Dec 15, 2000

BT sues Prodigy over U.S. hyperlink patent
12/15/2000; 2:15:48 PM

'BRITISH TELECOMMUNICATIONS (BT), which earlier in the year said it had discovered that it owns the U.S. patent for the invention of the hyperlink technology used on the Internet, has sued Prodigy Communications for copyright infringement....

'Early in the year, after discovering in a routine check that it owned the patent for the hyperlink, BT wrote to 17 U.S. ISPs, including Prodigy, asking them to pay for the privilege of using the technology through licensing agreements. The suit filed against Prodigy, which claims to be largest consumer DSL (digital subscriber line) ISP in the United States, is the first suit BT has filed to protect its hyperlink patent, according to Orr.'

Wow, so it's finally happened.  I half expected them to give up.  Note: I have no idea why BT filed a copyright infringement suit, as this article claims. I'll be looking for other updates and articles to see if this is a typo or if there's some wierd reason for a patent to be protected with a copyright infringement suit.

Dec 15, 2000

Final Carnivore Report Offers No New Answers
Surveillance and Privacy from Government
12/15/2000; 2:08:17 PM

'House Majority Leader Dick Armey made the following comments about the newly released, final report on the Carnivore cybersnooping system:

'This superficial review doesn't get to the heart of the matter. It does nothing to restore the confidence that Americans should have in the confidentiality of their online transactions.

'Why should average Internet users have to wonder whether a rogue agent could snoop through their emails and other online transactions?

'If this Administration were actually interested in an honest evaluation of Carnivore, it would have shut the system down until the serious privacy concerns had been adequately addressed. Instead, this review by a team with clear ties to this Administration raises more concerns than it answers.'

Direct link to the Carnivore report (4.5 megabyte PDF).

Dec 15, 2000

Port scanning other networks legal
Hacking & Cracking
12/15/2000; 1:25:35 PM

A United States District Court in Georgia has ruled that port scanning is legal, because it causes no damage to the target computers. Here's the full court report.

I tried to find a decent explanation of port scanning on the net, but I couldn't find a level-headed definition, so I wrote my own definition.

Dec 15, 2000

Port Scanning
12/15/2000; 1:24:26 PM

I tried to find a decent definition of port scanning on the web, but I can't find one to my satisfaction. They either resort to ill-advised metaphors or panicky ohmigoshHACKERS!-style definitions. So here's my take on it:

The "port" in "port scanning" refers to TCP/IP ports. The internet protocol that we all use defines about 60,000 "ports" on each computer, which a program can "listen" to in order to recieve communication on the Internet. For instance, web servers typically listen on "port 80". There are some other accepted port numbers, but any program can listen on any port.

The reason these ports are necessary is that one computer can (and usually does) run multiple network services, so in order to use a specific service you have to be more specific then just the machine the service is running on. It's somewhat similar to telephone numbers, which have area codes and then more digits for the local connection. You can't just call "Area code 517"... you have to call a number in that area code. And so it is with ports... you can't say "Connect to"... you need to connect on port 80.

You generally don't see this, because the standard ports are filled in for you. Windows file sharing always runs on the same ports. Web servers almost always run on port 80. If you ever see a URL that has a colon in it, followed by a number, that's telling the browser to connect to a different port. (You might see this in Radio Userland if you tell it to use a port other then 80, then look at your Live Outline or some other local file in the browser.) For example, still connects to iRights. The browser would have connected on port 80 anyhow. doesn't work; there's no webserver on port 7439.

Thus, when someone runs a port scan, they are looking through the available ports to see if anything is listening on those ports. There are a lot of ways to do port scanning; you might scan all the ports on one computer (which takes a while), or you might scan for all computers in a certain address block to see if anything is running on port 80 (in other words, running a web server).

Further refinements and more sophisticated techniques allow port scanning programs (like nmap) to make educated guesses about what a computer is running, and what operating system the computer is running.

Port scanning programs are information gathering tools. Port scanners have gotten their undeserved bad reputation because that information is often used by a cracker to learn where the vulnerabilities of a computer are and to crack into them. This is typically done by using one of the sophisticated scanners to scan what software a system is running and then matching that against a list of software vulnerabilities.

Port scanners have a number of legitimate uses. I've used them to secure my own computers. Port scanners told me that I was still running services I thought I had disabled, so I was able to make sure I disabled them. Who knows what trouble that has saved me? Further, the very people who often tell you how evil port scanners are and try to scare you about them, the Internet service providers (esp. DSL, cable, and other "always on" services), often use them to make sure their customers are in compliance with the user agreements to not run servers. Putting aside the issue of hypocrisy, this goes to show that for network administrators and others who deal with networks, they are a tool, not the inherently evil thing many people think they are.

Practically speaking, if your computer is port scanned (which you can detect with a tool like Zone Alarm), it might be a preliminary to a cracker's attack. Then again, it might not be. While nearly all cracking attacks will start with a port scan, the vast majority of port scans are not the beginning of a crack attack. For the most part, it's not worth panicking over unless there's other evidence that something shady is afoot.

Many people liken port scanning to walking down the street seeing who has doors open, others liken it to trying the doors to see if they are locked, others to trying to go inside. Some liken it to private residences, others to public areas. I'm pretty sure I've seen one person or another espouse all six combinations of those ideas. The simplest answer to all of these metaphors is that they are all wrong. Port scanning is a little like each of those, but not enough to make it worth making the comparision. Resist the temptation to try to reduce this to a metaphor. Port scanning is a tool and it does no harm to scanned computers. The really importent question is what the person doing the scanning does with knowlege.

Dec 14, 2000

it has begun - from Hack the Planet
Free Speech
12/14/2000; 5:15:56 PM

'Richard Stallman, The Right to Read (1997): "Frank was in prison, not for pirate reading, but for possessing a debugger."

'Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader: "If you are a software programmer, you should note that the Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader's security implementation does not allow program debuggers to be executed on the machine while the Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader is running."'

For those who don't program, the reason this is significant is that a debugger is a powerful and vital tool for programming that can be applied to any program and used to examine its internal state at any time, along with a host of other powerful features. By using a debugger, one could conceivably extract the text of an eBook into the clear easily. They want to block that, so they are implementing controls on what you can do with your computer while using their product.

What's scary is how much control they are exerting on computers that don't even belong to them.  I'd advise against using the eBook Reader on general principles. Hope that we aren't someday required to install limiters like this; it most certainly could happen.

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