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Cybernaut

The benevolent hackers

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Outside of a Star Trek convention, you won't find a bigger group of geeks than the one assembled at the annual CanSecWest Applied Security Confrerence in Vancouver last week.

This is basically a computer security conference, with a separate hacker event called Pwn2Own where people that really should be on the payrolls of the major software companies compete to see who can be the first to crack the latest browsers and programs.

On the very first day of the conference, one enterprising hacker by the name of Charlie Miller hacked a security vulnerability in Apple's Safari browser in a matter of seconds to take over a new, fully patched MacBook, earning both a $10,000 prize and the MacBook.

Another Hacker by the name of Nils hacked both Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3, also winning $10,000 and a Sony Vaio laptop.

To win you must demonstrate that your hack has potential for loss of information or to incur cost, and you have to be faster than the hacker beside you who was probably seconds away from taking down the same computer.

The browser test was only the tip of the iceberg. Hackers were challenged to exploit dozens of other computer programs over a span of three days, including popular operating systems - like the Windows 7 Beta - and the software on popular smart phones. There were no survivors this year.

A complete list of challenges is available at http://cansecwest.com.

The benefit of these competitions is that details of all of the exploits used will eventually be handed over to the companies participating, sometimes for a cash reward, allowing companies to create patches against future hacks.

It's also a humbling experience for software companies. Any company can claim to produce secure software, but Pwn2Own forces them to prove it in an atmosphere where hackers are extremely motivated to win.

Sober second thought

I've sent a few angry or poorly worded e-mails in my life, and felt an instant twinge of regret when I hit the Send button. There's no going back after that.

At least with traditional mail you had the whole process of finding a stamp, sealing the message in an envelope and walking to the nearest post office box for sober second thought. Not so with e-mail.

Until now. This week Google released a long-rumoured "Undo Send" button that will allow you to take back an e-mail immediately after you've sent it. It works because it doesn't actually send the e-mail until five seconds after you get the confirmation that an e-mail has been sent, although I'd argue that they should probably extend that feature to five minutes with the ability to immediately override the prompt if an e-mail is urgent.

In the future I'd also include a "Sleep On It" button next to the Send button that gives you 24 hours to think things over.

Time to buy?

It's been months since a major bank went belly up, and although jobless rates are continuing to rise there are signs that the economic recovery could begin in 2010 - that's what the central banks believe, it's what world governments believe, and it's what business owners are doing their best to believe as they hang on by their fingernails.

If your job is stable and you have savings instead of investments, then it's your duty to take advantage of the crisis. The lack of consumer confidence and consumer spending is causing most of the layoffs, and the only way to turn the economy around is for people to start spending again.

Besides, the deals won't get much better for computers and electronics, and you can save a lot of money in the long run.

TigerDirect.ca had a three day spring clearance sell-off where you can get discounts of 60 per cent of their already discounted prices - including an Xbox 360 Premium system for $219, or $139 off the retail price, GPS devices for $199.99 that used to sell for $549.99, and more.

Futureshop (www.futureshop.ca) is also having a spring sale where you can get laptops with dual core processors for $549, laptops with single core Intel Celeron processors for $429, and $600 off a Sony Bravia 46-inch HDTV and home theatre system valued at $2,800. That's more than 20 per cent off.

Best Buy (www.bestbuy.ca) is having Door Crasher Days, where different items are on sale every day. Deals are similar to Future Shop, but a lot of different products are available. I like the Acer 24-inch Widescreen LCD Monitor for $269, about a third off, that has two HDMI ports for watching HD movies and playing games, as well as other ports so you can use it with a desktop computer. An HP Pavilion Desktop with an Intel Core 2 Quad processor is just $799, $200 off.

Prices are coming down on Blu-ray movies, video games, external hardrives, iPods, you name it. And it's only a matter of time before they go back up.

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