world. Its use in blocking The Pirate Bay was seen by some as a further step towards a censored Internet.

It was not the first time BT had used Cleanfeed to block such content however. In June 2011 the Motion Picture Association began court proceedings in an attempt to force BT to use Cleanfeed to block access to NewzBin2, a site indexing downloads of copyrighted content. The company complied to a subsequent court order.

Growing censorship

While it understandable that both authorities and ISPs would wish to block illegal content, especially child pornography, some companies have gone further than most in 'protecting' the user.

BT, for example, uses a barring and filtering mechanism to restrict access to all WAP and Internet sites that are considered to have an 'over 18' status. Users attempting to access such sites may be redirected to a page informing them of the block and asking that they call the telecom's company in order to lift the bar. Internet censorship in the United Kingdom may not have become as extreme as seen in places like China or Iran but growing sensitivity and concerns about certain content are likely to change what content is available.


Increased worries over criminal activity online may also erode privacy on the Internet. While RIOT only allows the data mining of publicly posted material, government warrants could easily force changes to allow private posts to be accessed.

While there is the age old argument of not having anything to hide if one has done nothing wrong, there is the danger of otherwise innocent acts being misinterpreted. RIOT also bring the idea of 'thoughtcrime' just one step closer.

Some believe that day has already arrived, and there are already victims. When Aaron Swartz, a programmer and Internet activist, committed suicide in January some of those close to him suggested he had been hounded to his death and that allegations made by authorities amounted to little more than Thoughcrime [Daily Beast]. 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Horse meat scandal spreads to continent

The British environment minister Owen Paterson says he is "absolutely determined" to get answers about food testing in the UK at a summit into the horse meat scandal.

However this promise of action will be of little comfort to millions of consumers across Britain who have learned they may have consumed horse meat in products that claimed to be made of 100% beef.

First signs

The scandal first came to light on the 16th January when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced they had found beefburgers with traces of equine DNA, including one product classed as 29% horse. The products had been supplied to supermarkets by Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, subsidiaries of the ABP Food Group.

Ten million suspect burgers were taken off the shelves of many stores including those of Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes. Then came another find at Liffey meats, based in County Cavan, Ireland.

Only one day later the ABP Food Group suspended work at its Silvercrest Foods plant in Co Monaghan, Ireland. Meanwhile Sainsbury's, Asda and the Co-op withdraw some frozen products as a precaution.

Burger King contamination

By late January the problem had spread to fast food outlets with Burger King withdrawing several products from sale and announced it was switching to another supplier as a precautionary measure. Then only days later the company admitted its products had been contaminated.

Meanwhile, Waitrose removed a range of frozen burgers made by Dalepak but insisted its own burgers had been tested and shown to be 100% beef. The Food Standards Agency in the meantime says tests at a Dalepak plant in North Yorkshire found no traces of meat contaminated with horse or pork DNA.

Up to 100% horse

February brought more reports of contaminated meat products. The Irish department of agriculture confirms that production at a second meat supplier, Rangeland Foods in Co Monaghan, is suspended after 75% equine DNA was found in raw ingredients. The department also called in police to aid its investigation, including allegations of possible fraud.

The crisis then spreads across the border after frozen meat at the Freeza Meats company in Newry, Northern Ireland, is found to contain 80% horse meat. The find was potentially linked to the Silvercrest factory in the Republic of Ireland. The reports prompt Asda to withdraw its products supplied by Freeza Meats.

Then on the 6th of February Tesco and Aldi withdraw frozen spaghetti and lasagne meals produced by the French food supplier Comigel following concerns about its Findus beef lasagne. Then came the revelation that some Findus beef lasagnes contained up to 100% horse meat forcing Iceland to empty shelves of the product.

Disastrous for food suppliers

The ongoing saga was described as potentially "disastrous" for the meat processing industry by retail analysts. Lost contracts with supermarkets "will undoubtedly cost them millions of pounds", Neil Saunders of retail analyst Conlumino told the BBC, "The loss of supply contracts could be disastrous for food suppliers." He also suggested the scandal could result in job losses. "It wouldn't surprise me if there were redundancies," Saunders said.

Losses to the retail industry could run into millions of pounds. As well as destroyed products, litigation could ensue. Customer confidence in ready meals and other processed foods could also drop leading to a loss in profits to the whole food industry.

Unanswered questions

The question, as yet unanswered, is how horse meat ended up in the beef chain. Was there confusion between the two meats that were processed in the same plant? Or, as some have suggested, was there a criminal conspiracy.

Environment minister Owen Paterson is sceptical the problem boils down to a simple mistake. "There may well be an international criminal conspiracy," Paterson said Friday. Talking to the BBC he called leaders of the FSA "and all the main retailers to sit down and go into detail about how the current system works".

"I really want to get to the bottom of this because I'm very proud of our British farming industry, the traceability through the system, rigorous production systems in our own industry."

But there are still worries that many products have yet to be tested, and today it was announced that all schools and hospitals would be subject to testing [Sky News].

Customer confidence

While horse meat is often eaten in many other European countries, there are concerns not so much that the meat ending up in processed meat products may not have been of the highest quality.

The most worrisome concern is whether a painkiller commonly used on horses was in the horse meat supplied. Phenylbutazone, or 'bute' as it has been referred to recently, is not a major risk to human health though some people have had adverse reactions. As such any horse treated with 'bute' is not allowed to enter the human food chain [Telegraph].

Another main issue highlighted by the scandal concerns the correct labelling of products. However it is hard to believe that Findus lasagnes would have sold well in Britain should the packet declared it was made with 100% horse meat!

Different attitudes

For some, the whole affair seems rather blown out of proportion. Meat is meat after all. But different countries and cultures have different sensibilities over what they are prepared or willing to eat. Horse is widely eaten around the world. In France many towns have specialist butchers selling only horse meat. It is commonly served in China, Russia, Central Asia, Mexico, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Belgium and Argentina. But in Britain, Ireland and America many diners would baulk at the sight of a horse steak [Telegraph].

In Korea, dog meat is commonly eaten as it is in many parts of China, though attitudes are changing. Cat too is also consumed in many parts of Asia. And it wasn't so long ago that Europeans ate cat. Some countries have resorted to the consumption of cat meat in desperation during wartime or poverty, including the United States. Cat became known as "roof rabbit" in Central Europe during and between World War I and World War II when it was commonly eaten. The edible dormouse still finds it way onto plates in Slovenia where it is considered a delicacy.

Attitudes often come down to how society looks upon an animal. Where animals are raised as pets such as cats, dogs and rabbits, the idea of eating such creatures is often rejected. There is also a repugnance factor, especially in the case of insects, amphibians or snails.

It all depends how one is raised. Cheese is often seen as repulsive amongst many Chinese, yet they will happily chew on marinated chicken feet cooked with chilli  Most westerners have difficulties when it comes to the peculiarities of Asian cuisine, especially if confronted with unusual creatures.

Unknown quantity

Despite such differences existing across cultures, the lesson best learned from the horse meat scandal is perhaps to question everything that is in a packet. While contaminants cannot be completely avoided, by buying basic foodstuffs - fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables - the consumer can eliminate most risks of cross contamination. A carrot is a carrot, a fish is just a fish.
Once sliced, diced, chopped, pureed and tinned it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine what is in the product.

Perhaps we should all get back to basics and leave behind the fast food prepacket ready meal TV dinner culture. After recent events the science fiction film Soylent Green seems just one step closer.

In the film much of the population survives on processed food rations, including "soylent green" which turns out to be made of people!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, February 04, 2013

Sony bids farewell to MiniDisc

Sony have announced that it is to cease production of MiniDisc players and recorders from March 2013 marking an end to the firm's support for the system which it launched in 1992.

The format had only limited success outside of Japan and was ultimately doomed by the rise of recordable CDs and MP3 players. Data was stored on rewritable magneto-optical disks 2.5" (64mm) in diameter housed for protection in a square plastic shell.

While the company will still manufacture the recordable discs it marks a death knell for the format popular amongst sound engineers and media professionals.

It was hailed as a replacement of the now defunct compact cassette. Each disc could hold up to 74 minutes of audio which was later boosted to 80 minutes. Sony, which invented the format, claimed recordings would be safe for more than 30 years without risk of degradation. However, the discs were vulnerable from magnets which could erase recordings.

The main advantage was that the discs were housed in a protective shell, unlike CDs which are vulnerable to scratching.

However, with the recorders and players initially costing around $750 [£475] when launched in the US in December 1992, few units were sold. The portable units were less prone to skipping during playback making them useful for those on the go. But it was not easy to quickly transfer music collections to disc since they had to be recorded in real time.

CDs, on the other hand, had the advantage of being ripped and written to disc in a matter of minutes. The advent of portable MP3 players was the final nail in the coffin. Ripped CDs, stored as MP3 or other digital format on a computer, could be transferred to a portable MP3 player in minutes. Furthermore there is less battery drain on such devices, which also have the added advantage that music never skips or jumps - unless the file itself is corrupted.

Sony ended shipments of its MiniDisc portable Walkman players [pictured] in 2011. The company's decision to halt production of MiniDisc-based Hi-Fi systems effectively marks its exits from the sector. Those still hooked on the format, and needed equipment to play their collection of disc will still be able to purchase MiniDisc players from other manufacturers such as Onkyo. Nonetheless it is perhaps advisable to get any valuable recording backed up and burnt to CD, stored as MP3 files and uploaded to a cloud storage solution [BBC / Telegraph / CNET].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Eric Schmidt labels China a hacking menace

Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is once again in the news, this time with reports of an upcoming book due to be released in April.

The main headline, hinged upon by much of the media, is an apparent swipe at China for its growing use of cyber-espionage in order to gain advantage. The news of the book's release coincides with several reports including one this weekend of several US newspapers having been hacked by the Chinese [Telegraph / CNET].

The Wall Street Journal obtained the 'Exclusive' low down on the book, though details have been published by other outlets around the globe, except of course in China.

Quite what the effect such opinions expressed in the book will have on Google's stock price remains to be seen. Details of the book were only made public on Saturday after markets had shut and with Google shares closing at a record high of $775.60.

The cover of the book, displayed on Amazon, but not as yet on Google's Play Store, is not shy of publicizing the links between the writers of the book and the Internet giant.

"The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business" criticises China, describing the country as the world's "most sophisticated and prolific hacker" and say the country's state-backed cybercrime is a global "menace".

He and co-author Jared Cohen, a 31-year old former State Department employee who now runs Google Ideas, also assert that the US and other countries will be disadvantaged by such attacks. "The disparity between American and Chinese firms and their tactics will put both the government and the companies of the United States as a distinct disadvantage," because "the United States will not take the same path of digital corporate espionage, as its laws are much stricter (and better enforced) and because illicit competition violates the American sense of fair play."

The opinions laid out concerning China will perhaps be of little surprise. Google has clashed repeatedly with the Chinese authorities. In 2010 Beijing reacted furiously to the company's claims that Chinese authorities attempted to hack Gmail accounts and the company's systems. Since then many of Google's services have been blocked. Last year Google's entire collection of web services were blocked in China as the Communist Party appointed its first new leader in a decade.

A significant part of the book is said to concentrate on how China's government and state companies are willing to use cyber crime to give the increasingly powerful state 'an economic and political edge'. However it also hints that other countries and international companies may stoop to the same level in order to maintain a competitive edge.

The book appears to insinuate that some companies have already made key advantage from nefarious methods and takes a swipe at Huawei, a Chinese telecoms manufacturer which has faced trade blocks in the US for alleged ties to China's military. "Where Huawei gains market share, the influence and reach of China grow as well," Schmidt and Cohen write.

The authors also argue that the spread of technology could destabilise the authoritarian central government, with possible revolutionary consequences. "This mix of active citizens armed with technological devices and tight government control is exceptionally volatile," they write, saying this could lead to "some kind of revolution in the coming decades".

This is not the first time Schmidt has predicted political waves. In essay by Schmidt and colleague Jared Cohen in 2010 called "The Digital Disruption" it appeared to correctly predict the Arab Spring [Full article PDF].

"The advent and power of connection technologies -- tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another -- will make the twenty-first century all about surprises. Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority."

As for this new project, a summary on Google Play describes it as being "rich with anecdotes and insights from the highest levels of American government and industry" and "the first comprehensive look at the intersection of technology, geopolitics and world events."

Those topics go much further than the headline grabbing China-bashing comments. There are some warnings that could affect those in the 'free West' just as much. In particular there are musings on anonymity. "Some governments will consider it too risky to have thousands of anonymous, untraceable and unverified citizens — "hidden people"; they'll want to know who is associated with each online account, and will require verification at a state level, in order to exert control over the virtual world."

There are concerns expressed that states like Belarus, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and North Korea could gather together and create "an autocratic cyber union, where censorship and monitoring strategies and technologies could be shared."

Something that few will be little surprised about is Schmidt and Cohan's 'revelation' that "we're already living in an age of state-led cyber war, even if most of us aren't aware of it."

But what of the media who report, or not on such matters? According to these two authors, there will still be a place for 'quality' journalism. "The elite will probably rely more on established news organizations simply because of the massive swell of low-grade reporting and information in the system."

The "massive swell of low-grade reporting and information" is perhaps a swipe at the likes of Twitter, though could apply equally well to blogs! Regards the microblogging service, the pair say, "Twitter can no more produce analysis than a monkey can type out a work of Shakespeare." [This is a reference to the so-called Infinite Monkey Theorum which asserts that such a probability be so low as to be almost be zero.]

The book will be a great deal more than the 140 characters allowed in a single tweet, and cost a great deal more. Published on 25th April it can be pre-ordered as an eBook for £10.99 on Kindle or Google Books. The hardback edition is priced at £25, though Amazon are already offering it at a discounted £16. Interestingly is selling both the physical copy and the Kindle version at almost the same price point with the digital copy selling at $17.70 while the hardback retails at $16.39. It seems there may be a price war on as well as a cyberwar [BBC / Sky News / Telegraph / Guardian / Independent / Daily Mail / WSJ / San Francisco Chronicle / TechCrunch]

tvnewswatch, London, UK