We've Moved!

By Mike on 10:53 pm

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Yes, I've finally dumped Blogger for greener pastures. You can now find us at our new home, mmntech.ca. The new site has better features, a cleaner look, more social interactivity, and (eventually) a forum. Hop on over to the new MMNTech, the elements of gadgets and gaming.

Microsoft Reverses Xbox One DRM decision

By Mike on 4:42 pm

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It was bound to happen eventually. All the outrage over the Xbox One's DRM scheme has paid off. Microsoft announced today that they would be stripping the controversial restrictions from the console. GiantBomb broke the story earlier this afternoon.

Story developing. As of writing, Xbox.com has crashed due to the overload.

UPDATE: Xbox Wire Q&A has outlined the changes

Microsoft stated that they have listened to customer feedback and have implemented the following changes. 

-Xbox One will no longer require an internet connection. You will only need to connect to the internet during initial setup of the console.
-Status quo on used games will remain. You will be able to buy, sell, rent, and trade as you would on the Xbox 360.
-Xbox One games will not be region locked. 

This follows an earlier report this week from publishers, who stated they were caught off guard by the used game restrictions. None had made a decision regarding a ban at that point.

This is very good news for Xbox fans who felt betrayed by the initial restrictions. Microsoft took a major beating at E3 when Sony announced the PS4 would lack the controversial DRM, and would cost $100 less. Early pre-order reports suggest the the Xbox One is lagging behind sales of the new Playstation.

Who's watching the watchers

By Mike on 10:55 pm

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I was reading Arthur R. Miller's fantastic article from the November 1967 issue of The Atlantic. Miller is a lawyer and civil procedure professor at New York University. Some two years before the invention of the internet, he wrote about the dangers of unchecked government surveillance on the American public. Miller's focus has long been privacy and computers, so he's no fly-by-night on the subject. With the NSA/PRISM scandal, his words 46 years ago ring eerily true today.

There are a few problems with digital data snooping. You can most certainly build a profile on anyone in America or anyone using American network infrastructure. However, there's no guarantee that data is accurate, or even complete. The problem is that we as human beings tend to consider computers as being infallible. This form of observation bias can greatly distort the truth.

Data can also mean different things in different contexts. A stamp of depression on your medical record could mean a prescription refill to your doctor. To law enforcement, it could flag you as a potential danger to society. Especially in the wake of mass shootings by mentally ill individuals. Police have access to a whole host of information on you. Arrests still stand on your record even if you're found not guilty by the courts. You may be innocent, but to the cop on the roadside you'll always be "positive CNI, flag victor." This could prevent you from getting jobs, or crossing borders. There's really a lot of information on you that could be damning in the wrong hands. Which is why the "nothing to hide" argument is dead wrong and downright dangerous.

Miller suggests a number of safeguards to protect public privacy. First off, government data should not be in the hands of intelligence agencies. An independent bureaucracy should established to act as gatekeeper for all government data requests. Even then, requests should be very limited in scope, with strict limits on who has access to them. He asks congress to implement laws preventing public and private data from being accessed by the government without cause. Government should also open its database to the public. Allow all citizens full access to their specific file and establish a process for them to correct errors within these files. Lastly, he asks congress to legislate mandatory digital locks to prevent government and private officials from making unauthorized access to your data.

That was almost fifty years ago. Which of these suggestions has the US government implemented? None, really. The NSA was having a field day with the data of US and foreign citizens without any checks or balances. The USA PATRIOT Act allowed for it under the guise of defending America from terrorism. In fact, they say it stopped several attacks. However, they were typically vague on the details. Problem is, the terrorists know they're being watched. Unless they're grossly incompetent, they will take active steps to cover their trail. The only people surveillance states really hurt are the innocent American and foreign citizens who were unknowingly being profiled.

Uncle Sam is watching you. cover of The Atlantic Nov 1967. Drawing by Ed Sorel
 The US government is calling NSA leaker Edward Snowden a traitor, citing the leaks as "extremely damaging" to national security. The only thing the leaks damaged was the credibility of the Obama administration. Especially after the president campaigned on easing the PATRIOT Act to deal with Bush era privacy concerns. Since then surveillance has ramped up considerably, making the administration look hypocritical. Perhaps Mr Obama needs to take Mr Miller's recommendations seriously.

Now, you may be reading this and wondering how the heck can you protect yourself. I'll be blunt, you can't. There's no such thing as fool proof security. Everything you send over the internet is potentially up for grabs. Even the most mundane data can be valuable to the right people. Your texts, your banking information, that secret project your company is working on, what websites you've been to, who your friends on Facebook are. All of it. Especially when you're dealing with a hacker with limitless resources and ISP level data mining. At that point, even encryption doesn't matter. Any code is breakable if it's worth breaking.

What you can do is limit your online footprint. There's all sorts of tools out there. There's anonymous browsing via the Tor network. You can even get Linux distros with it built in. A friend of mine developed the NinjaStik, which is a custom, Tor enabled distro on USB key. Tor works across multiple points to hide where data came from, but it doesn't hide what data is. So it's not the be all, end all.

VPN services work like Tor but enrypt the data. However, your VPN provider may still be subject to data requests on its customers. Paid services tend to take security more seriously but even they can succumb to government pressure.

You can also transition your information away from Big Data. Use your own email server instead of Gmail, and install encryption extensions. Use Diaspora* for social networking instead of Facebook and Twitter. Install the DoNotTrackMe browser extension to prevent advertisers from tracking your browsing habits. Install HTTPS Everywhere to force encryption on all websites that support it. All this makes it harder for private companies to form a digital profile on you. That means the government has to work harder to get your information, which may not be worth it to them. Make yourself the user, not Big Data's product.

The final thing you can do, if you're an American citizen, is contact your congressional representative and let them know you don't approve of snooping. Phone them and let them know your vote depends on theirs. A call or letter says way more than a Twitter campaign ever could. Then go sign the StopWatching.Us petition by Mozilla to force the government to reveal the full extent of the program. If you're outside the US, sign the EFF's petition to pressure big data to be more transparent and demand a public investigation into the scandal.

Playstation 4 dominates at E3

By Mike on 11:04 am

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I think it's fair to say that a lot of Playstation fanboys are gloating today. Needless to say more than a few Xbox fans are still icing their bottoms to sooth the burn. Sony came up on stage last night and delivered one of the best E3 presentations I've seen in a few years. This is definitely a company who have learned from their mistakes. They delivered exactly what developers and gamers said they wanted. The PS4 is a powerful system where the games, and only the games, matter.

Unfortunately, I missed about the first half hour of the presentation. Perhaps the only big disappointment of the night was the lack of Vita content. There's a new bundle but they did nothing to ease concerns over lack of new content. Of course that quickly got put back of mind when Sony pulled out the black box from underneath the covers.

We had already seen the controller. We knew what that looked like. Now we've seen the system itself. The overall design of it is very reminiscent of the slim PS2. A slightly two toned, matte plastic parallelogram. Unfortunately, we didn't get a booty shot. Sony states that it will have HDMI, optical audio, and gigabit ethernet. Analogue outputs are conspicuously missing though.

For storage, Sony has confirmed that it has a 500GB hard drive, which will be user upgradable. They also took some time to show off the new 720p Playstation Eye. It's slimmer than the Kinect and also has its own auxiliary port, so it won't hog one of the two USB 3.0 slots like the old one did. It will be sold separately for a price of $59.

The PS4 in all its glory. Via Playstation Lifestyle

After showing a few games, Sony dropped the big bomb shell of the night. Jack Tretton took the time to deal with the elephant in the room, and also take a stab at the Xbox One. Gamers were concerned that Sony would be implementing similar digital rights management due to publisher pressure. It's now confirmed that PS4 will operate at the status quo. It does not require an internet connection, nor does it place a ban on used games. You will be able to buy, sell, and trade your games just as you've always been able to. Sony's Brad Douglas also confirmed via Twitter that the PS4 will not be region locked. So you can all stop worrying and start mocking your Xbox fanboy friends. Turns out freedom is cheap too, as the PS4 will retail at $399.

Sony listened, the PS4 requires no online authentication and allows used games
The one downside we did get last night is on the online front. You will now have to buy a Playstation Plus membership to get online. If this is the worst of it, Playstation fans are getting off easy. It will offer the same perks and continue to work across all three platforms. Sony is also promising at least one free PS4 game every month to subscribers. Those who already have PS+ know it pays for itself pretty quickly.

If you're in to streaming services, Sony says they will not be put behind this new pay wall. One of the biggest complaints about the Xbox is it requires a Gold subscription just to watch Netflix.

Sony was rather mum about media content. Playstation is working closer with Sony Pictures and BMG to improve things on that side. American gamers will also get access to Red Box Instant.

Sony is also integrating more cloud features via their Gaikai game streaming service. You will be able to stream Playstation 3 games to your PS4. So those concerned about backwards compatibility need not worry too much. What Sony did not mention were pricing plans for Gaikai, or if it will be included with your PS+ subscription. Unfortunately, the service will only be available in the US initially.

Right now, the Xbox One isn't looking very good by comparison. Though I would not count them out just yet. There's still a chance for them to backtrack on their planned restrictions. Unfortunately, Microsoft allowed a full six months of negative publicity to build up. It's going to take an awful lot to reverse that, and win their customers back. Right now, Sony has resoundingly stomped them. We asked for it, they gave it. As it stands today, the PS4 is the best eighth generation system right now.

We'll start looking at the PS4's game lineup a little later this week.