Three ITGS news articles from the last week

Staying up to date to developments in information technology in essential for ITGS. As well as providing excellent real-life examples and case studies, reading news articles helps students development analytical skills which are essential for the exams - especially paper 2. Here are three ITGS related news articles from the last week.

Online Privacy: Regional Differences
With online privacy rarely out of the headlines, this articles examines global approaches to data privacy protection. Legislation in the US, Europe, and Japan are explained in detail, making this a great opportunity to study real-life examples and discuss the benefits and disadvantages of different policies and their impact on privacy. (Read article)

Strong Networks: The Backbone for Modern Learning
New learning technologies and their impact on education are a key part of the ITGS syllabus. This article from EdTech magazines focuses on 'behind the scenes' technology: the network infrastructure needed to support these new developments. Examining the situation in a real-life school in Cicero, Illinois, the article explains the required hardware and software to support a large school with thousands of students. Packed with details of Gigabit routers, virtualization, cloud computing, and staff training, it is perfect for studying networks in strand 3. (Read article)

Controversial mass murder video game
The upcoming video game Hatred has seen quite a lot of press recently. Taking the role of an unnamed character who hates humanity, the goal of the game appears to be simply to kill as many people as possible. The graphic violence, including executions, make it one of the few games in Australia to earn an Adults-Only rating for violence. The article is a good opportunity to link with the Home and Leisure and the Health areas of ITGS, discuss the ethical issues related to such games, and examine the hardware developments which have made such realistic games. (Read article)

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Use Google Earth Pro to teach GIS (for free!)

Google Earth Pro, once a $399 licence, is now available for free. The professional version of Google's well-known mapping software adds several new features including the ability to make high definition "fly-through" movies of the earth, the ability to take area measurements, and a facility to import GIS data and display it in layers over the digital map. 

Rainfall data layer from NASA Earth Observatory added to Google Earth Pro

This last feature could be particularly useful for ITGS teachers as it allows access to a vast amount of data in industry standard GIS data formats, rather than being limited to Google's KML file format. Many governments and organisations make administrative, cultural, and geographical data sets available online for free, and sites like GISGeography have large lists and descriptions of the best sources, including: Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) offers daily updates of global data taken by NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System. The separate NASA Earth Observatory (NEO) site is also a must-visit. The rainfall map show above is from NEO. Topography provides high resolution topgraphy data acquired using Lidar techniques. At the moment the site primarily features data from the United States, but there are a few examples available from other countries too. Stanford Geospatial Center has gathered a wide range of GIS data sets. They are sorted by theme and tend to focus on physical geography, although there are quite a few data sets with social and economic data too.

While not technically a full Geographic Information System, the Pro version of Google Earth has many competing features and presents ITGS teachers with a great opportunity to add a practical angle to teaching this topic. With such a wide range of data layers available, students could investigate many different questions such as the best location to build a new hospital (perhaps using land value data, health data, population data) or the best way to protect wildlife from human interference (using land use data, road maps, and terrain type information).

As many of the sources above gather their data using Lidar and other remote sensing techniques, this is also a good opportunity to discuss the applications and benefits of these technologies.

You can register online to obtain your Google Earth Pro free licence key.

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911 Emergency system failure 'terrifying'

In what the Federal Communications Commission called a 'terrifying' example of software failure, on April 9, 2014 the 911 emergency telephone system in Washington State and Oregon shut down just before midnight, leaving hundreds of callers unable to contact police, ambulance, or rescue services.
 Julian Sch√ľngel CC-BY-NC-ND
A recently released investigation by the Federal Communications Commission eventually revealed that the outage affected not only Washington State and Oregon, but also 81 emergency dispatch centres in "California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina", and that up to 6,600 emergency 911 calls went unanswered during the two hour long outage. In total up to 11 million people were potentially at risk of being unable to contact emergency services.

The problem, which is explained clearly in IEEE Spectrum, seems to stem from unique identifying codes (primary keys) assigned to each call to keep track of it through the system. On the night of the failure the system hit a pre-set limit for these codes and wouldn't issue any higher (this sounds like a roll-over bug - as a variable reaches the highest number it can store). Unfortunately this problem was compounded by the failure of the failover and monitoring systems, designed to keep the system running in an outage such as this. 
Luckily law enforcement believes that nobody died as a result of being unable to contact the emergency services, but clearly as well as being a significant failure in its own right, this system highlights our reliance on modern telecommunications systems and the dangers that failures pose. No wonder, then, that telephone networks are often cited as potential targets for cyber-terrorist attacks.
IEEE Spectrum has the full story of the failure.

ITGS, Theory of Knowledge, and Wikipedia!

Critics of Wikipedia often cite the online encyclopedia's perceived lack of reliability, focusing on its open nature that allows anybody with Internet access to contribute to its articles. Key concerns are that incorrect or simply fictitious edits might be made, and might remain undetected for months or even years (there are several semi-famous cases that highlight this fact).

A related issue arose in a recent TOK class during a discussion about bias in historical sources. One student quoted the old adage "history is written by the victor" and this somehow - in true TOK style, I'm still not sure how - led to us questioning the demographics of Wikipedia's contributors. While "anybody" can edit Wikipedia, just what does a 'typical' contributor or editor look like? Even if the contributions they make are 'correct' (always a risky word to use in TOK!), could there be some form of systematic bias or leaning within the articles? 

As we know from ITGS, "unreliable data" is not necessary a synonym for "incorrect data". Data may be unreliable if it is:
  • Out of date
  • Incomplete
  • Deliberately altered
  • Accidentally altered
In the context of Wikipedia, we could add 'Written from a particular perspective' to this list. But what if the skewed perspective was unconscious rather than deliberate? As it turns out, Wikipedia itself has several pages dedicated to its demographics and possible systematic bias. After some brief research we were able to find a variety of statistics that raise both ITGS social and ethical issues and helped us generate some interesting TOK Knowledge Questions.

It is worth noting that there are two common roles played by Wikipedia's users: Contributors - an open position that allows anybody to edit pages on the encyclopedia, and editors - users who are appointed to resolve issues such as despites and page vandalism. According to Wikipedia itself (which notes that this information is based on a 2010 survey):
contributors can be split into four approximately equal age-groups: those under 18, those between 18 and 22, those from 22 to 30 and the remainder between 30 and 85
In other words, approximately 75% of Wikipedia contributors are under 30. Other interesting statistics, again from Wikipedia, include:
  • 45% of contributors have secondary level education or less
  • 13-15% of contributors are women
  • The majority of contributors speak English as a first-language
  • Most contributors are from the Northern, Western hemisphere
Of course, there are other related issues too - such as the digital divide that we cover in ITGS. Clearly not everybody in the world has the access to computers, the Internet, or even electricity needed to contribute to Wikipedia. Among those that do, it still takes a person of a certain social class to have leisure time available to contribute to Wikipedia instead of doing other tasks such as earning money. Ironically another limitation mentioned by Wikipedia is the lack of sources available to poorer users. Since Wikipedia resources contributions to have verifiable sources, users without access to these potentially expensive items can find themselves unable to contribute to the world's largest free encyclopedia.


There are so many potential impacts of these demographics that an entire TOK or ITGS lesson could be spent discussing them. Wikipedia cites an example of two articles to illustrate Western-bias: the first about Second Congo War - a five year war that resulted in up to 5 million deaths - is around 5000 words and has 38 sources. The second, the entry for the Falklands War - a much shorter war with a comparatively lower death toll - is around 11,000 words and has 146 cited sources. In another case a survey found that of the 25 most commonly mentioned people in the English version of Wikipedia, only 2 were women - and in the top 20, none were women.

Our the class came to a close we tried to generate some TOK-style knowledge questions relating to the issues we had discussed, and came up with the following:
  • How can we identify systematic bias?
  • Can we ever truly overcome systematic bias in sources?
  • If one source is true, does that automatically mean another source is 'wrong'?
  • If 'average' is used in the mathematical sense, how representative would an 'average' contributor be? Is an 'average' of knowledge desirable?
  • Is there some information which cannot be simply classified as 'correct' or 'incorrect'?
  • Is there a place for such information in an encyclopedia that aims to be "to be the sum of human knowledge" (which leads us back to a classic open-ended TOK question: "What is knowledge?"
My website has more resources for integrating TOK and ITGS.

New ITGS website design, features, and resources

New ITGS website design
The last few weeks have been spent making some quite big changes to my ITGS textbook website. Many of the changes are behind the scenes, moving from an old static site to a new dynamic configuration which enables several new features. The new design should also be much more responsive and user-friendly on mobile devices.

The ITGS syllabus is not sequential or linear, and any ITGS news article or resource is likely to link to multiple areas of the syllabus (this is the whole point of the ITGS triangle). The problem with the old website was that resources had to be categorized on a single page or, worse, be copied and pasted to several different pages, which is a bad idea for several reasons.

The new design makes it much easier to search for resources using the new menu system that lets you find items relating to any part of the ITGS syllabus. You can also use the new search page to find resources matching only specific categories. Need something relating to robotics, but specifically when used in health? No problem. Check those two boxes. Need to find resources related to the use of Internet in the Business and Employment strand? Easy. Want to see resources related to the security social / ethical issue in the Politics and Government strand? Just tick the boxes.

Another benefit of this system is that it automatically keeps track of the date each article was last changed. This makes it much easier to see additions and updates when browsing the site, and the new 'latest updates' section of the home page now lists the most recent resources added. Of course, you can still use the RSS feed to keep track of changes too.

Finally, the social media links on the right now include a link to the YouTube ITGS playlists I have been working on to collect ITGS related videos together. Why not head over there and try the changes for yourself?

Military Use of IT - Battlefield Technology

This week in class we will be studying the Politics and Government topic in strand 2 of the ITGS triangle, with a focus on military use of IT. For this lesson we will investigate the latest developments in battlefield technology, which is changing rapidly. We have already studied the use of drones by the military and will now look at systems used by infantry soldiers in combat. 

The links below provide a starting point for your work but you should also investigate further afield yourself - these technologies are changing rapidly!

Wired Soldiers / Future Warriors
Several countries are developing new equipment for their infantry soldiers to improve their awareness of the battlefield. The US Army has been developing its Land Warrior equipment for some time now as part of its larger Future Force Warrior system. Battlefield visualization is also often a key part of these systems. Other equipment available includes grenade cameras to help soldiers survey areas in relative safety.

Smart Weapons
Smart weapons incorporate information technology to increase the effectiveness of weapons and minimize the risk to friendly soldiers. Such systems include weapons that track targets, improve firing accuracy, even when fired by journalists(!).

Military Exoskeletons may sound like science fiction, but they are being actively developed by several countries. HULC exoskeleton system ready for soldier tests and US Army plans 'Iron Man' armour for soldiers (BBC) both deal with the development of these new 'robotic' suits which are designed to improve soldiers' strength and stamina, enabling them to carry heavier loads over longer distances.

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ITGS Banned Words game - Computer Software

Banned Words is a game for ITGS students and teachers that makes for a useful starter or plenary activity. In a previous post I uploaded slides for the ITGS terms related to computer hardware; this slideshow contains all the terms relating to computer software.

For the uninitiated the rules are straightforwad: students must guess which term one of their teammates is trying to explain; the student doing the explaining is not permitted to use any of the banned words on the slide. The concept is similar to Taboo(TM) or Forbidden Words(TM). 

You can download the presentation from Slideshare. It has an embedded macro randomly select a term each click until all terms are covered.

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Book Review: Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground

Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground
Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground by Kevin Poulsen tells the story of Iceman (real name Max Butler), a computer geek turned hacker turned notorious cyber criminal who was eventually imprisoned in 2007. Kingpin charts Butler's rise (or fall?) into organised crime, from his first offences including software piracy and phone hacking, to system administration of one of the largest cyber-criminal discussion forums on the Internet. More modern than The Cuckoo's Egg or even Ghost in the Wire, Kingpin gives a fantastic insight into the world of cybercrime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period of time when criminals were starting to make serious money from online fraud - particularly from stealing credit card numbers and associated details - so called carding, and law enforcement agencies were struggling to control this rapidly growing new threat.

A large part of Kingpin discusses the underground discussion forums where cyber-criminals share tools, tactics, and information, including the now infamous Shadowcrew forum. One of the themes of Kingpin is law enforcement's frequent inability to keep up with technology and the new types of crimes it enables - this is especially true in the early days when Max commits his first crimes. The material here is really the stuff of thrillers as a cat-and-moues game develops between the carders, the FBI whose undercover agents try to infiltrate the groups and their servers, and even between the hackers themselves as they compete for notoriety in an atmosphere of distrust. It is at this point that Butler pulls off his most notorious hack - the infiltration and subsequent hostile takeover of rival carders' forums - including DarkMarket - to create his own central criminal marketplace, CardersMarket.

One of the great takeaways from Kingpin is the answer to the question curious Computer Science and ITGS students often ask: 'How do you hack?'. Poulsen explains in candid detail how Butler and his associates circumvented security in their target systems, including exploiting known vulnerabilities in software (flaws in BIND and VNC are discussed), hijacking WiFi connections, and taking advantage of systems that still use default passwords. In one of his bigger hacks, Butler takes advantage of a security lapse at a restaurant that stores unencrypted credit card details in text files on their systems. These examples do a great job of highlighting how security breaches are often caused by simple human error and can be relatively easily exploited - a great lesson for students on the importance of general good security practices such as choosing secure passwords and keeping systems patched and updated.

One aspect of Kingpin that disappointed was the lack of focus on the social impacts of carding, and Butler's crimes in particular. Although loss figures scatter the book (when Butler was arrested the affected banks calculated the total losses at over $86 million), these are almost used as yardsticks to measure the success of each hack - little space is dedicated to the effects on the banks or their customers, almost giving the impression that such fraud is a victimless crime. In a similar vein, throughout the book Poulsen tends to paint a picture of Butler as a misunderstood geek, almost a Robin Hood character driven by a pathological need to hack computer systems. Poulsen does use his own knowledge (he is also a former hacker) to provide a fantastic insight into the hacker mindset, but I would have liked to have seen a little more balance.

Overall though, Kingpin is a thoroughly entertaining book - I read it in just two sittings - that I feel many ITGS students would enjoy. At 239 pages it is short enough to maintain students' interest and is modern enough to provide a wealth of material to which they can relate. Although its coverage of the social impacts of hacking is limited, its clear explanations of hacking attacks and the apparent ease with which they were performed make reading it an eye-opening experience. There is a lot of potential here for discussion material in the ITGS classroom, including security practises, organisational responsibility to secure personal data (and report breaches if they occur), the difficulty of enforcing law online, and the fine line between white hat and black hat hacking. This could keep ITGS students busy for some time!

I bought my copy of Kingpin from Book Depository with free worldwide shipping.

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