Is virtual reality just another advertisement in disguise?

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On March 28, Oculus Rift became the *first virtual reality device to hit the market. At a retail price of $599, it offers an OLED display, a 90 HZ refresh rate, a whopping 110” field of view, and a one-way ticket to your private life.

(*Sorry, Virtual Boy doesn’t count.)

The Oculus Rift was already creating a sizeable buzz before its release. Unfortunately, the hubbub was less about the system itself and more about its convoluted, abstract, and downright scary terms of service.

Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?

Ever since Oculus was acquired by Facebook, there’s been a growing concern we might see a shift from an exciting new era of cyber gaming to an age of oppressive cyber surveillance. Unfortunately, it’s looking like we’re heading towards the latter, as Oculus will collect user information to send to Facebook and other companies.

The terms of service, which can be found here, vaguely state which type of data Oculus will collect, how it will collect it, and how it will be sent to undisclosed “third parties.”

This is something to be concerned about.

When it comes to mining data, Facebook’s a pro. The social media giant generates more than$5.6 billion a year in ad revenue alone.

More problems than just a nagging headache

Virtual reality is a new genre, so the extent as to what information can be gathered is still unclear. What we do know is that the Rift can detect your height, weight, ***, how you move, what you look at, and for how long. Couple that with all the personal details Facebook already ownsand the possibilities of data mining are limitless.

oculus-screen Objects in mirror are closer than they appear

Oculus Rift is setting the stage, and the way they conduct business will echo for years to come. As other VR companies start entering the scene, they’ll likely replicate the same business model—creating one giant virtual advertisement, or worse, a virtual surveillance state.

You’re being watched, and it’s worse than you think

If you think this sounds a little too familiar, you’re right: Xbox’s Kinect device had a similar scandal a few years ago. Weeks before the Xbox One’s release, a policy detailing how the system would stay connected even when people weren’t using it surfaced.

To give you a little background, Microsoft’s Kinect is a device that recognizes your voice and face to adhere to voice-enabled commands. To do so, it requires a microphone and a camera—both of which are ALWAYS ON.

Like Kinect, the Oculus is always connected to the Internet, constantly monitoring your activity, handing your info over to Facebook.

XBox users revolted, and many jumped ship to Sony’s PS4 (which became the fastest-selling Sony console ever). Microsoft did their best to reassure customers they wouldn’t be spied on, but the damage was already done.

Just the very thought of a gaming system snooping on its users led to decreased sales and a bruised public image. Oculus should take note.

Virtual reality has a very real future

Palmer Luckey, the Oculus’ creator, began working on virtual technology when he was only 17. He started building the original Oculus prototype in his parents’ garage in California shortly after.

Speaking to Kelly McEvers in an NPR interview, Luckey says:

“I think people are going to spend more time communicating in VR. Today, the best way to communicate with someone is still face to face, but VR has the potential to change that.”

We’re already beginning to see the change. Just last week NYC’s Tribeca Film Festival offered film aficionados an astounding 23 different virtual-reality short film and art exhibits. From games to movies to, well, basically anything you can think of, we’ll soon be able to experience it in VR.

That’s why Facebook’s involvement is so important, and why if these allegations are true, it could paint a much darker virtual reality than we all expected.

 

 

Featured image: Michael Bowles/REXOculus VR image: “Sample screen capture of Oculus Rift development kit” by Ats Kurvet is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Do I need antivirus on my computer?

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While computer science had theorized self-replicating computer programs since the late 1940s, it was only in 1971 that the first virus, called Creeper, was created.

Creeper did not do any particular harm; it could only display a message. The second computer virus in existence, dubbed Reaper, was created with the sole purpose of destroying Creeper.

It was another 15 years of mostly harmless and experimental viruses before Brain was born. Brain was a virus written by two Pakistani brothers in 1986, intended to track pirated copies of their heart-monitoring program. Things escalated quickly and Brain spread to many more machines than anticipated. The writers released the virus with no malicious intent. Indeed, they even included their names, address, and phone numbers in the software.

The Morris Worm was the first computer virus

Just two years later, in November 1988, the first virus spread across the Internet. The writer, Robert Tappan Morris, did not intend harm either, but that didn’t protect him from being the first person convicted under the new 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Though the Morris Worm was not built to create damage, a few programming errors allowed it to disable over 6,000 computers in just a few hours — around 10% of the size of the Internet at the time. It’s estimated the worm caused between 100 thousand and 10 million USD in damages. The irony is that we know the scale of the attack because of the Morris worm, as the virus was created to calculate the size of the Internet.

The Morris worm was a wake-up call for many, and it helped kickstart the emerging antivirus industry. John McAfee founded the eponymous company that made him famous in 1987, and more antivirus companies emerged shortly after; in 1988, Avira was founded in Germany by Tjark Auerbach. Then, later the same year, Pavel Baudiš and Eduard Kučera created avast! in the Czech Republic. Just a couple of years later, In 1991, Norton Antivirus was founded in the United States.

first-computer-virus Is it a virus? Neigh chance.

How antivirus programs work

Antivirus programs typically work by maintaining a list of all known viruses. Every digital file can be identified by what is called a hash and each hash uniquely represents a known virus.

Hashes are always only a few characters long, no matter how large the file is, and they can be calculated relatively easily. This makes it possible to store many such hashes in a downloadable database.

The hash approach worked particularly well when there were only a limited number of viruses. AV-Test, one of the popular maintainers of such databases, reported in 1994 to have just over 28,000 viruses on file. By 1999, that number was close to 100,000.

Despite slow beginnings, the number of viruses started growing exponentially. By 2014, there were 37 million virus hashes, just a year later there were 64 million. That’s an increase of over 70,000 per day.

Viruses have become largely polymorphic, which means they behave like a biological organism and will mutate slightly each time it replicates. While the essential function of the virus will stay intact, it can no longer be identified uniquely by its hash.

Because of these mutations, Antivirus programs also monitor the behavior of software in general. Unfortunately, it becomes tough to separate the behavior of a legitimate application from an illegitimate one, as no programming functions can be uniquely attributed to viruses. As a result, Antivirus programs either tend to miss threats or detect false positives.

Frequent false positives can easily train a user to quickly approve a potential threat found by the antivirus software, a bit like the boy who cried wolf.

‘Allow all’ antivirus became ‘deny all’ browsers

Modern operating systems and browsers are built with polymorphic viruses in mind. While the old security model often evolved around a philosophy of ‘allow all, then add exceptions,’ today’s applications and systems are built to deny everything until the user specifically allows it.

Threats such as viruses and hacking attempts have become so numerous that even antivirus dictionaries with millions of entries will likely miss some, and viruses evolve so quickly that no iterations are the same.

browse-safe A rigid safety regime should be applied before fun commences.

The best ways to keep your system safe

A backed up, and up-to-date operating system is the forefront of defense against unwanted code running on your computer.

1. Keep your system up to date

Any threat to your system will look to find little bugs and loopholes to exploit. While bugs are not particularly rare, they are usually patched fast enough to stop the vulnerabilities becoming a large scale security issue.

It’s important to keep your phone, your computer, and all apps and programs running on them, up to date too, to defend against malware. This can sometimes be tiresome, but it is the most important thing to keep you safe.

2. Make regular backups

Even if you keep your system up to date, there is still a tiny chance that you will be infected with a virus. There are constant new threats that have yet to be analyzed and discovered and potentially even ones specifically targeting you. It is not likely that your Antivirus will be able to defend you against all such threats.

Make regular backups of all your data and keep them on a separate drive, ideally unplugging the drive after you make the backup. This will allow you to start quickly again with a fresh installation of your operating system, often the only guaranteed way to get rid of a virus.

Does a VPN protect me against viruses?

While a VPN makes it impossible for your local Internet Service Provider or Wi-FI provider to inject malicious code into your browsing sessions, a VPN does not protect you against viruses by itself.

Even when using a VPN, you still need to be careful with email attachments and downloads. You should never open files with suspicious formats such as .exe, .jar or .js, and only open files from sources that you trust. When in doubt about an attachment from a trusted contact, try reaching out to them through a separate channel to verify the authenticity of their message.

Yes, you should still run antivirus software

There is no harm in running an antivirus program, as long as it is only one (two such programs will very likely interfere with each other).

Running an antivirus program largely helps protect those around you with unpatched and outdated systems, and it makes sure you do not inadvertently spread virus corrupted files, even when they cannot infect your computer.

Antivirus can also help you identify threats that are buried deep in your backups or other files. Even if they cannot infect your updated computer, you probably don’t want them on your system.

Featured image: ar130405 / Dollar Photo Club
Trojan horse: faithie / Dollar Photo Club
Safety first: md3d / Dollar Photo Club

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White House catches up with 21st century tech

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Do you have any of the following hardware in your home?

  • A modern desktop phone?
  • Reliable Wi-Fi?
  • A color printer?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then congratulations: your house is more technologically advanced than the White House.

The (Technological) Elephant in the Oval Office

The need for technology upgrades at the seat of American political power is no big secret. While movies and TV shows make it appear as though “[We] have half a fingerprint and a half an hour later I’m tracking a guy on streets of Istanbul”, the President admitted:

“sometimes I’m just trying to get a connection.”

Instead of state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment, White House staffers have been using desktop phones so old few people know how to program the speed-dial buttons on them. And as for printing, you may be impressed to learn that one of the President’s legacies in his final year of office is the installation of double-sided color printers at the White House. How’s that for leaving something behind for future generations?

obama-meme A lesser-known part of Senator Obama’s 2008 campaign: CHANGE… the printer

The White House does Internet by Committee

But why would the most protected building on the planet, housing the most powerful man on earth, be relying on such outdated technology in the first place? The answer is that the responsibility for White House technology is overseen by four different agencies: the National Security Council, the Executive Office of the President, the Secret Service, and the White House Communications Agency. And to make things even more complicated, each agency has their own Chief Information Officer.

This fragmented approach means that any major overhaul to White House technology would require the approval of all four agencies. So instead, each agency carried out piecemeal upgrades and negotiated its own contracts with service providers over the years, resulting in patchwork fixes instead of full-scale upgrades.

It seems that the White House’s time in the tech basement is about to end, though. A news story earlier this week reports that big changes are underway at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Out are 13,000 pounds worth of abandoned cables, and in is David Recordon, the inaugural Director of White House Information Technology, who previously served as an Engineering Director at Facebook.

After removing the mountain of old cables, Recordon and his team have started to replace the old White House computers with the latest models – boasting fast, solid-state drives and modern processors. In addition, an all-digital phone system has just been introduced, which comes with built-in speakers and speed-dial buttons that can be programmed online.

Obama Just Wants an iPhone

Amidst all the progress, there is still much more work to be done. While the technological upgrades will provide improved visitor management and building security in addition to allowing staffers to use iPhones at work, the President is still stuck with his old (but secured) BlackBberry.

And although there are security concerns with allowing the leader of the free world to change to the iPhone, the President can rest easy about his online privacy and data security like the rest of us.

After all, he can just use a VPN.

Featured image: steheap / Dollar Photo Club
Obama meme: memegenerator.net

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Edward Snowden accepts ExpressVNP internship

ExpressVNPapril-fool

ExpressVNP is pleased to announce the newest member of the team, Mr. Edward Snowden.

Ed flew in from Moscow to join ExpressVNP, where he was enjoying a well-earned rest after his gruelling, though short, career in the NSA came to an abrupt end.

You may remember Mr. Snowden after he appeared in worldwide newspapers as a global pioneer of Internet freedom, champion of digital rights, and a guy with enough intestinal fortitude to take on the NSA — exposing their oppressive surveillance regime in the process.

It’s fair to say Mr. Snowden is a hero of the Internet and an ambassador for human rights, everywhere. He is a legend in the fight for privacy, a bastion of strength against the powers that seek to control us, a symbol of hope for digital freedom, a coding genius, and a philosophy savant.

Which is why ExpressVNP is delighted to welcome Ed onboard as a Graphic Design Intern.

The position is unpaid, but Ed will be allowed to take asylum in the ExpressVNP office as part of the arrangement.

Ed hopes to further his love of Japanese *** in the role and seeks to learn as much as he can from the talented ExpressVNP Graphic Design team.

ed-snowden-april-fool The handy Mr. Snowden signs his ExpressVNP contract.

The NSA is Having a Temper Tantrum

Not everyone is as happy as ExpressVNP at the news of Snowden’s internship, though. Once the news eventually made it to Ed’s previous employer, the tardy NSA, a trembling, though senior official was quoted as saying:

“It’s not fair. Already we can’t see ExpressVNP users, and now they have Snowden? What chance do we have? It’s discriminateration [sic] against the NSA. I want my Mom.”

Insiders say the NSA is “throwing their toys out of the pram”, with several high-ranking officers being described as “moping around and sulking like that teenage girl in the sparkly vampire movie.”

Vandalism at Fort Meade Taken Seriously

Since ExpressVNP announced Edward Snowden’s internship, a spate of vandalism has occurred at Fort Meade, the NSA’s headquarters.

One unknown perpetrator even managed to scrawl “NSA sux, Yay Snowden!!!!” on the wall of the agency’s Supper Room. The NSA Supper Room is used by agents when they want to share their feelings, hug out their troubles, or, as the name suggests, enjoy a nice supper.

The unwelcome graffiti has traumatized NSA staff, and a support hotline has been set up for those deeply affected by it.

Just before collapsing and sobbing uncontrollably, one sniveling NSA agent said:

“It’s just not what I need right now. Snowden is a big silly doo-doo head. I want my Mom.”

Edward Snowden Shows No Sympathy for the NSA

We asked Ed what he thought of the NSA breakdown, but he was too busy drawing an egg. “Haha! Look, Egg Snowden! I’m doing more of these!”, he said.

egg-snowden ExpressVNP’s “hilarious” new comic strip.

ExpressVNP will keep you posted on any further NSA breakdowns. And Ed’s eggs, apparently.

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ExpressVNP stands with Fight for the Future

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ExpressVNP is proud to announce an expanded relationship with the nonprofit activism and advocacy group, Fight for the Future (FFTF), and will offer increased support including monetary donations to FFTF’s campaigns to protect Internet freedom.

Fight for the Future is dedicated to protecting and expanding the Internet’s transformative power in our lives by creating civic campaigns that are engaging for millions of people. FFTF fights against attempts to limit our basic rights and freedoms and seeks to empower people so they can demand technology (and policy) that serves their interests.

Activating the Internet for the public good can only lead to a more vibrant and awesome world.

ExpressVNP’s mission is to make it easy for everyone to use the Internet with security, privacy, and freedom which is why are excited to stand side-by-side with Fight for the Future.

Fight for the Future and ExpressVNP: Natural Allies

FFTF and ExpressVNP is a partnership unafraid to take on anyone. Both were highly vocal in the recent FBI vs Apple court case, where Apple was forced to hack their own devices for the benefit of the FBI.

Political status does not grant impunity from the people and Fight for the Future recently launched a campaign against the U.S. government’s CISA bill (Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act). It’s an issue ExpressVNP cares deeply about, and it could have a big impact on the future of the Internet.

What Is CISA?

CISA is supposed to protect us, but what it actually does is strip our right to privacy. CISA obliges companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and even our banks to give up private data on anyone, any time a federal agency asks for it.

If the aim of CISA is to protect, then it should implement cyber security laws to defend people from online attacks and abuse. But this is not the case, what CISA does is wait until a crime has happened and punishes after the fact. How does that help a victim? This should be about crime prevention, not punishment after it has occurred. The only people who benefit from such a law are the Federal agencies who can access any data, for any reason, any time.

nothing to fear with expressVPN Having nothing to hide is the same as having nothing to say.

Nothing to Hide Is Making You Lose

You may think you have nothing to hide, and that may well be true – for now. But what if a law is changed and something you have always done, to the harm of no one, is suddenly considered illegal? The government would have everything they need to incarcerate (or worse) you before you even know a law has been changed. And you would have no say in the matter.

The United States, in particular, has a peculiar system when it comes to passing new legislation. A new law can be tacked onto another, unrelated, proposal in order to force it through the senate. This system opens itself up to abuse and has been used several times in the past to pass through morally dubious and questionable laws that infringe upon a citizen’s right to exist, unencumbered by the government.

Indeed, this very procedure is precisely what is happening right now, with the CISA bill.

CISA Got Worse After It Was Passed

In the weeks since the Senate approved CISA, Speaker Paul Ryan has been busy stripping privacy protections from the bill. The latest changes turn CISA from a mass surveillance bill to a mass incarceration bill:

  • Removed prohibition of information being shared automatically with NSA and DOD (H.R. 1560). Instead, information may be shared directly with DOD and NSA.
  • Removes prohibition on using CISA for “surveillance” activities.
  • Removes limitation that government can only use collected info for cybersecurity purposes (House Homeland Security Bill H.R.1731). Instead, they can use this shared info to prosecute other crimes (which increases the incentive for them to collect and retain more personal information, whether it is related to cyber security or not).
  • Removes the requirement that government scrubs personal information unrelated to a cybersecurity threat before sharing information. (H.R.1731 had this requirement). Instead, scrubbing is at the discretion of Agency.

This is an issue that will affect us all. We must fight it, together. But it’s not the only threat to our digital freedom. FFTF and ExpressVNP are joining forces to combat a number of draconian initiatives.

#IFEELNAKED and Black Out Congress

Edward Snowden’s revelation of NSA phone metadata spying was only the tip of the iceberg. The NSA is secretly wiretapping huge portions of the Internet, vacuuming up the contents of millions of emails and text messages. NSA spying is al violation. It’s like a strip search, online. So, quite rightly, FFTF are holding Congress accountable for enacting such mass surveillance into law.

#IFEELNAKED is a movement against the mass surveillance by the NSA.

People all around the world are sharing pictures of themselves naked to highlight the violation they feel by the NSA. And FFTF is forcing this in Congress’ face.

Participating websites are encouraged to embed a small snippet of code on their web pages that detect the IP address of Congress’ computers and redirects them to the #ifeelnaked photos page. The aim is to completely black out their Internet, as they seek to do to ours. Now they know how we feel!

expressvnp-fight-for-the-future Governments should not be spying on innocent citizens.

The Fight to End Surveillance

ExpressVNP and Fight for the Future are completely committed to ending surveillance.

The FBI is flying spy planes over U.S. cities, taking photos and scooping up the cell phone activity of potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans. The planes have been spotted over the Mall of America, where the FBI has been using counterterrorism authority to investigate political protestors connected with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

FFTF wants Congress to stop the FBI’s spy program. Political protestors should not be investigated using surveillance programs meant for terrorists and the government should have no right to do it.

Hope Is Not Lost, but It’s Time to Make a Stand

FFTF and ExpressVNP want a free and open Internet for everyone. But we have to fight for it.

We urge companies to take matters into their own hands. Don’t bow down to government bullying. Don’t be lazy. Defend your customers’ right to privacy.

It’s time to put some faith in the greatest invention of humankind, the Internet. And it’s time to stand up and fight for it. Which is why ExpressVNP is extremely proud to step into the ring with Fight for the Future.

The governments of the world need to remember that we are not their people, they are our governments.

Nothing to hide image: Nomad_Soul/Dollar Photo Club
End surveillance image: piotr_roae/Dollar Photo Club

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