The coming dark times for tech won’t be anything like the 2000s

My former colleague Dave Vellante has written a nice comparison of the current tech  contraction with the dot-com-bust of 2000. He makes interesting points about several factors, such as the roles played by Netscape and OpenAI as innovators and Nvidia and Cisco as major players, the stock market bubbles, and risks and rewards along the way. However, he is missing one critical element: the population of tech workers has been shrinking and the pace of the layoffs is increasing. And the way people were laid off now and then has some big differences.
Granted, back in 1999-2000 there were fewer overall tech workers, (as an example, Microsoft went from around 40k in its 2000 staff to 200k today, Amazon grew from a few thousand to >1M) and many of the tech companies were small, in some cases very small. The big difference then and now was the pace of the layoffs. Back then, they happened quickly. But now tech co’s have been laying off workers since the pandemic, but in big numbers by comparison.
In the past few years there have been several rounds of layoffs at Spotify, ByteDance, Amazon, Twillio, LinkedIn, SecureWorks, Microsoft, Meta, and Twitter which added tens of thousands to the unemployment lines. And sure, there are plenty of startups that even got their series A’s that went under in the past couple of years — that is to be expected. But the contemporary situations are from established companies that are having their first serious contractions.
Will some of these folks start their own companies? Sure. But tens of thousands? Not so sure.
But part of the problem — perhaps most of the problem, apart from the lowering business demand in the tech sector — is the way we all are returning to work in the spaces previously known as our offices. Back when we were in the midst of the pandemic, remote work took on new relevance and meaning, and caught on quickly around the world in many different ways, some good and some bad. Take Slack for example: they went 100% to remote work back in 2020. Other tech companies were less enthusiastic, such as Google. And what I have seen is these less enthusiastic companies were some of the first to revoke home-working policies and mandate people to return to one of their offices.
Early on in the pandemic, I put together this pod with my partner Paul Gillin about some things to consider for the newly minted home worker. Those were more practical suggestions on what equipment to purchase and how to best secure your home. For a somewhat different treatment, I wrote this blog for Avast on how to craft equitable policies to encourage and evaluate home workers. Those pieces seem rather quaint now, and they assumed that once all this remote stuff was unleashed, we would stay that way.
That is not the case anymore. Four years later, many tech workers are told to return to their offices. And the changes are confusing as companies try to adjust and populate their expensive downtown real estate. This makes no sense to me, and the latest dictums from Dell (for example) are guaranteed to have them lose more people, which could be the hidden reason for them. It is almost that we forgot the productivity gains during Covid when people worked from home. Or companies were eager to see their workforce sitting in those awful bullpens where everyone was on headsets.
The return to the office says one thing about tech: they have done a lousy job at developing middle managers, who are insecure about handling underlings that they can’t see or be physically nearby. It really is a shame: all this remote access tooling that has been developed over the decades, and the one group of companies that you would think would figure this out are the first in line to recall their staffs.
Also gone from today’s tech offices are some of the lavish benefits that were put in place to attract talent. Anyone getting free massages, catered meals and taking yoga classes these days? It would be an interesting cohort for some research project.
Finally, there is my own cohort — tech journalists, who are being laid off once again in this latest cycle. The difference between now and 20-some years ago was we had printed magazines that were supported by millions in ad revenues to pay the way. Then the web wiped out that business model and giants such as PC Week and Infoworld went scrambling. Some of the large tech-oriented websites such as Vice have shut down, and I am sure more will follow.
Yes, AI is exciting, and there is a lot of work being done — even by humans — in the field. But it requires real capital and real brainpower, and not just sock puppets and a cute dot com name. Or at least, I hope so. And building a trust with your remote employees: the best ones will eventually migrate to companies with more liberal remote policies.

A brief history of domain squatting

A long time ago at the dawn of the internet era, a tech journalist bought the mcdonalds.com domain name. Actually, “bought” isn’t really correct, because back then in order to obtain a dot com, you merely had to know how to send email to the right destination, and within days, the domain was all yours. That was how I first got my own strom.com domain back in 1993. Free of charge, even. It was the wild west. (Some may say it still is.)

The journalist was Josh Quittner, who was writing a story for Wired magazine about domain squatting, although it wasn’t glorified with an actual name back then. Josh noticed that the name wasn’t yet taken, so he tried to do the responsible thing and called a PR person at McD’s to try to figure out why they weren’t online and hadn’t yet grabbed it. Of course, back then, almost no one had gotten their names — Burger King didn’t yet obtain their own domain name, btw.

The PR person, bless their heart, asked, “Are you finding that the Internet is a big thing?” Yeah, kinda. As he wrote, “There are no rules that would prohibit you from owning a bitchin’ corporate name, trademarked or not.” So he grabbed the domain and refused to turn it over until McDonald’s agreed to provide high-speed Internet access for a public school in Brooklyn. Eventually, the company figured out that they really wanted the domain for their own business, and domain squatting has never been the same since then.

Domain squatting now has a wide and varied subculture. Here is a 2020 report from Unit42 that goes into further details, for example.This includes homographic attacks (using non-Roman character sets), combo squats (that add subdomains to make them appear more legit), level squats (using a very long character string, counting on the browsers to truncate them and make them more believable) and I am sure many more perfidious techniques.

A complicating factor is we now have all kinds of domains like .xyz and .lawyer to contend with, which only increases the threat space that bad actors can occupy in domain impersonation. Josh emailed me today and said, “I figured that with the creation of so many top-level domains the shenanigans around domain-name squatting would abate but it just created loads of new problems. For instance, some scammers pretending to be decrypt.co (my crypto news site) created a mirror site with a very similar name and used it for phishing. They periodically send out email to millions of people claiming to be decrypt and urge people to connect their crypto wallets to collect tokens. Emailing the host site and alerting them to the scam did no good.” Yeah, wild west indeed.

I was reminded of this story when I saw that yet another business had let their domain registration lapse and was purchased by tech consultants who are trying to give it back to its rightful owner. Why do these things happen? One major reason: domain ownership ultimately relies on humans to pay attention, and renew them at the right times. (I just renewed a bunch of mine, which I had wisely setup years ago to expire on January 1.) Also, in big companies like McDonalds there may be several different domain owners spread among various departments, especially if a company has been acquired or has created new subsidiaries.

Actually, there is a second reason: greed. Criminals have adopted these squatting techniques to lure victims in. Just a few days ago I thought I was buying some stamps from USPS.com, but was brought to some other domain that looked like them. You can’t be too careful. (And the USPS doesn’t discount their stamps by 40%, which should be a red flag.)

SiliconANGLE: State data privacy laws are changing fast – here’s what businesses need to know

With no federal data privacy law on the books, states are doubling down on new laws governing the protection of people’s data.

In the past year, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas have all enacted such laws, more than doubling the number states had them previously — those being California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Virginia.

Although that represents progress, it’s also a challenge for companies doing business nationally to keep track of the subtle differences among the various laws. My analysis for SiliconANGLE here.

Scott Helme and Probely join forces on SecurityHeaders.com

A well-known security tool, SecurityHeaders.com, is now part of many services that Probely offers. The company has a full range of web application and API vulnerability scanning solutions. That news story hides the history and importance of the union and its principal, Scott Helme. I had an opportunity to talk to him directly and find out what led to the change.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with Security Headers, it is a free website that can test your own site for weaknesses in various HTTP protocol and web policy implementations. Helme launched the site in 2015 after an experience testing his own home broadband router that could result in a compromised network. “I was just a guy with a hobby doing security research,” he told me recently. That led to a series of well-publicized other hacks, such as on the computers onboard the Nissan Leaf cars that he investigated with Troy Hunt. He also did some live hacks on TV of audience members’ equipment.

Since it was launched, the site has done 250M website scans.

Helme has worked with Probely since the company became a sponsor two years ago. “By joining forces with Probely, I’m incredibly happy that Security Headers will remain stable and viable for years to come!” said Helme. The union was designed for the site to be more sustainable and to leverage more resources, since until now it has been solely his own labors.

Helme’s goal with Security Headers was to make information security more comprehensible and actionable for the average person. That is why the site, and other tools that he offers, are all free and open. That will continue under the new regime at Probely. “I’ve put so much thought into it, working with these people, what they do, how they do it, and how they align with what I do,” he said.  “We have a lot in common.”

So I decided to try it out for myself, and I was quite surprised. I have had a website for almost 30 years, and while I knew about the Security Headers site never actually did a scan. Here are my results:

Pretty miserable, right? I basically failed every one of Helme’s six tests. But I was in good (or bad) company: about half of those 250M scans also resulted in an “F” grade.

So — I have a lot of work to do. The results page doesn’t just show the failures, but also provides links to content from Helme on how to learn more about these protocols and policies and what I need to do to fix them to get a better grade — and improve my site’s security. For example, the page links to improvements in hardening my response headers, doing a better job of defining my content security policies and implementing strict transport security protocols. The content is based on numerous talks that Helme has given (and will continue to give) over the years and is written clearly with copious code examples too.

But here is my dirty not-so-secret: I have zero experience with setting up website header parameters. This is probably the reason why my site received a failing grade. After years — decades — of experience setting up various web servers, I have never touched the header configurations of any of my servers. Back in the early days of the web, these parameters didn’t exist. So I can cut myself a little slack. But really, I should have known better, after all the stuff that I write about infosec down through the years. But that is one of the reasons why I try to be as hands-on as I can, and now I have some work to do and things to learn.

That is the essence of what he and Probely are trying to do — to teach us all how to have more secure sites.

(Note: this post is sponsored by Probely but is independent editorial content.)

Who killed Shireen?

CPJ calls for swift, transparent investigation into shooting death of  Al-Jazeera's Shireen Abu Akleh while reporting in West Bank - Committee to  Protect JournalistsThe killing of Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last week has haunted me in the days since it happened. She was covering a raid by Israeli forces in the refugee camp of Jenin in the West Bank. For specifics about what happened, I would urge you to read Bellingcat’s analysis.

The Israelis initially said she was killed by Palestinians, then changed their story to say they weren’t sure who actually fired the fatal shot. Various other sources, including representatives of the Palestinian government and various Al Jazeera reports that have aired in the past week, claim it was Israelis, and done deliberately. These reports state that a sniper took careful aim at Shireen because she was wearing body armor and a helmet. The single shot hit her head just below her ear, which wasn’t protected.

The map shows her position (the red dot at the top), as well as the positions of Army forces and Palestinians. Both groups were similarly armed with M4 assault rifles using the same ammunition. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

What is even sadder about the circumstances surrounding Shireen’s death are the circumstances around her funeral. There were additional clashes with the Israeli army and police at both the hospital morgue and the church where her services were held. I am not going to link to the video clips but let’s just say it is pretty clear that “clashes” is probably not the best descriptor. Tensions and emotions were high, and it was ugly.

There have been 19 journalists killed in Israel (including Gaza and the West Bank) over the past two decades. That link will take you to the Committee to Protect Journalists — two other people have been killed there without confirmed motives. What makes this more personal for me was first, Shireen was a dual American/Palestinian citizen and a journalist. She is buried in the Christian cemetery that I visited three years ago when I was searching for the grave of Oskar Schindler. The route that took her to the cemetery is one that I have frequently walked over my many visits to the city. Finally, I have seen numerous reports of hers over the years that I have watched the Al Jazeera English channel, and admired her reporting and how often she was in the line of conflict. She was amazingly courageous.

Now, figuring out the origins of that bullet aren’t going to be easy. The Israelis and Palestinians don’t want to work together, but to have a definitive answer means you need to test the guns that were used that day. Some of them have been collected, but the chain of custody is probably broken on both the bullet and the weapons. Never has a single bullet carried so much weight since that November day in Dallas when JFK was killed.

I mourn Shireen’s death greatly.

Retaining my back catalog

Taylor Swift and I have something in common: we both are having trouble retaining our back catalogs. In her case, she is busily re-recording her first six albums since the originals are now under the control of a venture-backed investment group. In essence, she is trying to devalue her earlier work and release new versions that improve upon the recordings. In my case, I am just trying to keep my original blog posts and other content available to my readers, despite the continued effort by my blog editors to remove this content. Granted, many of these posts are from several years ago, back when we lived in simpler times. And certainly a lot of what I wrote about then has been eclipsed by recent events or newer software versions, but still: a lot hasn’t. Maybe I need to add more cowbell, or sharpen up the snare drums. If only.

I realize that many of my clients want to clean up their web properties and put some shiny new content in place. But why not keep the older stuff around, at least in some dusty archive that can still receive some SEO goodness and bring some eyeballs into the site? Certainly, it can’t be the cost of storage that is getting in the way. Maybe some of you have even done content audits, to determine which pieces of content are actually delivering those eyeballs. Good for you.

Although that link recommends non-relevant content removal, which I don’t agree. I think you should preserve the historical record, so that future generations can come back and get a feel for what the pioneers who were making their mark on the internet once said and felt and had to deal with.

Some newspaper sites take this to the extreme. In July 2015, the venerable Boston Globe newspaper sent out a tweet with a typo, shown here. Typos happen, but this one was pretty odd. How one goes from “investigate” to “investifart” is perhaps a mystery we will never solve, but the Globe was a good sport about it, later tweeting, “As policy we do not delete typographical errors on Twitter, but do correct#investifarted…” Of course, #investifarted was trending before long. The lesson learned here: As long as you haven’t offended anyone, it’s ok to have a sense of humor about mistakes.

Both Tay and I are concerned about our content’s legacy, and having control over who is going to consume it. Granted, my audience skews a bit older than Tay’s –  although I do follow “her” on Twitter and take her infosec advice. At least, I follow someone with her name.

I have lost count on the number of websites that have come and gone during the decades that I have been writing about technology. It certainly is in the dozens. I am not bragging. I wish these sites were still available on something other than archive.org (which is a fine effort, but not very useful at tracking down a specific post).

I applaud Tay’s efforts at re-recording her earlier work. And I will take some time to post my unedited versions of my favorite pieces when I have the time, typos and investifarts and all.

In any event, I hope all you stay healthy and safe this holiday season.

 

 

FIR podcast episode #151: How Akamai rebuilt its website and drove customer engagement

Few of us get to have as much influence over a more public website than Annalisa Church, VP Digital Technology, Insights & Operations for Akamai.  She has built a career on converging marketing and technology to drive better experiences for customers and build long-term value for enterprises. She is devoted to transforming marketing into a data-driven organization through actionable insights and ensuring the voice of the customer. Prior to Akamai, she worked for eight years in Dell’s marketing department.

Annalisa recently led a massive overhaul of the Akamai website, which is available in nine different languages, with more than 1,200 pages in English covering 18 different products.  The site has tremendous customer engagement, with one million monthly visitors, and almost two-thirds of them become customers after visiting the site.

The diagram below shows some of the changes that Church implemented during her redesign to make it more effective and more relevant to visitors. These efforts have paid off in terms of more engagement, more conversions from visitors to customers, and wider impact.


Listen to our podcast here:

How one startup team has created five successful exits

It is an origin story that has been told numerous times: a group of computer nerds meets in college and goes on to build a software startup, eventually selling their company. But this is a story with a twist: four of the team members met more than 20 years ago when they were undergrad engineers at Carnegie Mellon University. Together with a fifth team member they would go on to have five different and successful exits at various tech startups.

The team includes Peter Pezaris (CEO and developer), David Hersh (product manager), James Price (devops), Michael Gersh (marketing/analytics) and latecomer Claudio Pinkus (who joined the others 13 years ago).

Their projects included:

  • Codestream, a devops collaboration platform which was founded in 2017. Earlier this summer, NewRelic announced they were acquiring the company this week.
  • Glip.com, a team collaboration platform acquired by RingCentral in 2015.
  • Multiply.com, a social commerce platform acquired by Naspers in 2010.
  • Commissioner.com, one of the first online fantasy sports platforms, which was acquired by CBS/Sportsline, and
  • Ask.com, acquired by IAC in 2005.

I wrote a story about the team — Hersh is married to my wife’s cousin — and hopefully can link to it here eventually. What is notable about Codestream is how they took an open source offering and parlayed this into a commercial success. Sure there are other stories about how major software vendors such as IBM, Oracle and others have acquired open source companies. This is just one that i knew about personally.

Avast blog: The importance of equitable and inclusive access to digital learning

Schools continue to remain closed around the world. A UNICEF analysis last summer found that close to half a million students remain cut off from their education, thanks to a lack of remote learning policies or lack of gear needed to do remote learning from their homes. And as UNICEF admits, this number is probably on the low side because of skill gaps with parents and teachers to help their kids learn effectively with online tools.

While the situation has improved since last year and more kids are back in their actual classrooms, there are still critical gaps in math and reading skills and a wide disparity when country-wide data is compared. The equity/inclusion problem isn’t exactly new, but the pandemic has focused awareness and foreshadowed the obstacles. I discuss this in my latest blog post for Avast here.

Telegram designs the ideal hate platform

Last week the Parler social network went back online, after several weeks of being offline. Its return got me thinking more about what the ideal hate platform is. I think there are two essential elements: the ability to recruit new followers to hate groups, and the ability to amplify their message. The two are related: you ideally need both. Parler, for all the talk about its hate-mongering, really isn’t the right technical solution, and I will explain why Telegram has succeeded.

This blog post comes out of email discussions that I have had with Megan Squire who studies these groups for a living as a security researcher and CS professor. She gave me the idea when we were discussing this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on how Telegram has changed the nature of hate speech. It is a chilling document that tracks the rise of these groups over the past year. But the SPLC isn’t the only one paying attention: numerous other computer science researchers have tracked the explosive growth in these pro-hate groups since the Capitol January riots and other seminal events in the hate landscape.

Telegram’s rise in numbers doesn’t tell the complete story. Telegram has crafted a more complete social platform for distributing hate speech and recruiting new followers. Certainly, Facebook still has the largest user base, but their tech hate stack (if you want to give it a name) is nowhere near as well developed as Telegram’s, and Parler’s is a distant third. Compare the three networks below in terms of both amplification and recruitment elements:

Criteria Parler Facebook Telegram
Type of service Microblog Social network Messaging+
Coherent and transparent reporting process for hate speech No Mostly and improving No
Support email inbox No Yes No
Content moderation team It depends Yes It depends (see below)
Appeals process Yes Yes No
Encrypted messaging No Separate app Built-in
Corporate HQ location USA (for now) USA Dubai
Growth in English-speaking hate group followers Unknown Unknown Huge growth (SPLC report)
Group cloud-based file storage No No < 2 GB
Group-based sticker sets No No Yes
Bot infrastructure and in-group payment processing No No Yes

“Telegram is absolutely the platform of choice right now for the harder-edged groups. This is for technical reasons as well as access/moderation reasons,” says Squire. You can see the dichotomy in the table above: most of the moderation features that are (finally) part of Facebook are nowhere to be found or are implemented poorly on Telegram, and Parler is pretty much a no-show. Telegram’s file-sharing feature, for example, “allows hate groups to store and quickly disseminate e-books, podcasts, instruction manuals, and videos in easy-to-use propaganda libraries.” I have put links in the chart above to descriptions on why the bot infrastructure and sticker creation features are so useful to these hate groups.

What about moderating content? Here we have conflicting information. I labeled the boxes for Parler and Telegram as “it depends.” Telegram has said that their users do content moderation. In their FAQ they claim to have a team of moderators. For Parler, their community guidelines document says in one place that they don’t moderate or remove content, and in another that they do. My guess is that they both do very little moderation.

The picture for Parler is pretty bleak. If they do succeed in keeping their site up and running (which isn’t a foregone conclusion), they have almost none of the elements that I call out for Facebook and Telegram. Using the Twitter micro-blogging model doesn’t make them very effective at amplification of their messages (at least, not until some of their personalities can bring over huge crowds of followers) or in recruitment, especially now that their mobile apps have been neutered.

There are two technical items that are both useful for Telegram: its encrypted messaging feature and the difference between its mobile app and web interfaces. Much has been written about the messaging features between the different social networks (including my own blog post for Avast here). But Telegram does a better job both at protecting its users’ privacy (than Facebook Messenger) and has much better integration into its main social network code.

The second item is how content can be viewed by Telegram users. To get approval for its app on the iTunes and Google Play app stores, Telegram has put in place self-censorship “flags” so that mobile users can’t view the most heinous posts. But all of this content is easily viewed in a web browser. Parler could choose to go this route, if they can get their site consistently running.

As you can see, defining the tech hate stack isn’t a simple process, and evolving as hate groups figure out how to attract viewership.

N.B.: If you want to read more blogs about the intersection with tech and hate, there is this post where I examine the evolution of holocaust deniers and this post on fighting online disinformation and hate speech.