Thursday, June 19, 2014

LINUX - Opinion, 7 Suggested Improvements

"7 Improvements The Linux Desktop Needs" by Bruce Byfield, Datamation 6/7/2014

In the last fifteen years, the Linux desktop has gone from a collection of marginally adequate solutions to an unparalleled source of innovation and choice.  Many of its standard features are either unavailable in Windows, or else available only as a proprietary extension.  As a result, using Linux is increasingly not only a matter of principle, but of preference as well.

Yet, despite this progress, gaps remain.  Some are missing features, others missing features, and still others pie-in-the sky extras that could be easily implemented to extend the desktop metaphor without straining users' tolerance of change.

For instance, here are 7 improvements that would benefit the Linux desktop:

7.  Easy Email Encryption

These days, every email reader from Alpine to Thunderbird and Kmail include email encryption.  However, documentation is often either non-existent or poor.

But, even if you understand the theory, the practice is difficult.  Controls are generally scattered throughout the configuration menus and tabs, requiring a thorough search for all the settings that you require or want.  Should you fail to set up encryption properly, usually you receive no feedback about why.

The closest to an easy process is Enigmail, a Thunderbird extension that includes a setup wizard aimed at beginners.  But you have to know about Enigmail to use it, and the menu it adds to the composition window buries the encryption option one level down and places it with other options guaranteed to mystify everyday users.

No matter what the desktop, the assumption is that, if you want encrypted email, you already understand it.  Today, though, the constant media references to security and privacy have ensured that such an assumption no longer applies.

6.  Thumbnails for Virtual Workspaces

Virtual workspaces offer more desktop space without requiring additional monitors.  Yet, despite their usefulness, management of virtual workspaces hasn't changed in over a decade.  On most desktops, you control them through a pager in which each workspace is represented by an unadorned rectangle that gives few indications of what might be on it except for its name or number -- or, in the case of Ubuntu's Unity, which workspace is currently active.

True, GNOME and Cinnamon do offer better views, but the usefulness of these views is limited by the fact that they require a change of screens.  Nor is KDE's written list of contents, which is jarring in the primarily graphic-oriented desktop.

A less distracting solution might be mouseover thumbnails large enough for those with normal vision to see exactly what is on each workspace.

5.  A Workable Menu

The modern desktop long ago outgrew the classic menu with its sub-menus cascading across the screen.  Today, the average computer simply has too many applications to fit comfortably into such a format.

The trouble is, neither of the major alternatives is as convenient as the classic menu.  Confining the menu into a single window is less than ideal, because you either have to endure truncated sub-menus or else continually resize the window with the mouse.

Yet the alternative of a full-screen menu is even worse.  It means changing screens before you even begin to work, and relying on a search field that is only useful if you already know what applications are available -- in which case you are almost better off launching from the command line.

Frankly, I don't know what the solution might be.  Maybe spinner racks, like those in OS X?  All I can say for certain is that all alternatives for a modern menu make a carefully constructed set of icons on the desktop seem a more reasonable alternative.

4.  A Professional, Affordable Video Editor

Over the years, Linux has slowly filled the gaps in productivity software.  However, one category in which it is still lacking is in reasonably priced software for editing videos.

The problem is not that such free software is non-existent.  After all, Maya is one of the industry standards for animation.  The problem is that the software costs several thousand dollars.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are apps like Pitivi or Blender, whose functionality -- despite brave efforts by their developers -- remain basic.  Progress happens, but far more slowly than anyone hopes for.

Although I have heard of indie directors using native Linux video editors, the reason I have heard of their efforts is usually because of their complaints.  Others prefer to minimize the struggle and edit on other operating systems instead.

3.  A Document Processor

At one extreme are users whose need for word processing is satisfied by Google Docs.  At the other extreme are layout experts for whom Scribus is the only feasible app.

In-between are those like publishers and technical writers who produce long, text-oriented documents.  This category of users is served by Adobe FrameMaker on Windows, and to some extent by LibreOffice Writer on Linux.

Unfortunately, these users are apparently not a priority in LibreOffice, Calligra Words, AbiWord, or any other office suite.  Features that would provide for these users include:

  • Separate bibliographic databases for each file
  • Tables that are treated like styles in the same way that paragraphs and characters are
  • Page styles with persistent content other than headers or footers that would appear each time the style is used
  • Storable formats for cross-references, so that the structure doesn't need to be recreated manually each time that it is needed

Whether LibreOffice or another application provides these features is irrelevant comparing to whether they are available.  Without them, the Linux desktop is an imperfect place for a large class of potential users.

2.  Color-Coded Title Bars

Browser extensions have taught me how useful color coded tabs can be for workspaces.  The titles of open tabs disappear when more than eight or nine or open, so the color is often the quickest visual guide to the relation between tabs.

The same system could be just as useful on the desktop.  Better yet, the color coding might be preserved between sessions, allowing users to open all the apps needed for a specific task at the same time.  So far, I know of no desktop with such a feature.

1.  Icon Fences

For years, Stardock Systems has been selling a Windows extension called Fences, which lets icons be grouped.  You can name each group and move the icons in it together.  In addition, you can assign which fence different types of files are automatically added to, and hide and arrange fences as needed.

In other words, fences automate the sort of arrangements that users make on their desktop all the time.  Yet aside from one or two minor functions they share with KDE's Folder Views, fences remain completely unknown on Linux desktops.  Perhaps the reason is that designers are focused on mobile devices as the source of ideas, and fences are decidedly a feature of the traditional workstation desktop.

Personalized Lists

As I made this list, what struck me was how few of the improvements were general.  Several of these improvement would appeal largely to specific audiences, and only one even implies the porting of a proprietary application.  At least one is cosmetic rather than functional.

What this observation suggests is that, for the general user, Linux has very little left to add.  As an all-purpose desktop, Linux arrive some years ago, and has been diversifying ever since, until today users can choose from over half a dozen major desktops.

None of that means, of course, that specialists wouldn't have other suggestions.  In addition, changing needs can make improvements desirable that nobody once cared about.  But it does mean that many items on a list of desirable improvements will be highly personal.

All of which raises the question:  What other improvements do you think would benefit the desktop?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

INTERNET - Internet Giants vs Spy Agencies

"Internet Giants Erect Barriers to Spy Agencies" by DAVID E. SANGER and NICOLE PERLROTH, New York Times 6/6/2014

Just down the road from Google’s main campus here, engineers for the company are accelerating what has become the newest arms race in modern technology:  They are making it far more difficult — and far more expensive — for the National Security Agency and the intelligence arms of other governments around the world to pierce their systems.

As fast as it can, Google is sealing up cracks in its systems that Edward J. Snowden revealed the N.S.A. had brilliantly exploited.  It is encrypting more data as it moves among its servers and helping customers encode their own emails.  Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo are taking similar steps.

After years of cooperating with the government, the immediate goal now is to thwart Washington — as well as Beijing and Moscow.  The strategy is also intended to preserve business overseas in places like Brazil and Germany that have threatened to entrust data only to local providers.

Google, for example, is laying its own fiber optic cable under the world’s oceans, a project that began as an effort to cut costs and extend its influence, but now has an added purpose: to assure that the company will have more control over the movement of its customer data.

A year after Mr. Snowden’s revelations, the era of quiet cooperation is over.  Telecommunications companies say they are denying requests to volunteer data not covered by existing law.  A.T.&T., Verizon and others say that compared with a year ago, they are far more reluctant to cooperate with the United States government in “gray areas” where there is no explicit requirement for a legal warrant.

But governments are fighting back, harder than ever.  The cellphone giant Vodafone reported on Friday that a “small number” of governments around the world have demanded the ability to tap directly into its communication networks, a level of surveillance that elicited outrage from privacy advocates.

Vodafone refused to name the nations on Friday for fear of putting its business and employees at risk there.  But in an accounting of the number of legal demands for information that it receives from 14 companies, it noted that some countries did not issue warrants to obtain phone, email or web-searching traffic, because “the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link.”

The company also said it had to acquiesce to some governments’ requests for data to comply with national laws.  Otherwise, it said, it faced losing its license to operate in certain countries.

Eric Grosse, Google’s security chief, suggested in an interview that the N.S.A.'s own behavior invited the new arms race.

“I am willing to help on the purely defensive side of things,” he said, referring to Washington’s efforts to enlist Silicon Valley in cybersecurity efforts.  “But signals intercept is totally off the table,” he said, referring to national intelligence gathering.

“No hard feelings, but my job is to make their job hard,” he added.

In Washington, officials acknowledge that covert programs are now far harder to execute because American technology companies, fearful of losing international business, are hardening their networks and saying no to requests for the kind of help they once quietly provided.

Robert S. Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 17 American spy agencies, said on Wednesday that it was “an unquestionable loss for our nation that companies are losing the willingness to cooperate legally and voluntarily” with American spy agencies.

“Just as there are technological gaps, there are legal gaps,” he said, speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, “that leave a lot of gray area” governing what companies could turn over.

In the past, he said, “we have been very successful” in getting that data.  But he acknowledged that for now, those days are over, and he predicted that “sooner or later there will be some intelligence failure and people will wonder why the intelligence agencies were not able to protect the nation.”

Companies respond that if that happens, it is the government’s own fault and that intelligence agencies, in their quest for broad data collection, have undermined web security for all.

Many point to an episode in 2012, when Russian security researchers uncovered a state espionage tool, Flame, on Iranian computers.  Flame, like the Stuxnet worm, is believed to have been produced at least in part by American intelligence agencies.  It was created by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in Microsoft’s operating systems.  Companies argue that others could have later taken advantage of this defect.

Worried that such an episode undercuts confidence in its wares, Microsoft is now fully encrypting all its products, including Hotmail and, by the end of this year with 2,048-bit encryption, a stronger protection that would take a government far longer to crack.  The software is protected by encryption both when it is in data centers and when data is being sent over the Internet, said Bradford L. Smith, the company’s general counsel.

Mr. Smith also said the company was setting up “transparency centers” abroad so that technical experts of foreign governments could come in and inspect Microsoft’s proprietary source code.  That will allow foreign governments to check to make sure there are no “back doors” that would permit snooping by United States intelligence agencies.  The first such center is being set up in Brussels.

Microsoft has also pushed back harder in court.  In a Seattle case, the government issued a “national security letter” to compel Microsoft to turn over data about a customer, along with a gag order to prevent Microsoft from telling the customer it had been compelled to provide its communications to government officials.  Microsoft challenged the gag order as violating the First Amendment.  The government backed down.

Hardware firms like Cisco, which makes routers and switches, have found their products a frequent subject of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, and their business has declined steadily in places like Asia, Brazil and Europe over the last year.  The company is still struggling to convince foreign customers that their networks are safe from hackers — and free of “back doors” installed by the N.S.A.  The frustration, companies here say, is that it is nearly impossible to prove that their systems are N.S.A.-proof.

Most American companies said they never knowingly let the N.S.A. weaken their systems, or install back doors.  But Mr. Snowden’s documents showed how the agency found a way.

In one slide from the disclosures, N.S.A. analysts pointed to a sweet spot inside Google’s data centers, where they could catch traffic in unencrypted form.  Next to a quickly drawn smiley face, an N.S.A. analyst, referring to an acronym for a common layer of protection, had noted, “SSL added and removed here!”

Google was already suspicious that its internal traffic could be read, and had started a program to encrypt the links among its internal data centers, “the last chink in our armor,” Mr. Grosse said.  But the slide gave the company proof that it was a regular target of the N.S.A.  “It was useful to have proof, in terms of accelerating a project already underway,” he said.

Facebook and Yahoo have also been encrypting traffic among their internal servers.  And Facebook, Google and Microsoft have been moving to more strongly encrypt consumer traffic with so-called Perfect Forward Secrecy, specifically devised to make it more labor intensive for the N.S.A. or anyone to read stored encrypted communications.

One of the biggest indirect consequences from the Snowden revelations, technology executives say, has been the surge in demands from foreign governments that saw what kind of access to user information the N.S.A. received — voluntarily or surreptitiously.  Now they want the same.

At Facebook, Joe Sullivan, the company’s chief security officer, said it had been fending off those demands and heightened expectations.

Until last year, technology companies were forbidden from acknowledging demands from the United States government under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  But in January, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft brokered a deal with the Obama administration to disclose the number of such orders they receive in increments of 1,000.

As part of the agreement, the companies agreed to dismiss their lawsuits before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“We’re not running and hiding,” Mr. Sullivan said.  “We think it should be a transparent process so that people can judge the appropriate ways to handle these kinds of things.”

The latest move in the war between intelligence agencies and technology companies arrived this week, in the form of a new Google encryption tool.  The company released a user-friendly, email encryption method to replace the clunky and often mistake-prone encryption schemes the N.S.A. has readily exploited.

But the best part of the tool was buried in Google’s code, which included a jab at the N.S.A.'s smiley-face slide.  The code included the phrase: “ssl-added-and-removed-here-; - )”

Monday, June 2, 2014

SECURITY - Warning, Big Data Brokers

"FTC report warns consumers about big data brokers" PBS NewsHour 5/31/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report that contained consumer protection recommendations concerning what’s referred to as “big data” – the companies that collect and sell billions of bits of information about all aspects of our online lives.  Information that includes purchases, income, political affiliations – even religion. As FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez put it:

“It’s time to bring transparency and accountability to bear on this industry on behalf of consumers, many of whom are unaware that data brokers even exist.”

For some insight, we turn to Amy Schatz who covers tech policy issues for Re/code.

So, what were the things that this report uncovered that might surprise consumers?

AMY SCHATZ, Re/code:  I think most of the things in the report would surprise consumers, although this isn’t necessarily a new issue – this has been going around for a couple of years – but most people don’t know that there are a bunch of data collectors out there who are collecting data about you.  Whether it’s who you voted for or your political beliefs.  Whether it’s your zip code or what you purchased at the store last week or what you’re lookeingat online.  There are these profiles that are being created online of most Americans now and that information is being traded and shared in a way that a lot of consumers might find a little troubling.