Tech

NFC: An Issue of Trust?

The introduction of NFC (Near Field Communication) technology for payment cards, quite frankly, gives me the willies. I recently received my first “wave me at the coffee counter” touch payment card from my bank, and it set me to thinking. And what I think is that I have what any decent psychiatrist would call trust issues.

Imagine the scenario. You waft your wallet full of touch-payment cards at the payment station in your local Barista hangout – which one gets used? The first one detected, I suspect. And Murphy’s Law says it won’t be the one you wanted. To make sure the right one is used, you’ll have to take that card out, present it to the payment point, and put it back in your wallet. The delays this is going to create at ticket barriers and on buses will make for an unhappy rush hour experience (and let’s face it – rush hours don’t need any help, thank you very much).

And anyway, taking out the card you intend to use is boring! The whole point of putting NFC on a payment card is to speed up the process. The next time you’re in London on the tube, look out for the Oyster users who glare at the tourists who get immersed in the whole which-way-round-ness of barrier ticket confusion, with murder in their eyes. Even I use an Oyster card, and I don’t live there! And now, London commuters are going to have to lift out their oyster cards as well, because plans are afoot for TfL to accept touch payment cards at tube barriers and on buses. So pretty soon Oysters will have to be kept separate from any other touch-payment enabled cards. In fact, all of these NFC/RFID enabled cards will have to be kept separate from each other. Perhaps we need a lanyard for each one, or is that just a Health & Safety disaster in waiting?

All of this negates the purported benefit – namely, speed efficiencies and ease of use.

My other issue is theft. NFC/RFID is actually good for thirty feet. On a good day, mind you (or “down hill with the wind behind it”, as my mother used to say), and not on any legitimate pay stations (which are generally restricted to a range of between 4-10cm). The kind of distance that I’m talking about is inherent in the technology, and means that thieves using a reader with a good range on it can steal the limit (soon to be increased from £20 to £30) on each of your NFC cards without ever going near your pocket. One afternoon’s wandering up and down Oxford Street could net tens of thousands for a “hard-working” tealeaf. And with passports moving to having biometric data stored on NFC chips, it means that identity thieves can hoover data up in a similar fashion. There are already phone apps on the open market that will read content from passport chips.

Now, ApplePay on the other hand is a solution that actually uses NFC well, and it’s a simple one at that. The NFC isn’t activated until you press the home button and your fingerprint is validated. Given the ubiquitous nature of the iPhone, it makes perfect sense for retailers and the like to adopt pay stations that accept ApplePay. Sadly, as it’s a service that’s only active in the U.S. at the moment, it feels a bit like Cinema and VHS releases back in the day.

If you still want to use your wafty-payment plastic, it turns out that you needn’t worry about theft, though, as I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this issue. Betabrand have teamed up with Norton to create a set of RFID-shielded jeans, and there’s already a plethora of RFID-shielded wallets and card sleeves available on Amazon. I recently bought one from a certain “outdoors” retailer, but I was still able to gain access to the office by waving it in front of the door access system, so I guess the jury’s still out. Luckily, I needed a new wallet in any case, so no harm done. But it begs the question – is it tech worth getting just yet, or should we rely on our own good housekeeping and the odd insurance claim?

Frankly, I think I’m better off simply never leaving the safety of my foil-insulated house. But that’s probably a story for another time.

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Bitcoin and its Environmental Impact

I was recently asked about how I felt about the environmental impact of virtual currencies, given that the energy required to mine the coins gets almost exponentially higher as fewer remain.

I don’t think for a minute that environmental impact will ever be the limiting factor in Bitcoin mining (I could wax lyrical on the human condition and its all-consuming need for power, to the detriment the environment, for paragraph after paragraph), and here’s an example of why.

GPU performance requirement for mining the remaining bitcoins is so high that it requires significant investment to make it feasible to do so. And that’s a continual investment, as it means replacing your GPU board each time a faster one is released. And that probably means you’ll need a new PSU into the bargain (the forthcoming Radeon R9 295X2 8 GB from AMD will be priced around the $1500 mark – no UK prices available as yet – and has an un-clocked power draw of 500W). So it’s no longer commercially viable for home users to mine what’s left, even with dedicated hardware (no more “I bought the hardware for gaming, and I mine overnight”). The hurdle is financial, and that finance is all Bitcoin-oriented.

So the scarcity of bitcoins requires increased processing, leads to increased investment, increased power consumption, and the inevitable increase in Environmental impact. Sadly it won’t be the environmental impact that will put people off mining (or make it problematical), it will only ever be the diminishing ROI that the necessary increase in more powerful hardware dictates.

Bitcoin – Revolution or Evolution?

It’s been around a while, but it seems that Bitcoin is continuing to make its presence felt, and hasn’t, as some predicted, simply passed away in the night, but instead seems to be growing in popularity. Or perhaps that should be notoriety? Because it does, however, seem to be followed around by a fairly dogged cloud of controversy – arguments abound between its supporters and opponents, and accusations of money laundering, cheating and stealing fly around the financial marketplace like nobody’s business (even Nouriel Roubini, the respected US economist, recently called it a “Ponzi game”). So it’s a bit like “real” money, if you stop to think about it.

And that’s the thing – whatever you think about it, whatever your opinion of cryptocurrency – there’s no getting away from the simple truth. It’s certainly a disruptive technology, but it’s also money. It’s starting to do the same job as money – people and businesses accumulating it in order to exchange it for goods and services, thieves wanting to steal it, and what’s perhaps more important, it’s being traded just like money, or any other currency or commodity. Yes, okay, for now it’s probably more of a commodity, but in exactly the same way that gold or diamonds are (think Krugerrands). So, if it sounds and looks like a duck…

Bitcoin operates on the principles of a distributed network, which is used to store details of every single transaction ever made in a huge version of a general ledger, called the block chain, or block. It’s the miners’ job to confirm those transactions, and write them into this block. A constantly updated copy of the block is then distributed across the network. The miners’ processing (or hashing) generates 25 bitcoins for each successful hash. However, the Bitcoin protocol says that bitcoins are created at a decreasing and predictable rate. The number of new bitcoins created each year is automatically halved over time until creation comes to a halt, with a total of 21 million bitcoins in existence. The ability to mine (generate these hashes) is governed by the processing power of hardware (needless to say, it’s ever-expanding).

So, bitcoins are low in volume, because of the way in which they’re mined, and it’s this rarity that makes it so appealing to commodity traders. And therefore it’s this commodity style of trading that makes the price index of currency equivalence fluctuate so wildly. In just this week the price index has fluctuated between $605 and $665 (US dollars per single bitcoin), although prior to October 2013, it primarily held steady below $150, but maxed out the year at over $1,100. You’d be hard pushed to find anything else on the markets quite that capricious. Of course, lack of regulatory control is no doubt contributing to such volatility – or at least that’s what the regulators seeking to apply it will certainly say, and they’re probably not wrong – but there’s also the fact that it’s an emergent market. There’s always going to be flux at the stage it’s currently at – it’s decentralized, so it’s likely to be a tad unruly.

That’s all well and good, but its detractors have a point – the volatility isn’t to be found just in the price index. Mt.Gox, once the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, recently declared itself bankrupt, citing the loss of around 750,000 of its clients’ bitcoins to hackers as the sole cause. And they haven’t been alone – there have been other such collapses. These losses aren’t indemnified, either (it’s decentralised and unregulated, remember?), so those pockets are likely to stay well and truly picked, at least for the foreseeable future. But then this behaviour isn’t exactly unprecedented when it comes to currencies. Fiat currencies (i.e. currencies unsupported by gold or silver, which in reality is pretty much all currency these days) have collapsed throughout history – even the Euro had a difficult 2013. It strikes me, however, that these bitcoin “collapses” are anything but. They’ve been security breaches, pure and simple.

So should we adopt it more wholeheartedly? I’m not convinced we shouldn’t, but I’m also reserving judgement for now. Not what you were looking for, I know, but I’m not by nature an early adopter (I update my model of iPhone a year later than everyone else, for goodness sake). I know I want it to succeed, though. I guess it needs people who aren’t like me to help with that.

My advice is this: if you’re the sort of person who can’t wait for the iPhone 6 to come out, then you should probably get into Bitcoin. Just don’t invest too heavily for now. And, at the risk of suggesting that you just can’t trust the banks these days, you should keep your bitcoins on thumb-drives (with backups).

Creating FileZilla User via VBScript in a Troll-Averse World

I recently needed some code to generate FTP user accounts (with password and folder name) via command-line parameters, using data stored in another application.

What turned out to be the biggest challenge, was resisting hunting down and immolating the several internet trolls I came across whose sole contribution is negativity. In looking for help on how to do this (what with me not being a developer) I reached out to the tinterweb, but received naught but derision – surprisingly, from Stack Overflow and a FileZilla forum administrator.

I finally found someone who had posted something of value, and so in the end, I used VBScript to take the data already stored in another application to create a username and password for the FTP account, and a folder, all with appropriate permissions. We use FileZilla as the FTP Server, so it was a case of generating text containing the relevant data, and inserting it at the right location into the user settings file, in the appropriate XML format. Oh, and I had to convert the plain-text stored password (owch, I know!) to MD5 hash.

I attach the VBscript, by way of an “up yours” to the aforementioned trolls, in case anyone else ever needs to do the same thing. No doubt they’ll criticise the style, content, method, blah, blah, blurgh … I don’t care – it may be dirty, and possibly inefficient (and as such, probably offensive to some), but it works.

The moral of this story? If there is one, it’s possibly that the help is out there, but the chaff is strangling the wheat.

We need more Troll Hunters.

VBScript to Create FileZilla User (dumped to MS-Word, to allow upload in WordPress)

I should mention, of course, that this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Shawn K. Hall – many thanks…