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National | Technology

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

Image battle

OFFICIALS AT LITTLE-KNOWN Forgent Networks are claiming patent rights to the graphics format used on millions of computers and digital cameras-and they want the camera and computer industries to pay up. The Texas-based company filed suit April 22 against 31 companies, ranging from Apple and IBM to Canon and Kodak.

The JPEG technology debuted in 1990 and quickly became the most popular way to shrink digital pictures. It does for images what the MP3 format does for music: It reduces a file's size without a major drop in quality. JPEGs remove parts of the original image that the human eye usually cannot notice. Such compressed pictures, which typically use the ".jpg" extension on computers, are common on websites.

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Forgent says it owns a 1987 patent on digital image-compression methods that resemble those used by the JPEG format, and that the patent applies to graphics devices "used to compress, store, manipulate, print or transmit digital still images," which includes cell phones, scanners, and printers.

Critics say Forgent's patent may not apply to the JPEG format. The UK-based JPEG committee opposes any royalty payments for the use of its algorithm, which it says is an internationally approved standard.

A bug's life

BRITISH SECURITY EXPERTS ON April 20 warned of a weak spot in the technology running virtually the entire internet. The warning triggered an international effort to prevent hackers from using the problem to trash service around the globe.

Officials at the National Infrastructure Security Coordination Center in London said that a bug in the transmission control protocol, or TCP, leaves routers (the devices that route internet traffic from computer to computer) vulnerable to disruption. The most likely targets are internet connections that stay running for long periods.

The bug lets a hacker shut down an internet session by sending a special forged packet of data to a router. The attacker must predict a random number from about 4 billion possible combinations, a difficult but not impossible feat. No attacks of this sort have been reported.

Experts say corporate users are most vulnerable. Cisco Systems, the biggest router maker, announced that it would send repair help to its large customers. Home users need take little precaution. Microsoft claims Windows users are likely not vulnerable to the bug and has not made plans to issue security patches.

Rockwell Automation researcher Paul Watson first found the flaw last year. The alert went out just before he was to describe his findings at a security conference in Canada.

BITS & MEGABYTES

A California advisory panel recommended banning touch-screen voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems, complaining of malfunctions during March's primary election. The members said the state should consider civil and criminal charges against the company, which still argues that its devices are safe and secure. At least 50 million Americans will vote with the computers this November.

FBI agents seized more than 200 computers as part of "Operation Fastlink," the Justice Department's largest anti-piracy initiative to date. Warrants targeted suspected distributors of illegally copied music, movies, games, and software. Some suspects could face copyright-infringement and conspiracy charges, counts punishable by up to five years in prison.

McDonald's plans to offer Wi-Fi connections to customers at nearly half its U.S. locations by the end of the year. After testing the technology for nine months, the chain signed with Texas-based Wayport to install "hot spots" in about 6,000 restaurants. Customers will typically pay $2.95 for two hours of connectivity. Panera Bread, meanwhile, has rolled out free Wi-Fi at 150 of its more than 600 bakery-cafes around the country.

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