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Want to plant your best garden ever? Click on this cover image to flip through the Spring 2013 Website Compass magazine, our gift to you as an internet service customer of jamadots. It features 23 gardening sites for seeds of inspiration plus other helpful articles and tutorials:
Every year, online crooks fleece web surfers out of hundreds of millions of dollars with websites offering free trial products, contests or auctions. Find out if a website is trustworthy – or has already scammed innocent victims – by visiting sitejabber.com and typing in the website’s URL address!
Passwords are an important part of our everyday lives, used for everything from online shopping to email accounts. Having a safe and secure password is important to protecting yourself and your family from identity theft. So far, 2012 has shown us that passwords that we use to protect our personal information are not as safe as we’d like to think they are. Smartphones and tablets now provide more outlets than ever for cybercriminals to steal our personal information and use it to their advantage. This infographic, presented by Security Coverage, details the unsettling statistics involved in the recent increases in password theft.
Want even more protection? We recommend Password Genie! Available for the low, monthly-rate of $2.00, Password Genie automates the challenging task of keeping complex, long-form and unique passwords safe and secure… and makes logging into your favorite websites one-touch easy with auto-fill features. We know you’ll love the security and convenience that Password Genie gives you.
At this point, we all know (hopefully) not to send our bank account information to the wealthy foreigner who needs our help moving his fortune to the United States. But digital threats range from trojans and spyware to fake software and phishing, and they are not always as easy to detect as a Nigerian official. With all of this out there, it pays to do all you can to educate and protect yourself.
Below are a few simple things you can do to make your online experience safer (and happier).
Top Five Internet Security Tips
1) Be sure your computer and all mobile devices are running the latest operating systems (OS). Malware creators are always adapting, and so are OS developers. If vulnerability is identified, developers will fix it in the next update, so you want to be sure you have it! To give your PC or device a tune-up and ensure you are operating at optimum performance try TotalTech from jamadots. More information is available here.
2) Install anti-virus software on all Internet-connected devices and be sure it is up-to-date. Attacks become more sneaky and sophisticated every day, so the best programs are always adapting to combat the latest threats. Be sure you are up-to-date for the best protection. For more information on PC and device security services (SecureIT Plus) available from jamadots, contact your local HTC, OCTC, CCTC, or MTC customer service center.
3) Use caution when opening emails with links or attachments. Look for misspellings, unsolicited offers or prizes, and requests for personal or financial information. Some scammers try to mimic a reputable company, so be wary, and call the company directly if you’re suspicious.
4) Only download software from reputable sites or stores. Sneaky bad guys tuck malicious code into fake versions of the programs and apps that you want. The best way to avoid a phony is to stick to official company websites and app stores.
5) Use long, complex passwords that are unique to each account. Your password is the key to your digital kingdom, so make it strong. Use upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, and be sure it is at least 14 characters long. Also make it unique. According to Microsoft, the average user has 25 password-protected accounts and uses just 6 passwords. You might not care if an old, dormant email account is compromised, but if your bank uses the same password, you’re in trouble. For more information on designing the most secure passwords and keeping your passwords securely secret, check out Password Genie from jamadots, contact your local HTC, OCTC, CCTC, or MTC customer service center.
When you connect to the Internet at home, you’re almost certainly using a form of broadband. Broadband is defined by various standards as being capable of transmitting data at 1.5 or 2 Megabits (Mbits) per second. This type of speed is necessary for streaming high definition video, playing online games and sending and receiving large amounts of data.
So how do you connect to the Internet at home? Let’s take a look at the most common residential broadband Internet technologies.
In the United States, cable Internet is one of the most common forms of residential Internet access. Similar to Fiber and DSL (which we’ll discuss below), cable works by providing what’s called “last mile access” from the ISP to an end user.
The last mile refers to the final leg of a telecommunications network. It’s the part that actually reaches customers.
Cable Internet requires a cable modem on the user’s end and a cable modem termination system at the cable operator’s facility. These two systems are connected using coaxial cable — the same stuff you use to get cable TV. The distance between the modem and the facility can be up to 100 miles for larger facilities and most nationwide cable providers operate out of several different hub.
Cable speeds are shared across users and the system is designed to distribute access evenly. If too many users use too much data, the backend can slow down for everyone.
To help limit users from taking up all available bandwidth, cable modems are programmed with rate limits. Higher tier packages often offer higher speeds. In recent years, a number of major broadband providers have also moved to offering metered rates, meaning users who use more data pay more than those who use less.
The speeds on cable can theoretically be as high as 100 Megabits per second down in homes and as fast as 20Mbits per second up.
Cable’s primary competition in the United States is DSL, otherwise known as digital subscriber line.
Just as cable Internet uses the cable television system for its backend, DSL uses existing telephone networks. DSL is delivered simultaneously over a regular wired telephone line.
Most residential DSL is actually asymmetric DSL (or ADSL). This means download speeds can be faster than upload speeds. With the less common symmetric DSL (SDSL), download and upload speeds are equal.
Like cable, DSL works by connecting an ISP to the last mile for the user. In this case, it means connecting to a user’s copper phone line and a telephone exchange. The connection between a user’s phone line and the telephone exchange is limited to about 2 miles. The further away one gets from the exchange, the slower the speeds. As a result, DSL is best used in areas that are located within close proximity to a telephone exchange.
Download speeds on residential DSL are usually limited to 40Mbits per second down — though the average tends to be much less.
In recent years, cable and DSL have seen increasing competition from optical fiber systems. The benefit of optical fiber over coax or copper phone lines is that it can offer much higher data speeds over longer distances.
In fact, most Internet and cable backbones already use fiber for their backend infrastructure. These systems then switch to other technologies for the final delivery.
Speeds of 100 Mbits per second in both directions aren’t unheard of with fiber. In fact, Google Fiber hopes to bring 1000 Mbit connections in both directions directly to user homes.
Right now, the biggest hold-up with fiber is deployment. Homes and buildings need to be wired for fiber and retrofitting residential locations can take a lot of time.
Beyond just wired Internet connections, wireless technology is increasingly becoming a viable replacement for home broadband.
LTE — or Long-Term Evolution — is the next generation of wireless technologies. In the United States, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have LTE networks (Verizon has the most robust network but AT&T is expanding quickly) and they can offer users true broadband speeds from mobile devices and wireless modems.
Unlike cable, fiber and DSL, LTE doesn’t require a wired connection for access. Instead, users use either an LTE phone or tablet or a USB or battery-powered dongle to offer up access.
Speeds can be as high as 50 Mbits per second down and over 30 Mbits per second up. The next evolution of LTE, LTE Advanced, promises even faster speeds.
The most promising aspect of LTE is that it can significantly help with the “last mile” problem. While cable and fiber can work well over mid-sized distances, the systems are still out of contention for rural areas or in developing countries without deep infrastructure.
On the contrary, LTE can work over much longer distances and expanding support requires putting up new cellular towers.
Another advantage of LTE is that its access that can travel with the user. Unlike cable, fiber and DSL, LTE can be accessed from multiple locations. I can use my iPad’s LTE connection from any place that supports LTE. If LTE isn’t in the area, the signal defaults back to 3G.
Politics Transformed: The High Tech Battle for Your Vote is an in-depth look at how digital media is affecting elections. Mashable explores the trends changing politics in 2012 and beyond in these special reports.
You can do basically anything online. From booking a flight to securely transmitting medical records to your doctor, from buying groceries to managing your bank account, the web supports all sorts of complex transactions. But one common task has firmly resisted the lure of online convenience: voting.
At least mostly. There is actually some online voting already happening in very limited ways. At least 32 states and the District of Columbia will allow military or overseas voters to return absentee ballots via email, fax or an Internet portal, in effect offering a form of remote electronic voting to some segment of the population. But for the majority of voters, a trip to a polling place will be necessary to cast a vote in this year’s election.
Why is that? Surely, if engineers can figure out how to safeguard your medical records or transfer large sums of money over the Internet, beaming a vote from your living room should be a piece of cake. That’s a popular refrain among proponents of Internet voting systems, and on the surface, it makes sense. If security-obsessed industries like banking and medicine have embraced the Internet, why is voting still stuck in the relative dark ages? As with most things, the reality is a bit more complicated.
According to VerifiedVoting.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the “accuracy, integrity and verifiability” of elections in a digital age, all voting systems should have a few key components. First, there needs to be a fully auditable, preferably voter-verifiable paper trail that maintains the integrity of the secret ballot. Second, voting systems need to have in place strong mechanisms to prevent any undetected changes to votes. Third, systems should not be easily subject to wide-scale service disruptions. Indeed, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002 as a response to the Florida recount debacle of 2000, requires some of these provisions under the law.
From a strictly engineering standpoint, none of those problems seem impossible to overcome. So why did VerifiedVoting.org board member and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory computer security expert David Jefferson tell attendees at the RSA Security Conference in March that the very concept of Internet elections is “unfixably broken?”
Let’s dig into each of VerifiedVoting.org’s requirements for a voting system and how they might be achieved via the Internet.
Both critics and proponents of online voting agree that it is important for all votes in an election to be counted as cast. Where they disagree is how best to make that happen. The voting system standards laid out in the Help America Vote Act require that all voting systems “produce a record with an audit capacity for such system,” or in other words, votes can be recounted for verification purposes.
For traditional voting systems, that usually means votes are cast by some method that involves making a permanent mark on paper, like punching a hole through a card or marking a box with a pen, and then dropping those ballots into a box to be manually counted, or feeding them into some sort of electronic counting machine. Electronic systems used at polling places often create a printed receipt that details the vote you just cast. Online voting critics argue that this paper record is the most reliable way to ensure votes can be verified in the face of a discrepancy or too-close-for-comfort results.
Pamela Smith, president of VerifiedVoting.org, says that audit trails should create an “indelible record, not something that’s ephemeral, like bits and bytes.”
And some in the government seem to agree. A 2011 study from the National Institute for Standards and Technologies concluded that online voting systems weren’t ready for prime time, in part because “Internet voting systems cannot currently be audited with a comparable level of confidence in the audit results as those for polling place systems.”
Of course, Internet voting systems are already being used in elections of consequence, and the people who make them argue that their electronic ballot systems are actually more secure and more reliable than the paper versions in use today.
“The premise that a piece of paper is immutable and therefore the best answer for proving that something was what it was intended to be doesn’t make sense to me,” says Lori Steele, CEO of Everyone Counts, a vendor of online and electronic voting systems that have already been used for elections in cities and states all over the U.S. According to Steele, her company’s software delivers a more reliable audit trail because it is more secure than paper, and because electronic systems can create multiple, independent copies of voting records that can be checked against one another. That sort of redundancy doesn’t exist in today’s paper systems, where you fill out one piece of paper to rely on in the event of a recount.
Audit trails should create an “indelible record, not something that’s ephemeral, like bits and bytes.”
“Just because someone sees a piece of paper going into a cardboard box, doesn’t mean that that piece of paper was what was delivered in the end and counted,” argues Steele, who alludes to horror stories of paper ballots lost or stolen and never counted.
And what about the privacy requirements? Most democratic governments, including that of the U.S., are elected via a secret ballot in order to stop coercion, intimidation or simple vote selling. Currently, some states that allow overseas voters to return ballots by electronic means, like email or fax, require them to sign an affidavit that acknowledges the secrecy of their vote may be impossible to protect. VerifiedVoting.org says that creating a reliable audit trail while maintaining the secret ballot is an unsolved problem. Steele says her system already meets those requirements.
It really comes down to this: Can you trust an electronic record? Your mileage may vary.
Online voting critics have horror stories to share, too. Smith recounted what happened in 2004 in Carteret County, N.C., when an unanticipated memory limitation on an electronic voting machine caused the system to simply stop counting votes. About 4,500 were lost before anyone noticed. Or the 2010 D.C. pilot program test, in which a team of computer security students from the University of Michigan were able to hack into the system and change not only the results, but the actual choices displayed on screen. (Steele says that one was the result of sloppy code on the part of the vendor of that particular system.)
It’s much easier to hack into a broadly used system and alter thousands of votes than it is to counterfeit thousands of paper ballots.
Even though Steele claims that Everyone Counts’ software uses highly complex, military-grade encryption that is nearly unhackable, she concedes that in computer security you can never say never. “Technology changes fast. It’s important that we maintain our state-of-the-art standards in both security and accessibility,” she says.
That’s a big concern for critics, who note that even if you can assume an online system is no more secure than our current standards, they exponentially increase the attack surface. It’s much easier to hack into a broadly used system and alter thousands of votes than it is to counterfeit thousands of paper ballots.
If a nightmare scenario were to manifest, and a voting system was hacked and not detected, we may never know, according to Jefferson. That’s the main difference between banking and voting, he said at the RSA conference. Because of the privacy requirements, there’s no list of voter decisions that allows you to check and say, “Yep, my vote was recorded correctly.” According to Jefferson, it’s more likely that the wrong person takes office and life goes on with no one the wiser.
That’s a troubling scenario, but it seems to ignore that the same methods used today to uncover discrepancies in the vote — like exit polling and automatic recounts — could still be employed. As long as that audit record exists, any election should be verifiable.
Perhaps the most serious potential issue for online voting systems is the threat of a distributed denial of service attack. While our current network of polling places leaves thousands of voters disenfranchised each election cycle, because of long lines, poorly publicized poll location changes, the inability to travel or misinformation — a wide-scale DDoS attack could theoretically disenfranchise large swaths of the voting public.
It’s not that hard to imagine a large-scale attack, or even something more mundane like a power outage, rendering an entire election network unreachable by voters. In June 2012, a power outage caused a service disruption to Amazon Web Services, bringing down popular websites like Instagram and Netflix. A similar outage in 2011 affected other web heavyweights.
Then in September 2012, an attack on the servers of domain registrar and web host GoDaddy impacted thousands of web sites. That attack was allegedly perpetrated by someone connected to often-politically motivated hackivist group Anonymous (though GoDaddy refutes this). Is it such a stretch to imagine that a group like Anonymous could someday want to impact a major election via DDoS attacks on the voting servers?
Steele admits that DDoS attacks are “absolutely a problem; a more real problem than others,” but also assures that her company takes steps to mitigate the threat. One unique condition of online voting that acts in her favor is that Internet-based elections can be held for longer than a single day, and usually they are. Steele said that most online voting takes place over the course of a few weeks.
“So the chances of having a denial of service attack have an impact are also slim,” she says, “because it would have to be a very long, extended denial of service attack over multiple days that also touched each of the hosting facilities that was hosting the election.”
Also working in her favor is the fact that elections are a multi-billion dollar business, and the free market is very much at play. There are thousands of election jurisdictions in the U.S. and they don’t all use the same platform or vendor. So while you might have a trade-off when it comes to usability or auditability between vendors, all those different competing systems that connect to different hosting facilities actually act as an extra layer of security.
Internet-based elections can be held for longer than a single day to guard against service disruptions.
That panoply of different systems also protects against the computer systems of individual voters becoming targets. As many as 48% of computers in the United States may already be infected with malware. As is often pointed out by security experts, the weakest link in any online system is the home computer.
Malware installed on a computer used to vote could, for example, make a user think he was casting a ballot for one candidate, but actually send a completely different vote to the server, or send no vote at all. If a piece of malware replaced an official voting app on your device with a dummy version or redirected you to an unofficial version of an official website, and your vote was never recorded, would anyone ever know? Probably not. Or at least, not until it was too late to recast your vote.
Still, Steele rejects this as a valid concern. Online voting doesn’t necessarily mean via a web browser on a PC — it can also mean through an app on an iPad or a smartphone. With more and more people owning multiple devices, it would be very difficult for anyone to effectively attack the vote via malware.
“To be able to infect all of [your] devices for everybody in America to make sure that you can actually impact the election is a lot harder than signing up as a poll worker and throwing ballot boxes in the river,” argues Steele, who indicated that Everyone Counts also employs detection methods to check computers for dangerous malware before letting a constituent cast her vote.
The Flame virus discovered earlier this year indicates that nothing is completely safe. That virus was in the wild for two years before it was detected by security experts, stealing information like Skype conversations and keystrokes without detection. Flame reportedly even had the ability to self-destruct and erase itself from infected computers.
Could a Flame-like virus be infecting online voting systems without anyone knowing? While Steele probably wouldn’t admit it, Flame, and other recently discovered viruses like Stuxnet and Gauss, indicate that malware creators are often one step ahead of the security experts chasing them. As John Naughton wrote in The Observer, “The PC security business … suffers from one structural problem: its products are, by definition, reactive.”
That might be a serious issue when you’re dealing with something that has gravely important and wide-reaching consequences like a national election.
It would be naive to think that Internet voting isn’t coming. Indeed, as Steele was quick to point out, online voting is already here, and will be used by many in the 2012 presidential election. Proponents of online voting point to a number of reasons to embrace the technology. Online voting systems are by their nature more accessible (another requirement of HAVA); they make it difficult to suppress votes by dubious methods like redistricting; and there is some evidence that voter turnout increases when online voting options are presented (though this is up for debate).
Military and overseas voters could especially benefit from the ease of use and accessibility of online ballots, say representatives from the Operation Bravo Foundation, an organization whose mission is to increase success for people who cast their vote under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). According to Operation Bravo president Pat Hollarn, success is measured by voter satisfaction in receiving a blank ballot on time and returning it with an assurance that it will arrive back in the U.S. on time to be properly counted. However, the chance for success is much lower for UOCAVA voters than among stateside absentees. She cites reasons like postal delays caused by extreme remoteness, address changes (ballots aren’t supposed to be forwarded), last-minute military deployment and issues with ballots being handed off to foreign postal services.
“People are extremely comfortable with what they’re familiar with,” says Steele, explaining why online voting is not yet more widespread. It’s easy to imagine a time in the near future when the majority of registered voters are people who grew up completely in today’s digitally connected world. At some point, online voting may become necessary for widespread civic participation.
That’s not a good enough reason for critics to put their trust in Internet-based systems. “Fourteen-year-old kids want to drive fast and not wear seat belts, but we don’t let them. It’s not an option,” says Smith. “And the reason it’s not an option is not just because we’re safeguarding them, but we’re safeguarding the rest of us, too.”
Online voting is already here, and will be used by many in the 2012 presidential election.
Smith is right that elections are important enough that decisions about voting systems should not be based solely on the whims of the populace. But the writing on the wall seems clear: Widespread online elections will be a reality in the near future. So rather than fight it, a more productive tack would be to make sure that when the day arrives that anyone in America can cast his vote online, it’s accomplished with the most secure and foolproof systems imaginable.
As Steele points out, employing a variety of elections systems is a boon for security, but it also means that not every vote may have the same level of auditability. That’s why there should be national standards in place and vendors should be forced to share best practices with one another. It should also be mandatory that vendors make their code available for peer review (something Everyone Counts does voluntarily). HAVA required that the United States Election Assistance Commission set up guidelines for verification of voting systems, but many critics and proponents of online voting agreed that the standards lack stringency, especially when it comes to over-the-Internet voting — and the guidelines haven’t been updated since 2005, though a second draft was submitted in 2009. Further, federal certification of electronic voting systems is currently voluntary and only nine states require testing to federal standards.
The bottom line is that elections need to be trustworthy. “How many votes can we afford to lose?” Smith asks. “The answer should be zero, or as close to that as we can get.”
That’s something everyone can agree on.Internet voting systems, Lori Steele, voting systems
U.S.-funded programs to beat back online censorship are increasingly finding a ready audience in repressive countries, with more than 1 million people a day using online tools to get past extensive blocking programs and government surveillance.
But the popularity of those initiatives has become a liability.
Activists and nonprofit groups say that their online circumvention tools, funded by the U.S. government, are being overwhelmed by demand and that there is not enough money to expand capacity. The result: online bottlenecks that have made the tools slow and often inaccessible to users in China, Iran and elsewhere, threatening to derail the Internet freedom agenda championed by the Obama administration.
“Every time we provide them with additional funding, those bottlenecks are alleviated for a time but again fill to capacity in a short period of time,” said André Mendes, director of the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which funds some of the initiatives. “One could reasonably state that more funding would translate into more traffic and, therefore, more accessibility from behind these firewalls.”
The United States spends about $30 million a year on Internet freedom, in effect funding an asymmetric proxy war against governments that spend billions to regulate the flow of information. The programs have been backed by President Obama, who promoted the initiatives at a town-hall-style meeting in Shanghai three years ago.
During his debate last week with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Obama briefly raised the topic of government surveillance in China, accusing the former Bain Capital chief executive of investing in firms that provide surveillance technology to China’s government.
For his part, Romney has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for what he calls its failure to stand up to the authoritarian governments in China, Iran and other countries where Internet freedom is curtailed. The two candidates meet Monday for the third and final debate, this one focusing on foreign policy.
The U.S. government funds nonprofit groups and others to develop software that can be downloaded by users in other countries with pervasive censorship. The most widely used tools route Internet traffic through other countries, allowing users to bypass Internet firewalls as well as surveillance.
The task of keeping the Internet free, however, is becoming harder.
China’s “Great Firewall” has grown more sophisticated in recent years, with the Communist government employing tens of thousands of monitors to filter content and watch users. Iran, meanwhile, has stepped up its already-substantial censorship efforts amid a mounting economic crisis, instituting new bans on overseas audio and video content and advancing plans for an Iran-only intranet.
The online crackdown is spurring calls from Internet freedom advocates for the Obama administration to step up its own efforts. Many have expressed frustration with what they perceive as slow progress advancing these tools.
“I can’t imagine anything more cost-effective or strategic for the United States to do,” said Michael Horowitz, former general counsel to the Office of Management and Budget in Ronald Reagan’s administration and co-founder of the Twenty First Century Initiative, a group aiming to increase funding for Internet freedom.
“The one thing that’s perfectly clear is people in closed-society regimes are the shrewdest people of all about being able to define their own interests and stay in power,” he said. “And the Iranians and the Chinese are telling us, as clearly as they can, that their stability in power depends on purifying the Internet.”
Horowitz said he wants the BBG — an independent agency that, along with the State Department, funds online circumvention tools — to increase its spending on Internet freedom from its current level of about $10 million of its $750 million annual budget, to between $50 million and $100 million.
Executives at the BBG said they are sympathetic to such appeals but suggest they are politically infeasible.
The “argument is if you gave $100 million, you could really be David and Goliath, could blow a big hole and knock the whole whack-a-mole of the Chinese censors down, and all the rest of the bad guys,” said Michael P. Meehan, a member of the BBG. “I wouldn’t disagree.”
But, he said, the agency is already under pressure from Congress to find $50 million in budget cuts.
Meehan said his frustration is that countries such as China and Iran are clearly willing to spend exponentially more than the United States in what has become a cat-and-mouse chase.
“If we figure out how to breach the Chinese firewall with x dollars, they can spend a hundred times x dollars and divert their resources to figuring out how to plug that hole,” he said. “If they’re spending to shut one guy down, they’ll create a vulnerability somewhere else in the wall for someone else. That’s exactly how this battle’s going to work.”
The most widely used tool to avoid Internet censorship in China and beyond is known as Ultrasurf, but those behind the project say it no longer has the capacity to support demand.
On one day in September alone, for example, more than 770,000 people used the tool to avoid censors — more than half from China or Vietnam, according to data supplied by “Clint,” one of the people running the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for the safety of relatives in China.
Ultrasurf’s traffic spikes in different countries during times of political turmoil and crisis, as more users struggle to get access to independent information and news — but the tool also crashes when it gets overloaded.
As a result, Ultrasurf has already had to slow down Internet speeds to a crawl, Clint said, and prevent access to video content. Those behind the program have also developed a version for mobile phones — potentially significant given that millions of people in countries with censorship have phones but no computers — but they are unable to launch it because of funding constraints.
Privately, officials say the funding issues are caught up in concerns over politics and security.
Ultrasurf, for example, is backed by thousands of supporters of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that began in China, and restricts access to content critical of the religious group, making it more difficult for officials to press Congress for money.
Tor, a competing online program that also permits users to avoid detection, has become a useful tool for drug trafficking, child prostitution and other criminal activity. It’s a problem that staff members at the Tor project acknowledge, but they say it is, in effect, a cost of doing business for an anti-surveillance tool.
“Criminals are early adopters of technology. As soon as the police learn to monitor one network, criminals find better ways to hide,” said Karen Reilly, development director for the Tor project.
“We are being asked to make false choices between victims,” Reilly said. “Because of someone who is being abused by a family member in the States, we are asked to shut down anonymity software, leaving the child who posts anti-regime comments on social media vulnerable in a country where rape in prison is officially sanctioned punishment.”
Internet freedom activists say part of the challenge in developing online circumvention tools is determining how much to spend now on helping users evade detection vs. how much to spend on more sophisticated projects for the future that could keep pace with censorship technology.
Much of the latter is done under the auspices of Radio Free Asia, in a program led by Dan Meredith, a 30-year-old former journalist and programmer. But his program has only $3.7 million to spend in the year ahead — down from $6.7 million last year.
Meredith said that the firewall in China is “actually thin as cheese paper” — at least until censors find new ways to block information. What Meredith wants to do is keep the Internet free for new users — by building “mesh” networks, retooling major sites to automatically dodge crude censorship efforts and more.
But he acknowledges the political sensitivities involved in the effort.
“How do I go about trying to increase more awareness and funding from Congress for Internet freedom without going against some huge political body, or something?” he said.
For Horowitz, the veteran of the Reagan administration, the issue boils down to ideology. Internet freedom, in his view, is the 21st century’s Cold War.
“We live in a world where walls of electrons are increasingly replacing stone and barbed wire as control mechanisms of dictatorships,” he said.
Though I had hoped that we, as people, would have improved our passwords by now, it turns out that we, as people, are still unimaginative and so very lazy. Just take a look at the most popular (read: the worst) passwords of 2012. They’re terribly predictable.
The rankings were created by SplashData who gathered the data from the millions of stolen passwords posted online by hackers in 2012 and ranked them in order of popularity. It’s all similar to year’s past but we’ve got some new additions at the end of the list in Jesus and password1. Yay for religion and online services demanding you add a number to your password! I just want to see the day where password is unseated. Here’s the full list:
1. password (Unchanged)
2, 123456 (Unchanged)
3. 12345678 (Unchanged)
4. abc123 (Up 1)
5. qwerty (Down 1)
6. monkey (Unchanged)
7. letmein (Up 1)
8. dragon (Up 2)
9. 111111 (Up 3)
10. baseball (Up 1)
11. iloveyou (Up 2)
12. trustno1 (Down 3)
13. 1234567 (Down 6)
14. sunshine (Up 1)
15. master (Down 1)
16. 123123 (Up 4)
17. welcome (New)
18. shadow (Up 1)
19. ashley (Down 3)
20. football (Up 5)
21. jesus (New)
22. michael (Up 2)
23. ninja (New)
24. mustang (New)
25. password1 (New)
Are you surprised that something didn’t make the cut?
Google is the internet surfer’s best friend and worst enemy. If you know what you’re after, just type it into the search engine’s famous little box and – hey presto – you’ll be given a list of related sites in order of relevance.
Such is Google’s dominance that its name has become a synonym for search. And rightly so. When was the last time you Yahooed something? And good though Bing is, it’s not ringing our bell just yet. There’s a problem, though.
Searching for something implies you know what you’re looking for. Gold prospectors search for gold; they don’t scour the earth on the off-chance there’s something which may or may not be of any value knocking around. So what happens if you don’t know what you’re looking for; if you just want to be amazed?
How do you ask Google for some brilliant sites, sites which will feed your mind, soul or just let you waste time in style? If you’re in that kind of mood, you’re in the right place. Welcome to PC Plus’s directory of the best websites on the internet.
Our experts have put their thinking caps on and come up with a list of their favourite sites. So, do yourself a favour: forget Google for a while and put your trust in us.
Best sites for learning
Martin Cooper uncovers the best sites for discovering amazing facts and figures
When you’re after something to feed your mind, body or soul, you’ll be sure to find something on the internet that will make you think. From recipes to help us geeky types boil an egg to sites that help you track down the origins of slang, amazing discoveries are always only a few clicks away.
If you’re ever in doubt about how to do something, visit eHow. As well as helping with everyday tasks such as how to polish your car or change ISP, the site isn’t shy of difficult topics. You can learn how to politely turn down an amorous suitor, for example. The breadth of topics is staggering and the content sensible. Just be aware that it’s an American publication, so don’t follow its legal advice too closely.
Cooking for engineers
If you’re scientifically minded, endless drivel about organic chickens, rustic honesty and sun-dried tomatoes can leave you nonplussed. This site is a great antidote to foppish gastronomic pomposity. Its instructions for soft boiled eggs are a triumph of analysis, and the end result looks tasty too.
The CIA World Factbook
If you’re looking for a glossy travel guide with indulgent photographs, flowery descriptions of views and lists of chic little boutiques, look elsewhere. This site is all about hard facts. All nation states are profiled, and data about everything from infant mortality to population size is quoted.
Even though printing out the whole of Wikipedia would result in a stack of paper about a kilometre high, it is somewhat exclusive in what it contains. If you’re after outrageously detailed guides to popular culture, Wikia’s various sub-sites will suck you in and never spit you back out. Take a look at Wookieepedia, the Star Wars wiki, for a perfect example: it features a whopping 70,000 articles, and all of them are obsessively maintained.
No prizes for guessing what Dictionary.com is. As the old cliché goes, it does exactly what it says on the tin. If you’re looking for a dictionary definition of a word, it certainly returns a more detailed definition than Google’s ‘define’ function. Dictionary.com does more just define things for you, though – it also has a Word of the Day feature. Sign up, and you’ll receive a new word, gift-wrapped and delivered by email, every day.
You can’t beat Google’s news homepage when it comes to getting a snapshot of the most important stories in the world. Or can you? It turns out you can. Newsmap presents Google’s news feed pictorially, giving the most important stories proportionally more prominence on the screen.
Genealogy has become something of a national obsession in recent years. If you fancy tracking down your antecedents and finding out whether your heritage is tied up with agriculture or aristocracy, Genuki is the place to start.
Only read a few Dan Browns but want people to think you’ve had your nose deep in tomes by Proust and Tolstoy? Just drop the Quote of the Day from this site into conversation to give yourself some instant intellectualism.
What Should I Read Next
Enjoyed a particular book or writer and want to find something similar? This site will recommend a good follow-up read for you to get your teeth into. Its suggestions rely on the magic of user-generated content, and the site isn’t in the pocket of any publishing houses, so you should get a fairly unbiased recommendation.
This site is a statistician’s dream. It’s bursting with all sorts of numeric data about hundreds of nation states, from Burundi to Belgium. Did you know that 1.1 out of every million people in Turkmenistan is a chess grandmaster, for example? Didn’t think so. Dive on in and see what else you can find out.
Cute and clever, The Fin, Fur and Feather Bureau of Investigation aims to teach kids about problem solving and critical thinking. Both are essential for life in this computer rich age, and what better way is there to learn such skills than by becoming a spy for a detective agency run by a plethora of friendly animals?
If you’ve got a curious mind, a look at NASA TV is a must. You can watch space walks and all the rest live, giving us on Earth an insight into the life of an astronaut.
There’s nothing any industry likes more than an impenetrable acronym. If you’re presented with a particularly cryptic one, Acronym Finder will decrypt it for you instantly.
This fantastic site lets you explore Earth using multiple sources of mapping data, all controlled through a single interface. A must for all geographers and high-altitude voyeurs.
PopURLs gives you a snapshot of what’s being said on the biggest social news websites, neatly displaying a grid of headlines in (almost) real-time. If you have to be cutting edge, this is for you.
All play and no work: Richard Cobbett lists his favourite media sites
It’s not yet in the UK, but it’s definitely one to watch. The only shame is that once it does arrive in Blighty, we won’t get the same shows as our cousins across the pond.
Almost endless music to listen to. Whether you want to buy it for your iPod or recreate the soundtrack of a motion picture, you’re only one click away from the perfect license.
This site makes movies even funnier with downloadable commentaries to play alongside your favourite movies. Make sure you download the PAL versions, though.
That Guy With The Glasses
The hub for almost every YouTube reviewer and comedian you’ve ever heard of, plus plenty of top-quality comedy you haven’t. Specialises in gaming, movies and sketches.
Hours of geek-friendly programming, from meeting the weirdos behind the strangest websites around to full Photoshop tutorials and advice on defeating padlocks.
It’s not as hyped as the BBC iPlayer, but now that Channel 4 has released huge chunks of its back catalogue for free, it’s the perfect place to waste some time.
The Agony Booth
One of the best places to see bad movies and TV shows get what’s coming to them. Full of snarky, detailed recaps of everything the original creators got wrong.
The best way to track your listening habits and find out which artists you should be checking out next. The site’s huge archive of free tracks and music videos on tap doesn’t hurt either, and with one of the biggest music communities around, even the most obscure tastes should be well covered.
See the best demos – programs written to show off what top-grade programmers can do – without having to download them. It’s not quite the same as seeing them for real, but it’s good for browsing and finding those worth downloading at a later date.
Proof that online video doesn’t always have to be polished to be engaging, the idea behind 12Seconds is in the name – short, bite-sized comments about anything and everything. It’s mostly intended for friends and family rather than mass audiences, but you never know how things might take off in the future – just look at Twitter.
There’s plenty of places online to upload videos, but not many provide a downloadable client to help you record your finest gaming moments and share them. WeGame is also useful for seeing how the experts play, enabling you to learn some great new moves in your favourite games by their example.
From one man lifestreaming his day-to-day happenings to a full video portal where anyone can set up a channel, Justin is well worth exploring. If you decide to try it for yourself, though, a word of advice: turn the camera off in the loo.
One of the best sites for finding podcasts you might be interested in before downloading them, Podcast Alley covers a vast range of subjects.
What do you do if you want to make your own podcast, but don’t have any musical flair? That’s where ‘podsafe’ music comes in – tunes that you can use for the cost of a shout-out to the artist. Netlabels is a great place to start hunting for the right theme.
If general video content doesn’t appeal to you, don’t forget that the internet always has something for every niche. SecurityTube is a YouTube-style site that’s specifically for computer security videos, with uploads offering a level of depth you simply won’t find elsewhere.
If you’re looking for trailers for the latest movie releases, you rarely need to look further than this site. Apple Trailers is especially good if your bandwidth can handle the highest resolutions.
PC misbehaving? Mike Williams delivers a collection of the best online tech resources
You’ve mastered the Windows basics, and that’s great. To really optimise your PC, keep it secure and quickly troubleshoot problems, you need to go further: learn how Windows works, discover the best free software and fully understand the threat from hackers. Here are 16 essential sites to help you along the way.
Tired of tech sites that just aren’t updated frequently enough? MakeUseOf has around 20 experienced contributors, so every day sees several new posts recommending essential new software and websites, along with interesting articles on ways to improve your PC and internet life. The best are compiled into free guides on topics like networking, iTunes, Linux and Photoshop.
Black Hat Briefings are the most substantial security conferences in the computer world, where top researchers deliver fascinating demonstrations on the very latest vulnerabilities. Can’t get to one? Don’t worry – the site includes an archive where you can download each speaker’s presentations and materials, usually within a couple of weeks of each event.
Freewaregenius trawls the freeware world, and regularly comes up with extremely useful programs that similar sites miss. The selections cover a very wide range: Windows extensions, full apps, games, specialist tools for small businesses, web developers and more. There are also regular articles on interesting topics, such as the best free antivirus software.
Security expert Bruce Schneier’s site, blog, books and newsletter provide important and highly readable insights on everything from basic techniques you can use to protect your network, to high level discussions on political power and national security. Don’t miss the Essays and Op-Eds section of his site, where you’ll find articles of his that have appeared in major publications around the world.
The hundreds of straightforward tutorials at VistaX64 will help all Vista and Windows 7 users speed up, customise, troubleshoot and generally get more from their PCs. Each guide is easy to follow, thanks to a step-by-step approach and frequent use of screen grabs. And despite the site name, most of the advice works just as well on 32-bit Windows as its 64-bit big brother.
Even Windows experts get lost occasionally, but the Sysinternals forums will quickly point you back in the right direction. They’re packed with helpful people who are happy to cover technical topics beyond Sysinternal’s own utilities. They’re knowledgeable, too: ask about processor affinity masks, DPCs or paged pool memory and they’ll know what you mean and exactly how to help.
Ask the Performance Team
This Microsoft blog regularly posts detailed advice on how to tune your PC, manage memory properly and troubleshoot crashes. And unlike similar sites, the authors don’t assume you’re a software developer – most of their articles are easily accessible to knowledgeable home users.
Don’t be put off by the banner saying this site is for Windows administrators. Its mix of reviews, recommendations on useful free Windows tools and news on the latest security issues will appeal to any knowledgeable PC owner.
There’s more to the computing world than Microsoft. This busy news site will keep you up to date with the latest on Mac OS X, Linux, Palm, AmigaOS, the iPhone and more, as well as all of the big Windows, PC and hardware developments.
Learn about the latest bots, keyloggers, trojans and other nasties by paying regular visits to this site. Be careful, though: don’t download any malware samples to try out unless you know exactly how to protect yourself.
Engineering Windows 7
A must-read for anyone interested in Windows 7, this Microsoft blog provides regular, detailed and exclusive looks at Vista’s successor.
He’s an expert programmer and true Windows guru, yet Mark Russinovich’s blog on Windows troubleshooting is still accessible to experienced home users. It’s an essential read if you want to know more about how Windows works.
Long Zheng’s influential tech blog delivers interesting analyses of the latest happenings in the PC world. And these aren’t just reprints of other people’s work: Zheng’s posts often include original research, interviews and other information that isn’t available elsewhere.
Have you ever wanted to find your Windows or Office product key? Recover email passwords? List all the Windows shell extensions on your PC, and disable the ones you don’t need? The Nirsoft website is packed with compact, useful free tools for carrying out a wide range of PC maintenance functions just like this.
Security consultant Dancho Danchev regularly produces fascinating reports exposing the mechanics of malware and internet scams: what hackers are doing, how they’re doing it and who’s making money from their efforts. A must-read for anyone interested in security issues beyond their own PC.
Microsoft’s Global Escalation Services Support Team blog has invaluable advice on crash analysis and low-level troubleshooting that will soon have your PC running smoothly. Be careful, though: you’ll need some expertise to keep up.
Gary Marshall expands on how to find friends and advertise yourself
Upload video and share it or embed it in your blog. Free accounts give you 500MB of storage and one HD video per week, while paid accounts offer unlimited HD.
Best described as Flickr for professional photographers, SmugMug’s service isn’t free – it starts at £20 per year – but it’s a superb way to showcase photography.
Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org and PostScript files are reproduced online with formatting intact. You can then embed the results in your own site or blog.
Can’t find a social network dedicated to your specific interests? Ning enables you to create and customise one in a matter of minutes without costing a penny.
FriendFeed brings all your social networks together into a single feed. The service supports Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, del.icio.us, YouTube and various blogs.
Funny Or Die
Will Ferrell’s site is YouTube for comedy: users upload whatever they think is funny, with everyone voting for the best comic clips. If it isn’t funny, it dies.
Designed for documentary makers and viewers, SnagFilms provides a portal for over 700 movies and the ability to create custom movie theatres for any website. Filmmakers who contribute get an equal share of the advertising revenue.
If you’ve seen the embedded articles on our website, you’ll know that Issuu does an excellent job of displaying print documents in a web browser. Basic accounts are free, and you can share your documents on the usual social networks or embed them in your own site.
Long URLs can be a real pain when you’re trying to share a link both online and via SMS. Bit.ly is a brilliant way of shortening internet addresses to manageable links. The site also features advanced options that allow you to do things like track how many people have accessed your bit.ly link.
Pipebytes gives you the ability to send files of any size through your web browser. The real beauty of the service is that the recipient can begin downloading the file while you’re still uploading. Speeds aren’t guaranteed, but the service is free and delivers secure and private sharing.
If you’re still handing out printed notes after presentations, it’s time you checked out Slideshare. This presentation sharing website enables you to publish Powerpoint and Word documents and add audio to your files. You can also use privacy settings to make the presentation either public or contacts-only.
JayCut enables you to edit and mix audio and video clips. You can then either download the results to your PC or share the footage on YouTube, Facebook or MySpace.
So popular it can bring down entire web servers when its users visit en masse, the social news site enables you to share interesting links and see what everybody else is reading. A great way to find interesting stories.
Google Docs isn’t really a Microsoft Office rival: it’s designed for quick and simple document collaboration rather than attempting to be all things to all men. It’s a particularly good method of working on projects where inputs from many different people are needed.
Windows Live SkyDrive
The storage bit of Microsoft’s revamped online offering is pretty decent, delivering 25GB of online storage for free. You simply drag and drop each file across, and each folder gets a unique URL so you can send the link for others to access.
We’re big fans of DropSend, a service that enables you to share files of up to 2GB via its browser interface or desktop icon. Free accounts also come with 250MB of online storage.
It takes a lot to get Alex Cox’s attention. Here are a few sites that managed it
Wikipedia’s oft-questionable content has inspired a site that does away with the factual element entirely and instead goes directly for the fictional jugular.
Set up in 1971, Project Gutenberg now encompasses over 100,000 public-domain titles. If you’re hunting down the classics, this is the only place you need to look.
Cockeyed is full of facts gleaned from creator Rob Cockerham’s rudimentary science experiments. Just how much gold is inside the liqueur Goldschlager? Find out here.
The Easter Egg Archive
There are hidden extras nestling in a huge number of entertainment products. Named ‘easter eggs’, the directions to these secret nuggets of goodness can be found here.
The Atlas Obscura, ‘a compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica’ can take you from Lenin’s Mausoleum to the Hanging Temple of Hengshan.
Jason Scott has collected a ludicrous amount of old data, from an exhaustive collection of bulletin-board text files to whole CDs full of archaic shareware.
Playing Flash games online doesn’t get much classier than this; Kongregate has a massive selection of great online games, and an Xbox-esque achievement system that will track your progress over multiple titles.
Kingdom of Loathing
This stick-figure-illustrated MMO-lite may be ugly, but it is a witty and altogether nutty take on the genre that gracefully expels keyboard mashers with a clever exam – you must complete the tasks set at the Altar of Literacy to communicate with others.
The seminal shooter goes browser based – sort of. There’s still a hefty download involved, and it’s only really playable full screen, so you may as well be playing a standalone app. But as the latest incarnation of what is still one of the best arena FPS around, Quake Live is not to be missed.
This recent spin off of venerable blog Boing Boing is already one of the cleverest and most respected gaming portals out there. If it’s beautiful or clever, you’ll find it posted here.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun
No-one is closer to the cutting edge than the RPS boys; Rock, Paper, Shotgun sees four respected writers collaborating on a site dedicated to the best and quirkiest in PC gaming.
Treat yourself to a little old-school gaming action with Virtual NES. The official homepage of the Nintendo Entertainment System emulator vNES has a selection of games available to play right in your browser, including the original Mario Brothers trilogy.
World of Spectrum
The mere mention of the ZX Spectrum sends us into nostalgic fits of glee – thank goodness the community has banded together and backed up what appears to be every single thing ever released for the venerable home computer, along with a bunch of magazines.
Can’t be bothered to play games through yourself? Need to virtually try before you buy? The community behind Let’s Play often records full playthroughs of the most classic (and the most frustrating) games of all time with an amusing (and sometimes extremely coarse) commentary. It’s just like being part of the action yourself.
Independent Games Source
This site does just what its title suggests – it’s a blog covering the best games churned out by the best independent authors. If you’re looking to keep abreast of the latest wacky Gamemaker masterpieces, this is the place that you need to be.
The Interactive Fiction Archive
You are visiting a website. The design is clean and functional, and all of the words around you appear to be delicately strung together with the finest thread. You can see here: thousands of text adventures. Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.
Gary Marshall lines up his favourite sites for artists, snappers, designers and dabblers
The web is a blessing for creative types: instead of starving in a garret, you can discuss your work with like-minded people, discover new techniques and learn the secrets of getting your novel, art or movie out there for others to see.
The distinctive visual style of Manga is everywhere, from comic books to adverts and videogames. If you fancy creating your own manga-style creations then Manga University is the place to start. You’ll find tutorials on drawing hands, bodies and clothes, as well as a dedicated section showing you how to draw manga eyes.
Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame describes Shooting People as “a necessity for anyone who works, loves and breathes independent film”. More than 37,000 members share advice and information, recruit cast and show off their films on this enormous movie-making website.
Digital Webbing isn’t just a great site for comic book fans: its talent search section is where writers, artists and publishers look for work, while its forums are an excellent resource for anybody who’s interested in creating comic content. Whether you’re trying to break into the industry, recruit collaborators or just discover what inspires your favourite writers and artists, you’ll be able to satisfy yourself here.
I Love Typography
As the name suggests, I Love Typography is a website for people who really care about type – both in print and on-screen. Here you’ll find free fonts, interviews with designers, advice on type design and articles covering subjects such as whether Arial is something more than just a Helvetica clone. The site has spawned www.welovetypography.com, a spin-off which is a kind of Delicious for type-related content.
Arts & Letters Daily
Literary criticism, sociology, philosophy, essays, opinions, blogs and columns: if it’s interesting and it’s been written down, posted or published, you’ll probably find it somewhere in this regularly updated collection of the world’s best brain food. Arts & Letters Daily comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and its mission is to find and link to anything interesting. Just bookmarking the site increases your IQ by 50 points – or so we’ve heard. On Arts & Letters Daily, funnily enough…
She goes on a bit – deliberately – and repeats herself a lot – again, deliberately – but if you’re an aspiring novelist, Anne Mini’s blog is one of the best resources that you’ll find online. It’s particularly good when it comes to the business side of writing, covering everything from finding a publisher to avoiding the clichés that guarantee nobody will ever buy your book. Take a look to get your novel rolling.
National Novel Writing Month
They say everyone has a book in them, and every November the National Novel Writing Month encourages people to get it on paper in just one month. The site’s a great resource for would-be writers, with interviews, Q&As and advice.
All kinds of websites offer screenwriting advice, but few of them are as straightforward as this one. Here you’ll find step-by-step advice on creating and formatting a film script, including the rules you must follow if you want to be taken seriously.
There’s more to graffiti than teenagers tagging trains, as fans of Banksy will tell you. Art Crimes is an online gallery of graffiti art from around the world that also links to upcoming events and interviews with top graffiti artists.
The selling point here is that the most popular writers will get their books read by HarperCollins publishers instead of languishing in the slush pile. Even if you don’t catch the editors’ attention, Authonomy is a kind of MySpace for novelists, with writers submitting their work, critiquing each other and offering advice on all aspects of fiction writing.
If you’re performing or recording music, MusicRadar is a must: it’s a huge resource site featuring technique tips, gear reviews, interviews with musicians and extremely busy discussion forums. It’s not a luddite site either: electronic music making gets as much attention as guitar, bass and drums.
DeviantArt aims to provide a place for any artist to display and discuss their work. You could spend weeks browsing it: the site has more than 10 million members, many of whom are incredibly talented.
From pen and ink to acrylics and charcoal, ArtGraphica’s free online tutorials take you step-by-step through the processes of sketching, drawing and painting.
Acclaimed landscape artist Roland Lee is a generous man: on his site he provides lengthy tutorials showing exactly how he takes a blank page and turns it into something superb.
Watercolor Painting and Projects
It looks like it was designed in 1991 and the navigation is appalling, but the tutorials provided on the Watercolor Painting and Projects site are excellent. If you’re new to using watercolours, this is a good place to learn the essentials.
Part social network and part how-to guide, Photo.net is an enormous collection of articles, galleries and forums where amateur and professional photographers share advice and critique each other’s work.google, Photoshop tutorials, The CIA World Factbook, YouTube