Stories by Steven Levy

  • Shanghai Starts Up

    The shanghai Pudong Software Park didn't exist a few years ago. Now about 20,000 programmers negotiate traffic jams every day to get there. Throngs of former school math champs file into boxy buildings to rabbit hutches and workstations, doing the high-tech programming jobs that used to belong to Americans--the jobs that weren't supposed to go offshore but are now commonly outsourced here or to India. The so-called good jobs.But a few of the workers go to a somewhat different company, physically distinguished only by an impressive security system requiring electronic badges to move around the offices. The real difference in this start-up software company, called Augmentum, is in the nature of its work and its unique battle plan to jack up outsourcing to a new level. Augmentum doesn't focus on the low- and medium-level programming undertaken by the other residents of Shanghai Pudong Park. Instead, it takes on entire projects--complex tasks requiring not just technical competence but...
  • An Identity Heist The Size of Texas

    The nation was shocked last month to learn that a data analyst from the Department of Veterans Affairs had downloaded a database containing more than 26 million personal records, taken it home with him and then had his laptop stolen--exposing all the information necessary to swipe the identity of virtually every person released from military service since 1975. But to anyone paying attention, it was no surprise at all. A congressional committee that issues an annual report card on how each federal department protects information has assigned the VA an F for three of the last four years. The VA's own inspector general has repeatedly criticized the agency for failing to address "significant information security vulnerabilities." And the House committee overseeing the VA has been struggling for years to reform what it considers an information-technology "meltdown." Considering all this, it seemed almost inevitable that the VA would join the ranks of an expanding roster of companies and...
  • Will Your Vote Count in 2006?

    Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the voting booth, here comes more disturbing news about the trustworthiness of electronic touchscreen ballot machines. Earlier this month a report by Finnish security expert Harri Hursti analyzed Diebold voting machines for an organization called Black Box Voting. Hursti found unheralded vulnerabilities in the machines that are currently entrusted to faithfully record the votes of millions of Americans.How bad are the problems? Experts are calling them the most serious voting-machine flaws ever documented. Basically the trouble stems from the ease with which the machine's software can be altered. It requires only a few minutes of pre-election access to a Diebold machine to open the machine and insert a PC card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give control to the violator. The machine could go dead on Election Day or throw votes to the wrong candidate. Worse, it's even possible for such ballot...
  • Should We Trust Electronic Voting?

    Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the voting booth, here comes more disturbing news about the trustworthiness of electronic touchscreen ballot machines. Earlier this month a report by Finnish security expert Harri Hursti analyzed Diebold voting machines for an organization called Black Box Voting. Hursti found unheralded vulnerabilities in the machines that are currently entrusted to faithfully record the votes of millions of voters.How bad are the problems? Experts are calling them the most serious voting-machine flaws ever documented. Basically the trouble stems from the ease with which the machine's software can be altered. It requires only a few minutes of pre-election access to a Diebold machine to open the machine and insert a PC card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give control to the violator. The machine could go dead on Election Day or throw votes to the wrong candidate. Worse, it's even possible for such ballot...
  • Only the Beginning?

    To understand why the NSA wants to look at your phone bills, check out the work of Valdis Krebs, an expert on "social-network analysis." By mapping the connections of Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, two men that the CIA had suspected as Qaeda members back in 2000, Krebs established not only that they were dangerous--they had direct links to two people involved in the USS Cole bombing--but that someone named Muhammad Atta was at the center of their social web.Unfortunately Krebs did his work well after Alhazmi and Almihdhar, along with Atta, completed their deadly attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. But certainly the NSA--whose job it is to use vast computer power to protect us--would like to use such techniques to identify the next Atta. The spy agency thinks that having massive amounts of private data on hand--like the phone records of millions of Americans it requested from Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T--will help it do so. The big question is whether this...
  • Dear Diary--And Everyone Else, Too

    Megan wasn't invited to the party. Worse, everyone else in the world was there, except Megan and her friend Tonya. And that's not all. Megan learned that at the party "G," a guy Megan thought was her friend, was calling her "a brain" who "has no looks at all." And he said this in front of "the studs," the cool guys in the class whom he supposedly hated. Certainly a crummy way to begin the ninth grade.So goes the angst-ridden existence of Megan Fitzmorris, who was 14 years old in suburban New Jersey that August day in 1987 when she documented this betrayal in the journal she'd been keeping since she was 10. Now she is Megan McCafferty, a 33-year-old mother, wife and published author, who found herself rudely thrust into the news recently. The attention came not for the third book in a successful series centered on the fictional diaries of young Jessica Darling (who bears some resemblance to her creator), but for the fact that some of that work found its way into a highly touted novel...
  • Why Don't We Do It on the Internet?

    Go to itunes or Rhapsody and search for "Beatles" and where do you wind up? Nowhere, man. The greatest rock group ever doesn't sell its songs online. That's why the managing director of the Beatles' record label, Neil Aspinall, made a stir recently when he revealed that the Fab Four were finally planning to sell their songs on Internet stores--but only after a long-term project of remastering the songs was completed.Though Aspinall's comment made news, the impact was mitigated by the fact that the digital music world has already established itself, with no help from John, Paul, George and Ringo. It is telling that his remarks were made in the context of a London court case charging Apple Computer with violating the trademark of the Beatles' record label, Apple Corps, by selling music online. Instead of working with the Net's flagship of legal downloading, the band is suing it.During their heyday, the mop tops could get away with anything (like selling watered-down versions of their...
  • Win on Mac: A Sign Of the Apocalypse?

    I am experiencing the computer equivalent of an out-of-body experience. In front of me is Apple's sleek new MacBook Pro laptop computer. And on the screen is a familiar sight in an unfamiliar setting: the rolling green hill and the blue sky spotted with clouds (and dotted with icons) that is the unmistakable Windows XP desktop. It's like Pepsi in a Coke bottle, DeLay as a Democrat, Johnny Damon in a Yankee uniform (oops, forget that last one). Though it had previously been possible to run Windows on a Macintosh via pokey simulation software, this time Windows runs "native" (i.e., directly, just like with Dell and the rest) on the Intel chips that Apple has been switching to this year. Depending on how I start it up, this MacBook can retain the identity of a Mac running the Tiger OS, or become a Windows box in Mac clothing. It's making me dizzy.Even more disorienting, the software utility that allows me to go into the twilight zone of "it's a Mac, it's not a Mac" was created by Apple...
  • The New Wisdom of the Web

    Why is everyone so happy in Silicon Valley again? A new wave of start-ups are cashing in on the next stage of the Internet. And this time, it's all about ... you.
  • (Some) Attention Must Be Paid!

    The recent emerging Technology Conference in San Diego--a lively gathering of geeks and entrepreneurs building companies and tools for the Web--took "The Attention Economy" as its theme. Naturally, several speakers emphasized ways that companies could prosper in the scrum of technologies targeting our minds, eyeballs and wallets. But one of the most interesting talks came from a former Apple and Microsoft executive named Linda Stone. Her emphasis was less economic than social. It was a plea to consider an epidemic she identified as continuous partial attention.She couldn't have picked a more perfect audience. During the presentations the faces of at least half the crowd were lit with the spooky reflection of the laptops open before them. Those without computers would periodically bow their heads to the palmtop shrine of the BlackBerry. Every speaker was competing with the distractions of e-mail, instant messaging, Web surfing, online bill paying, blogging and an Internet chat "back...
  • AOL's Blog King

    Last October, the question of whether blogging could be a business was pretty much decided when AOL paid a reported $25 million for Weblogs, Inc., a network of almost 100 blogs on topics like technology, travel and parenthood. The founder of Weblogs, who will still run the company, is 35-year-old Jason Calacanis. A Brooklyn kid with relentless hustle, Calacanis made a splash in the '90s with publications (like Silicon Alley Reporter) that tracked the dot-com boom, and when the bubble burst, he--like the companies he covered--didn't get the expected giant payout. But in 2004, Calacanis got a second chance by setting up a company to generate dozens of ad-supported Weblogs, largely written by freelancers who split the loot with him. His most successful is Engadget, a real-time guide to gadgetry run by Peter Rojas, who jumped from rival blog concern Gawker Media. Calacanis, who now lives in Santa Monica, Calif., talked to us on a trip to New York to visit the Time Warner mother ship...
  • BlackBerry Deal: Patently Absurd

    What is the value of a bunch of discredited patents? We found out last week when Research in Motion (RIM), the company that makes the beloved BlackBerry, paid a company called NTP $612.5 million to settle a claim that it infringed on patents NTP was granted in 1991. That's a lot of money to pay for any technology, but if NTP really invented the magic that made the BlackBerry so addictive, it was certainly entitled to a big payout. It's doubtful, though, that NTP had any hand in that magic--because when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office re-examined the patents in question, it found evidence to reject them.So why did RIM pay all that money? It had to. NTP, which has no products and no factories, convinced a federal jury in 2002 that the BlackBerry e-mail system violated its original patents. More recently, the patent office took its mulligan and began the process to reject the patents (NTP, which be-lieves its patents are worthy, has the right to appeal rejections, a process that...
  • When the Net Goes From Free to Fee

    What makes the Internet great? Is it Instant Messages, search results, blog rants, sending photos to Grandma, watching clips of Jon Stewart riffing on Cheney? Actually, it's all that and much, much more: the whole information enchilada. Without benefit of a CEO, oversight committee or king, the Net has evolved into a vital cornucopia of goods and goodies because of its totally open nature--NEWSWEEK's bits are treated the same as a blogger's, and a mom-and-pop online emporium is as accessible as Amazon.com. That's why when we hear one of the Internet's inventors, the top mind in cyberlaw and a U.S. senator all talking about the end of the Internet, it's time to start listening.What's the threat here? That the big telecom and cable companies--which provide almost all the high-speed Internet to consumers--will abandon the principle of "Net neutrality," where every bit is treated equally and start-ups compete with giants on a level playing field. Instead, they may offer, for a fee,...
  • A Brand-New Old Media Company

    On the premise that less is more, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone broke Viacom into two pieces last year. One was "the new Viacom," retaining cable gems like MTV and Comedy Central, and the Paramount movie studio. The other was CBS, consisting of the broadcast network, TV and radio stations, Paramount's television studio and properties like book publisher Simon & Schuster. So-called old media. But CEO Les Moonves, a former actor, has come out of the gate with digital-distribution deals (with Google and Comcast, as well as a plan to sell new "Survivor" episodes from the CBS Web site), an acquisition of cable net College Sports TV and the merger of his UPN TV network with the WB network. Moonves, at a CBS retreat in Florida, talked to us by phone about the future of his company--and the industry. ...
  • If Martha Stewart Were a Geek...

    Ok, you've all got DVD players now. But before pondering the next step--Blu-ray? HD DVD? Downloaded movies?--give a thought to that old VHS player in the garage. The flashing "12:00" still pops up when you plug it in, doesn't it? Isn't the machine good for something ?Well, if you were among the 70,000-or-so readers of Make magazine, you would have an answer. A new life awaits your wheezing videocassette recorder... as a time-release cat-food dispenser. After only a weekend of work--two fun-filled days involving an old meat grinder, parts from a broken lawn mower and serious surgery on something called the video head drum assembly--you will have a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that dispenses Tabby's kibble while you're away at the Burning Man festival.Dale Dougherty, Make's editor and publisher, has no idea how many people actual-ly followed his magazine's instructions to build this contraption. But he does know that a substantial audience is hungry for literature that provides a...
  • Google and the China Syndrome

    Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and Holocaust survivor, had a message to Yahoo, Microsoft and Google at a public briefing last week: "These massively successful high-tech companies... should be ashamed." He was speaking of the way these Internet giants are cooperating with the Chinese government to stifle free speech. Google recently launched a China-based search engine with built-in censorship of critical political content, news sites and information about democracy. At Chinese insistence, Microsoft (which also filters by Chinese rules) has also shut down the blog of a dissident urging democracy. And Yahoo (yet another search censor) apparently provided information to China that helped it identify a journalist writing anonymously about human-rights abuses; the man is now serving 10 years in jail for this "crime."From some frank discussions I've had with people at some of these companies, I think they are ashamed. But they believe that they have no alternative. With 130...
  • Software: Mac Sort Of Life

    Another year, another update of Apple's already best-of-breed consumer media suite of programs? That's right, and if you've got $79, room on your hard drive and a relatively new Mac with power to run these, you'll find goodies in every component of iLife 'o6. ...
  • If Martha Stewart Were a Geek...

    Ok, you've all got DVD players now. But before pondering the next step--Blu-ray? HD DVD? Downloaded movies?--give a thought to that old VHS player in the garage. The flashing "12:00" still pops up when you plug it in, doesn't it? Isn't the machine good for something?Well, if you were among the 70,000-or-so readers of Make magazine, you would have an answer. A new life awaits your wheezing videocassette recorder... as a time-release cat-food dispenser. After only a weekend of work--two fun-filled days involving an old meat grinder, parts from a broken lawn mower and serious surgery on something called the video head drum assembly--you will have a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that dispenses Tabby's kibble while you're away at the Burning Man festival.Dale Dougherty, Make's editor and publisher, has no idea how many people actually followed his magazine's instructions to build this contraption. But he does know that a substantial audience is hungry for literature that provides a how...
  • Technology: Searching for Searches

    Civil-liberties advocates reeling from the recent revelations on surveillance had something else to worry about last week: the privacy of the billions of search queries made on sites like Google, AOL, Yahoo and Micro- soft. As part of a long-running court case, the government has asked those companies to turn over information on its users' search behavior. All but Google have handed over data, and now the Department of Justice has moved to compel the search giant to turn over the goods.What makes this case different is that the intended use of the information is not related to national security, but the government's continuing attempt to police Internet porn. In 1998, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), but courts have blocked its implementation due to First Amendment concerns. In its appeal, the DOJ wants to prove how easy it is to inadvertently stumble upon porn. In order to conduct a controlled experiment--to be performed by a UC Berkeley professor of...
  • The New(est) Rules of Television

    Recently the consumer Electronics Show filled up Las Vegas with more than 130,000 people and countless cell phones, camcorders, flash drives, car stereos, MP3 players and porn stars. In a State of the Industry speech, Gary Shapiro, head of the trade group behind the extravaganza, instructed us to view the "hallowed event": as "a Mecca... a Holy Grail." I have come back to give you The Word. Basically, your television habits must change.You have been very good, folks, at purchasing televisions with big, wide screens--this shows you have embraced the concept that one cannot be happy unless watching Peyton Manning, Dave Letterman and the babes in the Perfect Dark Zero game in high definition. Don't get too smug, though, if you've already snapped up a humongous HD set. It won't be long before the CES-oids demand you get a bigger one. In the Samsung booth: a prototype 102-inch screen. Better build a new wing to your house while you're at it.Next on the agenda is to get those screens...
  • A (New) Chip on His SHoulder

    Steve Jobs foiled the rumormongers once more at last week's Macworld Expo. Most observers expected that Apple would announce the first Macintosh computers that partake of powerful and efficient Intel Core Duo microprocessors, the same used by top-notch Windows machines. (Jobs had previously promised to make the shift over his whole computer line by this time next year.) But almost no one thought that the first of these machines would be the most popular Macs that Apple makes--the elegant desktop iMac and the workhorse PowerBook laptop (now renamed the MacBook Pro).Jobs got huge ovations when he announced that when running native code (written to work directly with the Intel chip), the new iMac runs up to two times faster than its predecessor and the MacBook is up to four times as speedy as a PowerBook. He also did some bragging on Apple's performance during the holiday season, reporting a record-breaking $5.7 billion in revenues and an astounding 14 million iPods sold in the last...
  • For Gamers, X Marks the Spot

    I had barely reclaimed my breath from an exhilarating 160kph-plus race through the streets of lower New York City when the notice came. "Westerby" wanted to chat--and race me head-to-head. I hadn't even realized that I was online. But I was starting to realize that this Christmas's most anticipated high-tech toy--promoted relentlessly by its impresario Bill Gates--might actually live up to its hype.Let me back up a bit, a process easier to do in print than in the Viper GTS that gave me virtual whiplash in Project Gotham Racing 3. I was testing Microsoft's new game console, the Xbox 360, hooking up to a high-definition set to see if the much-touted superpowered graphics could really jack up my blood pressure. They could, indeed. That's a good thing, since the games available at the 360's recent launch--I sampled what was supposed to be the cream of the crop--were pretty much in the same vein as the stuff available to the plain old Xbox and Sony PS2. With 360, the eye-popping graphics...
  • Ask the Technologist

    I live in a split-level condominium, and I'm looking to upgrade my Wi-Fi router to the latest and greatest. What should I look for?Get a Wi-Fi router with MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) technology, which helps cover larger areas and improves the quality of high-bandwith tasks like streaming video. Keep in mind, however, that MIMO is not yet standardized, so you should buy your router and accessories from a single vendor to ensure compatibility.
  • For Gamers, X Marks the Spot

    I had barely reclaimed my breath from an exhilarating Thanksgiving Day 100mph-plus race through the streets of lower New York City when the notice came. "Westerby" wanted to chat--and race me head-to-head. I hadn't even realized that I was online. But I was starting to realize that this Christmas's most anticipated high-tech toy--promoted relentlessly by its impresario Bill Gates--might actually live up to its hype.Let me back up a bit, a process easier to do in print than in the Viper GTS that gave me virtual whiplash in Project Gotham Racing 3. I was testing Microsoft's new game console, the Xbox 360, hooking up to a high-definition set to see if the much-touted superpowered graphics could really jack up my blood pressure. They could, indeed. That's a good thing, since the games available at last week's launch--I sampled what was supposed to be the cream of the crop--were pretty much in the same vein as the stuff available to the plain old Xbox and Sony PS2. With 360, the eye...
  • Sony Gets Caught With Slipped Discs

    Benjamin Franklin once remarked that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In that case, someone should immediately dispatch a cadre of psychiatrists to the headquarters of Sony. Its efforts to protect the music it sells have resulted--again--in unmitigated disaster. After infuriating its customers, alienating its artists and running afoul of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, Sony recently announced a recall of 52 CD titles--everyone from Dion to Celine Dion--protected with a flawed scheme that left customers' computers vulnerable to viruses and vandals.Sony has been here before. The company invented personal entertainment with the Walkman, but has failed to gain traction against Apple's iPod in part because the initial versions of the Digital Walkman were hobbled by limitations based on fear of piracy. When Sony launched an online music store to compete with Apple's, a similar defensiveness and tough "digital rights...
  • No, It's Not the New Napster

    Bram Cohen estimates that a third of all Internet bandwidth these days is tied up in his file-distribution program called BitTorrent. If that's right, the program that the 30-year-old New York native (now living in the Bay Area) wrote in 2001 is now responsible for one in three bits moving on the Net. BitTorrent, which cleverly exploits peer-to-peer technology to move big files speedily (especially media like music and video), is both a scary reality (piracy!) and enticing possibility (efficiency!) for Hollywood. Forty-five million people have used it, many for illegal copying. But for whatever reason, Cohen has so far been spared the fate of Napster and Grokster, and has yet to be sued by record labels or movie studios. In fact, he recently flew down to L.A. to take a meeting with top movie-industry lobbyist Dan Glickman. And investors see a future in BitTorrent: Cohen's company recently received $8.75 million in venture capital. Though no one knows what's in store for BitTorrent,...
  • Sony Gets Caught With Slipped Discs

    Benjamin Franklin once remarked that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In that case, someone should immediately dispatch a cadre of psychiatrists to the headquarters of Sony. Its efforts to protect the music it sells have resulted--again--in unmitigated disaster. After infuriating its customers, alienating its artists and running afoul of the Homeland Security Department, Sony last week announced a recall of 52 CD titles--everyone from Dion to Celine Dion--protected with a flawed scheme that left customers' computers vulnerable to viruses and vandals.Sony has been here before. The company invented personal entertainment with the Walkman, but has failed to gain traction against Apple's iPod in part because the initial versions of the Digital Walkman were hobbled by limitations based on fear of piracy. When Sony launched an online music store to compete with Apple's, a similar defensiveness and tough "digital rights...
  • Ask The Technologist

    The term Dumpster diving derives from the early days of "phone phreaking," where outlaw geeks went through telephone companies' garbage to get information about their systems. Now the term largely refers to identity thieves who go through trash to get personal information like credit-card numbers. Buy a shredder.
  • Here's One More Thing to Hate: Splogs

    Some of you may notice that the online version of NEWSWEEK alerts readers to blogs that discuss its articles. Not surprisingly, this is a service that authors of such stories cannot resist. But lately I've seen that my columns have been referenced by some very weird Weblogs. For instance, the first blog to link to my recent plea to mitigate technological incompatibilities was one called Relationships. It placed a snippet from my column among a laundry list of relationship-oriented articles on the Web, with no extra editorial commentary or evidence that a human intelligence was behind the choice.Unfortunately, this was no mysterious anomaly but a nettlesome commonplace on the Web. It was a spam blog. That's right--in addition to e-mail spam and instant messenger spam (spim), there's a new form of exploiting the Net's openness--splogs. "It's due to the fact that readership of blogs has grown so much," explains Jason Goldman, product manager of the Blogger division of Google. The...
  • Would You Buy a Quad From This Man?

    When you're trying to morph a telecom giant into a primary force in the media world, you need a weightier moniker than SBC. Apparently that's what CEO Ed Whitacre believed. He recently announced that when his $16 billion purchase of AT&T becomes final later this month, his company--which began life as Southwestern Bell--will assume the AT&T name. (SBC also owns 60 percent of Cingular, which previously bought AT&T Wireless for $41 billion.) Armed with that brand, he'll battle cable and satellite companies and compete with them by offering Internet-delivered television (IPTV). The goal is to sell customers not just a "triple play" (phone, mobile and broadband) but a "quad," adding video to the package. Whitacre, 63, spoke to us from his Texas headquarters. ...