Osborne, hanging around like a bad smell.

Troughing ex-chancellor George Osborne, whose career I’ve followed with amazement over the years, has trumped it all by becoming the editor of the London Evening Standard while he’s still a sitting MP.

Was Theresa May right to sack him? Obviously! His constituency in Tatton are likely to be sharpening their knives as I right this.

 

ParentPay seriously broken (again)

400 Bad Request
ParentPay, the Microsoft-based school payment system that’s the bane of so many parents’ lives, has yet another problem. Since Saturday, every time I go to their web site I get a page back that displays as above. Eh? Where does this page come from – it’s not a browser message. A look at the source reveals what they’re up to:

<html>
<head><title>400 Request Header Or Cookie Too Large</title></head>
<body bgcolor="white">
<center><h1>400 Bad Request</h1></center>
<center>Request Header Or Cookie Too Large</center>
<hr><center>nginx</center>
</body>
</html>
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->

 

Okay, but what the hell is wrong? This is using Chrome Version 56.0 on a Windows platform. Can ParentPay not cope with its standard request header? If a cookie is too large, the only culprit can be ParentPay itself for storing too much in its own cookie.

I’ve given them three days to fix it.

Please generate and paste your ad code here. If left empty, the ad location will be highlighted on your blog pages with a reminder to enter your code. Mid-Post

Unfortunately, parents of children at schools are forced to use this flaky web site and hand over their credit card details. How much confidence do I have in their technology? Take a guess!

Solution

So what to do about this? Well they have the URL https://parentpay.com, so I tried that too. It redirected to the original site, with a slightly different error message sent from the remote server – one that omitted mention of cookies. So it was definitely Chrome’s header? Upgrade Chrome for 56.0 to 57.0, just in case…. No dice.

A look at the cookies it stored was interesting. 67 cookies belonging to this site? I know Microsoft stuff is flabby, but this is ridiculous! Rather than trawling through them, I just decided to delete the lot.

That worked.

It appears ParentPay’s bonkers ASP code had stored more data in my browser than it was prepared to accept back. Stunning!

 

BT Internet Mail Fail (again)

BT Internet’s email system is broken AGAIN. It rejects everything it gets as “spam” (554 Message rejected, policy (3.2.1.1) – Your message looks like SPAM or has been reported as SPAM please read…)

Having checked against blacklists, and sent perfectly innocuous test text messages to friends account, it’s definitely busted.

My advice to anyone using BT Internet for important email is to get a proper account with a proper provider (or handle your email in-house if your name is not Fred and you don’t work from a shed).

M A G Airports web site exploitable for mailbombing attacks

Last July I was surprised to receive an email of “special offers” from Manchester Airport. I’ve only ever been to Manchester once, and I drove. It was actually sent to a random email address; was the company just sending out random spam?

I checked, and visiting their web site produced a JavaScript pop-up asking you to enter your email address to receive special offers. I wondered if I’d accidentally confirmed acceptance to be added to the wrong mailing list, so I checked. No. Apparently this sign-up doesn’t bother to confirm that you actually own the email addressed entered; it just starts spamming whoever you ask it to.

It got worse. A look at the code showed it was easy for someone to make a load of calls to their site and add as many bogus addresses as they liked at the rate of several every second.

And it gets even worse – a quick look at the sites for other airports operated by MAG had identical pop-up sign-ups (Stansted, Bournemouth and East Midlands).

Naturally I called them to let them know what a bunch of silly arses they were. After being passed around from one numpty to another, I was promised a call back. “Okay, but I’ll go public if you don’t bother”.

Guess what? That was last July and they haven’t bothered. They did, however, remove the pop-up box eventually. They didn’t disable it, however. The code is still there on a domain owned by MAG Airports, and you can still use it to do multiple sign-ups with no verification.

So what are they doing wrong? Two things:

  1. Who in their right mind would allow unlimited sign-ups to a newsletter without verifying that the owner of the email address actually wanted it? Were they really born yesterday? Even one of the MD’s kids writing their web site wouldn’t have made such an elementary mistake.
  2. Their cyber-security incident reporting mechanisms need a lot of work. Companies that don’t have a quick way of hearing about security problems are obviously not doing themselves or the public any favours.

One assumes that MAG Airports doesn’t have any meaningful cybersecurity department; nor any half-way competent web developers. I’d be delighted to hear from them otherwise.

In the meantime, if you want to add all your enemies to their spamming list, here’s the URL format to do it:

Okay, perhaps not but if it’s not fixed by the next time I’m speaking at a conference, it’s going on the demo list.

 

New DVLA on-line system is broken

Why can’t companies implementing government on-line systems actually get anything right? And if they must mess things up, why can’t they do it in private? The new DVLA system is broken. They ought to have tested it in-house, without launching a beta version on the public. Seriously, do they not know what a beta version is for?

My experience – I went through and entered all the details, paid, and got this:


It’s now impossible to tell whether it’s taken payment from the card or not. Okay, this appears to be an external system that’s screwed up BUT it’s not be handled properly. Basic rule of data communications – Assume the link will be corrupted and cope with it.

Baofeng DMR handheld – the DM-5R

DM-5R PlusIn 2016 Baofeng released the DM-5R – what sounded like a fantastic DMR radio at a very attractive price. One of the best features was that it maintained the same form factor as the UV-5R, meaning accessories were cheap and plentiful. In fact it was completely compatible as an analogue transceiver, but with DMR too.

Only one huge problem – it only implemented Tier-1, which basically meant it could only talk to other DM-5Rs – not to the Motorola or Motorola-compatible Tier-2 units.

Suppliers insisted that Baofeng was going to release a software update for it. I’m on record elsewhere as being sceptical of this, as I’ve never seen a way to update the software on any Baofeng radios, even when they’ve introduced killer bugs in to the wild.

Apparently I was wrong(-ish), and a firmware update has appeared for the promised $10. Furthermore, a DM-5R Plus has also turned up on the market, with Tier-2 software already. I don’t have confirmed specifications (i.e. the unit in my hand) but there’s some question about the battery. Sometimes its listed as 1.5Ah, other time 2Ah. BL-5 battery packs (the UV-5R standard) are 1.8mAh. I really hope they haven’t been crazy enough to come up with a new battery format.

Battery aside, what’s not to like? If if’s Tier-2/Motorola compatible, then I’m sure I’ll love it. But how compatible is it? Questions remain. Take this announcement from DMR-UK (target likely to expire) quoting a Phoenix Repeater Keeper:

“I have now heard a station using the DM-5R on the Phoenix network. I can confirm that although the radio appeared to work (apart from having very low audio) it was actually occupying both time slots on the originating repeater. This confirms that even though the so-called Tier 2 update had been done it was still working as a Tier 1 radio.”

This is unattributed, and it’s not clear whether the transceiver was a DM-5R Plus or an upgraded DM-5R. I don’t even know if an upgraded DM-5R becomes identical to a 5R Plus. This will become clear over time.

That Baofeng didn’t get the complex firmware right first time would come as no surprise. But do I want to risk it? Only if they promised to offer a free fix; but they really don’t have a good track record there.

AO.com extended warranty – the hard sell

Our 1997 AEG Lavamat washing machine is demised. The motor finally gave up the ghost, and Electrolux (AEG) no longer stocks the spares – and even if they did, the cost of buying a new motor for such an old machine is debatable. AEG and Samsung make the machines that clean the best (according to Consumers Association tests), so another AEG it was. Unfortunately our local shop, Ruislip Appliances, is shut for the holidays so on-line shopping it was, and  AO.com had a suitable replacement that can be delivered next day. And helpfully, they agreed to take away an old dishwasher too, having paid to take away the old washing machine.

To get the latter deal, I had to order by telephone. After concluding this, the guy on the end launched in to explaining the fabulous after-care service they offered – at a price. Basically they’ll fix stuff that’s “not covered by the warranty”, such as accidental damage and bits wearing out – like bearings and door seals. Eh? Doesn’t the AEG warranty cover premature failure of non-consumable items? If a car was warranted for a year and you wheel bearings wore out just because you were driving it (reasonable distances) then you’d expect it to be fixed. Tyres are another matter; they’re consumable.

I checked the AEG warranty exclusions, and nothing like this was excluded. Basically commercial use, improper use and accidental damage. Anything else they’d fix. And their warranty lasts five years – which tells me they reckon their product won’t break down and have the data to prove it.

AO.com’s warranty excludes stuff covered by the manufacturers warranty, so that leaves very little to cover. “Ah yes, but if we can’t fix it we’ll give you a new comparable model!”. AEG would have to do the same, if it came to it. But if you read their T+C, AO.com will only do this as a last resort and they will automatically cancel your policy.

So for this little extra protection, how much did they want? Well to cover this £500 washing machine for five years it worked out at £450. Basically, where their warranty takes over from AEG’s, you’ll have already paid out the cost of a new one. If the machine was a write-off after ten years (reasonable for an AEG machine), you’d have paid for a new one twice over.

The warranties are actually called product protection plans internally, and they’re sold by AO on behalf of a third party – Domestic and General Services Ltd. They administer the plans, collect the money from the customers and pay a commission to AO

In Y/E 2014, AO.com sold £18m worth of these dubious warranties, and the value is increasing. They’ve been a bit coy about mentioning the figures in subsequent published accounts. If you’re the kind of person that’s totally unable to save up for a new appliance, it may be worth it as a saving scheme – a sort of pre-paid expensive credit option. If you pay up-front for what you buy it’s as much use as a cardboard washing machine.

I feel an OFT investigation coming on. Followed by “haveigotao.com” and similar sites.

One of the significant risks to AO Group’s future is desertion by customers (according to their Annual Report and Accounts 2015). I’m afraid the hard-sell of a dodgy product on the telephone during my first order left me questioning whether I wanted to deal with these people then, or ever again. They don’t have a price advantage over local independent dealers, and I don’t get taken for a fool by the locals either.

Other impressions of AO were good. But the washing machine hasn’t turned up yet!

No More Mr Nice Guy

Ever since I was Tech Ed on PCW (1991?), strange people have beaten a path to my door with a their domestic computer problems. Solving them was, for ten years, a good source of material for my column but that was in the 1990’s. Yet still them come. And still I help them. Why? Well I know if they took their precious data anywhere else it’d either cost more than they could afford, or they’d be ripped off and lose their data too. And I’d rather recover it before the mobile phone unlockers on the High Street made it harder.

So why is it that when you’re doing some people a favour they feel they have the right to telephone you for progress reports? Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth,

One recent example is an elderly lady who’s PC World special laptop threw a shoe. I don’t know her, but a we had a mutual friend who asked if I’d help her out. This is not uncommon.

So along I go and take a look at it. Standard stuff – Windows is a mess and it won’t boot. After about an hour of trying, it almost boots but I opt for a System Restore as I really can’t stay any longer. “Call me in the morning and let me know what it says.”

I make it a rule NEVER to have a freebie fix in my workshop. People used to turn up and leave broken kit on my doorstep for “when I have time”. I also have to figure out what’s wrong with it the hard way. I don’t mind making the odd house-call for a worthy cause, but the kit stays with its owner. Period.

So what does she do? Call me in the morning? No! It turns out she’d get around my rule of not taking freebies back to base by leaving the laptop with our mutual friend. Then some time later she called me to see how I was getting on. Eh? First I’d heard she left it.

At the next opportunity I picked it up, against my better judgement, an spent an overnight session trying to sort it. I then had my proper work to do. And she called again. And after I’d spent all that time and effort on it came out with the immortal words “Well I don’t want to take your time up so why don’t I just take it to the [mobile phone unlockers] in the High Street. In other words, I know this is a freebee but so I’m going to use emotional blackmail to get you to hurry up.

I’m fed up of this game. I’ve seen it often enough. So I called her bluff. Let our mutual friend sort it out – I’m not touching it again with a barge pole. I’ve wasted about ten hours on it, I shall waste not a second more. Except I couldn’t help myself; someone told me she’d been unwell in hospital and I went soft.

And today she called me again. I could feel myself losing my cool, so I ended up asking her to sort out out with our friend and hung up before I blew. Ironically, her disk had been on the analyser, in place of paid work, for the last couple of days (as you may or may not know, data recovery systems can take long time to run if the disk is trashed).

And as I write this, she calls again (perfect timing) with more emotional blackmail. I apologize she caught me at a bad time earlier, but that she needed to understand… Then she gets down-right rude. I point out I’ve spent ten hours working on her machine and she might consider she’s out of order; she says “I beg your pardon…” so I just have to hang up. Her attitude is not pardonable.

I really don’t need all this. So if anyone is thinking of dumping some kit on my doorstep for a freebee, think again!

 

It’s official – the Ruskies got Trump elected

This weekend the news has been full of the story that the CIA has accused Russia of swinging the US presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. Their evidence? Not much to speak of. Normally I’d be commenting on the technical merits of this kind of thing, but there are no technical details to back any of this up.

Apparently someone with “links to the Russian government” handed a bunch of pilfered emails to WikiLeaks that shed Hillary Clinton in a bad light. Let’s look at theses features in order.

  1. A lot of prominent people, companies and organisations have links to the Russian Government. They’re trying to imply Putin was behind it, but that’s hardly proof. In fact they’re rather coy about identifying the source of the leak anyway.
  2. WikiLeaks has a very good system in place to make it impossible to identify the source of any uploads. That’s the whole point. The identity of the uploader can only be conjecture.
  3. Hillary Clinton can come across as crooked without the help of the Russians. As can Trump, of course. Anyone could have obtained those emails and uploaded them. The most likely source is an insider; and it’s likely every foreign intelligence agency was reading them before long. And anyway, you could argue that someone has done the American people a great favour by exposing dodginess.

It’s worth remembering that largest number of cyber attacks originate from the USA, not Russia or China. Yet some people persist in blaming them any time something goes wrong. Doubtless they are behind some of it, but let’s get this in perspective.

It’s no secret that Putin and the Russian government are likely to prefer Trump to Clinton. Trump is telling it like it is on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, whereas the American establishment is defending the indefensible corner they’ve painted themselves in to. Trump realises the Cold War is over, the CIA doesn’t. Whatever else you think about them, I’m sure both leaders recognise each other as being able to do business.

Trump dismissed the latest fluff pointing out that the information came from the same people as “Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction”. He has a point.

 

National Lottery Accounts compromised

This morning Camalot released the news that they’d detected suspicious logins on 26,000 of its on-line punter accounts, of which 50 had been altered. As far as they know. They’re keen to stress that this doesn’t affect their core system (i.e. can’t be used to fiddle the payouts).

It’s entirely possible that they haven’t been breached at all – people could be re-using passwords taken in an earlier heist. What’s odd is that someone has accessed thousands of accounts but done nothing with them. Why? Kiddies, possibly.

If this is as Camalot is currently reporting, well done to them for spotting the suspicious logins and acting fast.