In the Name of “Digital Sovereignty”

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Russia’s cyber world has grown in recent years, and now has more than 80 million users, or about 60% of the population. But in the name of digital sovereignty, Russian authorities are stepping up efforts to corral it, part of a worldwide race between running online technology and the desires of law enforcement to keep tabs on all that activity. The battle lines are forming around the challenge of encryption, which companies are increasingly upgrading in the post-Edward Snowden era to satisfy the privacy concerns of customers.

Russian authorities are fighting back with a law that comes into effect in September, requiring all global Internet platforms, such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Apple to store data of Russian users on Russian servers. Furthermore, it directly warned that due to the encryption employed, Russian servers may be forced to take down entire platforms in order to block one piece of objectionable content.

The idea is that data stored on Russian servers will be protected from the prying eyes of the US National Security Agency. Experts say it may also rope off Russian cyberspace and make it easier for Russian authorities to control what their own citizens are posting and reading on the Internet. The main way Russian authorities have been doing that so far is through a complex register of banned websites that Russia-based ISP’s are required to block.

The list currently contains over 10,000 websites, mostly for content even an ardent civil libertarian might have trouble defending, such as child pornography, pro-terrorist agitation, and sites that glamorize suicide. Last week, the Russian communication supervising entity Roskomnadzor sent out warning letters to Google, Twitter, and Facebook, reminding them that they are required by Russian law to hand over data about any Russian blogger who has more than 3,000 readers daily. Any user of the services who posts items calling for “unsanctioned protests and unrest” must be blocked, and due to the companies’ use of https encryption, that could force Russian ISPs to block the entire site.

In barely three months, the new law requiring all companies that operate in Russian cyberspace to store the data of all Russian users on local servers will come into effect. Experts say the law is a sweeping declaration of “digital sovereignty,” but it’s also impossible to guess how it may be enforced. And while Russia may be using its own unique mixture of threats and ill-focused laws to try to address the encryption challenge, it is a global issue.

The NSA is Hacking Your Games

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That sounds crazy right? Even given how unscrupulous the NSA has been revealed of late, surely they aren’t using app stores to track us? Wrong. That’s exactly what they are doing.

In the latest of docs leaked by Edward Snowden, it is revealed that the NSA and the spy organizations of the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia (yes folks, the good guys) were working together to exploit the kinds of weaknesses in mobile apps which criminal hackers usually use to steal identities for their own espionage purposes. The technical details are super boring, so I won’t waste your time with them. But essentially, they were combing through popular apps to find their own exploits, then planning to use those exploits to collect data and track individuals. Mobile devices are ideally equipped to let spies track us; all they have to do is match the SIM to the individual and it’s game on.

The project was called ‘Irritant Horn’ (who comes up with these names?) and it’s not 100% clear to what extent it was fully deployed. Of course, if it was done well enough, we wouldn’t be able to tell. The agencies were particularly interested in African countries and Asia. Almost hilariously, the most popular mobile browser in China was characterized as leaking like a sieve. Leaving users open to a wide range of tracking and interception, they were even able to send fake messages from one identified user to another once those users had been infected by the spyware the actual spies were using.

Naturally, the responsible agencies are claiming ‘appropriate oversight’ and self-defense. Google, Apple and Samsung have no comment and I’m sure that this story will be buried as quickly as possible. But next time you are noodling on Candy Crush, just remember that Big Brother is watching you.

Seeing the World Change Through Time-lapse

sdf_2Time-lapse images have taken us on beautiful journeys in the past, and the best ones have likely found their way to your Facebook or Twitter feed. However, a standard time-lapse requires a photographer to park themselves in the same spot for quite some time, recording slow changes in the landscape. Needless to say, it’s a task that requires patience.

However, researchers from Google and the University of Washington found a way to sidestep that requirement, managing to create breathtaking time-lapses without leaving the comfort of their own lab – and the result is pretty awesome.

“Time-lapse mining,” as it has been called, has resulted in a sort of patchwork quilt of images taken by people all across the globe. The memories of strangers were stitched together with one another to make a whole story, resulting in an artistic and educational documentation of the ever-changing world around us.

The team analyzed 86 million photos from social sites, including Flickr and Picasa, and grouped them into landmarks. Then they sorted them by date and “warped” individual photos onto one viewpoint, retouched them a little, and created a stop-motion video showing how a particular landmark has changed over time.

The end product was more than 10,000 time-lapse sequences of 2,942 landmarks, each consisting of more than 300 images. From California to Croatia, they include some of the most photographed landscapes and landmarks in the world. They show seasonal patterns in San Francisco, building renovations in Germany and monument excavations in Cambodia – and that’s just the beginning.

Check out the amazing project:

Leaving Hell: Our Long National Samsung Nightmare is Over

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It is finished. Father, into thy hands I commend my fridge. I’ll probably get more time in the real Hell for that line, but at least our Samsung version of Hell is over. If you are a follower of my Samsung adventure, here are the final short strokes:

When I left you last, my postings about this fiasco on Twitter got me the attention of an actual human in the executive customer support team, and that’s when things came together. Instead of me having to go back to the same 1-800-SAMSUNG number and fight each day anew, I had someone on the inside who stuck with me and held my electronic hand through the next stages. Those stages weren’t without twists and turns. For example (and almost hilariously), they require that you strip the tags off the dead machine and send them a picture of the cut power cable as evidence that the machine will not be resold or go on to cause them more corporate pain. I felt a bit like a colonel in the French Foreign Legion cutting the epaulets and breaking the sword of a disgraced soldier. You are dead to me, now go!

The very nice lady at Samsung fought the good fight, got the refund processed and approved, and finally — a mere three weeks after the service tech confirmed that our stupid fridge could not be repaired — got the refund into my account. The weird thing is that my experience divided into two completely different halves: the part where, every day, I battled my way through various third world call centers, each day explaining from the start, and the half where my social media ranting got me an advocate inside the Samsung Empire who stuck with me through the rest of the process. Good job, Samsung lady.

The other weird thing is that it turns out nobody likes their fridge freezer. When I looked on Amazon for a counter depth, three-door fridge freezer scoring four stars or above, there were exactly zero to choose from. Zero. Every model has fans and every model has enough hate reviews to take the average below four stars. I don’t recall any other major product category which has these characteristics. The most common complaints are that the ice makers are horrible (as was ours), and a shockingly high number of them break catastrophically (like ours did), which leads to a prolonged fight to refund or replace. Good to see that we are not alone. But really, what is going on here guys?

Kiss the Internet Goodbye?

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I have already commented on the announcement earlier this week that Facebook has set up an index for over a billion Facebook content posts broadly categorized as news, but it prompts an interesting (and perhaps worrying) end game for us to consider. What if the web as we know it is in fact an artifact of the accidental way the web got started? What if it’s going away, and soon? Here’s why:

The web evolved as a bunch of separate web sites loosely linked together. Some of those sites got huge and became their own empires. Many are small and millions are pretty much moribund. As bandwidth availability grew and broadband speeds over cellular traffic became more common, the web developed a class system. Some sites like Google, Facebook and Amazon load super-fast all the time. In the case of Google and Facebook, the sites they link to don’t; they may be slow and clunky or not load at all if the load is too high.

That leads to a very spotty end user experience. Some links load, some don’t. Google has had their own content presented as part of search results for a good while now. It shows up as the “Knowledge Graph” to the right side of the results set for questions with a clear answer. These might be general topics, but they are often time sensitive.

For example, search for Al Capone and the knowledge graph takes you to where he is buried, among other things. If you click that link, it takes you to a results page and Knowledge Graph for Mount Carmel Cemetery. Not only can you find out about that place, but you can also find the opening hours and get directions all without leaving Google hosted pages. Now search for Red Sox. The results set gives you the basic facts: tonight’s game time and where to find tickets, all without leaving Google.

The Facebook announcement that they will be offering what amounts to a news/content search on their site means that very soon, everyone on Facebook (and for some, Facebook is most of the Internet) will be able to search and view a vast amount of content exclusively on Facebook. If I were a news publisher, I’d want to load content onto Facebook before any other place.

The third major factor is the app. Partly in response to the horribly clunky, ad-loaded and hard-to-navigate websites which make up much of the net, we now use apps for almost everything. In many cases the apps may duplicate content available on sites, but they typically load faster and are easier to navigate.

In a world where we can get most of what we need — certainly all the news and shopping we need — on Apps, Google direct or Facebook, why would we want to click away from what we know to be safe, fast-loading and easy to navigate areas to the residual, perhaps vestigial, site-based Internet? The Internet as we know it is dead; it just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

Self-Flying Drone Lily Will Provide Your Selfies

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A newly released self-flying camera drone called Lily, described as the “world’s first throw-and-shoot camera,” uses GPS and a tracking device to follow and record your every move. Remote controlled quadcopters require someone to pilot them, which is why Lily, made with sports enthusiasts in mind, can be as intuitive to direction as you program it to be. Simply toss it into the air and let it self-stabilize, and it will trail behind you, shoot from the side, or fly overhead while it captures all the action in 1080p video, or 720p up to 120 frames per second. It also has the capability to shoot 12 megapixel photos.

Lily follows a small tracking device that users can carry or wear on their hand, and it is capable of staying as close as 5 feet away for as far as 100 feet. The camera also tracks users with computer vision to make sure they are focused and in frame.

Makers of the Lily are looking to compete with action cameras like GoPro, however it can only fly up to 25mph, which means it may not be able to keep up in every situation. But this is only the first consumer iteration of Lily, and the builders have big plans for the future of robotic cameras. Lily is currently taking pre-orders at $500 and will begin shipping in February 2016.

Facebook Looking to Keep Users from Google

FacebookFacebook has been testing its own in-app search engine that will allow users to post links in a status update without having to visit Google.

Some U.S. users of the Facebook app will see an “add a link” option next to buttons to add photos or a location to a status post. A user will type in a search term and then a drop down list of links will appear. The user will be able to preview what is on that website and then share the link on the social networking site.

Typically, a user would have to search on Google (or any other search engine) or go directly to a website and copy and paste the link into. Facebook has been working on cutting out that process and keeping people inside the Facebook app for as long as possible.

Facebook has indexed one trillion posts that have been shared on users’ feeds. This will allow the in-app search engine to suggest the most shared links. This data will allow Facebook to steal a march on Google. This, coupled with advertising opportunities could worry Google, given the stiff competition for mobile ad dollars. Over 70% of Facebook’s total advertising revenue comes from mobile and the company has been working hard to keep people in the app for longer.

Another attempt by Facebook to keep its users away from search engines is news. A report in the New York Times this year suggested Facebook was in talk with news publishers to host content on the social networking site rather than linking back to the publisher’s website. The aim would be to share ad revenues.

Apple Crawling…

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Did anyone get rich by betting against Apple recently? The short answer is probably no, unless you were lucky enough to pick the short round about Christmas last year. So, if I were to suggest that Apple is planning to take on Google as a search provider, who’d give me $50 against them making that work? Any takers? Didn’t think so.

There has been a rumor circling out there for a while that Apple is going to build their own search engine. The challenge of doing that is both simpler and more difficult than it was back in the early days. It’s simpler because the processor power needed to do something that huge is much cheaper, but the scale of the task has ballooned along with the internet.

As Apple inserts themselves into more and more of our lives, it makes perfect sense that they would try to claim at least a part of the search pie. I (like many people) have Apple devices on which I mostly run Google Apps. Since mobile and wearable continue to dominate our interaction with the web and each other, it might be more convenient if we could use a decent Apple search rather than always having to divert to Google.

Apple has given us perhaps the strongest indicator yet by announcing webmaster guidelines around their web crawler or search bot. Just in case you have a life and aren’t familiar with the term, a web crawler is a program that roams over the net following links and indexing the content it finds. You can stop it from indexing all or part of your site by naming it in your robots.txt file. Apple is now telling webmasters which syntax to use to stop Applebot from indexing their sites.

Google and Bing have an enormous head start in terms of familiarity for both users and advertisers, but Apple has a massive user base to which it could immediately propagate its search. It doesn’t mean that people will use it, but if they put it on the home screen, I bet may would at least try it.

The search pundits (yes such things exist) are speculating that this is Apple only looking to build a search for Siri. But why stop there? If you are Apple, with the brand recognition and user base they have, why wouldn’t you go the whole way and jump into search full on? If they are just now announcing their bot, it won’t happen overnight. But in a year — absolutely possible.

An Update from Hell

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It turns out Samsung follows their twitter, so they found my ranting about their service. This is my reply to the nice Samsung lady who reached out and said she would love to help. Apparently, my file is going to be reviewed by Corporate and a “decision on how to proceed will be made within three business days.” Oh, goody. I can hardly wait.

 

Hi Nice Samsung Lady (whose name I won’t mention),

Many thanks for reaching out. I have been wildly disappointed by the process I have been put through by Samsung. The plot so far is set out in my Blog (http://thinkjudd.com/2015/05/01/technology/this-is-samsung-welcome-to-hell/). Subsequently, I have had several more conversations, totaling about another hour of my time wasted.

I gave up on your team being able to find your own 700 reference number to allow you to move this to the refund team. So, I called the service company myself and obtained the essential number. I then gave it to your team, but they were unable (or unwilling) to read the paperwork which I scanned and sent over (attached for your interest). I even included an enlarged scan of the receipt portion. Your team then went on to tell me, in clear terms, that they needed a copy of the till receipt. I pointed out that Home Depot doesn’t issue them; rather, they print the till details on the large sale doc in the top right corner. Surely your guys should know this?

Nonetheless, this still isn’t good enough. So, tonight on my way home, I will divert to my local Home Depot to ask for (and hopefully receive) a “purge document” (whatever that is) to convince your doubting team that I really paid for the fridge. Assuming I get that proof, I confidently expect to be delayed and annoyed by the refund process, and I expect not to receive the full amount in refund.

So far, I have amassed action numbers 412-998-9370, 511-1362-271, 511-137-1308, 413-015-8046, 511-137-7475 and finally 413-0158-046. Oh, and the vital 7001431338. You can figure at least two phone calls per number, at about 20 minutes each, so I’ve wasted about 3 hours of my time trying to resolve this.

Do you have any idea how this makes your gigantic corporation look? I run a company, and if I found this level of bureaucracy and incompetence, I would be firing people by now. The sad fact is that almost everyone I have dealt with has been pleasant and down-right nice in many cases (only Julio really got up my nose). You clearly train well, but your process is broken.

When there was any doubt that it might not be a warranty repair, you were ruthless in insisting over and over that I would have to pay for the visit and parts. When it became clear that this was entirely down to you and covered 100% by warranty, you raised delay after delay: the 700 number, the receipt, the illegible receipt, etc. At no point did you ever call me back when I lost signal on a couple of calls. You never called me back with an update or status. Every time I have to start over in the process, it’s a “Groundhog Day” of customer support. You can’t call it service.

It was not our fault that your top-of-the-line refrigerator we purchased a little over a year ago is faulty and unbelievably entirely beyond repair. Yet, your process and the hurdles you put in the way makes it feel like you think we are trying to cheat you. We obviously aren’t. This is a massive inconvenience and one still not resolved. The irony (if irony is the right word) is that last weekend, we were back at Home Depot ordering new appliances for a kitchen upgrade. This time LG got our disposable dollars.

There is still an opportunity for this to end well, or better in any event. You should, at the very least, circulate a copy of my blog and this note to your customer support management. Better yet, run a simulation. Come collect my broken fridge and put it in the home of Gregory Lee (Samsung US CEO) and have him live without a fridge freezer while your company fumbles around for three weeks.

Microsoft Can Bruise or Brighten Your Ego

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People have been having a lot of fun with Microsoft’s age-guessing website since it popped up. It may not always be accurate, but one day the tech behind it could be the bane of tweens all over the world. Check it out here. But be careful, it might just rough up your ego just a little bit. Either that, or guess younger and boost it for a while.

The technology that powers the “How Old Do I Look?” app proves that they’re well on their way to developing a system that can block underage users from playing games, watching movies, listening to music, or even browsing websites, that’s been rated beyond their years.

Windows already has some pretty terrific built-in features that parents can use to limit what their kids have access to. Family Safety lets parents do things like enforce time restrictions, block access to specified websites, and prevent app and game downloads. Roll in Microsoft’s cloud-powered age-guessing system, fire up the webcam, and you’ve got the makings of an automated content watchdog that can’t be circumvented by doing something as simple as figuring out a parent’s password. Got an Xbox One with a Kinect attached? The same system could work on it, too.

Obviously they’ll have to build in some anti-spoofing functionality, but they’ve already demonstrated that with Windows 10’s new biometric authentication system. It does a great job of distinguishing real faces from photos and videos; it’s extremely hard to fool.

Microsoft has already shown that they’re willing to take the lead when it comes to DRM and 4K video. If they’re keen on helping Hollywood prevent unauthorized use of its content, why not help ensure ratings guidelines are being adhered to? Advocates of stricter content rating systems would absolutely love to see this kind of thing be mandated.