Science & Technology

SAN FRANCISCO: Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system debuts today, as the longtime leader in PC software struggles to carve out a new role in a world where people increasingly rely on smartphones, tablets and information stored online. No one’s expected to line up overnight for Windows 10, the way people did 20 years ago for Windows 95. But Microsoft is counting on tens or even hundreds of millions of people to download its latest release for free in the coming months. The launch will be accompanied by a global marketing campaign for an event the company hopes will be pivotal – both for its own future and for a vast audience of computer users around the world. Windows 10 is coming to PCs and tablets first, but it’s also designed to run phones, game consoles and even holographic headsets. It has new features, a streamlined Web browser called Edge and a desktop version of Cortana, the online assistant that is Microsoft’s answer to Google Now and Apple’s Siri. Still, the company insists Windows 10 will seem familiar to users of Windows 7, the sixyear- old operating system still running on most PCs. Microsoft and PC makers want to erase the memory of the last big update, 2012’s Windows 8, which alienated many with its jarring, unwieldy design. Microsoft skipped the name Windows 9, as if to distance itself further from the last release. While many analysts believe Windows 8 made sagging PC sales even worse, it’s unclear if Windows 10 will spur the industry back to growth. Here is a look at the launch and why it matters.

What happens this week? Microsoft plans promotional events in several cities today, tied to a global ad campaign and a series of charitable donations. About 5 million people who enrolled in an earlier test program will be able to download Windows 10 right away. The company is also offering Windows 10 as a free download, any time over the next year, to anyone who has the Home or Pro versions of Windows 7 or 8 (but not the Enterprise versions used by big organizations). Some may not get it the first day; Microsoft says it will deliver downloads in waves, to ensure things go smoothly, but it hasn’t said how long that will take. Retailers such as Best Buy, Staples and Wal-Mart will have some desktops and laptops with Windows 10 already installed. More models are coming.

Why is Microsoft giving Windows 10 for free? The company wants to get the new software on as many devices as possible. Microsoft needs a large pool of users to convince independent programmers that it’s worth their time to build useful or entertaining apps for Windows 10 devices. Executives also believe that if people are exposed to the latest and best Windows, they’re more likely to try other Microsoft products on PCs and mobile devices. CEO Satya Nadella says he wants to have 1 billion devices running Windows 10 in three years. Microsoft estimates there are 1.5 billion people who currently use some kind of Windows. Rather than charging them to upgrade, as Microsoft used to do, it’s embracing the free download model pioneered by Apple and Google.

How will Microsoft make money? Microsoft will still collect licensing fees from PC makers that install Windows 10 on new machines. In recent years, most consumers have waited until they bought a new computer to get the latest Windows. Microsoft also makes money from selling Windows and other software to large businesses and organizations. In addition, Microsoft is counting on Windows 10 to spur more use of other services. Microsoft makes money from selling advertising for its Bing search engine, and Windows 10 comes with many apps that steer people to Bing. The company also collects fees from people who use premium versions of its Office software, OneDrive cloud storage and Skype.

Why does this matter to consumers? Microsoft says Windows 10 is designed for the way people use computers today – with a faster Web browser and features that make it easier to start tasks on a PC and then switch to a hand-held device. (Apple and Google tout similar features in their software.) Windows 10 also lets users log in with their face, iris or thumbprint, instead of remembering passwords, though this works only with computers equipped with the right hardware. Most PC users are still working with Windows 7, thanks to Windows 8’s unpopularity. But Microsoft plans to phase out maintenance and security support for Windows 7 over the next five years, and for Windows 8 by 2023, as it did with the older Windows XP. Still, there’s no need to panic about upgrading right away.

Why is it important to the tech industry? The growth in mobile devices has caused PC sales to decline for more than three years, hurting manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard and companies like Microsoft and Intel, whose products are used with PCs. Windows 10 won’t make people give up their hand-held gadgets, but it’s part of Nadella’s strategy to reposition Microsoft for a world where people use multiple devices. PC makers are hoping he succeeds. Jeff Barney, who runs Toshiba’s consumer PC business, said the new software is easier to use than Windows 8 and will complement hardware advances in Toshiba’s newest machines. Although Barney isn’t expecting a big rush to stores today, “over time, I think we’re going to see a positive trend in sales.” — AP

Facebook has scrapped its previously unknown plans to build a satellite, according to a report by Amir Efrati in The Information.

The satellite, had it been built, could have cost an estimated $500 million. The plan was to use it to help provide cheap internet access in the developing world. But this pricetag was apparently prohibitive, and the scheme has since been abandoned — before it was ever even announced.

Facebook has been exploring ways expanding internet access — and along with it, access to its products — in emerging markets. One of the key ways is Internet.org, a Facebook-led initiative involving multiple companies to subsidise data costs in certain countries.

But not all of Facebook's efforts in the area are related to Internet.org. For example, it announced Facebook Lite last week, an ultra-lightweight Android app designed to make the social network easier to access on low bandwidth connections. That had nothing to do withInternet.org.

Similarly, while Mark Zuckerberg had openly discussed using satellites to help with Internet.org, this new, cancelled scheme was apparently unrelated.

The Information's report, based on "a person with direct knowledge of the project and a person briefed about it," says it would have been a geostationary satellite that could have helped provide internet access to dozens of countries. Instead, it may now lease a satellite off another provider, if it does decide to push ahead with its plans.

Facebook's plans to bring internet access to the emerging markets have the potential to positively transform the countries targeted — but there's also a direct financial incentive for the social networking giant. By providing the tools required to access the web, it can ensure it has first access to previously untapped markets of billions of people.

BEIJING: A pilot said yesterday that he is anxious but excited about flying a solar plane solo from China to Hawaii on the longest leg of the first attempt to fly around the world without a drop of fuel. AndrÈ Borschberg, 62, is due to fly over the Pacific Ocean for five days and five nights in the plane that has more than 17,000 solar cells on its wings to power its motors and recharge its batteries for nighttime flying.

The Solar Impulse 2 set off from Abu Dhabi in March and has stopped in Oman, India and Myanmar. Borschberg and another Swiss pilot, Bertrand Piccard, are taking turns flying the single- seater Swiss plane during a five-month journey to promote renewable energy use. The 8,175-kilometer flight from Nanjing in eastern China to Hawaii - which may take off Thursday, depending on weather - is the seventh of 12 flights. None of the previous legs were more than 20 hours - compared with an estimated flight time of 120 hours to Hawaii. “It’s the most challenging, yes, in the sense that we never flew over the oceans,” Borschberg said in a phone interview from Nanjing. “There are of course also question marks with the type of airplane we have, is it capable to fly solo with this type of energy, and of course the challenge is on the pilot side as well ... can I stay alert for this leg and be able to pilot this airplane, can I keep my energy at the right level, can I keep my spirits, my mindset to get this airplane to Hawaii.”

Cockpit’s changing seasons
The aircraft will climb to the altitude of Mount Everest, almost 9,000 meters during the day to get more sunlight, recharge the batteries and store more energy. At nighttime, the plane will fly lower, at a minimum of 1,000 meters The pilot will experience temperatures ranging from 35 degrees Celsius (in the morning to minus 20 degrees Celsius early in the evening while the plane is still high up. “It’s winter and summer every day in the cockpit,” said Borschberg, who flew military jets for 25 years as a reserve pilot in the Swiss army and is an entrepreneur by profession. He plans to take periods of rest of 20 minutes up to eight times a day, but said he doesn’t know if the weather or turbulence will let him. Borschberg said the plane has a “virtual co-pilot” that is a stabilization tool.

It will sound an alarm to wake him if the aircraft does something unplanned. The cockpit is too small to stand in, although the seat can recline into a horizontal position to allow him to lie down and practice yoga. He also plans to use breathing techniques and meditation to help him through the long journey. He said that when flying, he focuses on how he feels as well as the situation in the air, so that the journey wasn’t just about exploring how to cross the Pacific using solar energy. “You don’t have the pressure of time so with this airplane you can really live the present moment,” he said. “It’s almost an inner voyage, at the end it’s not so much exploring the Pacific ... it’s also exploring myself.” The Si2 aircraft has a wingspan of 72 meters, spanning larger than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. At about 2,300 kilograms, the Si2 weighs about as much as a minivan or mid-sized truck. After Hawaii, the plane is slated to stop in Phoenix and New York before flying over the Atlantic Ocean. It will then stop either in southern Europe or North Africa, depending on weather conditions. —AP

With a simple trick, the humble spud can be made into a battery, so could potato powered homes catch on?

Mashed, boiled, baked or fried? You probably have a preference for your potatoes. Haim Rabinowitch, however, likes his spuds “hacked”.

For the past few years, researcher Rabinowitch and colleagues have been pushing the idea of “potato power” to deliver energy to people cut off from electricity grids. Hook up a spud to a couple of cheap metal plates, wires and LED bulbs, they argue, and it could provide lighting to remote towns and villages around the world.

They’ve also discovered a simple but ingenious trick to make potatoes particularly good at producing energy. A single potato can power enough LED lamps for a room for 40 days,” claims Rabinowitch, who is based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The idea may seem absurd, yet it is rooted in sound science. Still, Rabinowitch and his team have discovered that actually launching potato power in the real world is much more complex than it first appears.

While Rabinowitch and team have found a way to make potatoes produce more power than usual, the basic principles are taught in high school science classes, to demonstrate how batteries work.

To make a battery from organic material, all you need is two metals – an anode, which is the negative electrode, such as zinc, and a cathode, the positively charged electrode, such as copper. The acid inside the potato forms a chemical reaction with the zinc and copper, and when the electrons flow from one material to another, energy is released. 

This was discovered by Luigi Galvani in 1780 when he connected two metals to the legs of a frog, causing its muscles to twitch. But you can put many materials between these two electrodes to get the same effect. Alexander Volta, around the time of Galvani, used saltwater-soaked paper. Others have made “earth batteries” using two metal plates and a pile of dirt, or a bucket of water.

Super spuds

Potatoes are often the preferred vegetable of choice for teaching high school science students these principles. Yet to the surprise of Rabinowitch, no one had scientifically studied spuds as an energy source. So in 2010, he decided to give it a try, along with PhD student Alex Goldberg, and Boris Rubinsky of the University of California, Berkeley.

“We looked at 20 different types of potatoes,” explains Goldberg, “and we looked at their internal resistance, which allows us to understand how much energy was lost by heat.”

They found that by simply boiling the potatoes for eight minutes, it broke down the organic tissues inside the potatoes, reducing resistance and allowing for freer movement of electrons– thus producing more energy. They also increased the energy output by slicing the potato into four or five pieces, each sandwiched by a copper and zinc plate, to make a series. “We found we could improve the output 10 times, which made it interesting economically, because the cost of energy drops down,” says Goldberg.

“It’s low voltage energy,” says Rabinowitch, “but enough to construct a battery that could charge mobile phones or laptops in places where there is no grid, no power connection.”

Their cost analyses suggested that a single boiled potato battery with zinc and copper electrodes generates portable energy at an estimated $9 per kilowatt hour, which is 50-fold cheaper than a typical 1.5 volt AA alkaline cell or D cell battery, which can cost $49–84 per kilowatt hour. It’s also an estimated six times cheaper than standard kerosene lamps used in the developing world.

Which raises an important question – why isn’t the potato battery already a roaring success?

In 2010, the world produced a staggering 324,181,889 tonnes of potatoes. They are the world’s number one non-grain crop, in 130 countries, and a hefty source of starch for billions around the world. They are cheap, store easily, and last for a long time. 

With 1.2 billion people in the world lacking access to electricity, a simple potato could be the answer– or so the researchers thought. “We thought organisations would be interested,” says Rabinowitch. “We thought politicians in India would give them out with their names inscribed on them. They cost less than a dollar.” 

Yet three years on since their experiment, why haven’t governments, companies or organisations embraced potato batteries? “The simple answer is they don’t even know about it,” reasons Rabinowitch. But it may be more complicated than that.

First, there’s the issue of using a food for energy. Olivier Dubois, senior natural resources officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says that using food for energy – like sugar cane for biofuels – must avoid depleting food stocks and competing with farmers.

“You first need to look at: are there enough potatoes to eat? Then, are we not competing with farmers making income from selling potatoes?” he explains. “So if eating potatoes is covered, selling potatoes is covered, and there’s some potatoes left, then yes, it can work”

In a country like Kenya, the potato is the second most important food for families after maize. Smallholder farmers produced around 10 million tonnes of potatoes this year, yet around 10-20% were lost in post-harvest waste due to lack of access to markets, poor storage conditions, and other issues, according to Elmar Schulte–Geldermann, potato science leader for sub–Saharan Africa at the International Potato Center in Nairobi, Kenya. The potatoes that don’t make it to the market could easily be turned into batteries. 

Pithy answer

Yet in Sri Lanka, for instance, the locally available potatoes are rare and expensive. So a team of scientists at the University of Kelaniya recently decided to try the experiment with something more widely available, and free – plantain piths (stems).

Physicist KD Jayasuriya and his team found that the boiling technique produced a similar efficiency increase for plantains – and the best battery performance was obtained by chopping the plantain pith after boiling.

With the boiled piths, they found they could power a single LED for more than 500 hours, provided it is prevented from drying out. “I think the potato has slightly better current, but the plantain pith is free, it’s something we throw away,” says Jayasuriya.

Despite all this, some are sceptical of the feasibility of potato power. “In reality, the potato battery is essentially like a regular battery you’d buy at the store,” says Derek Lovley at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It’s just using a different matrix.” While the potato helps to prevent energy being lost to heat, it is not the source of the energy – that’s actually extracted via the corrosion of the zinc. “It’s sacrificial – the metal is degrading over time,” says Lovley. This means you’d have to replace the zinc – and of course the potato or plantain pith – over time.

Still, zinc is quite cheap in most developing countries. And Jayasuriya argues that it could still be more cost effective than a kerosene lamp. A zinc electrode that lasts about five months would cost about the same as a litre of kerosene, which fuels the average family home in Sri Lanka for two days. You could also use other electrodes, like magnesium or iron. 

But potato advocates must surmount another problem before their idea catches on: consumer perception of potatoes. Compared with modern technologies like solar power, potatoes are perhaps less desirable as an energy source.

Gaurav Manchanda, founder of One Degree Solar, which sells micro-solar home systems in Kenya, says people buy their products for more reasons than efficiency and price. “These are all consumers at the end of the day. They need to see the value in it, not only in terms of performance, but status,” he explains. Basically, some people might not want to show off their potato battery to impress a neighbor.

Still, it cannot be denied that the potato battery idea works, and it appears cheap. Advocates of potato power will no doubt continue to keep chipping away.

After ten years of bonding and strong connections, Orkut decides to call it a day.

An email from Google reports that the growth of other social networking communities on its own platform had outpaced Orkut hence they decided to focus their energy and resources on making the experience of other social platforms as amazing as possible for the users.

Orkut users would face not impact until the website closes down on September 30, 2014. They would also be able to export profile data, community posts and photos using Google Takeout, which will be available until September 2016.

Google apologised to those who still actively use the service.

If the rumors are to be believed, and recent product releases are any indication, we stand at the cusp of an explosion in the wearable technology industry.

There are many troubles that plague product launches in terms of manufacturing, functionality, costs, and delivery dates. Even if the launch proceeds without a hitch, nascent ecosystems usually require the might and resources of large titans to scale and grow.

While most small companies pursue profitability via market adoption, the larger companies have the mettle and finances to acquire and operate business units for relevance and influence, often at minimal or as loss-leaders - The category of products that is sold at cost, or even below cost, to incentivize the consumer to buy additional products or services being sold.

For a large company to swoop in and acquire a startup for its wearable technology, not only do future market acceptance indicators need to be present, but the technology has to be aligned to the corporation’s product roadmap.


Purpose & experience


The Samsung Galaxy Gear watch met with largely negative reviews when it was first launched. It was burdened with some poor design decisions, but moreover, there was no compelling reason for anyone to buy one. To paraphrase someone in the tech industry: “Smart watches are a solution looking for a problem”.

The essence of the problem, as i see it, is this: If the device is only really going to be useful as an extension to a particular mobile phone, it’s going to experience growth slowly unless it can offer some truly differentiated, desirable functionality.

In the event that it does, it needs to be marketed as an standalone product whose functionality doesn’t have external dependencies. Doing that, of course, leads to decisions which impact cost, design and duplication of functionality. Should an iWatch have it’s own antenna, or should it piggyback off the iPhone? What if the iPhone battery drains completely? Should the wearable still be functional?

This reminds me of something i read that one of the architects of a popular development framework said pertaining to Javascript. “It’s functionality should be that of an escalator. Even if the power is out, you can still use it as a staircase.”

This also applies to features within apps. Do i have to make another in-app purchase to play a game on my wearable device? Does a Glass-only app need my phone’s accelerometer to function? Isn’t it infinitely better if i can snap my fingers to “Shazam” a song at a public venue, rather than rummage through my pockets to launch an app and press a button?

The second dimension to the problem is the way ecosystems are constructed. In recent years, they have almost exclusively relied on the contribution of third party developers who can help the ecosystem balloon immediately by growing it in parallel. That won’t happen for a niche product because the financial incentive isn’t there simply because the market volume isn’t there. Blackberry tried providing financial guarantees to developers to lure them to their platform; It didn’t work.

If i’m a developer who’s looking to monetize his knowledge, I’m going to more than likely first turn to the iOS platform to validate my product and test monetization. My second move would be the Android ecosystem to scale and gain market presence which would have a resurgent effect on my already published iOS app. To get developers onboard, you have to either be a dominant market player with an established, lucrative app distribution platform, or a newbie with frictionless development tools and lucrative terms, and possibly a new industry.

The solution lies in the medium. Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, irrespective of whether it is stitched in to the fabric of another device or not. Harness its strengths. Most people condemned Google Glass to be dead-on-arrival (doa) Glass is an awesome product with truly spectacular potential in the right hands. Google is just the worst company in the world to launch it, largely because of it’s reputation to monetize by selling personal data.

A successful product should not focus solely on extensibility, but also on independent functionality made capable by the device’s unique specifications.


Privacy


Gla**holes. That is an actual term people use to refer to individuals wearing Google Glass. They have been asked to leave diners and other places of business simply because of its intrusive nature. This opens up a larger debate of what is acceptable by society and why. After all, i can walk around a city subtly snapping photos of random people with my cellphone. So why is it so unacceptable if i do the same with my glasses?

The problem is compounded by the unfortunate timing of the wave in the industry. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have made quite a hash of public trust in governments and corporations. Research conducted by the Pew Research Institute illustrates sensitivity to privacy at an all-time high, and has an inversely proportional relation to external trust.

A successful wearable should be designed and positioned as a privacy-conscious product, including its features.


Power


Power is another major issue. Most people have to recharge their phones by the end of the day. Having to monitor and recharge power levels for two separate devices is simply cumbersome and a detractor to user experience. Having interdependence built in will only deplete the power levels quicker since both devices will have to be in an active state. To date, there isn’t a universal solution to the problem of rapid power depletion. To save space, Apple devices don’t allow for batteries to be swapped and the industry is mostly following suit. Starbucks is now introducing Duracell wireless charging mats in all its stores but that is more of an independent value-added service rather than a trend catching on globally.

A successful wearable will harness solar energy, and the same technology used in battery-less timepieces.


Recurrence


I’ll have to refer again to Apple’s products simply because they have been the mainstays of the industry while other offerings come and go around them. The iPhone is the exception to the rule. No other product has been able to motivate customers to upgrade or buy every couple of years. Arguably, it is one of the reasons they haven’t entered the television industry. Looking at their most recent earnings call, it’s abundantly clear that even the immensely popular iPads suffer from the same problem. Customer’s simply will not buy devices every couple of years unless there are major improvements. For a wearable product to appease a titan’s financial appetite, it will either have to offer phenomenal margins, or prove to be addictive like the iPhone. The Apple TV is not a valid parallel because we haven’t seen it’s full potential yet. (I suspect it is a trojan horse which might soon be bolstered with exclusive content by way of additional acquisitions.)

A successful wearable must take cues from the fashion world and emphasize its visible nature.


Human Interface


One reason why multifunctional cellphones took off is obscure input. It is a feature that doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention it should. I believe it is also the main reason why Google’s Glass is going to gain traction slowly. (I have alluded to a solution within this post.) Imagine a mall or an airport. Now imagine several hundred humans walking around saying “ok glass…”.

It is here that tactile feedback is really useful. This however leads to a catch-22 of the very worst kind. Given prevalent design trends and material selection in the hardware industry, a wearable device would almost certainly have an element of touch input to make the design more aesthetically pleasing, whereas uglier, tactile buttons would make the functionality substantially better. Think about video games if this sounds confusing. You cannot use touch interfaces without the element of sight. This has a direct impact on the usability though. Two-way interactivity is essential or the device will never really catch on. Not many people want to spend hundreds of dollars on a passive device relaying notifications.

Using my cellphone, I can deposit a cheque, make reservations for dinner, order a movie, confirm my plans and give my thoughts on a collaborative development project without anyone else knowing the details. Rather than aim to emulate this functionality, a successful wearable should eschew all of it and concentrate on what it can achieve by virtue of its own human interface.

It isn’t all just about monitoring health or tracking the number of miles you may run; I believe iBeacon will be a core enabler in Apple’s wearable offering, whenever it surfaces. Yes, an iPhone can do the same, but how comfortable is it to walk around with a phone in front of you, or repeatedly withdraw it from your bag or pocket every time you sense an alert?

A successful wearable should have a non-public human input interface which doesn’t require a person to look at it constantly.


Extensibility within existing apps


As stated earlier, It might be more tempting to buy an additional device if there is a significant increase in functionality. A catalyst for that could be enhanced, medium-specific features offered by apps I already use with my smartphone today. The point is not to be repetitive, but rather highlight the other side of the coin. As a developer, I will have to put in many more hours for non-existent marginal revenue, since customers will not pay for the same app twice even if it offers more. I’m not a big fan of in-app purchases since i believe this fragments the user experience (see point number one in this post) and creates a susceptibility to migrate to an alternative, of which there are plenty since every new entrant in all the app stores is looking for early traction. The only remaining motivation would be that of staying ahead of the competition. That however, comes with depleting profitability since you have to continually provide more for almost the same per-user revenue.

No one knows how this will pan out just yet. These ramblings are just suggestions to where I personally feel an entry can achieve a good product/market fit. Many will disagree, some might agree. The point is to explore the many directions the industry could take. We can speculate and commentate endlessly, but whether Apple buys Soundcloud and launches a label, or Google leads the charge with wearable technology, or anonymity becomes the next big thing remains to be seen.

WASHINGTON: With hackers stealing tens of millions of customer details in recent months, firms across the globe are ratcheting up IT security and nervously wondering which of them is next.

The reality, cyber security experts say, is that however much they spend, even the largest companies are unlikely to be able to stop their systems being breached. The best defense may simply be either to reduce the data they hold or encrypt it so well that if stolen it will remain useless.

Only a few ago, the primary IT security concern for many large corporations was stopping the loss or theft of physical disks or drives with customer information.

Now, much harder to detect online thefts are rife.

Last week, Reuters revealed a host of big name U.S. Fortune 500 companies were on a hiring spree for board level cyber security experts often offering $500,000-700,000 a year, sometimes more.

Many have high-level backgrounds, at much lower pay, at signals intelligence agencies such as the US National Security Agency or Britain's GCHQ - although security experts say European firms are reluctant to hire ex-NSA staff following revelations over the scale of US cyber monitoring by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

"Information has become toxic for retailers because the more they have, the bigger a target they become," said Lamar Bailey, security researcher at IT security firm Tripwire."The ongoing rash of attacks brings into question what information an organization should be keeping."

US retailer Target ousted its CEO Gregg Steinhafel in May after the firm said foreign hackers had stolen up to 70 million items of customer data including some PIN numbers late last year.

Industry watchers said purchases on its website dropped noticeably in the run-up to Christmas with the breach also sparking lawsuits and official investigations.

A report from cyber security think tank the Ponemon Institute showed the average cost of a data breach in the last year grew by 15 percent to $3.5 million. The likelihood of a company having a data breach involving 10,000 or more confidential records over a two-year period was 22 percent, it said.

The corporate fallout from the largest recorded breach so far, the loss of password data on some 145 million customers from online retailer eBay, is not yet clear.

A senior eBay executive told Reuters last week that "for a very long time" the firm had not realized customer data had been seriously compromised by the attack.

Abortion charity fined

Much smaller organizations, even charities, are also discovering they have much to lose.

UK charity the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) - which provides information on abortions and runs clinics - is appealing a 200,000 pound fine after an anti-abortion campaigner was able to access websites details of women asking for advice.

Britain's Information Commissioner said the charity had failed in its responsibility to store records securely. "I do feel sympathy for them," said Calum MacLeod, vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Lieberman Software Corporation. "They were never going to be able to attract top IT staff and with their limited resources, it will very often mean that they will outsource services such as website development. This shows that great care must be taken."

IT security experts say firms are becoming increasingly careful, now sometimes instructing tens of thousands of users to change passwords if even a single account appears compromised. Many are also taking out specialist insurance.

Still, a study of 102 UK financial institutions and 151 retail organizations conducted earlier this year by Tripwire showed 40 percent said they would need 2 to 3 days to detect a breach.

A February report by BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, the cyber arm of the British defense firm, showed customer data loss was by far the largest IT security concern for firms in the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain. It significantly outranked worries over lost trade secrets and interruption of service.

Hackers seek the most complete range of information they can get on individual customers. Obtaining a complete dataset of password, date of birth, e-mail address, phone number and other personal data can be more valuable than simple credit card details.

"The theft of financial information has a limited lifespan, until we make changes the account details," said Andy Heather, vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Voltage Security. "The personal information that can be obtained by accessing someone's account profile has much broader use and can be used to commit a much wider range of fraud."

Banks have been ahead of the curve when it comes to tightening IT security and have suffered less than retailers in recent months. Increasing numbers of firms are also using online payment operator PayPal instead of taking credit card numbers themselves, reducing the amount of data they hold.

The better data is encrypted, the less serious it is when it is stolen though even some encrypted passwords can be cracked with sufficient computer power.

Other strategies involve using "honeypots" - false folders designed to look as though they contain valuable data - that can be used to mislead and even detect attackers.

The most common route in for criminals, however, is gaining control of someone else's user profile, allowing them to sneak into networks and steal further data.

Some worry the high-profile nature of recent hacks may have actually made such identity theft easier. Security experts report an increase in "phishing" attacks - fake e-mails purportedly from major firms mentioning recent security breaches and prompting people to a dubious link to reset the password.

"Any time an event like this occurs it opens the door for phishing campaigns to be more effective," said Troy Gill, senior security analyst at AppRiver. "No organization is immune."

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