Today’s smartphones are incredibly powerful. If you are savvy enough, and determined, you could probably do a good portion of your office job and manage most, if not all of your personal life just via a late model smartphone. Even someone like me can do a significant amount of work via smartphone. The tools are there, and the screen is just big enough to make it possible with some squinting and finger cramping, but I only do it in an emergency when I don’t have access to better tools or platforms. For most of you, email, video conferencing and phone conversations cover a large chunk of your professional life, and when you add in the social media apps, you’ve got the bases covered. But should you be using your smartphone for anything other than for what it was originally designed?
Should you be getting off my lawn?
I’ll admit it, I’ve definitely become much more conservative *gasp* when it comes to considering where technology intersects with our personal lives, especially as it pertains to privacy. Back when I had a full head of hair and maybe less brains, I fell firmly into the “what do you have to hide” category of privacy, but that was before our data was essentially and mercilessly monetized with zero regard for the consequences. And after it was purposefully gathered, categorized and analyzed, it was carelessly and unapologetically leaked repeatedly, where it could again be gathered, exploited and manipulated by folks with even less care for ethics or humanity in general. While most of us haven’t been significantly damaged individually by this in any way we can quantify, the merciless monetization of our data has definitely been to the detriment of society in general. While it might feel usefully prescient that Amazon seems to know exactly what you need when you visit their website, I’m betting you start feeling a little unsettled when every other website you visit thereafter also seems to know what you’re shopping for, like you just stepped into the Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, for the younger generations. Whether you like it or not, the breakthrough in data gathering was courtesy of rise of the smartphone and its cornucopia of useful apps. For every function of your professional and personal life that you pursue with your cellphone, the carriers and app makers and their data-hungry customers gather oodles of telemetry about you – where you shop, what social and political beliefs you peruse and pursue, what kind of foods you like, what games you play, on and on. People view smartphones as a window to the world, but don’t forget that windows work both ways, and you are providing stark, unexpurgated view of your life to folks who only see you as a profit center.
Full disclosure: On top of email, texting and phone calls, I do no small amount of social media lurking (though not posting), GPS navigation, music listening and a little shopping here and there on my smartphone. I’ve made my peace (for now) with the Faustian deal I make in trade for services I (and my clients) find incredibly useful, and to be extremely clear, even I don’t know to what extent my data has been harvested, exploited and monetized, but I like to think I’m going into it as clear-eyed as one can be in this day and age. Should we be considering this a reasonable tradeoff? Would you be willing to pay for services you use for free right if it meant you had more control over your data? Do you even care? Even I don’t know how to answer these questions right now.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In the US, Thanksgiving traditionally marks the start of the holiday season, and most of us will open our hearts and minds (and wallets) just a bit more than we do during the rest of the year, and we let down our guard to enjoy the holiday spirit. Sadly, criminals and other malicious agents are also in the holiday mood, and count on the distractions of the season to really suck the joy out of the holidays. Here are some things you can do to make sure your holidays aren’t marred by the cyber Grinches:
- Stop opening email attachments
This is how the dreaded Cryptolocker virus gets onto your computer. If you receive an email from someone with an attachment that you weren’t expecting, pick up the phone and call that person to confirm that the attachment is legitimate. Hey, it’s holidays. Shouldn’t you be reaching out and touching someone anyways?
- Stop clicking links in emails
Just because you received an email from someone you know that has a link to the world’s funniest/scariest/cutest video does not mean you should click that link. At minimum, hover over the link to read where it’s really going to take you. Or pick up the phone and call that person to verify they sent the email in the first place, especially if the email seems to be out of character for the sender. Sensing a trend here? Wouldn’t you rather be on the phone catching up with an old friend rather than explaining to a bunch of angry relatives why you sent them a virus via email?
- Beware of fake Holiday Greeting cards, donation solicitations and other holiday-related spam
Hackers will be taking advantage of the increased volume of these types of emails. Observe rules #1 and #2, and watch out for poor grammar and out-of-character emails. Just received an X-mas ecard from someone you haven’t talked to recently? You guessed it…pick up the phone!
- Be careful with your personal data
Let’s say you knuckled under the pressure and clicked a link. The website you landed on is asking you for some personal information that seems relatively harmless: Birthdate, ZIP Code, last four of your Social Security number. Unless you are at the website with which you already do business (and have verified its that company’s actual website and not a fake one!), stop what you are doing and back away from the computer. Even these bits of data can be used as a digital wedge to get at other data from your personal life, which can lead to theft of both your money and identity.
- Put a password or pin on your phone
See last week’s article on why this is important, and how to do it. Don’t ask why, just do it. Trust me.
- Be less conspicuous about using your smartphone
Thieves are targeting smartphone users, especially iPhone users, because the devices are in high demand on the blackmarket, especially overseas where the phones can be reactivated without fear of being tracked. A protective case can help disguise your phone, but if you really want to blend in better, choose one that isn’t blinged out and brightly colored. That case that really helps you stand out in a crowd also paints a big target on you for thieves. Keep it in a deep pocket or a bag/purse that zips or latches shut so it will be less likely to accidentally fall out and picked up by someone looks for a free smartphone.
- Keep an eye on your laptop and/or tablet
A lot of us will be traveling during this time of year, and it’s becoming increasingly common to drag along our work laptop so we don’t get too far behind while visiting with family. You’d be surprised at the number of laptops lost/stolen in airports and rental car terminals, primarily because the owners are distracted and overburdened. Having to call your boss to tell them you lost your work laptop and all the data on it will make for a very stressful holiday. It’ll be even worse if you have to call clients to tell them you have lost their sensitive data or may have exposed them to a security risk.
- Where possible, don’t let online vendors store your credit card information
Up until very recently, most online stores assumed you wanted to keep your credit card “on file” with them for convenience on future purchases. While this is still the case, many now offer the option to remove that information, or to not store it in the first place. Given how many websites are being hacked these days, you may be better off not keeping that number on file, especially if it’s with a store you don’t frequent. Having to enter your credit card information once or twice is a trivial inconvenience as compared to having to replace all your credit cards because a website you bought something from years ago got hacked.
- Beware deals on technology “too low to be believed”
With technology, you get what you pay for 99% of the time, which is to say that if you got it cheap, it’s likely that it is cheap. That knock-off iPhone charger might have been a steal, but if it burns up your battery due to an electrical short, your $5 charger just cost you $500.
- Give yourself a gift this year: Back up your data
All hard drives fail eventually. Phones break, get lost or stolen. Viruses happen. If your data is important enough to save to a disk, it’s important enough to back up. There are online subscriptions that can take care of your most precious digital assets for pennies a day and are so simple to use that anyone who knows how to click a link can set up an account. You might not be able to keep the cyber Grinches at bay forever, but a good backup can take most of the sting out of worst virus infections or hardware failures.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
The winter holidays are upon us, and with them comes the shopping, traveling and general merry-making. Law enforcement is also warning about the increasing rate of smartphone thefts as criminals take advantage of the increased distraction, armfuls of packages and winter clothing to abscond with devices they know most people carry and use these days. Though you can do a lot to lower your profile as a potential victim, its an virtual guarantee that a certain percentage of you will have your phone stolen or lost, and aside from the loss of the device itself, your data could also be exploited to your further detriment if your device isn’t properly safeguarded against possible theft. CNET has a comprehensive article detailing how you can secure your data and increase your chances of recovering your iOS, Android or Windows smartphone in case it is stolen, but if you are in a hurry (and who isn’t, these days?), I’ll provide a summary of the basics below.
What this means for you:
For all phones:
- Use a pin, password, or fingerprint to lock your phone.
- Encrypt your phone data. iPhones and Windows Phones do this by default, but it must be enabled manually on Android devices.
- Back up your critical data, whether it’s contacts, emails or photos.
For iPhone Users:
- Disable access to any features made available through the lockscreen, such as dialing and texting via Siri.
- Set up an iCloud account and enable “Find my iPhone” so that your device can be tracked in case of loss or theft.
For Android Users:
- Disable access to lock screen features.
- Setup Android Device Manager and make sure tracking and control of your device is enabled.
- If you use a microSD card, be aware that it cannot be wiped remotely like the phone’s internal memory (but it can be encrypted).
For Windows Phone Users:
- Sit back and relax, as tracking is enabled by default and the lock screen doesn’t allow access to anything.
The article is really worth reading. If you truly are pressed for time, skip to the part that is pertinent to your specific phone platform. The author provides much more detail on how each tracking system works, as well as what the systems can and can’t do. It may mean the difference between having a happy holiday or a blue Christmas if (when) you get separated from your smartphone.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
BlackBerry (formerly RIM) has been struggling in the smartphone market, having recently fallen into 4th place behind even Microsoft’s fledgling foray into that space. Despite the recent release and generally positive reviews of their 10-series phones, the mobile device manufacturer ceded their corporate dominance years ago to the crushing flood of iOS and Android devices primarily because of the company’s failure to stay competitive on the software side. In a move that has analysts scratching their head, BlackBerry is now making a play via software with a new platform called “Secure Work Spaces” which aims to allow for peaceful and secure co-existance of personal and corporate data on smartphones, including iOS and Android devices.
What this means for you:
Corporations struggle with allowing their employees to use corporate phones for business, and vice versa, with corporate phones and personal usage, primarily because the risk of security breaches is much higher on the personal side. BlackBerry’s new platform is designed to create a partition that keeps the two work spaces (see what they did there?) separate, giving enterprises complete control over corporate data without the distasteful invasion and control over the personal aspects of devices. There are other companies working on this same concept, and have been in the space longer, but BlackBerry’s reputation (and probably some nostalgic sentiment) may win the heart’s and minds of corporate IT managers. Seeing as BlackBerry has historically been a company that depends on hardware sales for revenue, many think that BlackBerry is either making a desperate or cunning pivot to the software space, knowing that there is little chance they can recover any ground in the mobile device race.
If you’ve spent any time on the internet lately, you likely know that Google’s latest innovation, “Glass” is already in the hands of the media and developers, and will soon be available to the general public. While the concept of wearable computers is not new – the earliest prototypes appeared over 30 years ago – Google’s sleek device has been giving privacy advocates fits since it was announced. Now that Glass is actually appearing “in the wild” as developers and media put the device through its paces, it’s getting pre-emptively banned by businesses, and in some cases, entire states are seeking to regulate its use.
As you might imagine, a device that can (relatively) unobtrusively record video and audio of anything in sight of a Glass wearer, on top of being able to access the vast data stores of Google’s indexed information, has many people understandably concerned. Cameras and recording devices are already banned in places like Las Vegas casinos, and organizations like Caesers Entertainment have extended their policies to explicitly include Google Glass in anticipation of the device’s arrival, as have numerous bars and other businesses, some merely for the publicity, but many for serious privacy concerns for their patrons and businesses.
What this means for you:
Whether or not you ever intend to use Google Glass or something similar, you’ve already been through a social revolution, and you might not have realized it. Remember when cellphones first started appearing with cameras? Remember when laptops first started shipping with webcams built into the lid? Devices that can be used to record others without their knowledge have been used in modern society for decades. Google is not the first to open this particular Pandora’s Box – the cows have long since fled the barn. Google Glass is fairly easy to spot now, but the technology will only improve (read: get smaller and harder to spot) and we will soon have wearable computers that are completely indistinguishable from a regular pair of glasses or sunglasses. We will get to a point that we will not be able to tell whether someone is digitally augmented, and societal conventions will have to adopt to the new standard, just like they have with smartphone cameras.
In a move that is strongly reflective of its overseas ownership, T-Mobile has announced that its customers now have the option to purchase cellular services without having to commit to a contract. Unlike the US, a large majority of European and Asian cell phone subscribers routinely purchase cell phone services on a monthly basis as opposed to the 1 and 2-year contracts familiar to most Americans. T-Mobiles new pre-paid plans start at $50/month for unlimited voice, texting and data, with a couple of small catches: data may be unlimited, but access to T-Mobile’s high-speed data network is capped at 500MB for the $50 plan (Increased to 2GB for $60, and truly unlimited for $70/month). The other gotcha? Pre-paid plans will no longer subsidize the cost of expensive phones that can be gotten for “free” with 2-year contracts, at least not in the manner with which you may be familiar.
What this means for you:
Of the major carriers in the US, T-Mobile is in fourth place in terms of market, and they trail third-place carrier Sprint by a large margin. Lacking the marketing muscle to go head to head with Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile is attempting to disrupt the US market by offering plans that are common-place and popular overseas, but still relatively untested in the US. Many analysts believe that the US cellular market will grow to mirror its overseas counterparts, but that convergence is still at least 2-4 years away.
One of the key differences in T-Mobile’s plan is how they plan to allow consumers to still “subsidize” the cost of new phones. In a traditional 2-year plan as offered by the major carriers, the cost of a new phone is incorporated into the monthly subscription fee, and presumably at a rate that pays off the phone in two years time. T-Mobile offers a similar deal with their pre-paid plan, but instead of offering a single monthly amount, they actually break out the cost of the monthly payment for your new phone.
Why is this important? With T-Mobile, once you have finished paying off the phone (which can be done on their 2-year schedule, or sooner should you decide to just buy out the remaining balance), your monthly bill will be reduced to just the amount owed for services. With the traditional contract offered by the big carriers, your monthly bill will stay the same even though you have paid off your phone. This is no big deal if you decide to switch carriers, but they are banking on the fact that you might not. So far, this has paid off, given the popularity of this type of contract, but maybe T-Mobile can bring disrupt enough of the market to put some strain on the Verizon/AT&T duopoly in place in the US.
(Full disclosure: I’m a T-Mobile customer on 2-year contract, paying down my brand-new Nexus 4. I’m paying approximately $80/month which includes a monthly payment of $20 for my phone.)
Technology lobbyists have been pushing for reform of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act for years, primarily to address the multitude of shortcomings, loopholes that couldn’t have been predicted almost 30 years ago. Law enforcement has also jumped onto the bandwagon, having recently submitted a rider proposal that would be attached to any changes proposed to the ECPA. Their objective? To get cellular providers to retain all the text messages passing through their network, primarily for the purposes of investigating criminal activity. Currently, most providers say they do not retain the actual text messages centrally, and smartphones by default are not designed to retain text messages long term, but each provider appears to have different policies governing exactly how much data is retained, and how long. This inconsistency troubles some lawmakers, and enforcement has long held that criminals purposefully use SMS as an “untraceable, untrackable” communication method.
What this means for you:
A proposal is a long way from actual law, but many privacy advocates and watchdog groups say a rider proposal like this could hamper much needed changes to the decades-old ECPA by weighing down progressive proposals with Big Brother agendas that most technology companies find distasteful, if not diametrically opposed to in their publicy stated values – think Google’s “Do no evil” policy. The fight for privacy continues to carry into new areas everyday, but the SMS fight could be a huge battle: six billion text messages are sent everyday. Privacy issues aside, imagine having to figure out how to store this information in a way that is useful, let alone subpoenable!
You might not have realized this, but in 2012, US Copyright Office let an exception to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) expire that suddenly made it illegal to unlock a cellphone you owned, for the purposes of using it with a different carrier. Passed in 1998, the DMCA covers many areas of modern technology, but the exception essentially allowed consumers to unlock phones like the Apple iPhone themselves, as opposed to purchasing a (much more expensive) unlocked phone or asking/paying the carrier to unlock the phone for you after you’ve paid for the phone through a subsidized contract. Though the exception lapsed late last year, the Whitehouse and the FCC have both issued statements urging Congress to legalize unlocking.
What this means for you:
In the US, unlocking your smartphone doesn’t have quite the same value as it does in other parts of the world, primarily because the two largest carriers operate networks that use two different technologies that are not found in any one phone. For example, if you had an AT&T iPhone, you can’t unlock it and move to Verizon, because the actual hardware will only work on GSM networks (Verizon is a CDMA-based network) but you could use it on T-Mobile’s network. The carriers aren’t really interested in seeing the exception renewed, primarily because it narrow’s consumer choice and “locks” unknowning customer with technology that, while simple to crack, is technically illegal to actually do without the carrier’s permission.
The issue rarely surfaces for most consumers anyways, as the carriers offer “free” or heavily discounted phones (with a multi-year contract, of course!) to “new” customers, so most opt to get something shiny and new, versus unlocking their 2-year old phone. The issue here is really more centered around protection of consumer rights and the fact that if you own something, you should be able to do whatever you want with it as long as it isn’t impacting the well-being of others. Unfortunately, the Whitehouse and the FCC can’t do anything about the DMCA or renewing the exception because the Copyright Office is governed by Congress. And we all know how productive they’ve been lately.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In what many analysts are seeing as another setback for beleaguered BlackBerry, the US Department of Defense has now announced that it will start allowing the use of iPhones and Android devices in a space that was once the domain of BlackBerry devices. In the early days of mobile email delivery, BlackBerry devices were designed for enterprise-controlled security, where as the other email-capable devices still relied on immature internet standards, or like Apple’s early iPhones, completely eschewed corporate control. Because of this, BlackBerry became the defacto standard for any business that valued security over style, including pretty much every government agency around the world.
What this means for you:
Don’t count BlackBerry out just yet, but the count is getting shorter and shorter, and at some point the referree might need to stop the fight. The Pentagon isn’t getting rid of BlackBerries (that would be a haymaker they won’t get up from), but they are now opening up the space for departments to use solutions from other vendors (namely Apple and Android). This is a signal to the rest of the world that might have been sceptical of iOS or Android’s security status that if the world’s most powerful military is willing to consider using iPhones and Androids, maybe those platforms have finally caught (and passed) BlackBerry on the security front.