The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: music

Sky news explores the IT repair trade

IT repair

It is not uncommon for people who repair computers to do things which are relatively harmless but still pretty unethical – stealing your music, for example, is quite commonly done. While that is not particularly horrible it does sort of show the attitude in some repair shops to the customer’s data.

I take the view that computer repair is in no way a more privileged job than washing machine or TV repair people. Perhaps, given the much greater range of wrong doing with computer repair it is actually a less privileged job. You can do just about anything to a washing machine that you’re repairing but if you wander through a customer’s files you end up on thin ice.

The industry has the slightly uncomfortable set of affairs where the job is little understood but relatively easy. A lot of the job of IT repairs is taking prefabricated parts out of clearly marked slots and replacing them with nearly identical replacements. The design and manufacture of those parts are extremely difficult, make no mistake, but the installation gets easier nearly every year. That does not mean that it make any more sense to someone when their computer stops working but it means that nearly anyone could be an IT repair guy and there’s absolutely no vetting.

Computers are unique for their ability to take a really significant chunk of your innermost life and make it both quickly accessible and very copyable. Without the Sky News investigation the worst I thought would happen is that my MP3s and videos would get copied into some monolithic tower of hard drives in the heart of the secretive repair lab. It turns out that rather worse things could happen.

The investigation

Sky News apparently asked PC Pro (a Dennis publishing computing enthusiast magazine) readers for horror stories of “rogue traders” and then they set up a honeypot laptop – they loaded it with folders marked “Private” and filled with bank details, pictures etc. They then filled it to the gunwales with spyware that would record what the technicians did, what they clicked or typed, what files they accessed and would take periodic pictures with the integrated webcam.

To create a simple, painless and easily remedied error they loosened a memory chip on the motherboard so that it would incompletely boot and give an error message. To fix this you would open the bottom panel, take the stick of RAM out, blow on the connectors (it really works!) and put it back in. At that point the computer would work again.

The problem, as I hope I have shown, was not rocket science and for people doing this day in, day out it should not have posed a great challenge.

Sky News discovered that the shops investigated were not keeping up the professional end of the deal. One of the shops presumably tried to turn it on, read the messages, fixed the problem and handed the computer back to the stunned Sky News researchers within minutes – that is to their great credit. While they didn’t charge this is up to the people involved. I would see no problem with charging for the work done, it’s not a lot of work but it’s still someone doing their job.

The other shops were much less ethical – they all managed to fix the fault quickly enough, but generally diagnosed a motherboard fault and charged for a replacement part. This is like charging a car owner for a new engine if you’ve tightened some screws. They also returned to the fully functional computer to see what they could get out of the hard drive – the folder marked “Private” becoming a very tempting target. The folder contained photos of the researcher wearing a bikini – which Sky (and Dennis) faithfully reproduced in the final reports – which was faithfully copied to a collection of similar photos on a technician’s USB drive.

The most worrying thing, and the most serious offence, was the repairman who then used some (fabricated) bank details on the laptop to attempt to gain access to a Net West bank account. Since the details were false the man was unable to access the account but that did not stop him trying for several minutes. God alone knows what he would have done if he had gained access but I think we really have to consider that attempted fraud.

Computers may seem like magic, and for a large part that’s what they are, but the IT repair industry should not get any extra leniency when it goes too far than any other repair industry. Now – where are the police investigations into this misconduct?

This sort of wrong doing hurts me more as a (fingers crossed) future professional than as a computer enthusiast. I’ve never used a computer repair shop, I’ve never had to. My parents sent our first Mac off to Applecare (and that held my games and my sister’s university thesis, not personal photos and bank details) and I’ve always just been able to muddle through since. However, not everyone has spent so much of their childhood spurning sunlight and perhaps can’t do their own repairs.

One big reason for why you might send your computer off to be repaired, even if you can fix it yourself, is that you’re too busy. High flying corporate lawyers working 70 hour weeks can hardly come home, get out their mini screwdrivers and fix their laptop after a hard day at work. They might desperately need their computer for work. In that case paying someone to repair it for you would be extremely tempting. If you are a high flying corporate lawyer your laptop might well contain suitably high flying private data and you hardly want your hard drive cloned (copied in full) in a repair shop.

The best ways to get around this are to keep personal data off your computer and on an external drive but this is a Herculean task since personal data is nearly everything you do on a computer. There is always the option of taking the hard drive out – if you can – but the hard drive can often be the fault that needs fixed. You may want to not let it out of your sight, you can get call out tech support that comes to you but this is expensive. The corporate lawyer in my example might be able to get it fixed by inhouse tech support at his firm, but that’s a long shot for most of us.

Beyond that encryption is quite sensible, but this needs to beat a bored, curious IT professional and that’s quite a substantial test. It may also work out that you need to let people look at your computer logged in and working. Encryption does not equal logon password (which is no protection at all), although my disc encryption (on Linux) is tied into that password prompt.

I think the best protection is taking the same measures as Sky News, recording what files are accessed, what’s clicked on, what’s typed etc. I don’t think you can take photos of them without their consent no matter what sort of crime they’re committing – the police actually gave me a warning for this over the summer. Sky News gets away with it because it’s a huge company and it gets to use the “public interest” journalism defence but I don’t know if individuals would, especially since most technicians won’t try to do something blatantly illegal like hacking your bank account. This stinks of closing the door after the horse has bolted but at least this means you can show what happened and that’s quite a useful measure in your defence. After all, you’ve not left your laptop on the train, you’ve brought it to a shop to be fixed.


Obsolete technology lives on

I spotted an article from the 17 July 2009 on the Times website on places where you might not expect obsolete technology to have held on.

For example, says the article, the NYPD spent $432,900 on typewriter maintenance last year (and nearly $1 million the year before).  They use typewriters to fill out forms – for seized property mainly – and for backup in case a catastrophe takes the digital side of the force off-line.

I completely agree with this idea, it’s a very good one.  I’ve got into the habit of often filling out forms on my typewriter because it’s capable of black capitals and it’s neater than I could previously manage.  I also typewrite the addresses on my postal envelopes.

Other technologies in the list include tapes (audio cassettes) which are used in prisons in the US because CDs are often banned because they make such effective weapons if shattered.  The story reports that cassette sales to inmates is one of the few growth areas in a physical media music industry that is in decline.

Another example is the telegram – something I admire as an event more than as a means of communication, just imagine if the Queen sent you a text on your 100th birthday?  This one is very interesting from a legal perspective because in the USA if you send a telegram with some juicy piece of intellectual property to anyone, even yourself, you can use the date and time on the telegram as evidence in a copyright trial.  This is a good stop gap measure while you are waiting for any formal copyright processes to be completed.  It is also a useful means of extremely quick recorded message delivery, useful for contractual purposes.

One final point for me microfiche.  I think microfiche is one of those products that are fun until you have to use it. I quite like, now and again, reading the newspapers from historical events and these are now generally only available on microfiche simply because of the size savings.  That sort of interesting and different way to spend an afternoon in the library would very quickly lose its charm if I needed the information, and particularly if I needed it quickly.  Keyword search may not be perfect but you’d miss it if it was gone.

I think that technology is only obsolete when it is no longer useful to you.  Typewriters, audio cassettes and microfiche are all perfectly effective at what they do, they were replaced because the alternatives had benefits but that doesn’t mean they stopped working at the same time.

How to generate pdfs of books or case reports while in the library

I’ve been looking at programs which may help me in my studies. One of the most promising I’ve found is one which is intended to allow people to create multi page pdf copies of any documents, books, whiteboards or cards they can photograph. The whiteboard mode is surprising and I’m not certain it fits into my current teaching style, however, there is nothing quite like being able to see exactly what the teacher has written on a whiteboard long after the lesson has finished.

It’s called Snapter and I’m pleasantly surprised with how effective it is. I tested it out with my camera phone and a copy of 100 Cases Every Scots Law Student Should Know and and as long as you remember to abide by the rules the program gives you: take the photos from straight above with the spine vertical in the image then you can reliably create a very readable pdf from the images. It’s not a quick process, and it’s almost certainly the most processor intensive application you will ever use for your legal studies but the results are very surprising and usable. I’ve done an example here with Scott Adam’s “Way of the Weasel” which I chose because it includes text boxes and images alongside text – so it’s actually more complicated to scan than most law textbooks.

Snapter has a deceptively simple design of interface for what is a powerful program with many features and controls hidden in the boxes, for the best results you should set the controls each time you use Snapter but the defaults manage well on their own. I found the most useful option was the “original size

Basic photographic principles apply If you used a higher resolution camera and better lens with a tripod you would see better results than these, these test shots came from my 3.2Megapixel SE k800i camera phone which I chose because it’s the only camera I routinely take to the library. Users with newer phones with 5 or more megapixel cameras will almost certainly find that the pdfs produced are extremely readable even on small text. I intend to use Snapter to replace my photocopying, this makes the $50 pricetag for the full version (needed to fully enable the program’s Book mode after the free trial expires) extremely affordable. With photocopying running at about 3-6p per sheet the expense of photocopying personal copies of cases becomes substantial. Also, filing the vast amounts of photocopying which you naturally generate as a law student is a task which requires considerable discipline to avoid the dreaded student “pile of paper under the desk”, being able to directly create pdfs of reference books without needing to photocopy them is more economical and more ecological, with the added advantage of not being able to lose the files as easily as the photocopies.

There are other book scanning solutions but these tend to rely on the user being able to scan the book using a specially designed flatbed scanner(for example the PlusTek Optiscan) which is less than ideal in a law library. Snapter’s advantage comes from the convenience of being able to take a record of the exact text you need on the fly using nothing other than the devices you would already be carrying.

You can use it to inexpensively produce copies of cases for other people as well, instead of needing to recopy each page of your own photocopy for others you can simply email the pdf around, and you can also do the processing on your laptop as you are in the library, all while using your university’s reproduction licence. It’s not the fastest process so be aware that it will both drain battery life and take its time but it’s the only example of automatically transforming photos of books into documents that I’ve seen.  It’ll save paper, money and the environment in its own small way.

The direct competitor to this are the online legal databases which also give you the option of downloading a digital copy of the report to your computer and I find these a better option than hurriedly produced snapter pdfs, however, Westlaw does not provide copies of textbooks nor does it provide copies of cases which are either very old or very obscure and it is these situations where snapter shines.  If your law library provides paper copies of journals or law reports which are not available online in full text format then you need some way to make a copy for yourself.

With many of the most sought after books only available on loan from the library for a matter of hours a student may sometimes find that they spend the entire time they have with the book running it through a photocopier instead of reading it. A fast camera can take photos of every page of a textbook within a university’s stort loan time, this means that books which are extremely sought after (for example the set textbook) can be copied out. The prohibitive expense of photocopying a textbook is considerably lessened when you are operating in the fixed cost of a digital camera and a copy of Snapter, and remember that with law textbooks retailing for around £40 (and science subjects cost even more) from the university bookshop any use that a student can get from the library is to be pounced on.

For those students who are also looking using snapter to produce copies of music, students in Glasgow can use the libraries of other higher education institutions, including the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on a reference only basis which means that you can use the RSAMD to find sheet music for yourself.  I read here that Snapter was less impressive at capturing music books but I disagree based on my experiences using the newest version.

I was so surprised that snapter gave such poor results on capturing music that I immediately grabbed a book of scales off my shelf and tried it for myself, I believe I have a newer version than was tested since I downloaded my copy last night. Again, I used a Sony Ericsson k800i camera phone which is only 3.2Mpx and although some of the text is smudged (small bold text had a harder time of it) because of the resolution and the height I had to take the picture at to get both pages in frame the edges of the picture were detected perfectly and there was no issue seeing marks on semiquavers or the like.

I’m all for snapter, I think it’s designed for times you couldn’t bring an automated book scanner with you – in my case when I’m at the reference library and it does very well using even phone photos in those situations. It beats having to scan photocopies at home or having no copy at all, that’s for sure. I think it will provide a very important service for students above all, but remember that the possiblity to generate digital versions of paperwork is often very useful even just for collaboration with other people by email. For instance emailing digital copies of forms to other professionals. Consider Snapter to be an extremely flexible (allowing for the easily foxed edge detection), inexpensive digitiser which can be used anywhere that a photocopier or a scanner would also work, with much less footprint and less time spent with the original.