Archive for July, 2010

Struggling MySpace plans ‘rock and roll’ relaunch

Posted July 31, 2010 By David Kolle

MySpace is improving privacy settings in the wake of Facebook's woes.

Australian traffic to MySpace has tanked by almost 50 per cent in the past year as its owner, News Corp, announces plans to relaunch the site to target a younger audience.

Facebook first overtook MySpace as Australia’s leading social networking site in April 2008 and today it attracts about 8.7 million unique browsers a month – over six times more than MySpace’s 1.4 million Australian users, according to figures released by web traffic monitor Nielsen.

Between July last year and June this year, MySpace lost about 45 per cent or just over 1.1 million of its Australian unique audience, the Nielsen figures reveal.

In that time, Facebook has gained a similar number of users to what MySpace lost. Last week, Facebook announced it had welcomed its 500 millionth member globally.

News Corp’s chief digital officer, Jon Miller, said MySpace still had a strong user base globally and planned to unveil a completely new look and feel in the coming months.

Since being eclipsed by Facebook, MySpace has worked to position itself as a platform for musicians and their fans and Miller said the site intends to “go younger, go youthful” and put a premium on “creativity and self-expression”.

“A little more rock and roll,” he said.

“We are pregnant with product – it’s really starting to roll out over the course of the next few weeks and well into the fall leading into a full relaunch of the service.”

Miller said the changes would present “a whole new look and feel, and underneath it a whole new set of use cases”.

Miller said more emphasis, for example, will be placed on MySpace as a destination for casual gaming.

“MySpace is a gaming platform and should be a much bigger and better gaming platform,” he said.

In June 2008, News Corp chief executive Rupert Murdoch dismissed Facebook as the “flavour of the month” and little more than a “directory”.


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Facebook to wait before going public

Posted July 31, 2010 By David Kolle

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is likely to put off an initial public offering until 2012

FACEBOOK is likely to put off an initial public offering until 2012 as CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces a slew of pitfalls in the coming year that he would rather navigate out of the public eye.

While the 26-year-old Harvard dropout battles lawsuits from old business partners and rising concerns about privacy issues, he’ll also be forced to hone his skills as a CEO in the coming year as he fends off a big challenge from Google, the New York Post reports.

“Facebook is already taking in a lot of money – more than Google was when they did their IPO” in 2004, according to Justin Byers, an analyst at research firm VC Experts.

Even so, Facebook is grappling with concerns that it doesn’t adequately protect users’ privacy.

On Friday the social networking site suffered another embarrassing privacy snafu when a firm called Skull Security published the personal data of more than 100 million Facebook users – a fifth of its total membership.

“The big question is, how many issues are they going to face between now and 2012?” Byers said.

A report from Bloomberg News that Facebook will “probably” delay its IPO until after next year threw cold water on recent speculation that Facebook was angling for 2011.

Recently, the company was valued at $25 billion – more than twice its value in March, according to SharesPost, which facilitates trading in private firms.

To be fair, Zuckerberg hasn’t done much to encourage bets that an IPO is near, saying in a TV interview this month that the company will file for an IPO “when it makes sense,” adding, “We’re not running the company to do that.”

Indeed, Zuckerberg’s brewing battles loom as the social-networking business is still in its infancy, with execs at Facebook and other rivals trying to figure out how to make money, according to David Berkowitz, senior director at digital agency 360i, an online marketing firm.


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Free Sophos tool blocks Windows shortcut attacks

Posted July 31, 2010 By David Kolle

The security firm Sophos released a tool on Monday that it claimed will block any attacks trying to exploit the critical unpatched vulnerability in Windows’ shortcut files.

The tool, dubbed “Sophos Windows Shortcut Exploit Protection Tool,” will protect users until Microsoft releases a permanent patch for the problem, said Chet Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos.

“The tool replaces Windows’ icon handler, so that anything that calls the handler, we’re going to intercept,” said Wisniewski.

But Microsoft refused to condone the Sophos tool, a position it takes whenever third-party solutions to a Windows bug are introduced.

“Microsoft does not endorse third-party tools,” said Jerry Bryant, group manager with the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC). “We recommend that customers apply the workaround in Security Advisory 2286198, as it helps to protect customers from all known attack vectors.”

The vulnerability is in how the Windows parses shortcuts, the small files that graphically represent links to programs and documents. Shortcuts are a key component of the Windows desktop, including the Start menu and the taskbar.

The bug was first described more than a month ago by VirusBlokAda, a little-known security firm based in Belarus. It attracted widespread attention only after security blogger Brian Krebs reported on it July 15.

A day later, Microsoft confirmed the bug and admitted that attackers were already exploiting the flaw.

All versions of Windows contain the vulnerability, including the preview of Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1), and the recently retired-from-support Windows XP SP2 and Windows 2000.

Exploit code has been widely distributed on the Internet, and Microsoft and others have spotted several attack campaigns based on the bug.

Initial attacks using the shortcut vulnerability were aimed at major manufacturing and utility companies. Two weeks ago, Siemens alerted customers of its Simatic WinCC management software that attacks using the vulnerability were targeting computers used to manage large-scale industrial control systems, often called SCADA, for “supervisory control and data acquisition.”

Hackers gained control of computers at at least one German customer of Siemens with the shortcut-exploiting “Stuxnet” worm, the electronics giant has confirmed.

Nearly 60% of the PCs identified by security vendor Symantec that have been infected by Stuxnet are located in Iran, a statistic that’s sparked speculation that the country’s infrastructure may have been targeted for attack.

Microsoft’s advice has been to disable the displaying of shortcuts, a move many users may resist since it makes much of Windows almost unusable. The Sophos tool leaves shortcut icons untouched.

Wisniewski defended Sophos’ release of the tool. “This is a reasonably unique situation in that we can put ourselves in the way of attacks,” he said. “We’re not suggesting that users not apply the Microsoft patch when it’s ready. And the tool doesn’t modify Windows or other files, so it’s not really a patch.”

The shortcut protection tool works by replacing Windows’ own icon handler, then intercepting Windows’ shortcut files — identified by the “.lnk” extension — and warning when it spots a suspicious shortcut.

“The tool looks at each shortcut to see whether it includes a code path with the vulnerable [LoadLibrary ()] call,” said Wisniewski, talking about the specific Windows call that many researchers have pinpointed as the core problem. “Then it looks to see if that’s calling an executable or .dll. If it is, the warning appears.”

Microsoft has promised to patch the shortcut parsing bug, but has not yet disclosed a timeline. The next regularly-scheduled Windows security updates are to ship in two weeks, on Aug. 10.

“Microsoft needs to fix the core issue,” echoed Wisniewski Monday. “That means they’ll have to patch ‘Shell32.dll’ itself.” Shell32.dll is a crucial Windows library file that contains numerous Windows Shell API (application programming interface) functions.

Microsoft must step carefully as it crafts a patch for the vulnerability, said Wisniewski, who added that that was the most likely reason why Microsoft had not issued a patch. “If they mess up [Shell32.dll], everyone’s machine will really be messed up,” said Wisniewski. “Their biggest challenge is testing the fix.”

Microsoft’s inability to endorse the shortcut tool notwithstanding, Sophos believes it’s a credible defense until a patch is produced.

“Hopefully, Microsoft will [soon] release a proper patch to protect against the shortcut vulnerability, and then you can simply uninstall our tool,” said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, in a post to his blog earlier Monday. “But in the meantime, this is neat. Very neat.”

The Sophos Windows Shortcut Exploit Protection Tool works on Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7, but not on Windows 2000. It can be downloaded free-of-charge from the company’s Web site.


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US marines look to buy robots from Aussies

Posted July 31, 2010 By David Kolle

Aussie company Marathon Robotics is angling for a US$57 million contract with the US military to provide autonomous robots for live-fire training exercises.

Alex Brooks, co-founder of Marathon Robotics said that the United States Marine Corps had been provided with a set of live-fire robots to test.

“In about 12 months, if [the robots] pass all of the marines’ requirements, they will be able to procure them in larger numbers … there are options on the contract up to US$57 million,” Brooks said.

Rover robotsRobots are able to sense when they are about to collide with something and can quickly change direction if needs be. (Credit: Marathon Robotics)

Brooks said a placement with the army would be lucrative. “The army is where all the big budgets are,” Brooks said.

He wouldn’t confirm how many units the United States Marine Corps had received, but did say that it was enough to simulate a large crowd environment with “terrorist” robots and “civilian” robots, for example.

The top half of the robot is a plastic mannequin, with the bottom section made up by computer system and motion controls similar to that of a Segway.

The armoured mobile training robot is controlled by a laser scanner beneath its armour. A set of navigation algorithms matches what it sees to a pre-programmed map of the environment, enabling it to duck in and out of cover, react to certain circumstances and provide a unique target for snipers and infantry.

“It’s kind of like a computer game with real robots,” said Brooks.

Robots taking part in a live fire demonstration. (Credit: Marathon Robotics)

Robots have the ability to follow each other and take cover when a fellow cyborg is being shot at. The technology is also designed so that a robot can react quickly to new stimuli in its environment such as a threat or an obstacle.

Marathon Robotics was founded in 2007 by three PhD students from the University of Sydney after consultation with the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

In tandem with the ADF, Tobias Kaupp, Alex Makarenko and Alex Brooks founded Marathon Robotics and began development for the autonomous live-fire robot.

The robots are currently used by the Australian Defence Force in its live fire exercises.


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