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Saturday, 6 January 2007

The Really Heavy Greatcoat - The Party 2

Surely straight from the imagination of Charles Stross...

Dutch researchers have recently announced a piece of kit called "RFID Guardian", which sounds like something straight out of the devilish imagination of SF author Charles Stross (I'm still trying to finish the mind-boggling Accelerando) and could be one in the eye for the corporates and criminals who see ways of exploting this chip technology, already being rolled out by supermarkets to track things like razor blades - a top shoplifted item.

As the inventors of the RFID Guardian explain in their web sites:
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is the latest phase in the decades-old trend of the miniaturization of computers. RFID transponders are tiny resource-limited computers that do not have a battery that needs periodic replacement, inductively powered by their external reading devices, called RFID readers. Once the RFID tag is activated, the tag then decodes the incoming query and produces an appropriate response by modulating the request signal, using one or more subcarrier frequencies. RFID Tags can do a limited amount of processing, and have a small amount (<1024 bits) of storage.

RFID tags are useful for a huge variety of applications, as well as open to abuse. Some of the applications include: supply chain management, automated payment, physical access control, counterfeit prevention, and smart homes and offices. RFID tags are also implanted in all kinds of personal and consumer goods, for example, passports, partially assembled cars, frozen dinners, ski-lift passes, clothing, and public transportation tickets.
Implantable RFID tags for animals allow concerned owners to label their pets and livestock. The Verichip Corporation has also created a slightly adapted implantable RFID chip, the size of a grain of rice, for use in humans. Since its introduction, the Verichip was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and this tiny chip is currently deployed in both commercial and medical systems.
This sounds similar to the technology we saw used in the original Star Trek series - Kirk and Spock adapted their subcutaneous transponders to escape a cell in the bizarre space Nazi story Patterns of Force. But I digress...
There are dangers to RFID, too. Businesses and governments are not the only ones interested in it. Civil liberties groups, hackers and criminals are also keenly interested in this new development, albeit for very different reasons. Civil liberties groups are concerned about RFID technology being used to invade people's privacy; RFID tags enable unethical individuals to snoop on people and surreptitiously collect data on them without their approval or even knowledge. For example, RFID-enabled public transit tickets could allow public transit managers to compile a dossier listing all of a person's travels in the past year -- information which may be of interest to the police, divorce lawyers, and others.

... A completely different category of threats arises when hackers or criminals cause valid RFID tags to behave in unexpected (and generally malicious) ways. Typically, computer-bound or mobile RFID readers query RFID tags for their unique identifier or on-tag data, which often serves as a database key or launches some real-world activity. For example, when an RFID reader at a supermarket checkout counter reads the tag on a product, the software driving it could add the item scanned to the list of the customer's purchases, tallying up the total after all products have been scanned.

Up until now, everyone working on RFID technology has tacitly assumed that the mere act of scanning an RFID tag cannot modify back-end software, and certainly not in a malicious way. Unfortunately, they are wrong. In our research, we have discovered that if certain vulnerabilities exist in the RFID software, an RFID tag can be (intentionally) infected with a virus and this virus can infect the backend database used by the RFID software. From there it can be easily spread to other RFID tags. No one thought this possible until now. Later in this website we provide all the details on how to do this and how to defend against it in order to warn the designers of RFID systems not to deploy vulnerable systems.

The RFID Guardian that's been developed is what I call a mobile device - when it detects someone trying to query an RFID tag on your person ( transit passes, perhaps even credit cards), it smartly looks-up a previously compiled access control list to find out what to do. That could be nothing, or else the device will answer the query with data the user specifies, or else it will broadcast noise on the frequency in question to drown out the tag. Should it not have instructions for the tag in question, it asks the user for a decision.

BoingBoing describes it as "a must-read paper for anyone who cares about electronic privacy and who wants to catch a glimpse of the future".

With the interest in these things constantly on the rise, there's a lot of concern about the civil liberty implications of this technology, and the dangers they pose. More at: and

Lest you think all this a bit way out, students at the University of Washington have developed a device which can track the RFID technology used in the Nike+/ipod set up, enabling someone to track or, more scarily stalk a user. It seems that because the technology used isn't encrypted, the transmitter in your Nike+ sneaker can be read up to 60 feet away. So a stalker would quickly be able to build up a picture of that person's habits while using the set up, opening them up to all sorts of potential dangers, not least of which being the stalker would know when the person was out of their house.

CNN reported on the invention after security expert Bruce Schneier described the issues raised as "very scary" on his informative blog. Because the radio frequency identification, or RFID, transmitter broadcasts a unique identifier, people can be tracked by it, the University of Washington researchers said in their paper on Nike+iPod Sport Kit (click for PDF). The team said they built a surveillance device, which cost about $250, and integrated the surveillance system with Google Maps.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Rainbow Orchid wins award

Congratulations to Rainbow Orchid creator Garen Ewing, who I interviewed for downthetubes last year.

Rainbow Orchid, a wonderful acrion adventure strip which makes an affectionate tip of the hat to Tin Tin (and has a loyal French comics fan following) has been honoured by Silver Bullets contributor Regie Riby as joint winner of his Fool Britannia Webcomic of the Year 2006 (with Gun Street Girl, which I've not read before but looks great).

"The plot is like a Faberge Egg," says Regie, "beautiful to behold even at the most superficial glance, but so exquisitely intricate that the closer you look the more you see." He's not wrong: check it out for yourself at:

Really Heavy Greatcoat - The Party

Nick and I started this Really heavy Greatcoat storyline last year but it got interrupted by (yay!) paid work. So I'm posting it here - adapting my blog design to better present the strip, hopefully - in its entirety over the next week.

Credit cards for cats

This surely has to be a theme for a new Really Heavy Greatcoat, when I get time to write some. Reuters reports today that an Australian bank has been forced to apologize after it issued a credit card to a cat after its owner decided to test the bank's identity security system.

The Bank of Queensland issued a credit card to Messiah the cat when his owner Katherine Campbell applied for a secondary card on her account under its name.

Before Messiah could go mad online and buy enough Go Cat to keep it happy for the next couple of decades (which is what my cat would have done) the bank said the cat's card had been canceled. Shame.

"We apologize as this should not have happened," it said in a statement (probably issued by someone called Rover).

Thursday, 4 January 2007

The Top Linked-To Blog Posts In 2006

Those infamous Danish cartoons, US TV channel Comedy Central's news analysis mock-up, "The Colbert Report," which orchestrated a "wikiality" check for Wikipedia, a petition by LiveJournal bloggers angry about interface changes, anti-Bush sentiment and Technorati proved to be the top blog posts of 2006, according to Nielsen Buzz Metrics this week.

From this we can we probably presume that a) you shouldn't mess with someone's space b) bloggers are largely liberal and c) they might be liberal technogeeks?

Here's hoping some comics bloggers like Steve Holland over at Bear Alley start climbing the ladder this year.

The 2007 Bloggiesyour chance to vote for your favourite blog – have just started. I've nominated Bear Alley, but Joe Gordon's fab Forbidden Planet International blog topped my comics-related votes, which may sound a bit disloyal considering the amount of work I do for the other Forbidden Planet (well, Titan), but what the heck. There's plenty of comics blogs out there now – many of the links on this page such as David Bishop's Vicious Imagery is a blog, as is Doctor Who and Robin Hood writer Paul Cornell's House of Awkwardness.

Nielsen ranked the top blog posts of 2006, ranking them according to how many inbound links came their way between January and December. There were 18 blogs generating the 100 most popular posts of the year: here's the top ten:

1. 2006 Petition Against Changes in the LiveJournal Interface

2. Colbert Does the White Correspondents' Dinner

3. Keith Olbermann Delivers One Hell Of a Commentary on Rumsfeld

4. State of the Blogosphere, August 2006

5. Keith Olbermann's Special Comment on Bush: Who has left this hole in the ground? We have not forgotten, Mr. President. You have. May this country forgive you.

6. Support Denmark: Why the Forbidden Cartoons Matter

7. Saturday Night Live: If Al Gore were President

8. Milking it? (warning - graphic war images. This item has now been archived and has been superceded by a definitive report on the media coverage of the "Qana" incident on 30 July 2006)

9. State of the Blogosphere, February 2006 Part 1: On Blogosphere Growth

10. State of the Blogosphere, April 2006 Part 1 On Blogosphere Growth

Tourists ask the strangest things...

After the national press reported some of the strange questions asked of tourist offices across the country this week, including "Are there any lakes in the Lake District?", "Is Wales closed in the Winter?" and " What time of night does the Loch Ness monster surface and who feeds it?" I wondered what questions were asked of Lancaster and Morecambe's Tourism offices, and I've written a story for Virtual-Lancaster based on the response I got from our obliging Council press office, which I thought I 'd share with you as some New Year amusement.

It's clear they get their fair share of the strange, and answer them with a mix of patience and the usual forthright responses you'd expect.

The Tourist Office has details of over 300 strange questions asked in 2006, but a selection of their favourites includes "Is Morecambe north or south of Pontefract?", " Do you need a passport to go to The Isle of Man?", How do I stop my telephone bill while I’m on holiday? I live in West Yorkshire" and "Does the ferry go right into the port?" (No, it ditches you in the sea!)

Other general questions included "Is the beach open?", " Can you put me on your mailing list for shows in Manchester?" and "Have the guided walks been stopped because of the petrol shortage?"

A display by the Red Arrows in Morecambe provoked some strange questions. " When the Red Arrows come, will you be opening The Platform doors to let them in?" asked one bemused visitor, while another asked "Where will the Red Arrows be?" In the sky, hopefully - and they were, as anyone who watched the impressive show last year will recall

Major local events such as Lancaster's Fireworks Night generate plenty of questions. " What time are the fireworks?" asked one Lancaster customer. "About ten o’clock," replied the dutiful Tourist officer.

"Oh," pondered the visitor. "Is that at night?"

Morecambe's location seems to confound some visitors. Several visitors ask questions about Blackpool rather than our local seaside town, one asking for a list of Blackpool churches and tourism figures for Blackpool Pleasure Beach. One asked for a list of hotels which was immediately supplied. "Oh, great," came the enthused response. Then: "And they’re all close to Robin Hood’s Bay, are they?"

Sometimes, Tourist Information has to refer visitors to Council offices elsewhere in our area. When one tourist was advised they should visit the City Council's Arts and Events office to answer their queries, the visitor responded "Have they got a door?"

The best answer to a question I was sent has to be the response to the poser "What does the Eric Morecambe statue on the promenade weigh?"

"We he he!" replied the staff member, aping one of Eric Morecambe's famous phrases. Yes, we can just picture the blank face of the tourist who got that response.

The Tourism offices deal with thousands of visitor queries a month, so you'd expect some oddities amongst the many sensible ones. But there are some that stump even the best brains on Castle Hill or the Platform offices. One worried caller rang to ask "My catheter is leaking. What should I do?"

"Have you tried your doctor?" replied the officer, helpfully.

"Yes, but there was no reply," said the caller, "So I thought I would try you..."

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Iraq in comics

Over on Slate, there's a selection of some of the best new comic books commenting on the Iraq war, including a mention for the much-talked about Web comic Shooting War by Anthony Lappé which Warner Books is publishing in 2007 as the first title in its new graphic novel line.

With statistics now suggesting the insurgency costing the US some $200 million a day to maintain its presence in Iraq - so you have to wonder how much it's costing Britain to maintain its forces in southern Iraq - the feature is a timely reminder of how what's happening in the Middle East is affecting us all on many different levels.

Slate writer Dan Klois reckons the best comics story he's read about the Iraq war is Brian Wood's DMZ, a dystopian vision of New York under siege, and it's certainly earned a host of both comics and mainstream kudos. The Chicago Sun Times described it as "addictive and brutal, and a perfect antidote to the flag-waving Fox News broadcasts of the War on Terror." Vertigo collected some of the material as DMZ: On the Ground last year and it's available from

As with past conflicts, comics creators have offered some very different stories about the conflict, from straight-ahead embedded journalism to baldfaced military boosterism. Personally, I was impressed enough with Joe Sacco's tale of his travels through Iraq, published in The Guardian to download this 37 meg electronic version. (Strange how the Guardian has been so thoughtful about the war for so long, then does something as darn stupid as putting an image of Saddam hanged on its cover this week, a decision which deeply upset my Mum, me and countless other readers of its pages. Yet it balked at publishing the controversial Danish cartoons that caused such a storm of protest last year. Go figure!).

I've also enjoyed Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad, re-published by Titan Books late in 2006, which did away with humans entirely, focusing on a pride of lions loose in war-torn Baghdad

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