Archive for March, 2009

Celebrating the UK’s computer pioneers

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

The computer seems the very essence of the modern world, especially as the gadgets we sit before and carry around shrink as fast as they become more powerful.

But if truth be told the computer has had a long and honourable history that stretches back to the closing years of the World War II.

And, say conservations and computer history enthusiasts, Britain played a big part in the development of the modern computer.

“The layman when asked about the introduction of steam power will usually reel off Newcomen, Watt and Trevithick,” said Chris Burton, of the Computer Conservation Society.

“But when it comes to computer pioneers they are absolutely baffled,” he said. “They have no idea.”

Foundational work

When pushed, he said, they might be able to remember the name of Alan Turing but few know of any others beyond that.

Turing established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal 1936 paper called “On Computable Numbers”. But it took a large cast of engineers and scientists to solve the real world problems that arise when those ideas are turned into whirring, clicking reality.

At Bletchley Park forerunners of modern computers were built to help the Allies crack German codes.

Although Turing worked at Bletchley and helped create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with Enigma machines he had little to do with Colossus – a programmable machine that tackled the encrypted messages sent by the German High Command.

Conceived, designed and built by Tommy Flowers, Allen Coombs and Max Newman, the first Colossus was working in 1943 – three years ahead of the rival pioneering American machine known as Eniac.

For a long time the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (Eniac) was better known than Colossus because the Official Secrets Act prevented those that worked on it talking publicly about their achievements.

Kevin Murrell, a trustee for the National Museum of Computing where a rebuilt Colossus is housed, said Bletchley was just one of the locations where the UK’s computer pioneers did their influential work.

Colossus, he said, amounted to about one-third of all effort being put into those early machines. Similar pioneering efforts were underway at Manchester and Cambridge.

Cakes and computers

At Cambridge, Maurice Wilkes and his colleagues were working on the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (Edsac) – another recognisably modern machine that used tubes of mercury five feet in length as a data storage medium.

Edsac ran its first programs in 1949 and was developed to act as the heart of a number crunching service for Cambridge scientists.

The creation of Edsac was backed by baking and catering giant J Lyons which bought a copy of the finished machine and turned it into the world’s first business computer – the Lyons Electronic Office (Leo).

“It was the first programmable computer that went into routine operation,” said science writer Georgina Ferry, author of a book about the genesis of Leo.

“What was innovative about Leo was not the hardware,” she said, “but the systems and the way they used it.”

John Pinkerton, David Caminer, Ernest Lenaerts, Derek Hemy and others at Lyons pioneered the use of computers in the dull repetitive tasks formerly carried out by legions of clerks. One of its first roles was to calculate how much each worker at the hundreds of Lyons tearooms was to be paid.

Steadily more and more of those basic tasks were studied by Caminer and his team and broken down into steps Leo could replicate. In the process Caminer and his colleagues created systems engineering.

“Leo led the world in business computing,” she said.

Big baby

At the University of Manchester engineers such as Tom Kilburn, Freddie Williams, Geoff Tootill, Alec Robinson, Dai Edwards and others worked to create what became the Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or Baby.

The Baby was recognisably modern electronic computer because it could easily be re-programmed to carry out different tasks. By contrast older machines either just carried out one function or had to be re-wired to change what they did.

A replica of the original Baby now resides at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

“When we wrote the proposal to build the replica machine an explicit goal which was to re-run the first program as a tangible tribute to the pioneers that brought this about,” said Chris Burton who led the effort to re-build the SSEM.

Mr Burton said none of them had any idea about the influence their work would have.

“They did it to help engineers, forecasters and scientists to do their calculations,” he said. “They had no idea of the fantastic proliferation that we have had since.”

Hackers prepare supermarket sweep

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Self-checkout systems in UK supermarkets are being targeted by hi-tech criminals with stolen credit card details.

A BBC investigation has unearthed a plan hatching online to loot US bank accounts via the checkout systems.

Fake credit cards loaded with details from the accounts will be used to get cash or buy high value goods.

The supermarkets targeted said there was little chance the fraudsters would make significant gains with their plan.

With the help of computer security experts the BBC found a discussion on a card fraud website in which hi-tech thieves debated the best way to strip money from the US accounts.

The thieves claim to have comprehensive details of US credit and debit cards passed to them from an American gang who tapped phone lines between cash machines and banks.

‘Cashing out

The gang plans to copy card details onto the magnetic stripes of fake cards and then use them in UK stores. In the discussion on the card site those co-ordinating the fraud say they are seeking places to “cash out”, meaning strip funds from the bank accounts using fake cards.

In the forum they are asking for information about Asda and Tesco stores in which it is possible to use self-service systems that mules could visit with the fake cards to get at the cash.

The fraudsters are looking for self-service systems to avoid contact with store staff who may spot the fake cards.

Over the period of a month from mid-August the ringleader claims he will have details from 2300 cards to handle.

In the forum he declares: “Its (sic) shopping spree guys help me out and I will take care of you.”

It’s not difficult to take compromised cards from one country and exploit them in another
Andrew Moloney

The information found by the BBC has been passed to the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit so it can investigate the ongoing fraud.

Andrew Moloney, security evangelist at RSA, said the gang were involved in “classic” card fraud by cloning details on to magnetic stripes.

He said it was an example of a long observed trend in fraud.

“We’ve seen a shift from card-present fraud to card-not-present to fraud abroad,” he said.

“The internet is the global marketplace,” he said. “It’s not difficult to take compromised cards from one country and exploit them in another. It’s a simple and routine procedure for these guys these days.”

The discussion on the crooks’ forum is a bit of a wake-up call for all those who think that the introduction of chip-and-pin in the UK has wiped out card fraud
Rory Cellan-Jones
BBC technology correspondent

Jacques Erasmus, from security firm Prevx, agreed that cashing out abroad was a well established method. “They do not normally cash out in the same country,” he said, “just because it makes the law enforcement job that much harder.”

He said many criminal gangs even offer their fraudulent services via the web.

“They will do it for you in India and China,” he said.

Sweeping up

Armed with fake cards and a list of shops and supermarkets that can be hit the fraudsters could make £5-8000 per day, according to Mr Erasmus.

The funds would be split between the mules who actually carry out the transactions, those organising the mules and the hi-tech thieves who stole the original card numbers.

Representatives from both Tesco and Asda argue that payment systems automatically contact the banks when a card is swiped instead of using chip-and-pin. The banks must authorise the acceptance of a signature.

“If the card has not been reported as having been cloned, yes, it can go through,” said a spokeswoman for Tesco. However, she pointed out that swipe and sign transactions represent a tiny fraction of the supermarket chain’s trade.

“We would hope this will bring further pressure on the States to introduce chip-and-pin,” said Jemma Smith of the UK payments organisation Apacs. “Until that happens we will still see fraud on US cards happening in our shops and our cash-machines and also fraud on our cards happening in the US.”

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Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

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