Tech Software Can Be Good or Evil

Smartwatches are still fairly early in their development, and it’s taking a while to figure out which features are good and which are not.

That’s especially true when it comes to smartwatches for children, which have been sold, particularly in Europe, as devices that can help enhance children’s safety.

Features include the ability of parents to call their children, track their whereabouts, and even listen in, clandestinely, on their children’s environment.

smartwatchThat last feature has come to the attention of the authorities in Germany, who say that such features are illegal under that country’s laws.   The Federal Network Agency announced that it is banning the sales of watches that have a listening function.

The listening function allows parents to connect to the watch without their child’s knowledge and to turn on a microphone on the watch.  This allows parents to hear what their child is saying.  It also allows them to hear other people who might be speaking in an area within a few feet of their child.

The agency has discovered that a few parents have been using this feature to listen to their child’s teachers while they are at school.

Many smartwatches that have been offered for sale on the German market include this feature, which is known by various names, including “baby monitor,” or “monitor function.”

In Germany, the manufacture, possession or sale of listening devices that are disguised as another object is explicitly illegal.

smartwatchAs such, the agency has banned the sale of these watches, has taken action against a few of the manufacturers, and has announced that they will destroy any watches that they have confiscated.

Obviously, the laws of each country are different, and many countries in western Europe have strict laws regarding surveillance.   Laws of that kind are far less strict in the United States, and in many states, there many not be any such laws at all.

The feature was undoubtedly not created for use as a secret surveillance device, but that is the nature of all electronic tools.  Many of them are likely to be used for exactly their intended purpose; in this case, simply checking in on your child every now and again to ensure that they are safe.

Unfortunately, clever people can always find a way to repurpose such devices and to use them for other, and illegal, uses for which the devices were not originally intended to be used.

We’ve seen this sort of thing over and over again, and we’ll likely see more of it in the future as our overall society becomes more connected.

In the meantime, a potentially useful feature of smartwatches has been removed from the marketplace in Germany.

Smartwatches are nice tools, but schoolchildren would likely benefit from having a more traditional watch, anyway.  Sooner or later, every child will need to learn how to tell time using an old fashioned analog clock with hands.

While digital may be the future, there are still millions of analog clocks in use, so why not just get your child an automatic watch instead?  They can learn how to tell time and they’ll have an interesting piece of “old school” technology to show off.


The End of Net Neutrality

As technology goes, the Internet is still a fairly new and emerging technology.  It has changed a lot in the past 25 years and 25 years from now, it may well be unrecognizable to people who use it today.

One thing that is obvious now and will likely not change is that a relatively small handful of companies can control what happens on the Internet in a big way, making it either more or less useful to consumers depending on the actions these companies might take.

internetThe U.S. government saw this coming in 2015 and had the Federal Communications Commission enact rules requiring that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) engage in what they called “net neutrality.

That meant that companies that consumers pay to access the Internet must treat all legitimate Websites and the traffic to and from those sites equally.  The ISPs could not favor one Website over another and they were required to allow equal access and upload/download speeds to all users for all sites, without prejudice.

There’s a new administration in Washington, and they’re determined to undo anything that looks like a government regulation and anything that the previous administration did, just because.

One of the things the FCC decided to do, by a 3-2 vote, was to end net neutrality.

net neutralityWhat does this mean for consumers?  Possibly nothing, as all of the major ISPs have declared that they’re going to change nothing as a result of the ruling.

But they very well might.  Over time, we’ve seen a lot of mergers in the digital world, and we’re starting to see mergers between content providers and Internet providers.

With millions of people now streaming television programs and movies over the Internet, it might be beneficial to an ISP that owns a content provider, such as Hulu, to limit their customers’ access to other sites that provide content, such as Netflix.

This could manifest itself in several ways.  The ISP could “throttle” or slow down, traffic to sites that were not in its favor.  They could charge those sites a fee to have access to the ISPs customers; Netflix might have to pay a fee to Comcast, for instance, to ensure that the speed of their programming wasn’t limited.

In the past, some ISPs were throttling speeds for users who were downloading files using Bit Torrent clients.  These are data-intensive applications, which, at certain times of the day could cause all Internet traffic to slow down.  As much (but not all) Bit Torrent traffic consists of illegally downloaded content, many ISPs chose to slow down that type of traffic at certain times of day.

They had to stop doing that when the previous administration put the neutrality rules in place, but it’s a virtual certainty that such speed control will come back.  You might have a 100 megabit Internet connection, but if your ISP wants you to download files at modem speeds, they can do that, and it will be perfectly legal.

There are lawsuits that are going to be filed over this and it remains to be seen if the courts will rule in favor of consumers or if they’ll rule in favor of corporations.

In the end, you might end up paying the same amount of money for slower and worse Internet service.

Apple’s Bad Week

Apple has millions of fans, and they gladly pay a lot more for Apple products than they’d likely pay for products from competing companies.

Of course, one of the many explanations we’ve heard for this over the years is that people like Apple’s reliability.  “It just works,” people would say.

Well, lately, that hasn’t been the case, and Apple has had a number of well-publicized software problems across a number of their platforms in the past couple of weeks.

mac os high sierraAn amusing one is the 1+2+3 bug in the iPhone’s calculator software.  if you pressed in “1+2+3” quickly, the calculator would give you the answer of “24,” which most of us know is not the correct answer to that particular problem.

Apple has fixed that, but it’s a reminder as to why we should have been paying attention in math class back when we were in junior high school.

The calculator problem is, as software problems go, a relatively minor one.  A more serious problem had to do with the Mac OS High Sierra operating system.

Someone discovered that you could obtain root access to computers running that OS by simply logging in as “root” without entering a password.

apple iosSince logging in as “root” basically lets you do anything you want on the computer, that’s not a good thing, as anyone could log in as root and delete your stuff, copy your data or pretty much do whatever they wanted.

Not a problem; Apple quickly issued a software patch to fix that root login problem, thus making it impossible to login as root without a password.  Unfortunately, the fix for the root login program apparently broke file sharing for a number of users.

“Not to worry,” Apple said.  “We’ll fix that.”  Fix that they did, and they quickly issued a fix for that particular file sharing problem.

Unfortunately, the fix for the file sharing problem restored the root login problem.

Meanwhile, over on the iPhone, a number of users started seeing their phones crash at exactly 12:15 AM.  Apple fixed that problem by issuing a major update to the iOS to 11.2, which also fixed a few other minor problems.

This major update wasn’t due immediately, but was rush-released to fix the crashing problems.  This means that there are likely other problems yet to be revealed in the iOS as millions of people begin installing this not-entirely-tested version of the operating system.

Part of the appeal of Apple products is that they’re monolithic; they’re largely the work of one company, so everything is supposed to work well and in harmony.

Lately, that hasn’t been the case, and lots of people are finding that they’ve paid a lot of money for the convenience of having a computer or phone that “just works,” only to find out that it doesn’t always “just work.”

The folks who make Android-powered devices are likely having a few laughs at Apple’s expense this week.

It remains to be seen what problems are going to arise from the latest Apple software updates, but rest assured, you’ll be reading about them soon enough.

Firefox Quantum is a Massive Improvement

For several years now, the “browser wars” have largely been over.  Years ago, there was Netscape, and then Microsoft’s Internet Explorer came along and rendered Netscape moot, largely because Netscape had been a paid product and Internet Explorer was free.

Netscape went away, but members of their development team created Firefox.  Firefox made a good alternative to Internet Explorer, and avoided some of IE’s serious security flaws.

browser warsThen Google decided to get into the browser business, and thanks to attaching it to numerous pieces of free software, they’ve managed to get Chrome installed on enough computers to qualify as the world’s most popular browser.

Internet Explorer has given way to the new Microsft Edge browser, which is more than adequate.  Firefox, while maintaining a decent-sized userbase, has struggled a bit, as the browser has had problems with memory usage and interaction with various scripts, such as javascript and Flash.

Some of us who have no interest in using Chrome have long waited for some browser that would do what Firefox used to do before it became cluttered, bloated, and slow.

There’s a new browser that does that, and more, and it’s called – Firefox.  Well, Firefox Quantum, to be precise.

firefox quantumFirefox Quantum is the new, and truly improved version of the browser, that more or less represents a from-the-ground-up rewrite of the entire code.  The result is a browser that is more configurable, easier to use, and lightning fast.

Not only that, but Firefox Quantum doesn’t have the memory problems that the older versions had.  I’d occasionally find that my browser was using several gigabytes of memory and this often came at times when I only had a couple of tabs opened.

The new version is far more memory-friendly and just as configurable, if not more so, than its predecessor.

Not all is good, however.  Like a lot of long-time users, I had a number of extensions installed in order to increase the functionality of the browser.  As the entire structure of the software has changed, many of the extensions that I used to use no longer work.

Some do, and they are labeled as “legacy” extensions in my browser options.  Others no longer work at all, as they require access to parts of the program that Firefox has deemed off limits for security or performance reasons.

For many of the extensions, there are suitable substitutes that work just fine.  In a few cases, the developers will simply need to update their extensions to allow them to work with Firefox Quantum.

For a few others, however, they simply will not be able to work anymore, as the functionality has been disabled.  I had a couple of those, including an extension that would let me run a piece of downloadable software directly from the browser, as Internet Explorer does, without having to save it first.

That, according to the developer, isn’t possible anymore.

Still, I’ve found the new version of the browser to be fast, and easy to use.  Each tab runs as a separate process in Windows, and it’s far easier on my system memory than the old version.

Firefox Quantum is well worth checking out.

Studios Cracking Down on Kodi Plugins

You might not be familiar with Kodi, but chances are you are familiar with streaming video applications.  Thanks to devices such as the Amazon Fire TV, the Roku and the new Tickbox, people are able to steam video content from a variety of sources on to their televisions.

No one is too concerned about the Roku or the Amazon box, as they work with content licencees and producers to offer content that is 100% legal and fully paid for.

Other devices, such as the Tickbox and its many variants, are in a bit more of a gray area.  These devices run an open source piece of software called Kodi that is, on its face, a media player application.

kodi boxKodi allows third-party plugins that can help users locate video content on the Internet, and that is what has people alarmed.

The Tickbox, for example, can be used to find just about any kind of programming out there, from sports to newly-released movies that are still in the theaters to the latest episodes of popular television programs.

That has a lot of studios and networks concerned, as people are buying these devices and using it to watch copyrighted material to which they shouldn’t legally have access.

The matter has been made a bit more complicated as studies have shown that some of these “boxes” that are using the Kodi application may constitute a fire hazard.

It’s not Kodi that’s drawing the wrath of studios, however.  It’s the developers of the third-party plugins, with names such as URL Resolver, DeathStreams, Covenant and Bennu.

Several developers of these plugins have received threatening letters from movie studios, and the developer of URL Resolver received on that said, in part:

another kodi box“This letter is addressed to you by companies of the six-major United States film studios represented by the Motion Picture Association (MPA), namely Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Disney Enterprises, Inc., Paramount Pictures Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal City Studios LLLP and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Netflix, Inc. and Amazon Studios LLC (represented by MPA via the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE)), Sky UK Limited, and The Football Association Premier League Limited…”

Many of these developers are individuals, and they have limited legal resources to fight potential lawsuits from major film studios.

On the other hand, many of these developers are individuals, and individuals can often create and release software anonymously, which can make it quite difficult for the studios and their lawyers to track down the responsible parties.

It’s possible that the development team at Kodi could find a way to block the installation of third-party plugins that are not authorized by the company, but for now, there’s  a bit of cat and mouse going on.

A number of plugin developers have announced that they will no longer be developing any gray-area plugins for the Kodi platform.  That doesn’t mean that others won’t step in with either plugins of their own or modifications of existing ones.

Of course, the threats of potential fire should be enough to scare away potential customers for the boxes, but you never know.



Kaspersky Software Still on U.S. Government Computers

A recent audit of computer systems at various U.S. government agencies shows that some 15% of them are still using software from Kaspersky Labs, a Russian company.

The Department of Homeland Security says that 94% of the agencies responded to an order to survey their networks to see if they were using any products from Kaspersky Labs.

The agency went on to say that they had no evidence that any systems running the software had been compromised.

computer virusLast September, the White House ordered civilian government agencies to remove all Kaspersky software from their systems, as they were concerned about the company’s ties to the Russian government.

These concerns included the possibility that the software could be used to spy on the U.S. government or to engage in some other type of malfeasance.

For the record, Kaspersky has repeatedly denied that it has any ties to the Russian government, but regardless, the U.S. government gave agencies using the company’s software 90 days to remove it from all of their systems.

96 out 102 agencies were quick to report that they were complying with the order.  The Department of Homeland Security is working with the remaining agencies to see if they need help in either assessing the status of their networks or in removing the software from their systems.

There are rumors that Kaspersky may sue, but this has yet to be confirmed.

pc virusIn an ideal world, secure government computers wouldn’t need antivirus software, and that’s particularly true of those that are not connected directly to the Internet.  Unfortunately, most computer systems are either connected to the Internet or are connected to other networks that are.

In addition, many users are careless and may inadvertently introduce software to supposedly secure systems inadvertently, either by CD, DVD, or flash drive.

Most antivirus programs protect users against a wide variety of potential problems, including so-called “ransomware” attacks, which use encryption software to make all programs on the infected machine inaccessible to the users.  The ransomware then displays a message on the screen telling the users that they must pay a ransom, usually sent in Bitcoin, to the creators of the software.

Failure to do so, the screen says, will result in all of the software on the computers being destroyed.  The problem with ransomware is that the infected user has no way of knowing if paying the ransom will actually allow them to regain access to their computers.  Sometimes, it’s just a lie, and the thieves take the money and leave the computers useless.

In the case of antivirus software, the government is less concerned about ransomware than they are spyware.  There is obviously a lot of classified information on U.S. government computer systems and the White House is understandably concerned about potentially giving access to that classified information to any foreign power.

That is the nature of antivirus software, and several major brands are made by Russian companies or companies in Eastern Europe.  You need the software to protect yourself, but you have to trust that the software itself isn’t a threat.

In the case of Kaspersky Labs, the government isn’t taking any chances.

New App for McDonald’s Ice Cream

While not everyone is a fan, clearly a lot of people do like to eat at McDonald’s, as the restaurants seem to be in nearly every town in America and they’ve served billions of burgers since they were founded in the early 1950s.

Not everyone goes to the Golden Arches for burgers, though.  They also have a lot of fans for their coffee and for their ice cream.

Unfortunately, as fans of both are all too aware, both their coffee machines and their ice cream machines are often not working.  That means that you might not be able to get that latte or that McFlurry that you’ve been craving, and while we’re not fans of the ice cream, we do like the occasional cup of coffee there.

mcflurryThere’s no help for the coffee problem at present, but someone has come up with a bit of a solution for the ice cream problem.  A new app, designed for the Apple iOS, makes it a bit more possible to determine if your local McDonald’s has a working ice cream machine.

ice checkThe Ice Check app allows users to search for their local McDonald’s and lets them know if the ice cream machine at that location is working.  If you happen to visit a McDonald’s and see that the machine is not working, you can note the location as “off” so that other users will not make the same mistake that you did – going to a store without a working machine.

While this seems like a good idea, there are a few problems with it, as users have noted.  It’s not as though the app has access to some sort of global McDonald’s database that tells it whether machines at any given location are working or not.

For that status, you’re at the mercy of other users, and there’s no way of knowing if the information is up to date.  You also have no way of knowing if the machine is working or not if no other Ice Check users have been to that location recently.

Still, it’s an improvement, and perhaps the existence of the app and the publicity it’s been receiving will make the company a bit more cognizant of the problem, which is not whether people know if the ice cream machines are working or not, but the fact that the machines are often not working.

Bad publicity sometimes inspires companies to work hard to overcome the problem, and we’re hoping that the invention of Ice Check will do that when it comes to those people who can’t get a McFlurry when they want one.

Unfortunately, we’re not aware of any app that will let us know the status of the McCafe machine.  If we’re passing by and we want a latte, we’ll just have to take our chances and walk in.

Perhaps someone will work on that app next, as lots of people would undoubtedly be grateful.



The $6 Billion Mystery

Someone is sitting on nearly $6 billion in Bitcoin, and savvy investigators think it may be the creator of the digital currency.

Bitcoin first came to notice in 2009 when someone who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto announced that he had created a digital currency format that did not require the participation of banks or any other centralized agencies to handle either the currency or transactions.

bitcoinEverything would be handled through a decentralized networks of computers running software designed to handle the transactions and to thwart potential fraud.  While many computers had a piece of each transaction, none had all of it.

This allowed people to send money anonymously, and made it impossible to track transactions, and the currency soon became popular among tech fans, fans of paranoia, and people who legitimately had something to hide.

The original currency was quite inexpensive.  After all, no one knew what to do with it and no one had any mechanism for actually using Bitcoin to pay for things.  As such, the value of Bitcoin was initially a fraction of a U.S. cent, as the value of anything is only what people believe it to be.

When your currency can’t buy anything, it isn’t worth much.

Unlike real currency, which can be printed at will by government entities, Bitcoin is different.  The amount of Bitcoins that can ever be produced is finite, and the number that can be produced in any given year decreases with time.   Furthermore, the mathematical calculations required to generate a new Bitcoin have grown more complex with time, meaning that more time elapses between the creation of a new Bitcoin and the creation of the next one.

That means that people who acquired Bitcoins early on were not only able to get them inexpensively, but were able to acquire them quite easily.  It only stands to reason that the person or persons who created the software that generated Bitcoins would also have access to the coins early on in their history.

Nakamoto disappeared in 2010, and no one is really sure if Satoshi Nakamoto was his real name, if he was really Japanese, or if he really existed at all.  He might have been a single person, he might have been multiple people, and he might have even been a corporation.

Whoever he is/was, he was secretive, and to this day, his identity is unknown to the public at large.

What is known, however, is that one person or entity is sitting on 580,000 Bitcoins right now.  At current market prices, these are worth nearly $6 billion.  This became known when a cryptocurrency expert named Sergio Lerner traced the earliest creation of Bitcoins and noticed that one person seemed to have been involved in 19,600 transactions that generated 50 Bitcoins each.

Nothing has been done with those Bitcoins since they were “mined” in 2010. They’re just sitting there.

Lerner believes that had these Bitcoins been mined by someone other than the creator of the system, that whomever had them would have “cashed out” a long time ago.   After all, no one knew early on if the currency would succeed, and if someone earned thousands of them at a fraction of a penny each, they might have been happy to cash them out when the value of the currency reached parity with the U.S. dollar.

That would have been more than a half a million dollars, and many people would have been happy with that.  That someone is still sitting on them when the value of a single Bitcoin is now approaching $6000 suggests that whomever has them is a true believer in the system.

Perhaps in time we’ll find out who has them…

Half Baked? Google Offers Multiple Fixes for Pixel 2

Google probably hoped that their new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones were going to be iPhone killers, but so far, just a few weeks after they were brought to market, the only thing that has these smartphones in the news is problems.

The problems with the Pixel 2 lineup, which is Google second-generation lineup of smartphones, tend to involve both audio and video.  Google doesn’t actually build the smartphones; they’re built for them according to the company’s specifications.

google pixel 2Processors are the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, with storage options of either 64 or 128 GB.  The primary differences between the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL are screen size and resolution, with the XL offering a bigger screen and better resolution.

Unfortunately, that bigger screen and better resolution isn’t going to help much given some of the problems that Google has had reported to them regarding the displays.

The first unpleasant reports had to do with screen burn-in, where a commonly displayed image on the screen can, with time, begin to be visible on the screen after the phone has been turned off.

For many people, burn-in is a relic of old CRT computer monitors, which more common LCD monitors do not exhibit.  The OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays used by the Pixel 2 models can have this problem, and Google is reportedly working on it.

google pixel 2 xlOther video problems with the Pixel 2 line include a “black smear” issue, where black pixels seem to take their time in changing to colored pixels as images change on the phone.

Other issues have to do with customer complaints about understaturated colors.  Google says that their phones conform to spec, but users accustomed to other brands of smart phones say that the Pixel 2 displays have dull colors compared to their competitors.

That’s possible; anyone who has ever bought a flat-screen television will probably notice that the manufacturers tend to “dial up” the color levels in order to give a more vivid, if less accurate display.  That works well in store showrooms even if the colors shown may not reflect the actual world in which we live.

Of course, customers want what customers want, and if they want brighter, less-accurate colors, then they should have it.  Google is reportedly working on a solution to be released soon in a firmware update.

Yet another problem with the displays of the Pixel 2 is that they do not view well unless you’re looking right at them.  If you view them at an angle, the images tend to not look too good.  This could be a hardware problem, and there’s no word on whether Google is working for a fix.

Finally, users are complaining about problems with audio, too, saying that when listening to music or other audio sources, the sound on the Pixel 2 series can suddenly develop a tinny sound that can also sound garbled.

Google says they are aware of the issue and are working on a fix that should be available soon.

These are the problems with the constant struggle to keep hardware up to date and to keep ahead of the competition.


Your House Could Spy On You

Over time, more and more home appliances are being created that are both “smart” and Web-enabled.  There are a number of reasons why it might make sense to have appliances connected to the Internet.

If you’re out of town and you turned your thermostat down before you left in order to save money on heat, you can use a Web-enabled thermostat to turn it back on a few hours before you return home so that your house will be comfortable when you arrive.

lg vacuum cleanerSimilarly, if you have a Web-enabled home vacuum robot, you could ask it to clean up the kitchen before you come home from work should you discover that you’re having unexpected dinner guests.

Many home appliances are now Web-enabled and a few have cameras and some are even able to interconnect with other devices.  This is all fine, until something goes wrong.

Recently an Israeli firm discovered a vulnerability in the Web app for Web-enabled appliances made by LG, and that vulnerability could allow a hacker to control your appliances.  They could also use them to engage in malicious acts.

They could even use those appliances to spy on you.  Some appliances, such as LG’s robot vacuum, have a built in camera.  Hackers could use that to spy on you or to case your home as preparation for a robbery.

lg dishwasherThe options are pretty much unlimited, and it all has to do with a vulnerability on the server end of LG’s apps.  Users create accounts at the LG Website and can then control their applications by use of those accounts.  It was discovered that spoofing the email addresses of legitimate users and tying those accounts to newly created accounts was possible due to some issues with the login process.

This matter has been resolved, and it’s easily fixed by updating the firmware in your devices.  This could take a while, depending on which of LG’s many Web-enabled devices you own.  The company makes dishwashers, washing machines, washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners and even air conditioners.

Granted, your air conditioner is unlikely to spy on you, but when hackers find vulnerabilities in such software, they’ll look for places where they can exploit them for financial gain.  While hacking your air conditioner may not let them spy on you, there might be a way to hack it in such a way that can hurt you in a way that you’ll care about.

This also demonstrates that we must take care when buying any Web-enabled item.  The Internet offers lots of useful information and ways to make our lives better, but you always have to be careful.  There are lots of ways for nefarious people to take advantage of the poorly informed, and as time goes on and we become more attached to Web-enabled devices, such hacks are likely to be more common.

It’s always a good idea to make sure that your software is up to date on any device that you can connect to the Internet.  That won’t prevent all possible hacking attacks, but it will help.