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BlackBerry pursues Greatness: The sequel

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BlackBerry may be yesterday’s smartphone brand but, at its annual Security Summit in New York, it was looking a lot like tomorrow’s mobile security leader, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

John Chen steps out on the stage at the BlackBerry Security Summit in New York not vastly unlike Tom Cruise at the climax of a Mission Impossible movie. Truth is, he has already achieved a mission far more absurd than Cruise at his worst. He took over the running of BlackBerry 21 months ago, tasked with rescuing a company that had become an afterthought in the smartphone world.

The previous incumbent, Thorsten Heins, fell disastrously short through a strategy focused on fixing the hardware platform. He did a great job, technically speaking, getting the BB10 operating system out of the gates. Problem was, it took so long, the world lost interest. BlackBerry as a smartphone brand was so, like, 2011.

But Chen has already met his first goal, and one that many had assumed unlikely: he has brought the company back to operational profitability, with a few billion dollars spending money in the bank, and taking business away from major competitors. But that’s not smartphone business.

BlackBerry remains a world leader in securing mobile communications, and the only handset manufacturer that routinely receives military clearance for its devices to be used in the field. Its security software and platform extends well beyond its own devices, including a partnership with Samsung, and the underlying operating system for the “connected car” interface on new Ford vehicles.

Now Chen is embarking on the second mission; building the brand back to its former greatness.

“From day one I recognised the company had some greatness in pursuing privacy and security, and that this market was developing rapidly,” said the company’s CEO and exec chairman. “Last year we spent more than $100-million in creating more product for security. All our operational units are focused on that number one priority and principle. Then we want to acquire capabilities to fill in the gaps.”

It is a mark of the both the capability and confidence Chen has brought to the business that few would contradict his core message at the event: “BlackBerry has the most secure mobile platform the industry has to offer.”

And never has it been more needed. David Kleidermacher, BlackBerry’s chief security officer, explained how the advent of the Internet of Things is opening numerous backdoors into enterprises and critical systems.

He gave the example of smart hospitals, which not only aim at making access and updates of patient records smarter through the use of handsets, but can also automate many medical processes, like administering drugs.

At this point, the BlackBerry team demonstrated how a malicious hacker could easily gain access to the controls of a standard drug infusion device. The device is linked to the hospital network either through a network port or via Wi-Fi. Its IP address – a unique identifier that all Internet-connected devices have – is published in the device manual for all to see. In most cases, there is no password protection, and the security configuration is usually not up to date.

As a result, basic hacking tools can expose all the information on the device. Not only can this allow for the hacker to change the dosage and kill a patient, but also potentially access other hospital systems through following the links up the chain.

“We are creating additional surfaces of attack,” said Kleidermacher. “These become the soft underbelly of corporate access. One of the problems with security is, if it is too complicated, it gets circumvented or ignored.”

Ironically, then, precisely because we are adding more complexity to our security world, enterprises are losing the security battle.

BlackBerry’s solution, outlined at the Security Summit, is based on five principles: an end-to-end solution; a priority on productivity for both users and administrators; security at the heart of the network; a data-centric approach which means protection moves with the data; and a proactive approach that prevents vulnerabilities rather than patches them after the fact.

Not surprisingly, BlackBerry is pushing hard on the first of those principles, which corporate strategy vice president Jeff Holleran summed up as “a single solutions track from single trusted vendor”. However, he put this thrust neatly in context by describing BlackBerry’s role of intrusion detection and handling access requests as “acting as the bouncer in the sky”.

That may be convincing for customers who experience the benefits, but can BlackBerry convince the broader market that it’s in a position to provide protection in a rapidly evolving mobile environment?

For chief operating office Marty Beard it isn’t a question of if, but why the company wins this particular battle: “We’re not aspirational about getting into this world; we’re in it. We’ve got deep decades of expertise in managing devices. The world of sensors and machines will not be a surprise.”

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

 

 

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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