Keeping your home safe from the Internet of Bad Things

Back before we had nearly universal broadband Internet in our homes, the only safety electrically-powered device that we had to worry about was to replace the batteries in our smoke detectors every six months. With the Internet of Things, we now have a lot more capabilities, but a lot more worries.

Some friends of mine have 23 connected devices to their home network: a Nest thermostat, security cameras, Alexa, smart TVs, network printers, gaming systems, smart watches and their computers. I am sure I have forgotten a few others. All of them can be exploited and used for evil purposes. Think of them as that back door to your home that is wide open.

This exploit for smart TVs was a news item last year. It uses a special digital broadcast signal to gain access to your TV’s firmware. I have been trying to update my firmware for weeks with no success, but I guess hackers are more adept. Still, this is a major concern for IoT devices both in the home and in the workplace. Many device makers don’t have any firmware update mechanism, and those that do don’t make it easy or automatic for users to do it. And devices are usually not monitored on corporate endpoint protection tools, which are usually designed for Windows, Mac and Linux machines.

Part of the problem is that the number of IoT devices continues to climb, with estimates in the tens of billions in the coming years. These devices are seemingly everywhere. And they are an attractive target for hackers. Hajime, Mirai, Reaper, Satori and Amnesia are all IoT-based malware that has been seen in the past couple of years. The hackers understand that once you can discover the IP address of a device, you can probably gain entry to it and use it for evil purposes, such as launching attacks on a corporate target or to leverage access to a corporate network to steal information and funds.

So what can you do? One friend of mine is so concerned about his home network that he runs his own firewall and has two different network-attached storage devices that make copies of his data. This enables him to get rid of having any data on his computers and removes all at-risk programs on them to further secure them. That is probably more than most of us want to do, but still it shows the level of effort that you need to keep things safe.

If you aren’t willing to put this much effort into your home network, here are a few easier steps to take. First, make sure you change all of your devices’ default passwords when you first install them – if you can. Some products have a hard-coded password: if security is a concern, toss them now. Second, if you don’t have a firewall/router on your home network (or if you are using the one supplied by your broadband provider), go out and get one. They now cost less than $100 and are worth it if you can take the time to set them up properly to limit access to your networked devices. Next, make sure your Wifi network is locked down appropriately with the latest protocols and a complex enough password. If you have teenagers, setup a guest network that limits their friends’ access.

Granted, this is still a lot more work than most of us have time or the patience for. And many of us still don’t even replace our smoke detector batteries until they start beeping at us. But many of you will hopefully be motivated to take at least some of these steps.

Advertisements

Learning about what data your social networks keep about you

Brian Chen’s recent piece about social media privacy in the NY Times inspired me to look more closely at the information that the major social networks have collected on me. Be warned: once you start down this rabbit hole, you can’t unlearn what you find. Chen says it is like opening Pandora’s box. I think it is more like trying to look at yourself from the outside in. There is a lot of practical information and tips here, you might want to file this edition of Web Informant away for future reference when you have the time to absorb all of it.

Why bother? For one thing, the exercise is interesting, and will give you insights into how you use social media and whether you should change what and how you post on these networks in the future. It also shows you how advertisers leverage your account – after all, they are the ones paying the bills (to the news of some US Senators). And if you are concerned about your privacy or want to leave one or more of these networks, it is a good idea to understand what they already know about you before you begin a scrub session to limit the access of your personal information to the social network and its connected apps. Also, if you are thinking about leaving, it would be nice to have a record of your contacts before you pull the plug.

None of the networks make obtaining this information simple, and that is probably on purpose. I have provided links to the starting points in the process, but you first will want to login to each network before navigating to these pages. In all cases, you initiate the request, which will take hours to days before each network replies with an email that either contains a download link or an attached file with the information. You need to download the file(s) within a certain time limit, otherwise the links will expire and you will have to issue another request.

The results range from scary to annoyingly detailed and almost unreadable. And after you get all this data, there are additional activities that you will probably want to do to either clean up your account or tighten your privacy and security. Hang on, and good luck with your own journey down the road to better social network transparency about your privacy.

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/dyi?x=AdkA0Kau6MLj_7I0

Facebook sends you an HTML collection of various items, some useful and some not. You download a ZIP archive. There is a summary of your profile, a collection of your posts to your timeline, a list of all of your friends (including those who have left Facebook) and when you connected with them, and any videos and photos that you have posted. Two items that are worth more inspection are a list of advertisers that have your information: I noticed quite a few entries to more than a dozen different state chapters of Americans for Prosperity PACs that are funded by the Koch brothers. Finally, there is a list of your phone’s contacts that it grabbed if you ran its Messenger application, which it justifiably has been getting a lot of heat for doing. Note that this is different from your friend list.

LinkedIn:   https://www.linkedin.com/psettings/member-data

LinkedIn sends you a ZIP collection of CSV files that you can open in separate spreadsheets that contain different lists. There are your contacts (which they call your connections), your messages that you have exchanged with other LinkedIn members, recommendations that you have made and have been sent to you, and other items. Most of the files contained just a single line of data, which made looking at all of them tedious. LinkedIn actually sends you two collections of files: you should ignore the first one (which you get almost immediately) and wait for the “final” archive, which is more complete and arrives several hours later. Most of this data is rather matter-of-fact. One file contains a summary of your profile that is used for ad targeting, but there is no list of advertisers like with the other networks. Another file contains the IP addresses and dates of your last 50 logins, and another contains the dates and names of people that you have searched for on the network. What bothered me the most about my list of LinkedIn connections was the number of them differed by two percent from what is displayed on my LinkedIn home page and in the spreadsheet itself. Why the difference? I have no idea.

Google:  Takeout.google.com

Google operates somewhat differently and more opaquely than the others mentioned here. First, you go to the link above, which is a separate service that will collect your Google archive. The screen shot shows you just some of the dozens of different Google services that you can select to use in the gathering process. In my experiment this process took the longest: more than three days, whereas the others took minutes to several hours. Even before you get your archive, scanning this list and selecting which services you want included in your report is a depressingly lengthy activity.  When I finally got my archive, it spanned three ZIP files and more than 17GB in total, which is more than all the others combined.

However, that is just the beginning. When you bring up a web page that shows the various Google services, you have to separately extract the data for each service individually and each service uses it own data format that you then need to view in a particular application: for example, your calendar items are in iCal format, your email data is in MBOX format, and others are extracted in JSON format. Analyzing all this information can probably take a data scientist the better part of a few days, let alone you and I, who don’t have the tools, dedication or time. If you are thinking of de-Googling your life, you will have to do more than just switch to an iPhone and give up Gmail.

But wait, there is more: emails that you delete or find their way into your Spam folder are still part of your archive. In the Googleplex, everything is accounted for. Note that if you have uploaded any music to Google Play Music, this data isn’t part of your archive and you’ll have to download that separately.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/settings/account

Twitter will send you two files: one that is a PDF attachment that contains a list of all the advertisers that have your information, but the advertisers’ names are shown in their Twitter IDs and thus not very meaningful. The second document is an Html collection of all your tweets, and you can bring up your browser or access the data via in two formats: JSON and CSV exports by month and year. Notice that there is nothing mentioned about downloading all of your Twitter followers: you will have to use a third-party service to do this. One thing I give Twitter props for is that you have a very clear series of settings menus that might be useful to study and change as well, including connected apps and privacy settings. Facebook and LinkedIn constantly are rearranging these menus and make changes to their structure and importance, which makes them more difficult to find when you are concerned about them. But Twitter at least give you more control over your privacy settings and tries to make it more transparent.

Action items

So what should you do? First, delete the Facebook Messenger phone app right away, unless you really can’t live without it. You contacts are still preserved by Facebook, but at least going forward you won’t have them snooping over your shoulder. You can still send messages in the Web app, which should be sufficient for your communications.

Second, start your pruning sessions. As I hinted in the Twitter entry above, you should examine the privacy-related settings along with the connected apps that you have selected on each of the four networks. The privacy settings are confusing and opaque to begin with, so take some time to study what you have selected. The connected apps is where Facebook got into trouble (see Cambridge Analytica) earlier this month, so make sure you delete the apps that you no longer use. I usually do this annually, since I test a lot of apps and then forget about them, so it is nice to keep their number as small as possible. In my case, I turned off the Facebook platform entirely, so I lost all of these apps. But I figured that was better than their hollow promises and apologies. Your feelings may be similar.

Third, protect your collected data. Don’t leave this data that you get from the social networks on any computer that is either mobile or online (which means just about every computer nowadays). I would recommend copying it to a CD (or in Google’s case, several DVDs) and then deleting it from your hard drive. Call me paranoid, or careful. There is a lot of information that could be used to compromise your identity if this gets into the wrong hands.

Finally, think carefully about what information you give up when you sign up for a new social network. There is no point in leaving Facebook (or anyone else) if you are going to start anew and have the same problems with someone else down the road. In my case, I never gave any network my proper birthday – that seems now like a good move, although probably anyone could figure it out with a few careful searches.

A new way to speed up your Internet connection

How often do you comment on how slow the Internet is? Now you have a chance to do something to speed it up. Before I tell you, I have to backtrack a bit.

Most of us don’t give a second thought about the Domain Name System (DNS) or how it works to translate “google.com” into its numerical IP address. But that work behind the scenes can make a difference between you having and hot having access to your favorite websites. I explain how the DNS works in this article I wrote ten years ago for PC World.

Back when I wrote that article, there was a growing need for providing better DNS services that were more secure and more private than the default one that comes with your broadband provider. But one of the great things about the Internet is that you usually have lots of choices for something that you are trying to do. Don’t like your hosting provider? Nowadays there are hundreds. Want to find a better server for some particular task? Now everything is in the cloud, and you have your choice of clouds. And so forth.

And now there are various ways to get DNS to your little patch of cyberspace, with the introduction of a free service from Cloudflare. If you haven’t heard of them before, Cloudflare has built an impressive collection of Internet infrastructure around the world, to deliver webpages and other content as quickly as possible, no matter where you are and where the website you are trying to reach is located. If you think about that for a moment, you will realize how difficult a job that is. Given the global reach of the Internet, and how many people are trying to block particular pieces of it (think China, Saudi Arabia, and so forth), you begin to see the scope and achievement of what they have done.

I wanted to test the new 1.1.1.1 DNS service, but I didn’t have the time to do a thorough job.  Now Nykolas has done it for me in this post on Medium. He has somewhat of a DNS testing fetish, which is good because he has collected a lot of great information that can help you make a decision to switch to another DNS provider.

There are these five “legacy” DNS providers that have been operating for years:

  • Google 8.8.8.8: Private and unfiltered. Most popular option and until now the easiest DNS to remember. Their IP address was spray-painted on Turkish buildings (as shown above) during one attempt by their government to block Internet access.
  • OpenDNS 67.222.222: Bought by Cisco, they supposedly block malicious domains and offer the option to block adult content.
  • Norton DNS 199.85.126.20: They supposedly block malicious domains and integrate with their Antivirus.
  • Yandex DNS 77.88.8.7: A Russian service that supposedly blocks malicious domains.
  • Comodo DNS 8.26.56.26: They supposedly block malicious domains.

I have used Google, OpenDNS and Comodo over the years in various places and on various pieces of equipment. As an early tester of OpenDNS, I had some problems that I document here on my blog back in 2012.

Then there are the new kids on the block:

  • CleanBrowsing 228.168.168: Private and security aware. Supposedly blocks access to adult content.
  • CloudFlare 1.1.1.1: Private and unfiltered, and just recently announced.
  • Quad9 9.9.9.9: Private and security aware. Supposedly blocks access to malicious domains, based in NYC and part of the NYCSecure project.

How do they all stack up? Nykolas put together this handy feature chart, and you can read his post with the details:

As I mentioned earlier, he did a very thorough job testing the DNS providers from around the globe, using VPNs to connect to their service from 17 different locations. He found that all of the providers performed well across North America and Europe, but elsewhere in the world there were differences. Overall though, CloudFlare was the fastest DNS for 72% of all the locations. It had an amazing low average of 5 ms across the globe. When you think about that figure, it is pretty darn fast. I have seen network latency from one end of my cable network to the other many times that.

So why in my commentary above do I say “supposedly”? Well, because they don’t really block malware. In another Medium post, he compared the various DNS providers’ security filters and found that many of the malware-infested sites he tested weren’t blocked by any of the providers. Granted, he couldn’t test every piece of malware but did test dozens of samples, some new and some old. But he found that the Google “safe browsing” feature did a better job at block malicious content at the individual browser than any of these DNS providers did at the network level.

Given these results, I will probably use the Cloudflare 1.1.1.1 DNS going forward. After all, it is an easy IP address to remember (they worked with one of the regional Internet authorities who have owned that address since the dawn of time), it works well, and plus I like the motivation behind it, as they stated on their blog: “We don’t want to know what you do on the Internet—it’s none of our business—and we’ve taken the technical steps to ensure we can’t.”

One final caveat: speeding up DNS isn’t the only thing you can do to surf the web more quickly. There are many other roadblocks or speed bumps that can delay packets getting to your computer or phone. But it is a very easy way to gain performance, particularly if you rely on a solid infrastructure such as what Cloudflare is providing.

Using your cellphone when overseas (2018 edition)

I just returned from a trip to Israel, and as the old joke goes, my arms are so tired. Actually, my fingers, because I have been spending the better part of two days on the phone with support techs from both AT&T and Apple to try to get my phone back to the state where it works on the AT&T network.

My SOP for travel is to use a foreign SIM card in my phone. This has several benefits. First, you don’t pay roaming charges for local in-country calls, although if you are calling back to the States, you might have to pay international long distance charges, depending on your plan. Second, if people in-country are trying to reach you, they don’t pay for any international calls either, since they are calling a local number. (Some of the networks overseas have the more enlightened method of calling party pays, but we won’t go there for now.) You also don’t use any minutes or data GB on your American cell account, which is nice if those are limited.

For the past several years, I had been using two different travel SIMs. First is one from FreedomPop, which was a very inexpensive card with monthly fees around $15 for a decent plan. I had some billing issues initially but these were resolved. It doesn’t work in Israel, so I ended up buying another SIM at the airport kiosk in Tel Aviv. My last trip in October had some major hiccups with that card, and so I decided to try a new supplier, Call Israel. They offered a plan for $50 that seemed reasonable. AT&T charges $60 a month with lower data usage for Israel. If you go elsewhere the fees could be less.

Call Israel mailed me a SIM a week before my trip, and right away I saw an issue: I was just renting my SIM card. At the end of my trip, I had to mail it back. Strike 1.

But strike 2 was a big one. I made the mistake of taking my Israel SIM out of my phone when I changed planes in Europe on the return trip, and put in my AT&T SIM card. That confused my phone and got me in trouble. When I landed in the States I spent an hour on the phone with a very nice AT&T person who verified that my phone was working properly on their network. Except it wasn’t: I could get voice service, but not broadband data service. Some parameter that the Call Israel SIM had needed was still set and messing up my phone, and there was no way that I could access that information to remove it.

I ended up speaking to Apple next, because I figured out that they could get rid of whatever it was that was blocking my data service. I had to find an older iTunes backup that I had made before I went abroad (lucky I had done so with Time Machine), and then wipe my phone clean and bring that backup to the phone. All told, several hours were wasted. I found out that there is a subtle but important difference in how iTunes and iCloud handle backups. I was fortunate to find a very nice woman from Apple who called me back as we tried various strategies, and eventually we figured out what to do. This took place over the course of a couple of days. Here is the bottom line: your phone has hundreds of parameters that determine whether it will communicate properly. Some of them aren’t accessible to you via the various on-screen controls and are hidden from your use. The only way to change them is to restore from a known working backup.

So if you are planning on being out of the country, think carefully about your options. Consider if you need a foreign SIM for a brief trip. If you can afford service from your American provider, do so. Or if you can find Wifi hotspots, you probably can do 90% of the work on your phone by setting it to airplane mode when you leave town and not turning it on until you return. Under this scenario, you would use Facetime, What’sApp and Skype for voice and texting. Does that additional 10% make the difference? If you have a terrible sense of direction and need Google Maps, for example, you will need that broadband data. Or if you are traveling with other Americans and need to meet up, you might need the cellular voice flexibility.

SIMs come in at least three different sizes, and most suppliers ship them with cardboard adapters so you can fit them in your phone’s compartment. It doesn’t hurt to check this though.

Next, don’t swap SIMs until you reach your destination. If you need to look at buying a local SIM, make sure you understand how you have to bring your phone back to its original state when you come home. Make backups of your phone to your computer, to the cloud, to as many places as possible before you leave town. If you have an iPhone, read this article on how to find the iTunes backups on your system.

Next, when you are looking for a mail-order SIM, make sure you are actually buying it and not just renting it. Check to see that it will work in all the countries on your itinerary. Or wait until you get to your destination, and buy a local SIM from a phone store or airport kiosk.

Finally, examine the calling plan for what it will entail and match it with your expected usage on texting, data, and voice volume. Examine whether your calls back to the States are included in the plan’s minutes or not. If you don’t use a lot of data, you probably can get by with a cheaper voice-only plan and finding WiFi connections.  Happy trails, and hope they don’t turn into travails.

The intersection of art and technology with Thomas Struth

As I grow older, I tend to forget about events in my youth that shaped the person that I am now. I was reminded of this last week after seeing a Thomas Struth photography exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum. Struth’s pictures are enlarged to mural size and depict the complex industrial environments of the modern age: repairing the Space Shuttle, a blowout preventer at an oil rig (shown here), the insides of physics and chemistry labs, the Disney Soarin’ hang glider simulation ride, and chip fabrication plants. Many of these are places that I have had the opportunity to visit over the years as a technology reporter.

The pictures reminded me of a part-time job that I had as an undergraduate student. My college had obtained a set of geometrical string models that were first constructed back in the 1830s and demonstrated conic sections, such as the intersection of a plane and a cone. Back then, we didn’t have Mathematica or color textbooks to show engineering students how to draw these things. These models were constructed out of strings threaded through moveable brass pieces that were attached to wooden bases, using lead weights to keep the strings taut.

The models were first built by a French mathematician Theodore Olivier, and were used in undergraduate descriptive geometry courses up until 1900. I was one of the students who helped restore them. While the models look very nice now, back when I was a student they were in pretty bad shape: the wooden bases were cracked, the brass pieces were tarnished, and the strings were either tangled or missing. It took some effort to figure out what shapes they were trying to display and how to string them properly. Sometimes there were missing parts and I had the help of the college machine shop and local auto body shops to figure out what to do. The best part of this job was that it came with its own private office, which was a nice perk for me when I needed to escape dorm life for a few quiet hours. After I graduated, the college put the finished models on display for everyone to see.

The intersection of art and technology has always been a part of me, and it was fun seeing Struth’s work. it was great to get to see the details captured and the point of view expressed from these images, lit and composed to show their colors and construction. And the photos reminded me of the beauty of these advanced machines that we have built too.

Behind the scenes at a Red Cross shelter

A friend of mine, Dave Crocker, has been volunteering for Red Cross activities around the California fires and Houston floods over the past several months, and has been working as a volunteer for them for more than nine years. I thought it would be an interesting time to chat with him about his experiences and consider why the media is so often critical of the Red Cross .

Crocker was in Houston for two weeks, starting two weeks after the hurricane hit. He has been a shelter supervisor at both small and large operations, a dispatcher for daily, local disasters, and helps out in other situations, both in the field and in their offices. Given his tenure as a volunteer, he has taken numerous Red Cross training classes, including learning to drive a fork lift (although not that well, he ruefully notes).

The work is challenging on several levels. First are the 12 hour shifts, usually 7 to 7. Except they often don’t end exactly at 7:00; so your shift lasts 13 or 14 hours or more. If you are on a night shift, that can be even tougher. You get one day off per week, if you are lucky. You sleep wherever you can find a bunk, sometimes that means you don’t exactly have five-star accommodations, or even one-star. “I’ve slept on a shelter’s army cots, but in Ventura I paid for my own accommodations and got a hotel room. I don’t sleep well on cots. Some of my fellow volunteers have slept in their cars or on the ground.”

He is very proud of his volunteer efforts, although he doesn’t carry any personal hubris in what he does. “First and foremost, it’s about helping our clients,” he told me in a recent phone call and over a series of emails and Facebook posts. “Self-praise almost never shows up in anyone’s behavior. The focus is the work.”

One of the things he learned from the recent series of disasters was to expand his definition of a “client”. Originally, he thought just the people displaced by the floods or fires were his clients, but other volunteers pointed out that the Red Cross ecosystem is much greater, including someone who donates items or funds to a relief effort. “The rest of the community is also our client, because they are also affected by the disaster and are compelled to be connected to it, by coming to the shelter to donate or by asking how can they help.”

One of the challenges is that these spontaneous donations can become overwhelming. In the Ventura County fires, Crocker experienced this first-hand. “We saw an enormous amount of donations of water, snacks, face masks, diapers, clothing, toys, and more, That was all brought to our shelters, and our warehouses quickly got filled. Processing all that requires a lot of staff. Historically, these donations have been turned away by the Red Cross, with a request to just send money. This has regularly produced word-of-mouth criticism of the Red Cross. This year, Red Cross policy changed and the rule is to say yes and then figure out how to make it work.”  Crocker said that many tens of thousands of bottles of water were donated, as were donations that had been ordered online, with enough showing up to fill a shipping container.

Running a large disaster response is sometimes compared to the logistics of running a military deployment. “Even the smallest shelter has an enormous amount of detail to it,” Crocker told me. “There is the whole setting-up of beds and linens, and then taking it all down, the ongoing cleaning of various items as clients leave and new ones register; then there is feeding three meals a day plus snacks. It is a massive logistics game and the situation is highly dynamic. Communication is challenging because you have to deal with a lot of noisy information. And equipment and geography can be difficult.”

Fires are unpredictable, especially when the wind changes, and that puts a wrench in your plans, for who is affected and where to locate the shelters. The Ventura Fairgrounds shelter he worked at had roughly 250 clients, with a peak of about 500, before he arrived. The range of quality in facilities that are available is also highly variable. At Ventura, the shelter was in a building that is typically used for livestock shows. “We were in better shape in the wine country fires because we had use of a church with excellent kitchen and shower facilities and had been explicitly designed for be used as a shelter.” That church-based facility has hosted a disaster shelter 11 times in the last few years. In Houston, there were roughly 4,000 volunteers in the relief effort, divided amongst 25 different shelters.

The timing of the Ventura fires produced an unusual benefit for the shelter’s clients. Because the fires were around the holidays, a lot of corporate parties were canceled and as a result restaurants had surplus food that they repurposed as donations to feed the volunteers working the shelters.

One of the frustrations Crocker cites for himself and his colleagues is the negative press surrounding the response of the Red Cross volunteers to these disasters. “Sometimes the reporting focuses only on the negative, citing only one or another disgruntled person.” While certainly there are issues, for the most part he sees the relief efforts as run as well as they can be, given the complex and dynamic circumstances that any large effort like this will have. “Certainly, there are people who try to scam the system, something that I’ve seen in my limited volunteer efforts. But Red Cross policy is to err in the direction of helping rather than rejecting people who ask for assistance.”

“The work itself, and the privilege to do it, is what I enjoy, and being around people with a similar attitude, and getting the work done.” Crocker mentioned in one Facebook post that “everyone has had a collaborative tone” including Red Cross volunteers, employees and even clients, which could be because many clients have been displaced by multiple fires in past years. Note that more than 90% of Red Cross staffing is done by volunteers.

I highly recommend taking a moment, and getting involved in your local Red Cross chapter. Give blood, give money, give your time. You are working with a great group of people and for something very worthwhile.

My love affair with the phone central office

I have a thing about the telephone central office (CO). I love spotting them in the wild, giving me some sense of the vast connectedness that they represent, the legal wrangling that took place over their real estate, and their history in our telecommunications connectedness. That is a lot to pack into a series of structures, which is why I am attracted to them.

Many of you may not be familiar with the lowly CO, so I should probably back up and set the scene. Back in the day when all of us had landline phones, indeed, before we even called them such things, the phone company had to wire these phone lines to one central place in each community. A pair of low-voltage wires ran from your home to this central office, and were connected to a vast wire switching center called the main distribution frame. The central office actually supplied the dial tone that you heard when you picked up your phone, which assured you that your phone line was operating properly.

Interestingly, one of the inventors of the central office was a Hungarian named Tivadar Puskas, and I actually got to visit the fruits of his labors when I was in Budapest several years ago. The building that housed his switchboard is now offices occupied by the firm Prezi. Notice it still is quite a beautiful structure, with gothic touches and high ceilings.

I was reminded of visiting the Prezi offices when I was on a trip last week to Columbus Indiana. I have been wanting to go there for several years since first learning that the small city contains some of the best examples of modern architecture in one place. What does this have to do with phone COs? Well, they have a beautiful CO building that was designed in 1978 and it once looked like this.

Columbus’ CO was actually an expansion of an earlier and more modest building that was built in the 1930s. The phone company needed more room as the town grew and they were adding services, and so we have this space-frame curtain-glass wall structure that was built around the original building. I would urge those of you interested in seeing other great modern structures to schedule your own trip to the town and see what they have done because there is a lot to see.

But let’s get back to the phone CO. These buildings were at the center of activity back in the 1990s when DSL technology (which is the broadband technology that the phone companies still use to deliver Internet services) was first coming into popularity. At the time there were a number of independent startups such as Covad and Rhythms that wanted to provide DSL to private customers. The phone companies tried to block them, claiming that there wasn’t enough room in the COs to add their equipment. Back in the day, there weren’t many higher-speed data service offerings, so DSL was a very big improvement. This battle eventually was won and while these startups have come and gone, we have Uverse service offered by AT&T as a result. (I wrote about these DSL issues in an interesting historical document from that era.)

In 2001, I was teaching TCP/IP networking to a class of high school boys and wanted to take them on a series of field trips to noteworthy places and businesses near the school. Now, field trips are normal for younger kids, but when you get to high school, that means taking your kids out of other regularly scheduled classes. I thought this would be interesting to my students and so one of the first trips we took was a short one, down the street to the local CO. This was in a very non-descript structure that many of us passed by frequently and didn’t give it any thought (see the photo here).

To give you additional context, this was about two months after the 9/11 attacks. Somehow I was able to convince the Verizon folks (what the local phone company was called at the time) to allow me to bring a bunch of high school kids into their CO. I recall we had old Bell veterans who gave us a tour, and when the time came to show the kids where their home phone lines were located, I volunteered to have them find my own wire pair. I remember the employee pulled the location of my phone wires and told the class that I had something very unusual: back then I had an office phone that also was wired to my home, and he could show the students how this worked so the phones rang in both locations.

I realize that nowadays the landline is a historical communications curiosity more than anything, and you have to look long and hard to even find someone who uses one anymore. So it is great that there are few phone COs that are grandly designed and stand out as great examples of architecture and design, such as the ones I have seen in Budapest and Columbus. Do send me your own favorites too, and best wishes for a great 2018.