March 01, 2015

Geek-Speak for the Rest of Us: A Glossary

By Jeffrey M. Allen, Mark Rosch

Geek-speak is nothing new—it’s just the lingo that’s a moving target. Underscoring this point is the fact that this article, published with permission, is based in part on our article, “Geek-Speak for the Rest of Us,” which originally appeared in GPSolo, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 2006.

If you still think that spam is a pork product that comes in a can, or that phishing requires not just a hook but also a rod and reel, or that pharming involves working the land and growing crops, then this glossary can help you understand the evening news, the morning paper, conversations around the water cooler, and cocktail party talk without having to go to one of those technical colleges that advertises on TV in the middle of the night.

Every industry has its own terms of art—words and phrases that define tools or situations unique to that industry. Outsiders often find themselves lost in this insider’s lingo. Lawyers have not inflicted terms like negligence per se and criminal conversation upon everyday conversation, but not every profession is as thoughtful with the use of its jargon. As computers and related technology became ubiquitous, all of us find ourselves involved in it. Techno-buzzwords have found their way into our daily lives, language, and conversation. Everyone from newspaper and magazine reporters to your next-door neighbor has started using techno-terms such as app, the cloud, phishing, and wearables. The fact that much of Geek-speak draws on words from Standard English (or at least words that sound like Standard English) makes it even more confusing. With that background, tongue partially in cheek, we give you this glossary of Geek-speak to assist you in understanding the articles contained in this issue, your daily newspaper (whether you read it as hard copy or on your computer screen) and, of course, cocktail party conversations.

App. Despite what your server might tell you, an app is not a light bite before the main course, but it is a lightweight piece of software. Short for “application,” initially the term was applied to the programs that are available for our smartphones and tablets. Now however, the term is being applied to just about any application that runs on desktop, laptop, or mobile devices.

App Store. This is the online marketplace where you would buy the apps described above. Apple, Inc. launched the first “App Store” (or at least the first online marketplace for software that used that name) in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Apple also asserted trademark claims to the term, going so far as suing the operators of other “app stores” in 2011. In 2013, the court rejected Apple’s claims. Apple later dropped its action.

Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a technology standard that uses radio waves to allow other electronic devices to connect and share information over distances of about 30 feet. It is named for Norse king Harald Bluetooth (who united Denmark around 935) for no particular reason other than one of the key developers happened to be reading up on Viking history at the time. Plus, the name is much catchier than IEEE 802.15.1.

Cookies. When Geeks talk about cookies, they generally do not mean oatmeal-raisin, peanut butter, or chocolate chip treats. In Geek-speak, cookies hold small pieces of information that a website places on the visiting user’s local hard drive. Ostensibly, cookies expedite your return visits to favorite sites or personalize the information received from a site. For example, Amazon.com uses a cookie to identify returning visitors by name and to recommend products for purchase based on their prior buying history with Amazon. Once the cookie resides in your computer, other websites can access it, identifying sites you’ve visited and perhaps even reading your passwords for those sites. In most cases, not only does the storage of personal information into a cookie go unnoticed, so does access to it.

Chrome. This is one (or two) especially confusing shiny object(s) because Google uses the name for its Web browser (http://www.google.com/chrome) and the operating system that runs its Chromebook laptop computers (http://www.google.com/chromebook). While you can run the Chrome browser on a Chromebook, you can also run the Chrome browser on a Mac, Windows, iOS, or Android device. (I hope that clears that up.)

The Cloud. It seems like everything is in “the cloud” these days. While most descriptions (or products) make it sound like some magical place at the top of The Beanstalk, it just refers to the notion that the material you want to access is stored at some location (other than your own computer) and that you’re accessing it remotely (usually via the Internet). So, if you’ve ever used a photo sharing site like Snapfish or Kodak EasyShare, or you have a Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail email address, you’ve used a cloud application because you’re accessing files that are stored someplace else . . . on a computer that you don’t control. Frankly, every webpage lives in the cloud.

Firewall. Firewalls have nothing to do with building code requirements or construction sites. Firewall, in Geek-speak, means the creation of an impediment that blocks invasion of your computer system by outside forces. It functions as a protection against electronic terrorism, if you will. Computers can have hardware or software firewalls (or both). Generally, a hardware firewall offers more protection, but it also requires a more stationary installation, such as your home or office desktop. Laptops used in travel or from a variety of locations should have software firewall protection.

Functionality (a.k.a. Feature Set). A list of a device’s features and/or functions. Basically: what the thing can do.

Form Factor. This is not a new Simon Cowell competition show. It refers to a device’s size and shape.

Interface. Just a fancy way of saying, how you interact with/use/access a machine. Most operating systems (see below) utilize a graphical user interface (GUI), which uses icons we can click on instead of the old-fashioned “command line” interface, which required the actual typing of commands one line at a time (hence the name).

Internet of Things. Like the Internet of Computers, the Internet of Things refers to a series of interconnected devices that can share information back and forth. Unlike the Internet of Computers, the Internet of Things is not limited to computers or computer-like devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets) but also connects appliances, security systems, TVs, thermostats, cars, lighting fixtures, wearables (see below) and more. The concept is an update of the “ubiquitous computing” concept Bill Gates was advocating more than a half-dozen years ago.

Java. This is not your morning cup of coffee! In Geek-speak, Java refers to a high-level programming language regularly used in connection with the development of websites.

NFC. Even if it were football season, this would still not refer to one of the NFL’s conferences. Near field communication (NFC) is a set of technology standards that allows electronic devices to share information back and forth. Two of the most familiar NFC products are Apple Pay and Google Wallet, which allow owners of certain smartphones to pay for purchases by placing their phone near an NFC payment pad. Others include TVs, remote controls, and music players.

Operating System. This is the software that runs a desktop, laptop, tablet computer, or smartphone. Some examples are Windows, MacOS, Android, and Linux. Also sometimes referred to as aplatform.”

Phishing. While this high-tech term sounds especially down-home, don’t think of it as a relaxing recreational activity (unless your hobby is identity theft and fraud). Phishing is the all-too-familiar practice of sending fraudulent email disguised as messages from trusted institutions such as banks or online merchants. Recipients who take this bait are tricked into revealing important information about their online accounts. The message lures the recipients to a look-alike website that prompts them for their username, password, Social Security number, etc., mimicking the trusted site’s actual log-in or other security measure. Phishermen (the senders of these fraudulent emails) then use the revealed information for fraudulent purchases, funds transfers, or larger-scale identity theft. If you’ve ever received an email from a bank where you don’t have an account, insisting that some problem has occurred with your account, then someone has tried to catch your information through phishing. The related concept of “spear phishing” refers to the act of sending these types of messages to a specific target to extract specific information, rather than sending them out en masse as is usually done.

Pharming. This has nothing to do with plowing fields, harvesting crops, or raising chickens. Think of pharming as phishing on steroids. While a phisherman can reel in a few unsuspecting victims, a pharmer can harvest bushels of information with a little more tech savvy and a little less effort. Pharmers can hijack the part of the system that routes traffic on the Internet, redirecting traffic from legitimate websites to the crook’s own look-alike site to harvest the identifying information from unsuspecting customers—Social Security numbers, passwords, etc. (For more on the technicalities, see J. Anthony Vittal, Phishing, Pharming, and Other Scams, 22 GPSolo 8 (Dec. 2005)).

Social Media. Interestingly, this term was actually coined in the mid-50s by a sociologist (J.A. Barnes) to describe the interactions people have (in-person) to create relationships with people who have similar personal or professional interests. It’s only in the last decade or so that the term has been applied to sites like Myspace (one of the first to carry the label) and Facebook (the most popular to carry the label) where people can over-share information about their personal lives.

Spam. In the computer world, spam has nothing to do with lunch or any other meal. Spam refers to unsolicited commercial email messages that are trying to sell you something you probably don’t want or need—electronic junk mail.

Spyware. Computer spyware has nothing (and everything) to do with trench coats and Minox cameras. When Geeks talk about spyware, they mean malicious software designed to surreptitiously take partial control of a computer’s operation. Although the term literally suggests software that secretly monitors the user (as some spyware certainly does), the term has assumed a broader meaning and includes software that subverts the computer’s operation for a third party’s benefit.

Unlike viruses and worms, spyware generally does not self-replicate. Commonly used spyware tactics advance the goal of commercial gain by delivery of unsolicited pop-up advertisements; theft of personal information (including financial information such as credit card numbers); monitoring of Web-browsing activity for marketing purposes; or routing of HTTP requests to advertising sites. In some cases, spyware may be used to verify compliance with software end user license agreements (sometimes called EULAs).

Tablet. As the name implies, these devices are good for what (technologically) ails you. Tablets are one-piece devices designed to be used via an intuitive touchscreen interface (GUI). There are no keyboards and a minimum of connectors (to get in the way). Most connections are made via Wi-Fi (see below) or Bluetooth (see above).

Trojan. Contrary to popular belief, a Trojan does not only refer to citizens of the ancient city of Troy, students at USC, or a popular brand of prophylactics. Its closest analog, however, the Trojan Horse, does relate back to the Trojan War. That reference gives away its secret in Internet traffic. We use the term Trojan to refer to a specialized form of computer virus that enters via stealth or through another program and deposits and/or executes an often-destructive bit of computer code inside the infected computer. In computer parlance, one might suggest that the existence of Trojans could give rise to a new warning: “Beware of Geeks bearing gifts.”

Wearables. The hottest topic in consumer technology right now is “wearables.” The term refers to any device that you would wear on your body. Some of the most high-profile examples include, Google Glass (now retired), Apple Watch, and Oculus Rift’s virtual reality headset. The thing is though, and as these devices actually illustrate, wearable technology isn’t anything new. In fact, they’ve existed for hundreds of years. Tools we now consider mundane were once cutting-edge wearable technology. Consider, for example, eye glasses, wrist watches, and hearing aids.

Whois. Very much like it sounds, a Whois search allows you to learn who is the registered owner of a website. There are hundreds of companies through which individuals can register a Web address, and each of them maintains a separate Whois database of all those registrations. Some websites offer the ability to search the databases of many of these registrars at once. Two of the more popular are Better Whois (http://www.betterwhois.com) and DomainTools (http://www.whois.domaintools.com).

Wi-Fi and Wi-MAX. Since hi-fi stands for high fidelity, it’s natural to expect that Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity. It does not. In fact, the term was made up by consultants to describe wireless network connection rules that allow computers to wirelessly connect to a network and communicate with each other or individual computersto access the Internet. Developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), these rules are known there by their workgroup number, 802.11. Sub-designations a, b, g, and n denote increasing speed. A computer must be within 30 to 100 feet of a Wi-Fi transmitter/receiver to connect to the wireless network.

As the name implies, Wi-MAX (a.k.a. IEEE standard 802.16) is Wi-Fi “to the max.” It offers cellular-phone-like, roaming, wireless network connections up to 1 Gbps (gigabits per second; a gigabit is equal to 1000 megabits)—nearly 19 times the bandwidth of the most common Wi-Fi connection. Wi-MAX has a connection range of up to 31 miles. If you have seen recent news articles talking about citywide wireless coverage, they’re talking about the implementation of Wi-MAX in that city.

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Congratulations. Now you not only know the difference between Whois and Wi-Fi, but you also know the what-is and what-for.

Jeffrey M. Allen

Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he is editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport, an editorial board member of the ABA Journal and Experience magazine, author of jallenlawtekblog.com, co-author of Technology Solutions for Today’s Lawyer (ABA 2013) and iPad® for Lawyers (West 2013), and a liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Services. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He is an associate professor at California State University of the East Bay. He also works extensively as an arbitrator and a mediator.

Mark Rosch

Mark Rosch is an internationally recognized author and speaker on the topic of how lawyers can use technology to improve their productivity, and particularly how they can use the Internet for investigative and background research. For his contributions to the legal community, Rosch has been elected a Fellow to the College of Law Practice Management and was named to the “Fastcase Fifty.”  He is the author of seven books on these topics, including The Lawyer’s Guide to Fact Finding on the Internet and Google for Lawyers, as well as the new thirteenth edition of The Cybersleuth’s Guide to the Internet (IFL Press 2015). Rosch also writes regularly on these topics at his blog, www.netforlawyers.com/blog.