Irony, Outrage, Speculation: Amazon Rings the PR Gong

January 23, 2020

Remember the Gong Show? The host was an alleged government asset. The content of the show was humans performing. The focus was on humans who sang, dance, and cavorted in weird, sometimes incredible ways. The result? The host rang a gong. The performer, hooked by a big old person cane, found himself or herself dragged from the camera’s eye.

The elements of the program:

  • Alleged government connections
  • A ranking system for wild and crazy performances
  • The big humiliation with the old person’s cane.

I thought of the Gong Show as I worked my way through dozens and dozens of write ups about the hacking of a mobile phone used by Jeff Bezos, the motive force of Amazon. You know Amazon: The online bookstore, the operator of the S3 leaking buckets, and policeware vendor.

The most interesting reports swirl around what Vice encapsulates in the article “Here Is the Technical Report Suggesting Saudi Arabia’s Prince Hacked Jeff Bezos’ Phone.” The report reveals

that forensic investigators found a suspicious file but no evidence of any malware on the phone.

Interesting, but not as fascinating as the assertions about who allegedly compromised Mr. Bezos’ mobile, when the alleged data sucking took place, and when the content was spirited away, how the compromise actually was implemented, and where those data went.

DarkCyber finds it interesting that fingers are pointed at countries, some government officials, Facebook’s always-interesting WhatsApp software, and at NSO Group, a company certain media outlets frequently reference. (NSO Group may be one of the specialized software vendors getting more publicity than Star Wars’ films.)

In our DarkCyber video news program, we devote almost two full minutes to the problems information technology managers face when implementing cyber security.

The Bezos Affair presents an opportunity to confront an unpleasant reality: Security is difficult.

The real time monitoring, the smart cyber defenses, the companies creating policeware, and the methods available to actors—each of these underscore how vulnerable individuals and organizations are.

The speculation, however, does little to make clear how protections can be achieved. In fact, the coverage of the Bezos Affair has reduced the coverage of what may be an even more egregious security lapse explained in “Microsoft Blames Itself for Customer Support Data Leak.” The “misconfiguration” error exposed 250 million customer records.

One gets the coverage, a world leader is implicated, an Israeli company is cast in a negative light. These are real time “real news” factoids. But the loss of 250 million customer records by Microsoft, the possible vendor for the US Department of Defense, is ignored.

Why are these problems commonplace? The answer, which we provide in our January 28, 2020, video, is provided. That answer is going to be a surprise. You can view the video program on the Beyond Search / DarkCyber blog by clicking the video promo image. No ads, no sponsors, no outside influencers, and no odd ball “You may also like.”

Stephen E Arnold, January 23, 2020

Amazon and Microsoft: Different Ways to Leverage $1 Billion

January 17, 2020

Author and big gun Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, allegedly wrote “Microsoft Will Be Carbon Negative by 2030.” To achieve this goal, the company will spend $1 billion dollars. Okay, that appears to work out to $8.3 million per month for 10 years. That’s about 11 Azure Cognitive S4 transactions. Impressive. I suppose it depends on one’s point of view. From the PR perspective, this is probably a decent billion. From other points of view, one’s mileage may vary.

Now contrast this Microsoft $1 billion with Amazon’s. Dark Cyber noted “During Bezos Visit, India minister Says Amazon’s $1 Billion Investment Is No Big Favour.” The write up states something that is a PR downer:

Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart are facing mounting criticism from India’s brick-and-mortar retailers, which accuse the U.S. giants of violating Indian law by racking up billions of dollars of losses to fund deep discounts and discriminating against small sellers. The companies deny the allegations.

Amazon’s reaction? Read on:

Bezos said on Wednesday [January 15, 2020] Amazon would invest $1 billion to bring small businesses online in the country, adding to the $5.5 billion the company had committed since 2014.

Stepping back, Microsoft is going for good ink. Amazon seems to be going after what may be the second or third largest market in the world for Amazon services and battery powered Ring doorbells.

Interesting uses of $1 billion.

Stephen E Arnold, January 17, 2020

Microsoft Matches the Amazon AWS Security Certification

December 21, 2019

DarkCyber wants to point out that the JEDI deal has not closed. But one of Microsoft’s weaknesses has been remediated. The news is probably not going to make Amazon’s AWS government professionals smile. In fact, the news could ruin the New Year for the Bezos bulldozer.

Stars and Stripes explained in “With New Pentagon IT Certification, Microsoft Narrows the Cloud Security Gap with Amazon” that:

on December 12 Microsoft became the second company to hold the Pentagon’s highest-level IT security certification, called Impact Level 6, Defense Information Systems Agency spokesman Russ Goemaere told The Washington Post in an email. The temporary certification lasts three months, after which a longer one will be considered, Goemaere said. The news of Microsoft’s certification was reported earlier by the Washington Business Journal. The certification means that, for the first time, Microsoft will be able to store classified data in the cloud. Defense and intelligence agencies typically use air-gapped, local computer networks to store sensitive data rather than the cloud-based systems that most companies now use to harness far-off data centers. Previously, Amazon was the only cloud provider trusted with secret data.

The Grinch may want to contact Amazon customer service and ask for an explanation. DarkCyber is not sure if certification is the same as “real” security, but checklists matter. When billions are at stake, one small item can have significant impact. For more detail, see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The book is just $9.00 on Amazon. The 1957 book is classified as inspirational and religious poetry.

Yep, categories are important too.

Stephen E Arnold, December 22, 2019

Azure Is Better at Hybrid Computing Because AWS Is an Orchid

December 12, 2019

There’s an interesting explanation of the DoD’s JEDI award in “Opinion: Microsoft Fairly and Squarely Beat Amazon in $10 Billion Pentagon Cloud Contract.” The reason is:

In 2017, Microsoft designed Azure Stack to meet hybrid cloud computing needs, a distinction from AWS, which was designed for cloud-only computing needs without the flexibility of leveraging on-premise servers. That has led Amazon to chase Microsoft with hybrid-cloud offerings such as AWS Outposts, which launched in November of 2018 — well after the Pentagon bid had been opened. As of the first half of 2019, Microsoft was the only company among the top three cloud providers that has a generally available hybrid cloud. Microsoft’s Windows operating system has run on servers for decades, and it was a natural extension to offer Azure Cloud to run on-premise. Microsoft’s hybrid strategy has resulted in 95% of Fortune 500 companies using Azure today. That is a staggering statistic, which shows the superiority of hybrid cloud compared with traditional cloud computing. As J.B. Hunt, one of Azure’s Fortune 500 customers, said: “Microsoft didn’t ask us to bend to their vision of a cloud.”

Amazon is unlikely to agree. Amazon’s lawyers definitely will view this explanation as insufficiently developed to justify dropping the lawsuit.

The problem is that “one throat to choke” seems like a great idea. But the reality is that there usually are many throats to choke regardless of who is the contract winner.

The idea of a common platform or framework, data harmonization, and smooth access control are easy to talk about.

Reality is a little more chaotic. Read the original write up and decide. Then consider how likely it is that a single individual or a small business has a single throat to choke when something goes wrong. Throat choking is preceded by finger pointing, and none of the technology giants deliver reliability, ease of use, and fantasy land solutions.

Reality. Messy. Azure is a hybrid. AWS is an orchid. Neither is guaranteed a long, healthy existence if the gardener forgets to water the plants, the insects decide to chow down, or a road grader grind ouy a new information highway.

Lawyers? Guaranteed money. Other parties? Not guaranteed much.

Probably not.

Stephen E Arnold, December 12, 2019

Insight from a Microsoft Professional: Susan Dumais

December 1, 2019

Dr. Susan Dumais is Microsoft Technical Fellow and Deputy Lab Director of MSR AI. She knows that search has evolved from discovering information to getting tasks done. In order. To accomplish tasks, search queries are a fundamental and they are rooted in people’s information needs. The Microsoft Research Podcast interviewed Dr. Dumais in the episode, “HCI, IR, And The Search For Better Search With Dr. Susan Dumais.”

Dr. Dumais shared that most of her work centered around search stems from frustrations she encountered with her own life. These included trouble learning Unix OS and vast amounts of spam. At the beginning of the podcast, she runs down the history of search and how it has changed in the past twenty years. Search has become more intuitive, especially give the work Dr. Dumais did when providing context to search.

“Host: Context in anything makes a difference with language and this is integrally linked to the idea of personalization, which is a buzz word in almost every area of computer science research these days: how can we give people a “valet service” experience with their technical devices and systems? So, tell us about the technical approaches you’ve taken on context in search, and how they’ve enabled machines to better recognize or understand the rich contextual signals, as you call them, that can help humans improve their access to information?

Susan Dumais: If you take a step back and consider what a web search engine is, it’s incredibly difficult to understand what somebody is looking for given, typically, two to three words. These two to three words appear in a search box and what you try to do is match those words against billions of documents. That’s a really daunting challenge. That challenge becomes a little easier if you can understand things about where the query is coming from. It doesn’t fall from the sky, right? It’s issued by a real live human being. They have searched for things in the longer term, maybe more acutely in the current session. It’s situated in a particular location in time. All of those signals are what we call context that help understand why somebody might be searching and, more importantly, what you might do to help them, what they might mean by that. You know, again, it’s much easier to understand queries if you have a little bit of context about it.”

Dr. Dumais has a practical approach to making search work for the average user. It is the everyday tasks that build up that power how search is shaped and its functionality. She represents an enlightened technical expert that understands the perspective of the end user.

Whitney Grace, November 30, 2019

Microsoft and China: Doing Business with Huawei

November 26, 2019

DarkCyber noted “Microsoft Granted License to Export Mass Market Software to Huawei.” The write up reports:

On November 20, the U.S. Department of Commerce granted Microsoft’s request for a license to export mass-market software to Huawei.

Interesting. Apple, Microsoft: Is there a message here.

Stephen E Arnold, November 26, 2019

Microsoft Search: Still Playing an Old Eight Track Cassette?

November 20, 2019

How many times has DarkCyber heard about Microsoft’s improved search? Once, twice? Nope, dozens upon dozens. Whether it was the yip yap about Fast Search & Transfer, Colloquis and its natural language processing, Powerset and its semantic search system, Semantic Machines for natural voice functions, or the home brew solutions from hither and yon in the Microsoft research and development empire. There’s Outlook search and Bing search and probably a version of LinkedIn’s open source search kicking around too.

But that’s irrelevant in today’s “who cares about the past?” datasphere. DarkCyber noted “Here’s How Microsoft Is Looking to Make Search Smarter and More Natural.” What is smart search? An abrogation of user intentions? What is more natural? Boolean logic, field codes, date and time metadata, and similar artifacts of a long lost era seem okay for the DarkCyber team.

The write up explains in its own surrealistic way:

Microsoft’s ultimate goal with Microsoft Search is to provide answers not just to simple queries, but also more personalized, complex ones, such as “Can I bring my pet to work?”. The Microsoft Graph API, semantic knowledge understanding from Bing, machine-reading comprehension and the Office 365 storage and services substrate all are playing a role in bringing this kind of search to Microsoft’s apps.

Yeah, okay. But enterprise SharePoint users still complain that current content cannot be located. The current tools are blind to versions of content residing on departmental servers or parked in a cloud account owned by the legal department. And what about the prices just quoted by an enterprise sales professional? Sorry. You are out of luck, but Microsoft is… trying.

Now grab this peek into the future of Microsoft search:

Turing in Bing already has helped Microsoft to understand semantics via searching by concept instead of keyword. Natural-language processing also has helped with understanding query intent, she noted. Semantic understanding means users don’t have to expect exact word matches. (When searching for Coke, matches with “canned soda,” also could be part of the set of results generated, for example.) The Turing researchers are employing machine reading, as well, to help with contextual search/results.

The chaotic and often misfiring Microsoft search technologies do one thing well: Generate revenue for the legions of certified Microsoft partners.

Users? Yeah, Microsoft may help you too. In the meantime, the lawyers will manage their own contract drafts and eDiscovery materials. The engineers will stick with the tools baked into AutoCAD type systems? The marketers will do what marketers in many companies do? Stuff data on USBs, into the Google cloud, or copy the files to a shared folder on a former employee’s desktop. Yes, it happens.

Microsoft and search. Getting better. Here’s a snippet about Powerset (CNET, 2008)

Much of what Powerset has enabled with its technology is a superior user experience for searching. Powerset’s Wikipedia search, which surfaces concepts, meanings, and relationships (like subject, verbs, and objects in a language), is the very small tip of the iceberg.

Time for a new eight track tape?

Stephen E Arnold, November 20, 2019

The Sharp Toothed MSN Gnaws on the Google Search Carcass

November 18, 2019

Search and retrieval is fraught with challenges. In the enterprise search sector, fraud has been popular as a way to deal with difficulties. In the Web search sector, the methods have been more chimerical.

MSN, a property of Microsoft, published “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results.” The write up appears to recycle the work of the Wall Street Journal. The authors allegedly are Kirsten Grind, Sam Schechner, Robert McMillan and John West. It is unlikely that Alphabet Google will invite these people to the firm’s holiday bash this year.

What’s in the write up? The approximately 8,500 word article does the kitchen sink approach to sins. Religious writers boil evil down to seven issues. Google, it seems, requires to words to cover the online advertising firm’s transgressions.

DarkCyber will not engage in the naming of evils. Several observations are warranted:

  1. Google’s waterproof coating has become permeable
  2. After decades, “search experts” are starting to comprehend the intellectual impact of search results which has been shaped
  3. The old-fashioned approach of published editorial policies, details about updating indexes, and user control of queries via Boolean logic is not what fuels the Google method.

But so what? With more than 60 percent of search queries to the Google flowing from mobile devices, old school approaches won’t work. Figuring out what works depends on defining “works”.

Finding information is a big deal. What happens when one tries to hide information? The answers may be observed in the action of Google employees who have forced the company to stop communicating in “all hands” Friday meetings.

What’s Microsoft doing? For one thing, poking Googzilla in the eye with MSN articles is one example of Microsoft’s tactical approach. The other is to ignore problematic Windows 10 updates and “ignite” people to embrace a hybrid cloud paradigm.

And what about Microsoft’s own search technologies. One pundit apologist continues to explain that Microsoft search is just getting more efficient, not better.

Net net: Google and Microsoft may have more in common than some individuals realize. Maybe envy? Maybe techno-attraction? Maybe two black holes circling? Whatever. The situation is interesting.

Stephen E Arnold, November 18, 2019

The UAE and AI: What Will Students Learn?

November 7, 2019

DarkCyber noted “Abu Dhabi AI University Is Key to UAE’s Future As the Oil Dries Up.” The write up states:

The Gulf state is developing healthcare, financial services, renewable energy and materials technology sectors, which will make up the UAE economy when the oil runs out. But first, it needs to ensure its citizens have the skills to drive them. The long-term nature of the UAE government’s initiative is what stands out for Oxford University professor Michael Brady, who is interim president of Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), which was set up to ensure the UAE has the right skills to drive these industries. The Masdar City-based university has just opened to applications for its first intake of 50 students.

Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, among others, have a presence in UAE. The article quoted Professor Brady as saying:

But it was the ambition that he saw when he visited Abu Dhabi, which puts UK government planning to shame, that cemented his interest “There is a stark difference between the short-termism that characterizes so much of government policy in the UK, where politicians worry about the headlines tomorrow morning,” he said. “It is so refreshing to be part of a government-led initiative that has a 30-year vision to transform the economy and the culture.”

The AI university is important. The question the write up did not address is:

What cloud AI service will be the core of the curriculum?

It seems obvious that the go-to cloud system for students will have an advantage in deploying next-generation solutions.

Worth monitoring which of these three cloud aspirants will capture the hearts and minds of the student, UAE officials, and investors who want to cash in on this investment in the future.

Stephen E Arnold, November 7, 2019

Microsoft Displays Its Amazon AWS Neutralizer

November 5, 2019

I read about Microsoft’s victory over the evil neighbor Amazon. What was Microsoft’s trump card, its AWS neutralizer, its technology innovation?

The answer may have appeared in “Microsoft Unveils Azure Arc, Aiming to Fend Off Google and Amazon with New Hybrid Cloud Tech.” Here’s the once closely-held diagram.

image

Like most AWS-hostile diagrams, it includes three features which customers like the Pentagon and other entities desire:

  1. The ability to integrate multiple clouds, on premises computers, and edge computers into one homogeneous system. (Latency? Don’t bring that up, please.)
  2. The Azure stack in one’s own computer center where it can be managed by an Azure-certified staff with the assistance of Azure-certified Microsoft partners. (Headcount implications. Don’t bring that up, please.)
  3. An Azure administrative system which provides a bird’s-eye view of the client’s Azure-centric system. (Permissions and access controls. Don’t bring that up, please.)

Microsoft has rolled out a comprehensive vision. The challenge is that Amazon and Google have similar visions.

Microsoft may want to check out Amazon’s security and access control technology. But that’s a minor point for a company which struggles to update Windows 10 without disabling user’s computers.

Great diagram though. Someone once observed, “The map is not the territory.” And then there is the increasingly relevant Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges who wrote:

Nothing is built on stone; All is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.

Borjes was a surrealist who could see societal trends despite his blindness.

Stephen E Arnold, November 4, 2019

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