Can Hackers Attack Our Power Grid Right Now And Who Cares?

November 7, 2017

Infrastructure Is Exposed

The short answer is ‘Yes.’ Hackers can take down our power grid right now. How they can do it and why they haven’t done it yet should be a concern for all of us, not just the government or utility companies. As we’ve seen in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, loss of power can lead to fires, explosions and untold human suffering. It’s not the 1800s anymore. We are not set up as a society to function without power for our homes, businesses and national infrastructure.

Hackers and the Grid - NOT SO DEAD - Charles Levin Thrillers Author

So how can our power grid be attached by hackers? In for my latest novel, I explore a few of the incidents that have occurred and could occur. For example, most people don’t realize that Iran has already hacked one of our hydroelectric dams in Rye Brook, New York – the Bowman Dam incident.Using the internet and sophisticated tools, Iranian hackers actually took down the power at that dam. You can read more about it here.

Russia has, in effect, been using the Ukraine as a laboratory for infrastructure hacking, They have blacked out the capital city of Kiev several times over several days. We know they are enemies, but I believe Russia has bigger plans and what better way to test your capabilities than on a weaker foe.

Well you say, why not just disconnect our utilities from the Internet? Iran did that in 2010  by isolating their nuclear centrifuges from any external connections. Allegedly the U.S. and Israel still managed to hack into the centrifuges and set back Iran’s nuclear fuel production by years with the now famous Stuxnet virus.

Hackers and the Grid - NOT SO DEAD - Charles Levin Thrillers Author

Hackers And Social Engineering

How could we do that? I talk about that at some length in NOT SO DEAD. The key to the majority of successful hacks is ‘social engineering.’ For example, talented social engineers, aka hackers, calls your office, gets someone in administration, claims to be you and says, “Oh, I forgot my password and I’m on the road. Can you tell it to me?” More than half the time the admin will oblige. Really. Or too many people use ‘Password’ as their password. In the Stuxnet case, we had a confederate on the inside slip a flash drive, with the virus, into one of the networked computers that controlled the centrifuges inside the Iranian nuclear facility. The world and the Iranians might never have ever figured it out had not the virus somehow leaked out onto the Internet and been tracked down by some security experts.

Clearly, personal vigilance and training for yourself and your organization are needed to prevent socially engineered hacks and identity theft. But what about the bigger, more serious infrastructure vulnerabilities? Well despite our current leadership’s head in the sand on this issue, the U.S. does have the Defense Department’s Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) with 6000 dedicated people fighting the Cyberwar both offensively and defensively. We clearly need more and better people and tools, despite being a world leader. China has already stolen highly classified technology, Russia has hacked our elections, and even North Korea wrecked havoc with Sony’s internal files. All documented and proven.

Mutually Assured Destruction

So if Russia or some other foreign power has the ability to attack our power grid in a big way, why haven’t they done it yet? The answer may be in an age old paradigm from the Cold War and Nuclear Threats, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction.’ Russia knows that if they did to us what they are doing in Ukraine, we would retaliate. I believe the U,S. already carried out some cyber retaliation to the Russian election hacking that has not been reported, butt sent a clear message to the Russians. “You mess with us and we can make you pay.”

So for now, both sides or I should say all major nations are building up their arsenals and their skills, just like the Cold War nuclear build up, both to prevent a major infrastructure attack and to carry one out if need be. Scary, yes. It’s the world we live in. What can we do besides being vigilant in our own security practices? Support and elect people with a will to believe in science and prepare the army, both for our own protection and to lead us into a safer future.

For more:
Bowman Dam Incident
Stuxnet Cyberattack on Iran
Switch A Country Off


Why Voice A.I. Is Taking Off Now

December 20, 2016

What was the best selling Amazon item on Black Friday? It wasn’t holiday bells, Nintendo, UGGs or Fitbits. It was the Echo Dot AI Assistant for $40. They sold so many that they are now back ordered into January. So what’s going on here? After all, we have Siri or ‘OK, Google’ on our phones. What’s the big deal?

echo-dot

Echo Dot

I have an Echo Dot on my kitchen counter and it is tranformative. I think the big difference is that it is hands-free, convenient and often funny. It synchs to your music service, calendar and internet enabled appliances, and has over 5000 ‘skills’ available. Skills are like Apps. So while my hands are sticky with cookie dough, I can just say, ‘Alexa, play Miles Davis’ or ‘What’s the weather forecast?’ or ‘Play NPR’ or ‘Set a Timer for 3 minutes’ and ‘Set a 2nd Timer for 10 minutes’ or ‘CNN, what’s in the news?’ or ‘Turn up the heat to 72 degrees in the living room’ or ‘Buy some more toilet paper’ For fun, I can say ‘Play Jeopardy’ or ‘Tell me a Joke’ or ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ with fun and sometimes surprising results. I don’t have to pull out my phone, key the password, and open the app. It has also been a big boon for the disabled, living alone, to operate appliances, thermostats and other home appliances by voice. For $40 bucks!

So in this article, I’d like to help you see why this is more than a toy, why it may be the next big platform and what its significant implications might be for the near future. If we have time, we might compare competing technology and risks of this evolving technology.

google-home

Google Home

You all may remember Hal from 2001 or the Star Trek Computer. Both interacted conversationally with Dave and Captain Kirk. For example, “Alexa, ask NASA Mars for a Curiosity Rover update.” That’s something Dave or Captain Kirk might say, right? The Echo will answer with the latest update. Right now Echo has the capability to feed back facts and information as well as command devices to perform the functions they were built for. The Hal ability it seems to lack is to think and converse, but that may be coming soon or evolving as we speak.

An interesting early attempt at a natural language interface called ‘Eliza’ was introduced by Joseph Wezenbaum in 1966. Eliza interacts like a psychotherapist, mostly asking seemingly intelligent questions based on your previous responses. People have been known to get hooked and converse with Eliza for for several hours. Think of Scarlett Johannsen playing the AI voice in the movie, ‘Her’ (great movie if you haven’t seen it). Eliza is now on the Echo Dot. If you enable the ‘Therapist’ skill, you can ask things like “Alexa, tell Eliza that I want to talk about my father” and a lengthy conversation with you and Alexa may ensue.

Well it’s not quite there yet, but it is evolving. The ultimate yet-to-be-developed Alexa skill may be ‘Friend’ that engages you and keeps you company. Imagine. 27% of the US population or close to 100 million people live alone in our country- just ask Alexa. Could Alexa become a companion to comfort and engage them?

Meanwhile, what is another smart motive for Amazon to make this device so cheap and compelling? You guessed it. You can order stuff using the Echo. Now at first you might say, why would I do that? I can’t be sure I’d be getting what I want. I’m not looking at a screen. So I can’t be sure. Well Amazon has handled this pretty well and remember when people were reluctant to buy things online having similar concerns? You learn and adapt and boom, there’s an explosion of new business. Alexa could be the next big eCommerce platform. Maybe.

So if you stuck it out and read to this point, what should you do now? First, I’d encourage you to buy one of the Amazon Echo devices (there are 3 versions) or Google Home and try it out. Then think of ways that you or your business might leverage this technology as an opportunity or just to improve your life. Here at Pathfinder we’re exploring ways to create new Alexa skills to help businesses and push the AI envelope. If your intrigued, let’s have a conversation.

I think I’ll save the comparison of Alexa to Siri to Google Home for next time, but here are a few useful links if you want to explore further:
If you want to Buy one.
Alexa Skills Marketplace with over 5000 to chose from.
If you want to build your own skill

Happy holidays and an Intelligent New Year. . .Charlie

 


Is Wearable Technology Really Here?

August 1, 2014

Dick Tracey update. Well the big talk at the Annual Consumer Electronics Show(CES) this week is Wearable Computing. Smart Watches, Health Monitoring, and Smart Glasses abound. But will any of this new ‘sexy’ technology become mainstream? Will you be wearing a Smart Watch or Google Glass this year?

I think I know the answer to this question, but first a little perspective. I’m an admitted geek and love to test and play with the latest technology. I’m what Regis McKenna would call an “Early Adopter.” If you haven’t read it, you should check out his landmark book, “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers .“

msgwatch-picture

My first wearable “computer’ was a Seiko Message Watch circa 1997. I loved it. People could send me text messages from their computer to my watch. The watch had its own phone number so it also acted as a pager. It knew when you changed time zones and automatically corrected the time. Since it updated regularly to a satellite, the time was always accurate. I was very disappointed when Seiko discontinued the service in 1999. My Smart Watch just became an ordinary watch. The problem: great technology, but a feeble marketing effort meant no sales.

Two years ago, 2011, I bought a Sony Smartwatch. Pretty cool. Did everything the new crop of Smartwatches do. It syncs with an Android Phone, displays text messages, weather, tweets, and even displays traffic cams. Fashionable – no. Was a great toy and conversation starter with potential clients, but not a winner. Three months after I got it, it just mysteriously died. RIP.

Pebble-2259_610x435

Flashback to 2003 and I’m attending what was a big annual Internet Tradeshow at the Javits in NYC. There was a Wearable Tech Fashion Show where sleekly clad fashion models pranced down a runway wearing all forms of electronics on their body, head and other orifices. That was 10 years ago and still no killer product.

So I think you know where this is leading, but hold up a minute. Remember the Apple Newton? It was one of the first tablet computers and a big failure. So why is the tablet from Apple and others, the hottest selling device category now? I think the answer is that all technology evolves. Inventors and tech companies alike try to develop the ‘next big thing.’ They design, do focus groups, and market new tech all the time. Most of it works but fails to capture the imagination of the mass market like the iPad does. However, these failures and small successes are necessary stepping stones to developing the winners.

The developers, engineers and thousands of other people involved in developing new products are to be praised and supported for their efforts. Without them and their many failures, we wouldn’t have the tremendously enabling tech we have today.

Ok, so let’s answer the question posed in the title of this post: Is Wearable Technology Really Here? I think the answer is No, Maybe and Yes in that order.

The ‘No’ is recognizing that 90%+ of what you see at tradeshows either never makes it to market or fails. That’s always true and especially true here.

The ‘Maybe’ is that if a company develops a device that is the right combination of features, usability, price and captures the imagination of the mass market, it could happen. Just like the Newton ultimately led to the iPad, it could and will happen again. The ‘When’ is just unclear.

fitbit-force-2-970x0

The ‘Yes’ is that some successes are already happening. The Fitbit tracker for your exercise and sleep is a winner. It’s really just a pedometer with an Internet connection, but it has the right combination of usability, cool-factor, and price and it’s working. It’s early yet, but I believe Google Glass and/or some iterations of it, will ultimately happen. There still are fashion and privacy issues to be solved there, but those are not really big hurdles.

Whatever happens, it will be fun trying it out.


The Increasingly Mobile Web

March 9, 2013

E-Commerce has, without question, forever changed the way we shop. The question is: has it changed the way you sell? In 2010, e-commerce represented 4.2% of retail spending, that’s $164.6 billion, up from 3.9% in 2009. The internet is constantly changing the way shoppers interact with stores, and nothing is more crucial for retailers in the modern age than to be versatile and adaptive along with the evolving technological stage. Over the past two years, and upcoming in the next 2 to 3, a major change has been and will be taking place. We are smack in the middle of a major shift, truly an epoch-change, in how the internet integrates into modern life and naturally, into business.

2011 Mobile Usage Statistics via Microsoft Tag

The Mobile Shift

If you haven’t noticed, the web has gone mobile. Of the world’s 4 billion in-use mobile phones, 1.08 billion are smart-phones. According to the Pew Research Center, 11% of adults own tablet computers. By 2015, the majority of users accessing the internet will be doing so on mobile devices. This is an incredibly significant prediction. It signals a complete change in the way we understand the internet and how a business adjusts (or fails to) will without question impact its future. To quote Mary Meeker, Morgan Stanley’s internet analyst, “Rapid ramp of mobile internet usage will be a boon to consumers and some companies will likely win big (potentially very big) while many will wonder what just happened.”

Mary Meeker at Google Event

Mobile Changes Everything

The absolutely crucial piece of information for retailers to know about this mobile shift is what it means for how people use the internet. Let’s say this: it’s very good news for retailers. A smartphone is more than just a laptop with a small screen. It is, and is increasingly becoming, an optimized mobile shopping machine. For a consumer, a smartphone is a store-finder, a quality-distiller, and a bargain-hunter. For a mobile-ready business, the smartphone is a marketing godsend. With the right preparation, on that little screen your store can pop up on a map with positive customer reviews, your phone number and hours, and a link to your handy, mobile-optimized website. If you have a special app through which customers can, for example, view your products, find special deals, and review or share their experiences across various social media platforms, the smartphone becomes a customer-loyalty-machine. This is not a fantasy or a prediction, this is how smart-phones are being used right now. According to Nielson, 50% of smartphone shoppers use a GPS/mapping app to find a retail location; 44% access the site of a retailer where they typically shop; 34% downloaded a retailer’s app; and an equal number (24%) search for a coupon to use at checkout or use a barcode-scanning app to comparison shop. Mobile e-commerce is good for consumers, and it can have huge benefits for involved retailers.

Making your Mobile-Presence

There are basically two options for going mobile:

  1. Optimize your existing website for mobile browsing. This means designing a site which responds to and adjusts for changes in screen-resolution, so that it stays mostly the same from desktop to tablet to smartphone. This requires redesigning elements of your website however, the extensiveness of the redesign required depends on your site’s age, technology, and content layout. Keep in mind that when it comes to the internet, change and adaptation are good things; they mean moving forward, keeping up with or ahead of technological trends.
  2. Design an exclusive mobile site, separate from your existing online presence. Whether this is optimal depends on your business and how well your current website adapts to mobile platforms. However, for certain businesses, a standalone mobile site can attract customers and keep them coming simply by virtue of its ease-of-use. Consider Papa John’s mobile site, which is designed specifically for the needs of mobile-users and is a good example of a straightforward way to make mobile make money, so to speak.

To finish up, here a few tips for a great mobile site:

  1. Large Buttons: Good navigation is fundamental to web-design, and it becomes even more important at the more concentrated scale of the mobile web. When done properly, with big buttons which fit into your overall branding and marketing strategy, even the simplest navigation can guide mobile users quickly to the most important parts of your website.
  2. Vertical Navigation: Due to the dimensions of smartphone screens, horizontal menus will either run off screen or cause your whole website to be shrunken down. Nothing is worse for a mobile user than to have to scroll around a barely visible site, and a frustrated customer is not a customer for long. Vertical menus or, if necessary, shortened horizontal menus with vertical sub-menus, will make your site more compatible and pleasing for customers to use on the mobile web.
  3. Avoid Flash: iPhones and iPads don’t support the flash-player, and flash loads slowly on other mobile devices. A mobile adaptation of your site will require replacements for flash elements. The simple truth is that flash will always be an impediment to the quality and ease-of-use of your website, and is best avoided.
  4. Make Pages Shareable: Social media buttons (“Tweet this” “Like this”) on every page, article, video-clip, and gallery photo on your website will give visitors more chances to do your marketing for you. Mobile users are both likely to share what they like online and likely to notice elements that distinguish your mobile site, such as positive social media response. Total social media integration is a simple step with big benefits on the mobile web.

Yahoo debuts ‘future of search’

March 25, 2011

(WIRED) — Yahoo is looking to one-up Google and its own search partner Bing, offering a new search experience it describes as the “fastest thing you have ever seen.”

The new product called Search Direct combines instant search — showing results as you type — with instant answers, so that typing in “amzn” instantly shows a full box with stock quotes about Amazon.com. For searches it has no answer to, it shows search links immediately in an easy-to-navigate box above a typical search-results page.

Yahoo, which looked to have abandoned the search game when it outsourced its search backend to Microsoft, says Search Direct — and its emphasis on user experience — is the future of search.

“I want you to remember three words: ‘answers, not links,'” Shashi Seth, Yahoo’s vice president for search told a room of tech reporters in San Francisco as he demo’d the product.

Search Direct is live on search.yahoo.com and other U.S. Yahoo search properties, but not the homepage yet. The same experience will soon come to all search boxes on Yahoo, Seth said, and it will find its way to non-Yahoo properties as well.

The product has “answers” for 15 categories of entities, including movies, professional athletes, music, celebrities, weather info, news, shopping, local and stocks.

The new search builds on Yahoo’s attempt to stay relevant in the lucrative search market by focusing on user experience, now that it has farmed out the expensive infrastructure to Microsoft, in exchange for ad-revenue sharing.

“People still come to Yahoo and search on Yahoo,” said Yahoo chief product officer Blake Irving.

Yahoo compared the new experience favorably to Google’s own Instant Search, saying that Google’s feature merely shows search-result pages faster, while this brings people answers incredibly quickly.

WIRED: Yahoo and Microsoft join search forces

Search Direct doesn’t require a fast net connection, the company said, and the system is built using infrastructure that Yahoo owns. That could put the feature in conflict with its search partner Bing.

For instance, Yahoo says it can come up with new ad formats that fit in the Search Direct box, but it hasn’t yet figured out how or if it would share that revenue with Microsoft, as it currently does with search ads.

Yahoo emphasized that it had built instant search first (though it never released it) and that it owns patents on both that technology and the new technology.

Neither Irving or Seth would say what Yahoo would do with those patents.

Irving tried to be diplomatic.

“Licensing is something we have done in the past and continue to do in the future,” Irving said.

Yahoo expects to license the service to others around the web and seems confident it’s built the future of search — even as the tech world has written the firm off as a third-place player destined to keep falling behind.

It’s not clear if Yahoo’s figured out search’s future, but Direct Search is incredibly fast and could prove to be so useful that we’ll all soon forget when we had to type a full word and hit Enter to figure something out.

And combined with Yahoo’s promising new tablet-publishing platform Livestand, we may just be seeing a revitalized Yahoo that is actually a tech company once again, despite its recent financial woes and layoffs.

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