Category Archives: Technology

Smart devices to protect your home while you’re away

Take these steps to protect your home from mishaps and intruders when you leave for vacation.

It was at our mortgage closing, when the seller received an eye-popping $900 final water bill, that I first developed FOGA: The Fear of Going Away. Apparently, when they vacated the house, a couple of running toilets and a leaky faucet had gone undetected, draining more than 47,000 gallons in a single month — about eight times more than normal. As with the wisdom about liberty, it seemed the price of homeownership would be eternal vigilance.

The lesson was reaffirmed that winter. Shortly after arriving for a Presidents’ Day weekend ski vacation in the Poconos, I received The Call: Our renter had pulled the battery from the chirping smoke alarm that connected to the boiler and water heater, causing them to shut down. It was 27 degrees out, and I was a three-hour drive away. My FOGA levels surged.

Such unwelcome discoveries became the norm. During various trips away from home over the next year or so, there were visits from porch pirates, who twice nabbed packages we hadn’t been expecting. Oh, and a bike thief. A puddle under the dishwasher. And the discovery that the cellar door had been left open to the elements for a rainy week.

Then one day I finally got smart. And later, when a frantic call came from guests who couldn’t get our door to unlock, I hung up the phone, held it aloft, and commanded Siri to trigger the smart lock I had recently installed. Siri did it instantly, I was a hero, and it was glorious.

I’ve since outfitted our home with a range of smart devices that have all but eliminated my FOGA. Some devices keep an eye on our place and send me an alert if something is amiss. Others automate things and make it less evident we’re away. And I like being able to remotely drop in from anywhere to control some devices — a lock, lights, the thermostat — to make sure all is well.

Besides convenience, there is a more practical value to installing smart devices: The Insurance Institute says that 98 percent of annual claims are from property damage, and although fires account for the highest costs, one in 50 homes suffers water damage — with an average claim over $10,000. What I find particularly appealing is that I can pick and choose the devices that work best for my needs, and that I’m not on the hook for yet another monthly fee. Here are several ways you can protect your home while you’re away, from the quick and cheap to the more involved and more costly.

Before breaking out tools and tech, the first step in vacation-proofing is to check off the basics. Deputy inspector Jessica Corey, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Crime Prevention Division, said that you have to minimize the appearance that no one is home. “Don’t leave a note on the door for the letter carrier or deliveries — stop your mail or get someone to pick it up. And if your drapery isn’t normally closed, it shouldn’t be while you’re away either.”

For stretches longer than a week, hire someone to mow the yard and put out and collect your garbage cans on schedule. Turn off the water-supply valves to the clothes washer and dishwasher, and even the toilets. Above all, ask a neighbor with a set of spare keys to check on things, including for your cars. As a fail-safe, I place a set of keys in a combination lockbox that hangs from a doorknob — in an emergency, anyone with the combination can get in.

For $25, a smart plug can turn on and off a lamp on a set or varied schedule. Better yet, get a three-pack and turn on their Away mode, and your lights will randomly turn on and off in set periods to better simulate an occupied home. (Wirecutter recommends several in our guide to plug-in smart switches.)

A smoke alarm is useful only if someone is there to hear it. For our rental unit I installed a Roost battery: If the alarm goes off, I get a notification on my phone, and I can set it to ping a neighbor or family friend, too. (You can find more info in Wirecutter’s guide to smart smoke alarms.)

Conspicuously mounted outdoor cameras, such as the Nest Cam Outdoor, do a great job of dissuading potential burglars (you can read about them in our guide to outdoor security cameras). I have one set under our front stoop that sends a notification and a video clip if someone approaches the basement door. Mounted on your house, a camera also lets you check on your property after inclement weather, a huge help if you have large trees or suffer from flooding. And Ms. Corey strongly advises against mounting fake cameras: “If you’re going to mount a camera get a real one — dummy cameras give you a false sense of security.”

You can install a low-cost motion-sensing camera — you can see our favorite models in our full guide to indoor security cameras — inside your home as well, and it’ll send word whenever anyone — a house sitter, dogwalker, repairperson, or potential burglar — crosses its path. It also lets you see live video and even communicate walkie-talkie style if need be.

Along with wind and hail, water is one of the most common sources of damage for homeowners. Tiny battery-powered moisture detectors such as the iHome Control Dual Leak Sensor, placed near a water heater or sewer drain, connect to your home’s Wi-Fi and send an alert to your phone if they sense a leak or flood. For more, we have a whole guide to smart leak detectors, and how to buy a good one.

Ms. Corey recommends using lighting timers, as long as you “make sure the lights and televisions and other items come on at different times, not always on the same schedule.” I’ve found that smart bulbs, such as Philips Hue or LIFX bulbs, are far easier to program and have “scenes” to trigger randomly. They can also trigger in connection with a motion sensor or another smart device like a lock, an additional burglar-busting feature.

“I strongly suggest having motion-sensor-activated lighting around the outside of the house — it’s one of the cheapest forms of security you can have,” Ms. Corey said.

I installed a smart lock, the Yale Assure SL Connected by August, our pick for the best smart lock, because it eliminates the need to copy physical keys and keep track of them. I use an app to create a code anytime someone needs to come by — the house sitter, an Airbnb guest, the flooring person — and get a notification when they come and go. And I can disable access when I get home without needing to collect keys. I also set it to auto-lock if someone forgets. It’s low-profile and attractive, unlike many keypad locks.

A doorbell camera pings my phone whenever someone is at the door, which is great as I can speak to them as if I were home or ignore them while still knowing who is visiting my front step. The model I installed, the Nest Hello, sends alerts if it sees motion. (For information on other models, see Wirecutter’s guide to smart doorbells.) It does double-duty as a security camera since it records video 24/7, which I view on my phone. That way I can consult the video if something bad actually does happen, or if I just need to catch the jerk who keeps letting his dog poop on my sidewalk.

To avoid frozen pipes in winter and scorched plants or pets in the summer, a smart thermostat like the Ecobee3 Lite adjusts the temperature in preferred ranges while using the outdoor temperature as reference (extreme temperature swings prematurely age your house as well.) It also can pair with tiny sensors you place on a shelf to turn things off when people are gone.

My next smart device will be a water-shutoff valve, like the Flo by Moen (I haven’t tested it yet.) It attaches to your water supply and uses AI to detect a leak as slight as a dripping faucet and sends you a notification. In the event of a catastrophic leak such as a burst pipe, it automatically shuts off your water. You can turn the water back on with the app or manually with a wrench. Some insurance companies discount your premium by a few percent if you have such a device, but for me it’s worth the expense just for peace of mind.

As an alternative to a whole-home, professionally installed security system, DIY versions such as SimpliSafe and Abode let you mix and match compatible security sensors — motion, door/window, water — with some popular smart devices like many mentioned here, but without an ongoing service contract. To learn more, see Wirecutter’s full guide to home security systems. You can get alerts on your phone when you’re home, and when you go away you can pay a modest fee of $15 or $20 for professional monitoring, so you get the best of both worlds.


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The freedom that comes with disabling your read receipts

Last year a good friend sent me a WhatsApp message asking where I wanted to meet for coffee. I sent her a message back with the time and place. Three hours later, I arrived at the coffee shop, a few minutes early. I checked the WhatsApp thread and noticed that the double checkmark had not yet turned blue. I switched to my iPhone’s dialer app and was about to call her to make sure she knew where we were meeting when she suddenly walked through the front door.

After greeting her I said that it looked like she hadn’t gotten my message, so I was surprised she knew where to meet (although it was our normal hangout). She said she had meant to confirm the meeting but got caught up at work and then she added something which fundamentally changed the way I view my digital privacy. “I’ve just disabled my WhatsApp read receipts, by the way.”

I asked why. “Why should people have a right to know when I have or haven’t read something?” she replied.

And like that, I realized that when we talk about digital privacy, we’re usually only talking about one side of the coin: our right to keep our digital activity private from tech companies and data brokers. But the reality is that because of all the digital tools we use–especially messaging apps–we frequently give up our right to privacy from our friends and coworkers, too.

From that day forward I decided to follow in my friend’s footsteps. I began disabling read receipts on all the messaging apps I used. In doing so, I at first only noticed what I had lost. When you disable read receipts in most messaging apps, it’s a reciprocal thing–you can limit someone from seeing when you’ve read a message, but then you also don’t get to see when they’ve read your message. For a few days, this caused some anxiety in me. Had my friends actually received the message? Should I send another message asking them for confirmation?

But after a few days, this pointless uncertainty receded. It’s highly unlikely that any message you send via a modern messaging app won’t be delivered, after all. And by the end of the first week of disabling read receipts, I noticed a fundamental change come over me when it came to the messages I received.

After reading a message, I no longer felt that anxiety or guilt compelling me to reply right away. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. After all, how many times have you gotten a read receipt confirmation that a friend has read your message and been annoyed or even hurt that they didn’t reply right away? By disabling read receipts so my friends and coworkers could no longer see when I’ve read a message, I felt like I had more time to reply to them on my terms and in my own time. This meant my replies could be more thoughtful and detailed, instead of a haphazard shoot-from-the-hip response.

Most importantly, by disabling read receipts I discovered a glorious freedom I’d never had before: the freedom to not have everyone knowing what I’ve seen or done, in an age when technology is designed to encourage us to do the opposite.

Disabling read receipts is nothing short of liberating, breaking us from our digital chains to others. Not only does it alleviate the guilt and anxiety to instantaneously reply, but it also helps set boundaries and manage expectations between me and my friends: I will reply to you, but when I have the time.

One friend even confided in me that she has learned not to take a lack of an instant reply personally. She has also disabled read receipts in her apps and finds it liberating. “It helps quickly jettison the bullshit expectation that you’re due an immediate reply to every message you send,” she told me.

HOW TO DISABLE READ RECEIPTS ON FACEBOOK MESSENGER, APPLE MESSAGES, WHATSAPP, AND TWITTER DMS

Trust me, disabling read receipts will feel odd at first–but once you do it, you will not miss them. Matter of fact, you’ll quickly feel lighter and less burdened. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to disable read receipts in most major messaging apps (easier to disable than in emails, anyway). Here’s how:

Facebook Messenger: Just joking. Facebook doesn’t allow anyone to disable read receipts, even though people tell Facebook they want this feature. Facebook no doubt frames this inability to disable read receipts as a good thing: It allows your friends to know when their messages are received. But truth be told, Facebook–shocker–isn’t working for the common good here. An engineer on their Messages team recently told me that Facebook could implement the option to toggle read receipts on or off in a weekend. They said the social media giant won’t do that, however, because read receipts in Messenger guilt people into replying right away. This anxiety to reply because you know your Facebook friend has seen that you’ve read their message keeps you engaged with their Messaging platform. In other words, you don’t control Facebook, Facebook controls you.

So since you can’t disable read receipts on Facebook Messenger (both its app and web versions) what are you to do? Simple: just stop using the messaging portion of the service.

Unlike every other major messaging service, your Facebook messages aren’t even encrypted anyway, so there’s already little reason to use Facebook Messenger as your messaging app of choice. But what if people keep messaging you through there? Here’s a trick: While you can’t disable Messenger as long as you have a Facebook account, you can block every single Facebook friend you have from sending you a message on the platform. Until Facebook allows its users to reclaim their personal privacy by disabling read receipts, block your friends on Messenger and tell them to contact you through a more egalitarian messaging service.

Apple Messages: Apple’s Messages app gives you the most control over read receipts. You can enable or disable read receipts for all users in iOS’s Settings > Messages, or enable or disable read receipts on a per-person basis by tapping the “Info” button in a message thread and then toggling your preference on the next screen.

WhatsApp: Thankfully, Facebook-owned WhatsApp gives you control over whether or not you and others can view read receipts. Unlike Apple’s Messages, however, disabling read receipts in WhatsApp is an all-or-nothing option. Either everyone (including you) can see read receipts, or no one can. In WhatsApp’s in-app settings, go to Account > Privacy and toggle read receipts on or off. One bummer: read receipts are always enabled for group chats.

Twitter DMs: While I don’t use Twitter’s direct messaging feature much, I know plenty of people who do. Thankfully, Twitter is one social media platform that allows you to disable read receipts. Simply go to your Twitter account settings and tap “Privacy and safety.” Under “Direct Messages” you’ll see the read receipt toggle to disable or enabled them. Again, this is an all-or-nothing approach. If you disable read receipts, you won’t be able to see when someone has read your DMs. A fair trade-off.

There are of course other messaging services than those on this list. Most of them will also provide users with the ability to disable read receipts. And if they don’t, it’s time to trade up to a different messenger app that gives you more control over your digital privacy, no matter if that’s from the app maker or from your friends.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter represented worldwide by Marjacq Scripts Ltd
. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. Contact his agent at Marjacq Scripts Ltd
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Huawei is stepping up the phone Camera wars with its P30 Pro’s 5x optical zoom

The Huawei P30 Pro is the first smartphone to have a 5x periscope-like optical zoom and four cameras on the back.

Stepping up the smartphone camera wars another notch, the latest flagship smartphone from the Chinese firm at the centre of a political storm looks to raise the bar not only for camera quality but also flexibility.

The previous Huawei P20 Pro had three cameras on the back with a 3x optical zoom. The £899 P30 Pro adds an extra depth-sensing time-of-flight (TOF) camera for improved portrait and augmented reality modes, joining the main 40-megapixel camera and a 20-megapixel ultrawide angle camera. The company says its new SuperSpectrum camera is capable of absorbing significantly more light for dramatically improved low-light performance, an area of smartphone photography the company dominates alongside Google.

But it is the new eight-megapixel SuperZoom camera, which like a periscope uses a prism to reflect light down the inside of the width of the phone to make room for the required series of lenses for a 5x optical zoom, that is the most interesting.

We’re going to completely rewrite the rules of smartphone photography, and we can do this because we own the complete ecosystem within the smartphone. All the little elements, not just the camera,” said Peter Gauden, the company’s global senior product marketing manager, talking about the use of Huawei-made processors and other chips.

Huawei says its resulting 5x optical zoom beats the digital zooms of competitors using only 2x optical zoom cameras, and that its additional 10x hybrid zoom and up to 50x digital zoom, which use data from multiple cameras to increase detail, is the best in the business.

Huawei says it has improved the speed and accuracy of its optical in-screen fingerprint scanner.

Ben Wood, chief of research at market analysis firm CCS Insight, said: “Huawei’s new 5x optical zoom is an interesting addition, but it will be tough to get people to upgrade from last year’s P20 Pro, which is still on sale and more of a bargain than ever. There’s no question, however, that particularly in smartphone photography, Huawei has some real momentum at the moment.”

The P30 Pro also has a giant 6.47in OLED screen with a small teardrop notch containing a 32-megapixel selfie camera at the top. Huawei has eschewed the 3D face recognition system it introduced on the Mate 20 Pro for an improved optical in-screen fingerprint scanner located towards the bottom of the screen. It has also removed the phone’s earpiece speaker, replacing it with what the company calls “electromagnetic levitation”, which vibrates the screen itself, turning it into a speaker.

The rest of the phone resembles last year’s Mate 20 Pro with curved glass front and back, a range of pearlescent and interesting colours, a fairly large-capacity battery and both 40W wired and 15W wireless charging. It can also reverse wirelessly charge another phone or device, a trick introduced with the company’s other phones last year.

Alongside the P30 Pro, which costs £899 with 128GB of storage or £1,099 with 512GB of storage, Huawei also unveiled the slightly cheaper and smaller £699 P30, which has a 6.1in OLED screen, the same in-screen fingerprint scanner, 128GB of storage and premium design. It has a triple camera system on the back but only 3x optical zoom, and has a traditional flat glass front and back, rather than curved.

Governments continue to shut down the internet – even though it doesn’t work

As the internet continues to gain considerable power and agency around the world, many governments have moved to regulate it. And where regulation fails, some states resort to internet shutdowns or deliberate disruptions.

The Zimbabwean government recently shutdown the internet by ordering mobile companies to withhold mobile data.
The Zimbabwean government recently shutdown the internet by ordering mobile companies to withhold mobile data. EPA-EFE/STF

The statistics are staggering. In India alone, there were 154 internet shutdowns between January 2016 and May 2018. This is the most of any country in the world.

But similar shutdowns are becoming common on the African continent. Already in 2019 there have been shutdowns in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Last year there were 21 such shutdowns on the continent. This was the case in Togo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Ethiopia, among others.

The justifications for such shutdowns are usually relatively predictable. Governments often claim that internet access is blocked in the interest of public security and order. In some instances, however, their reasoning borders on the curious if not downright absurd, like the case of Ethiopia in 2017 and Algeria in 2018 when the internet was shut down apparently to curb cheating in national examinations.

Whatever their reasons, governments have three general approaches to controlling citzens’ access to the web.

How they do it

Internet shutdowns or disruptions usually take three forms. The first and probably the most serious is where the state completely blocks access to the internet on all platforms. It’s arguably the most punitive, with significant socialeconomic and political costs.

The financial costs can run into millions of dollars for each day the internet is blocked. A Deloitte report on the issue estimates that a country with average connectivity could lose at least 1.9% of its daily GDP for each day all internet services are shut down.

For countries with average to medium level connectivity the loss is 1% of daily GDP, and for countries with average to low connectivity it’s 0.4%. It’s estimated that Ethiopia, for example, could lose up to US$500,000 a day whenever there is a shutdown. These shutdowns, then, damage businesses, discourage investments, and hinder economic growth.

The second way that governments restrict internet access is by applying content blocking techniques. They restrict access to particular sites or applications. This is the most common strategy and it’s usually targeted at social media platforms. The idea is to stop or limit conversations on these platforms.

Online spaces have become the platform for various forms of political expression that many states especially those with authoritarian leanings consider subversive. Governments argue, for example, that social media platforms encourage the spread of rumours which can trigger public unrest.

This was the case in 2016 in Uganda during the country’s presidential elections. The government restricted access to social media, describing the shutdown as a “security measure to avert lies … intended to incite violence and illegal declaration of election results”.

In Zimbabwe, the government blocked social media following demonstrations over an increase in fuel prices. It argued that the January 2019 ban was because the platforms were being “used to coordinate the violence”.

The third strategy, done almost by stealth, is the use of what is generally known as “bandwidth throttling”. In this case telecom operators or internet service providers are forced to lower the quality of their cell signals or internet speed. This makes the internet too slow to use. “Throttling” can also target particular online destinations such as social media sites.

What drives governments

In most cases the desire to control the internet is rooted in governments’ determination to control the political narrative. Many see the internet as an existential threat that must be contained, no matter what consequences it will have on other sectors.

The internet is seen as a threat because it disrupts older forms of government political control, particularly the control of information. The stranglehold on the production and dissemination of informationhas always been an invaluable political tool for many African governments.

The loss of this control, at a time when the media has brought politics closer to the people, presents governments with a distinctly unsettling reality. Social media, for example, inherently encourages political indiscipline and engenders the production and circulation of alternative political narratives.

In addition, because it is a networked platform, users are simultaneously and instantaneously local and international and are engaged in an information carnival that is difficult to police. Quite often the narratives therein are at variance with the self-preserving and carefully constructed ideologies of the state.

The shutdown trend

The irony, however, is that as these shutdowns continue, even proliferate, there is scant evidence they actually work. Instead, they seem to animate dissent and encourage precisely the kind of responses considered subversive by many governments This has been the case in Burkina Faso and Uganda, for example, where such bans have simply increased the profile of the causes being agitated.

Internet shutdowns don’t stop demonstrations. Nor do they hinder the production and circulation of rumours: they encourage them instead. Many people are also circumventing the shutdowns through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). These are networks that redirect internet activity to a computer in a different geographical location thus enabling access to sites blocked in one’s own country. VPNS are now par for the course in countries like Zimbabwe.

The future of unfettered internet access in Africa looks precarious should governments continue on this trajectory. The absence in many African countries of enforceable constitutional guarantees that protect the public’s right to information means there are few opportunities for legal redress. This makes the development of legislative regimes that recognise and protect access to the internet both urgent and necessary.

SOURCE: The Conversation

Federal government may shutdown internet: here are ways to still stay online

For digital rights activists, an important milestone came in 2016 with the adoption of the UN Human Rights Council resolution on promoting and protecting the freedom of users online. Yet, 51 intentional disruptions of the internet and electronic communications took place in the first 10 months of 2016 in countries across the world. For Africans, 2016 shaped up to be “the year of internet shutdowns,” as at least 11 governments interfered with the internet during elections or protests.

In 2017, the threat of internet blackouts, besides surveillance and monitoring of online activities, still looms large. Deji Olukotun, the senior global advocacy manager with Access Now says that there are significant challenges facing internet freedom. These include, he says, “the increasing sophistication of internet shutdowns to target smaller groups of people and locations” besides the deployment of technologies “that don’t truly provide new users with access to the full, open internet.”

Governments usually direct telecommunication companies to block certain websites or completely shut down the telephone and internet network. The next time that happens, here are a few things you can do to avoid the blackouts.

Ahead of the 2019 presidential elections, The Federal Government may be planning to shutdown the internet for 24 hours. Here are ways you can still remain online.

1. Learn which circumvention tools or proxies to use

There are numerous circumvention tools that can be used to evade censorship and to access the internet anonymously. These include Psiphon, an open source web proxy that helps users skirt content-filtering systems. There is also Tor, which essentially prevents people from tracing your location or spying on your browsing habits. Tor is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android.

The Guardian Project also has a number of apps like Orbot that can help you browse the internet anonymously, send messages and encrypt your internet traffic. Tails is an operating system that enables you to start on any computer, allowing you to bypass censorship, and uses cryptographic tools to encrypt files and email messages.

Lantern uses peer-to-peer networks to get people in uncensored areas to share their Internet connection and servers with those without the same unfiltered level of access. Peer networking is also used with FireChat, an off-the-grid messaging app that allowed users to chat using Bluetooth or wireless during blackouts in Iraq, Iran, and Hong Kong.

But beware: governments can sometimes use sophisticated technology to block these same sites or introduce jail terms for using them. A 2016 Amnesty International report showed that the Ethiopian government blocked both Tor and Psiphon during anti-government protests there last year.

2. Ensure the safety of your VPN

Many people use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to get secure access to a remote computer over the internet. For instance, VPNs constituted the top 12 apps downloaded during Uganda’s elections last February. VPNs can, however, differ from region to region, and it is important to know the safety and security of each specific networks before use. Access Now recommends That One Privacy Site as a source that compares different virtual networks.

Amama Mbabazi, a presidential candidate in Uganda’s 2016 elections referred his followers to the Tunnelbear VPN.

3. Remember to protect yourself

Trying to circumvent an official shutdown to get online is weighty task—but it all starts with the simple stuff. For instance, ensure that all the sites you are using are delivered over HTTPS. This allows you to access the original site and not an altered version of it. Quartz recently switched to HTTPS to make it secure for readers to browse our journalism. You can install the HTTPS Everywhere extension in your browser courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project.

Another important thing to have is anti-virus software, so as to detect and remove malicious software from your laptop. “Something as simple and as basic as having an anti-virus is a key thing. People don’t know much about this,” Ephraim Muchemi, who conducts training in digital security with the US-based non-profit International Research and Exchange Board.

4. Seek help from the experts

For journalists and writers who are engaged in reporting sensitive information, it is important to know where to seek help before blackouts. Access Now, for example, runs a 24-Hour Digital Security Helpline, which can advise users even during emergencies. Reading their Digital Security Booklet can be a key place to start.


This story was first published in Quartz Africa. All rights reserved.

Facebook is 15: Do you still enjoy the app?

In february 4th 2004 a young website with a baby-blue banner was born.

Founded in a dormitory at Harvard, TheFacebook.com tapped into people’s instinctive desire to see and be seen. Few guessed how successful it would become. In 2008 Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who had bought the social-networking rival MySpace, called Facebook the “flavour of the month”; the following year this newspaper warned in an article about Facebook that it is “awfully easy for one ‘next big thing’ to be overtaken by the next.”

Instead Facebook has stayed on top by spreading wildly across America and the world and buying competitors, including the photo-sharing app Instagram and the messaging firm WhatsApp. Around two-thirds of American adults use its original social network. At its peak, the average user spent nearly an hour a day on Facebook’s platforms. Few companies have exerted such a strong influence on society, changing people’s communication habits, reuniting lost contacts, shaping their perception of world events and redefining the meaning of the word “friend”. “Every once in a while, changes in technology come along which are so profound, that there is a before and an after. Facebook is one of those,” says Roger McNamee, author of a forthcoming book called “Zucked”.

Birthdays are an occasion for reflection. In the 15 years since its founding, Facebook has altered America in three notable ways. First, it has shaped what it means and feels like to be young. The company has done this twice: once with its flagship social network, which became the pastime and addiction of college students and high schoolers in the mid-2000s, and again with Instagram, which is the digital drug of choice for their successors today, along with the rival app Snapchat.

The company has fostered a virtual “me-conomy”, where people (over)share their feelings, photos and comments. Some blame Facebook for fanning teenage narcissism and for short attention spans. Others say it has caused anxiety, depression and insecurity. Researchers have shown that people who spend more time on Facebook are more likely to think other people have it better than they do and that life is unfair.

The lasting effects of social media, and Facebook in particular, on young people’s psyches will not be fully understood for years, but it is clear that Facebook has changed human interaction. At the safe remove of a screen, bullying on social media has become painfully common; some 59% of American teenagers say they have been bullied or harassed online. Facebook has cultivated far-flung, online friendships, but it has changed the nature of offline ones, too. According to research by Common Sense Media, a non-profit, in 2012 around half of 13- to 17-year-olds said their favourite way to communicate with friends was in person. Today only 32% feel that way, with 35% preferring texting.

Second, Facebook has changed attitudes to privacy. The social network thrives through trust. After Facebook was launched, for the first time people felt comfortable sharing intimate details online, including their phone number, relationship status, likes and dislikes, location and more, because they felt they could control who had access to them. Users were vaguely aware that Facebook was starting to make a fortune mining this data and selling advertisers access to specific types of users, but they mostly did not object.

Opinions about privacy may be shifting again at Facebook’s hands, this time in reverse. Public scandals about outside firms getting access to Facebook users’ data, including last year’s Cambridge Analytica fiasco, have shone a light on the firms’ massive data collection. Around half of American adult users are not comfortable with Facebook compiling such detailed information about them, according to a survey by Pew Research Centre. Concerns about privacy and lax oversight probably played into the beating that Facebook’s reputation took last year. According to the Reputation Institute, a consultancy, Facebook’s standing among Americans fell sharply in 2018, and its score ranks significantly below other technology companies, including Google. A fresh scandal over Facebook spying on users’ online activities in the name of research may further dent the company’s image.

Third, Facebook has left a lasting mark on politics. The social-networking firm has become an invaluable tool for politicians seeking office, both through paid advertisements to reach voters and free content that spreads on the social network. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a politician who’s been elected in the last ten years who didn’t use Facebook,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of “The Facebook Effect”, a history of the social network. Two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, won election in no small part thanks to Facebook. In Mr Obama’s case, Facebook helped him fundraise and drum up support. In 2016 Facebook’s role was more controversial: false news spread wildly and Russians meddled with messages on social media, which may have helped Mr Trump gain an edge.

The rise of fake news and spread of filter bubbles, where people see their pre-conceptions reinforced online, have probably disillusioned many voters. Facebook has had a hand in spreading misinformation, terrorism and ethnic violence around the world. But it has also spurred civil engagement. Black Lives Matter, a campaign against police violence, began with a Facebook post and quickly spread through the social network. Much of the grassroots opposition to Mr Trump, from the women’s marches to groups like Indivisible, use the platform to organise themselves. Many other campaigns and movements have attracted members through Facebook and Twitter. “They give ordinary people a voice. That’s a net positive for society,” says Mr Kirkpatrick.

Can the social-media giant stay as influential in the next 15 years as it has already been? At the risk of being wrong about Facebook again, that seems unlikely. This is partly because its impact has already been so extensive. But it is also because of growing unease with the platform. As with all new technologies, from the printed book to the telegraph, social media can be used both for good and bad. Critics of Facebook are increasingly vocal about the harms, pointing out that Facebook is addictive, harmful for democracy and too powerful in making decisions about what content people see. “Big tobacco” is what the bosses of several top tech companies have started calling the social network, and politicians are speaking openly about regulation.

Though it has just posted record quarterly profits, it seems unlikely that Americans are going to increase the time they spend on Facebook proper. Time on its core social network is declining, probably because users are questioning whether it is as enjoyable as it used to be. Adults in America spent 11.5% of their online time on Facebook’s main platform, a fifth less than two years earlier, according to Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research. Instagram use is rising, but not enough to make up for the core social network’s decline. As more people question whether social media are good for them, Facebook could loosen its grip on America. The relationship with Facebook continues, but the love affair is over.

Fun apart, let’s look deeper into Facebook’s 10 year challenge

If you use social media, you’ve probably noticed a trend across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter of people posting their then-and-now profile pictures, mostly from 10 years ago and this year.

Instead of joining in, I posted the following semi-sarcastic tweet

My flippant tweet began to pick up traction. My intent wasn’t to claim that the meme is inherently dangerous. But I knew the facial recognition scenario was broadly plausible and indicative of a trend that people should be aware of. It’s worth considering the depth and breadth of the personal data we share without reservations.

Of those who were critical of my thesis, many argued that the pictures were already available anyway. The most common rebuttal was: “That data is already available. Facebook’s already got all the profile pictures.”

Of course they do. In various versions of the meme, people were instructed to post their first profile picture alongside their current profile picture, or a picture from 10 years ago alongside their current profile picture. So, yes: these profile pictures exist, they’ve got upload time stamps, many people have a lot of them, and for the most part they’re publicly accessible.

But let’s play out this idea.

Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics, and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g. how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous data set with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years.

Sure, you could mine Facebook for profile pictures and look at posting dates or EXIF data. But that whole set of profile pictures could end up generating a lot of useless noise. People don’t reliably upload pictures in chronological order, and it’s not uncommon for users to post pictures of something other than themselves as a profile picture. A quick glance through my Facebook friends’ profile pictures shows a friend’s dog who just died, several cartoons, word images, abstract patterns, and more.

In other words, it would help if you had a clean, simple, helpfully-labeled set of then-and-now photos.

What’s more, for the profile pictures on Facebook, the photo posting date wouldn’t necessarily match the date that the picture was taken. Even the EXIF metadata on the photo wouldn’t always be reliable for assessing that date.

Why? People could have scanned offline photos. They might have uploaded pictures multiple times over years. Some people resort to uploading screenshots of pictures found elsewhere online. Some platforms strip EXIF data for privacy.

Through the Facebook meme, most people have been helpfully adding that context back in (e.g. “me in 2008, and me in 2018”), as well as further info, in many cases, about where and how the pic was taken (e.g. “2008 at University of Whatever, taken by Joe; 2018 visiting New City for this year’s such-and-such event”).

In other words, thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large data set of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now.

Of course, not all the dismissive comments in my Twitter mentions were about the pictures being already available; some critics noted that there was too much crap data to be usable. But data researchers and scientists know how to account for this. As with hashtags that go viral, you can generally place more trust in the validity of data earlier on in the trend or campaign— before people begin to participate ironically or attempt to hijack the hashtag for irrelevant purposes.

As for bogus pictures, image recognition algorithms are plenty sophisticated enough to pick out a human face. If you uploaded an image of a cat 10 years ago and now—as one of my friends did, adorably—that particular sample would be easy to throw out.

What’s more, even if this particular meme isn’t a case of social engineering, the past few years have been rife with examples of social games and memes designed to extract and collect data. Just think of the mass data extraction of more than 70 million American Facebook users performed by Cambridge Analytica.

Is it bad that someone could use your Facebook photos to train a facial recognition algorithm? Not necessarily; in a way, it’s inevitable. Still, the broader takeaway here is that we need to approach our interactions with technology mindful of the data we generate and how it can be used at scale. I’ll offer three plausible use cases for facial recognition: one respectable, one mundane, and one risky.

The benign scenario: facial recognition technology, specifically age progression capability, could help with finding missing kids. Last year police in New Delhi, India reported tracking down nearly 3,000 missing kids in just four days using facial recognition technology. If the kids had been missing a while, they would likely look a little different from the last known photo of them, so a reliable age progression algorithm could be genuinely helpful here.

Facial recognition’s potential is mostly mundane: age recognition is probably most useful for targeted advertising. Ad displays that incorporate cameras or sensors and can adapt their messaging for age-group demographics (as well as other visually recognizable characteristics and discernible contexts) will likely be commonplace before very long. That application isn’t very exciting, but stands to make advertising more relevant. But as that data flows downstream and becomes enmeshed with our location tracking, response and purchase behavior, and other signals, it could bring about some genuinely creepy interactions.

Like most emerging technology, there’s a chance of fraught consequences. Age progression could someday factor into insurance assessment and healthcare. For example, if you seem to be aging faster than your cohorts, perhaps you’re not a very good insurance risk. You may pay more or be denied coverage.

After Amazon introduced real-time facial recognition services in late 2016, they began selling those services to law enforcement and government agencies, such as the police departments in Orlando and Washington County, Oregon. But the technology raises major privacy concerns; the police could use the technology not only to track people who are suspected of having committed crimes, but also people who are not committing crimes, such as protestors and others whom the police deem a nuisance.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked Amazon to stop selling this service. So did a portion of Amazon’s shareholders and employees, who asked Amazon to halt the service, citing concerns for the company’s valuation and reputation.

It’s tough to overstate the fullness of how technology stands to impact humanity. The opportunity exists for us to make it better, but to do that, we also must to recognize some of the ways in which it can get worse. Once we understand the issues, it’s up to all of us to weigh in.

So is this such a big deal? Are bad things going to happen because you posted some already-public profile pictures to your wall? Is it dangerous to train facial recognition algorithms for age progression and age recognition? Not exactly.

Regardless of the origin or intent behind this meme, we must all become savvier about the data we create and share, the access we grant to it, and the implications for its use. If the context was a game that explicitly stated that it was collecting pairs of then-and-now photos for age progression research, you could choose to participate with an awareness of who was supposed to have access to the photos and for what purpose.

The broader message, removed from the specifics of any one meme or even any one social platform, is that humans are the richest data sources for most of the technology emerging in the world. We should know this, and proceed with due diligence and sophistication.

Humans are the connective link between the physical and digital worlds. Human interactions are the majority of what makes the Internet of Things interesting. Our data is the fuel that makes businesses smarter and more profitable.

We should demand that businesses treat our data with due respect, by all means. But we also need to treat our own data with respect.


Kate O’Neill is the founder of KO Insights and the author of Tech Humanist and Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces.

Over 10 Million Mobile Users hit by SIM fraud

Over 25 percent of Kenya’s 43 million mobile users have been victims of SIM swap fraud, either as targets or victims, according to a survey by Myriad Connect.

French startup Moodstocks has developed technology that helps smartphones recognize whatever they are aimed at

The survey also reveals that 90 percent of Kenyan banking leaders see SIM swap fraud as a serious threat in the sector in what is becoming one of the rising global crimes involving mobile phones.

The most recent high-profile case is where US entrepreneur Michael Terpin who is suing AT&T over an alleged SIM swap that resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency tokens being stolen from his account

While in South Africa, the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) reported recently that the incidence of SIM swap fraud has more than doubled in the past year.

“A SIM swap is when criminals manage to get a replacement SIM for a mobile number that does not belong to them, allowing the new SIM to supersede the existing one, and give criminals access to the legitimate user’s information and accounts,” says Willie Kanyeki, Myriad Connect Director Business Development – Africa.

Kanyeki adds that in addition to financial losses, SIM swap presents the risk of reputational damage and the exposure of sensitive data, and once fraudsters control a user’s accounts, “regaining control of them can be complex.”

In the past, the market’s response to the threat of digital transaction fraud has been to introduce authentication measures to protect transactions, often in the form of a one-time-password (OTP) over SMS.

Recent research among leading financial services CIOs in Kenya found that 87pc of financial services providers deploy OTP via SMS to protect transactions, and consumer research indicates that 71pc of consumers have used services that use OTP via SMS to authenticate financial service transactions.

“However, OTP via SMS has long been considered a vulnerable channel for authenticating financial services transactions, as it does not meet strict security standards,” says Kanyeki.

In 2016 the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US identified that SMS is a risk and that OTP via SMS is not fit to secure financial services as it can be vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks such as SIM swap.

The American administration’s top diplomat for African affairs, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor P Nagy, Jr, will soon… Read more »

Can Sonos beat back the tech giants?

An American maker of high-end wireless speakers battles Google and Amazon

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Hardware is hard. The electronics-industry adage applies not only to making ever more complex devices but also to selling them at a good price. Even inventive firms fail to ward off commoditisation. Will Sonos, a maker of wireless speakers that went public in August at a value of just under $1.5bn, escape this fate? It is a test case of whether smaller firms can still compete with the giants.

Founded 16 years ago in Santa Barbara, five hours’ drive south of Silicon Valley, the firm’s elegant devices have attracted a loyal following of over 7m households. Many of them still use the speakers they bought years ago and buy new ones on top (nearly two-fifths of buyers already own a Sonos). Yet their most appealing feature is neither design nor longevity, but software. Sonos was the first to make wireless speakers that are easy to set up, even across multiple rooms. And it often upgrades its products with new features over the internet.

For years Sonos had the market largely to itself, until the rise of smart speakers—wireless audio devices complete with a digital assistant that obeys voice commands. Nearly 100m of these have been sold, mostly by Amazon and Google. They are often no match for Sonos on sound quality but they do compete on service and price, says Ben Wood of ccs Insight, a market-research firm. Amazon’s Echo Dot or Google’s Home Mini start at $39.99 and $49 respectively, compared with $150 for Sonos’s cheapest speaker. And the tech giants’ products are getting better. Amazon now offers a wireless amplifier that powers conventional high-end speakers. As for Apple, its HomePod already competes directly with Sonos.

Sonos could react by selling cheaper speakers. But Amazon and Google can easily beat it at this game. They could offer their devices at or even below cost, since these are principally vehicles to spread digital assistants, which will eventually help the two firms earn more from their main e-commerce and advertising businesses. Sonos has instead opted to build on its existing strengths, says Patrick Spence, its boss.

One of these is high-end hardware. The firm has already developed devices in new forms, such as a sound bar and a television sound system. It is working with ikea, a big furniture chain, on ways to integrate speakers into its products.

But Sonos’s bigger goal is to turn its software into a platform—a “Switzerland for audio services”, in the words of Mr Spence. Its products are equipped with a direct link to 60 music-streaming services, including Deezer and Spotify. It aims to repeat the trick by incorporating digital assistants: Amazon’s Alexa is already listening; Google’s Assistant is soon to come; others could follow. The firm may even introduce its own virtual butler, which would specialise in music-related commands. Outside developers can now write programs for Sonos’s platform—connecting it to a wireless doorbell or other smart-home devices, for example.

Investors are not yet persuaded. Sonos’s shares have fallen by 13% since its listing. The competition is fierce: Amazon is particularly aggressive on price. According to Mr Wood, Sonos will need to show that it can deal with the programming complexity that comes with being a platform without being able to tap a talent pool like Silicon Valley’s. One test of success will be if it can grow at least as fast as music-streaming, which Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, predicts will expand by more than a third over the next three years.

Sonos does have one big advantage. As a pioneer of wireless speakers, it has amassed a lot of patents. Its website lists nearly 700, including ones for how music can be streamed to speakers and how these can be tuned to the acoustics of the room they are in. IEEE Spectrum, a magazine, has ranked the portfolio the second strongest in the electronics industry, behind Apple’s. Sonos has already won an infringement case against Denon Electronics, another maker of wireless speakers. It has reportedly allowed Google to use its intellectual property in return for making Assistant available on its devices. Such behaviour recalls some of the tech giants’ own tactics, using one asset to gain an edge for others. With such huge rivals closing in, Sonos is wise to copy a few of their tricks.