Tech Talk #50 – April 29, 2017

ISPs and online privacy – what’s everyone talking about?

For the past few weeks, you may have seen stories about ISPs being able to sell your browsing history to advertisers. Let’s clear up a few things.

 

First off, ISP stands for Internet Service Provider. ISPs are companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Spectrum, and others, that, well, provide internet service to their customers.

 

To connect your computer to a website, your ISP has to know where your computer is – your Internet Protocol (IP) address. Then the  ISP finds the IP address of the website you want to connect to and builds a route resulting in the shortest, fastest connection for you. The route changes all the time, so your ISP is constantly making adjustments to  make sure you stay connected. This means your ISP knows what site you connected to and how long you stayed connected to it. Since you pay the ISP for their service, they also know where you live and other personal data.

 

Over time, an ISP can collect quite a lot of information about you: what time of day you get on the internet, what sites you visit, and how long you stay on each site. They can’t see what you do on each website you go to, though.

 

They can, and do, collect all of this information right now. So, why the big deal lately?

 

In October 2016, the Democratic-led FCC approved rules that required ISPs to obtain consumers’ permission to use certain sensitive data like browsing history obtained through their service. These rules would have taken effect in December 2017.

 

The now Republican-led FCC sought to overturn the rules. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ.) introduced S.J. 34 to repeal the rules and prevent similar rules from being introduced in the future. The joint resolution was signed into law by the president on April 3, 2017.

 

So basically, something that was going to happen now isn’t going to happen.

 

From the trenches

Recently I had a call from a customer worried about hard drive error messages that came up when he turned on his laptop.

 

I verified the errors, shut down the laptop, removed the battery and flipped the thing over. Normally, laptops have a couple of flaps you can unscrew to get to replaceable items like RAM and hard drives. Not this one. The entire bottom was one solid piece, no flaps. So I removed 14 screws from the bottom, six screws from the hinges, three screws for the DVD drive, and one other screw that I’m still not sure what it was holding. At this point, the bottom should have separated from the top. But no.

 

Instead, the top had to be (carefully) pried away from the bottom to get to the replaceable components. Usually, the hard drive slides into a molded connector, making replacement easy. Not on this laptop; two small ribbon cables connected the drive to the motherboard.

 

It was only slightly faster to put it all back together after I got the data copied to the other computer.

 

A simple job was made much more difficult by what I would characterize as a bad design unless the manufacturer made a conscious decision to make it harder for consumers and repair folks to work on their products.

 

I know computer sales have been declining year-over-year, but this seems like a poor way to force consumers to replace instead of repair.

 

Ukranian tractor hacking

In October 2016, John Deere required farmers to sign an agreement that forbids nearly all repairs and modifications to John Deere farm equipment and prevents a farmer from suing for crop loss, lost profits or anything else that might go wrong with the software on the equipment. Only John Deere dealerships and “authorized” repair shops can work on the equipment.

 

As you might expect, this didn’t go over well.

 

If you’re in the middle of a harvest or a planting, you can’t just head over to the nearest John Deere dealer to get your equipment fixed. The local non-Deere shops that work on your John Deere can still replace your bad transmission, say, but now you have to wait for an official John Deere technician to show up and ‘authorize’ the replacement in the software on your equipment.

 

Which has led to guys running around with hacked John Deere firmware and software bought on the Ukranian black market, getting fellow farmers back to work.

 

True story.

 

Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at greg@tech-hachapi.com.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

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