These are articles of general interest, usually about technology...

Does your home have the right to remain silent?

As a followup to my post from a few years ago about your computer’s information being used against you, (Does Your Computer...) there is now a case about the house itself. This stems from a murder case in Arkansas, as cited by Billy Steele on Engadget (https://www.engadget.com/2016/12/27/amazon-echo-audio-data-murder-case/). The police are looking at several pieces of information that the house itself, or rather the smart devices of the house, recorded. One piece of information is the water usage of the house. The home’s smart water meter shows 140 gallons used between 1:00 and 3:00 AM, which police suspect was used to clean the crime scene. Of larger interest is the Amazon Echo that was in the home.

Devices such as the Amazon Echo, and Google Home, are always listening to the sound in the home. They are supposed to respond only when a "Wake Word" is used. In the case of the Echo, this word is "Alexa", at which point it starts recording, and responding to the words that follow. This raises a few questions. What happens to the words that preceed, and follow the wake command. Are they stored anywhere? Can someone hack in and listen? For what is recorded, where is it stored and who stores it? Can such information be deleted? (Such as any file can be deleted.) Is such information obtainable by law enforcement? Something else to remember is that these devices may on occassion misunderstand what is being said and turn on accidentally, thereby recording unintended sounds.

In the case of the Echo, it records all sounds after the wake word, and saves a copy to Amazon's servers. The owner of the device has the option of reviewing and deleting the recorded records, but how many people will think about doing this, and how often?

The police have obtained a warrant for Amazon to release any recordings made by the Echo device. So far, Amazon has resisted that aspect of the order, but has complied with other portions including providing access to the account. It is not known if the Echo did record any portion of the suspected murder. Although it is not supposed to make any recordings unless directed, these type of devices do get tripped accidentally on occasion, causing an unintended recording of events. This in most likely what the police are hoping to find.

Yet another question might be raised which is that of jurisdiction shopping: Which court should issue the search warrnat? Generally, the location of the data storage will be in a different jurisdiction than the device and yet another jurisdiction for the home offices of the device's manufacturer, and possibly another for the sub office of the division that created and/or manages the device.  If a law enforcement person can't get a warrant in one location, will they be permitted to try other locations?

The question, once again, is, can devices owned by a suspect, particularly in the privacy of their own home, be used against them in court? Can technology that improves our lives, be used against us without our permission?

[This article was updated 2017, January 5 to include the section about jurisdictions.]

What the Web Knows - - - About You

People are trusting more of their lives to the web. Phones capture memories, send communications, and locate were we are. Sites record our questions and answers, either for a select few or for the world. And some of the giants of the web know what we purchase, read and watch. How long until it starts making predictions about what we want?

That's actually been here for a while. Some services, like Apple's Siri, help with daily tasks and will even try to anticipate what we want. Texting has predictive writing down quite well. One example of how far this technology has reached is crystalknows.com. I haven't used the site myself as it's currently in an invite only beta, but there have been a few articles such as Kyle Vanhemert's on wired (http://www.wired.com/2015/04/write-perfect-email-anyone-creepy-site/). They also have a few examples of its usage posted so you can see how it will work.

What this site will do is take an email you've written, research the person you're sending it to and determine the proper writing style to use for that person. It does this by looking at all sorts of written communications that person has written, and how they've responded to others. CrystalKnows has broken down human written responses to a mathematical algorithm to help generate written correspondence that will fit your recipient's personality.

CrystalKnows is not the only one, but if they open to the general public, it could well be one of the most comprehensive sites for gathering personal information, because not only will it know what's publicly available, but also what is being sent privately as in the contents of the emails. Their privacy policy is short, and a bit open. It doesn't appear to discuss what is really done with certain private data they collect except that it will “never be displayed to any other Crystal user unless...” So other than not showing it to somebody else, what do they do with it?


Short Term Attention?

One problem that seems to be on the rise, and not just in the classroom, is that of short attention spans. Just look at the news cycles and how much people remember of important stories. I'm thinking about this because of John Oliver's broadcast of April  5th. He had an extended broadcast and interviewed Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who made off with piles of collected data on the various programs the U.S. government uses to track data.

After his usual non-serious questions, he did get down to serious questions, for awhile. His 'random' interviews on the streets of New York would tend to indicate that people either hadn't paid attention to what Snowden had done, or had forgotten in the roughly two years since he ran from the United States. Oliver did two things that I hadn't seen other journalists do with Snowden: 1) Oliver stopped Snowden pretty much cold when the technical issues started to get in the way of the topic. Many people don't care and/or understand the technical side of the issue.  Think about cars: how many people today could repair their own vehicle? They know how to operate it, and don't really care how it works, as long as it does. 2) Oliver picked a topic that hits home to a number of people, and even if it doesn't, it's something that they can potentially relate to: personal photos meant for their partner. This, people can relate to without much thought. Talking about texts, phone calls, web searches doesn't seem to matter, but their private pics, do matter. But does it?

In an experiment a group of college students agreed to have their cell phone metadata monitored for a week. At the end of that time the researchers were able to tell the people pretty much everything they did, where they went, and in some cases what their medical problems they were having. This from the same data that's collected by the NSA.

What is more important to you?

Shouldn't you remember?

If you missed it, and want to see how it was handled, search YouTube for: Oliver Snowden


 

 

The Internet of Things

Home automation is starting to come of age. Years ago, back in 1975, BSR's X-10 was one of the first to create home automation modules. These communicated to a central controller to manage lights, and other items that could plug into outlets. It was basic, but convenient. Later they added modules to allow control by telephone, and eventually some computer interfaces. I'm in the process of replacing one at my cabin.

Fast forward to 2015. Forty years later, X-10 is still around but being replaced by other systems. Not content for a central module, these newer systems connect to phones, tablets, and such over web interfaces or specialized apps. They also include things like thermostats, water sensors, and even video cameras. These specialized controllers aren't the only devices connecting to the web. Samsung has a television set that can watch and listen to you for commands. Washers and dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, coffee makers and even light bulbs can now be found with internet connectivity. What does this mean for our privacy?

When the devices monitor us, as the Nest thermostat does for room occupancy, or listens to us as the Samsung television or the Amazon Echo, where is your privacy? Samsung has come under fire for having a vague privacy terms on the television. What will these companies do with the information that these devices can gather? Amazon came under scrutiny with their Fire Phone: it has the capability in addition to what other smart phones track such as location, web, and calls, but also had the ability to listen to the surroundings and capture images of its environment.

With any web enabled device, privacy is a question to remember. Who collects the data. Who stores the data. What is done with the data. And even when those questions are answered, there is always the question of who else is listening? Even more so with revelations by Snowden of the NSA.


 

Digital Distractions, and a Request

I'm old enough that my school days didn't really involve portable electronics. We had transistor radios, and some other devices, but they weren't as small, portable, and flexible as todays devices since most were single trick devices like a radio.

Today, many students carry a cell phone that has many times the memory and processing power than the computed that guided the Apollo missions to the moon. These devices are small, portable, can perform many tasks, and enable fast communication. All of these abilities are a benefit. And a liability. Certain functions can be used beneficially in a class. But all too often the usage is for entertainment. This year in particular it seems in my classes that there are even more students attempting to watch videos, listen to music, or browse the web on their personal devices. When they're disturbing themselves, this is one issue. Another issue is the texting, and other communication services. When a text is sent to another student, now the distraction is often spread to other rooms. I'll only mention the possibility of cheating on tests. I have encountered texts, and even a phone call from a parent during class time. Students who are use to checking their devices often feel compelled to respond. One time, a student was being insistent on leaving to meet his parent for an on campus meeting because of a text that the parent was just a few blocks away, (I'll just point out that texting while driving is not a great habit,) but I held him in my room. As it turned out, when the summons eventually arrived, the meeting location had been changed. Without the summons, the student would have been waiting in the wrong location. I don't know if the parent had previously been told the planned meeting location.

My request is simple: please don't text, or call, your students during the school day. Let them have the school time to concentrate on their studies, and in between classes they can socialize. For generations, when children were at school, they survived, and so did the parents, without the devices. Also, ask, or tell, your students not to use their devices during class unless it is required, and permitted for a class assignment. There are many factors that effect a student's concentration, and eventual grade. Let's try to limit the distractions from at least one area.

The Best Laid Plans...

This month, it's not so much technology as adaptability. As some of you are aware, I'm taking some tech classes as CSU Northridge. Just to give you, and my students a peek at college, here are some recent stories:

  • It's due when? - On September 16th when the first class started for the evening, the teacher (a doctoral candidate at the campus) asked us to tell our neighbour when the proposal draft was due. Both of us, as well as our neighbours, all thought Thanksgiving week. After a few minutes we were informed that the due date was changed to September 24th.

    Read more: The Best Laid Plans...

Keeping Copies

For some reason, I hold on to records. I keep receipts, documents, etc. This has come in handy over the years for backing up warranty claims, and once in a law suit. (Some receipts I had saved help to prove that I couldn't have been at a meeting in a different city as an ex business partner was claiming.) Needless to say, this takes space. About seven years ago I started digitizing all the documents I had, and disposing of most. (I keep the originals of various legal documents.)

How do you deal with the digital files? The traditional term is backing up. Basically it's making a copy of the files, or the device so if something happens, (drives do crash,) you still have a copy. Long ago I learned that a backup not tested, is not a backup. I had the recommended three generations of backup when my system crashed. It turned out that none of the backups were useful. I then resorted to an expensive recovery program that got my data back. I then went looking for another solution.

My answer was a bit of a hybrid: I keep copies of critical files on an encrypted cloud service. I perform full disk archiving using an open source application to a local external hard drive. Finally, I also use a full cloud backup service. With this combination, I can get critical files quickly, and if something massively goes wrong, I have two potential sources to restore from: The cloud system providing the filler in between other backups if they're available, the full compliment of files if not.

I'll admit that I didn't follow this with my website in part because it's a different situation: Downloading large files is a problem and the hosting services are professionals. This past summer I got burned: the hosting service I was using had a massive drive failure. Three times in two weeks. They were able to restore only about 40% on my site. The main saving feature was that I had the original documents to rebuild from. (I rarely enter material directly into the site, but create it locally and then upload to the site, keeping the original material.) This meant that I was able to rebuild the critical portion of my site, but it took a lot of time. I've also researched how I can reasonably perform my own backups so I'm not dependent upon someone else.

The key here is not just to make the copies, but make sure that the copies can be used. As with my site crash, they had the copies. They just weren't usable.

 


 

The XPocalypse is Nigh

A short history and future of Windows XP

August 24, 2001 - Microsoft released its new operating system: Windows XP. It is a major departure in operating system architecture, and changes the way that hardware and software interact.

October 8, 2013 - Microsoft releases the last bug patch for XP. From this point forward, no fixes will be made for newly discovered problems – however security fixes will still be offered for a limited time..

April 8, 2014 – The last security fix will be released. From this point forward, it will be “Zero Day Forever”.

Hopefully, you're not running Windows XP, but if you're have one of the more than 500,000,000 that still uses XP, your time is almost up. For about a month now, Microsoft hasn't issued any patches for problems and won't be, even if the problems were caused by a security update.

Read more: The XPocalypse is Nigh

Education For the Sake of Survival... (and some vague history)

This month's article is not directly tech related, but is rather something on my mind. We are living in interesting times. History is changing. Jobs are changing. Education is changing. All driven by changes in technology.

Advancements have always driven changes in society. Farming helped create communities. Trade helped build cities. Industry made people dependent upon skills unrelated to finding or raising their own food. At one point in history, people often learned a trade, whether it was farming, blacksmithing, or baking, from their parents. Sometimes, children were given over to a tradesman who trained the child in exchange for their labour. When mechanized industry started to be developed, it was the factories that often trained people for a particular job, often one that wasn't useful outside the factory. Schools started to become common to teach children the basics of reading and math. The minimum needed for function in society. 

Read more: Education For the Sake of Survival... (and some vague history)

What Gets Left Behind (Part 1 – Things)

My wife and I have decided that it's time to replace her car: after a fair number of years and miles, it's just time. We tend to be careful on things so we started going through the car since it has a fair number of places to hide and store things other than the two glove boxes. I went to check under the driver's seat (where we normally keep a flash light) and came across the DVD drive for the GPS unit. This reminded me that there was more to clean up other than checking for items: there was data to clean up also. The GPS unit on her car is programmed with out house and various other common places we go. So this needs to be cleaned out. The Bluetooth connection for the phone needs to be deleted, the garage door control reset, and for her car, that's about it. The new car will have a lot more to do when its time comes. In addition to the GPS, garage door control and Bluetooth connection, there will be items such as security codes on the doors, route history and safety settings, and one item that's really important, delete the music and contact list. (This vehicle will import your audio media, and phone's contact list upon pairing with you phone. What about other things that you occasionally replace? 

Read more: What Gets Left Behind (Part 1 – Things)

High Tech Dead Sea Scrolls

Over the last 60 years or so, we've been creating data at an ever at an ever faster rate. But can it still be read? For an example, in the last 20 years there have been many word processors. Which of the following do you recognize? Electric Pencil? Word Pro? WordStar? Typset? Poly Edit? These are just a few of about 80 word processors that were once common. If you found a file from one of these, could you read it?

Read more: High Tech Dead Sea Scrolls

Who Owns Your Content?

Recently several companies have been making a push to various “cloud” solutions. These offerings tend to vary in detail: Intuit is offering an online version of Quickbooks that can be accessed from any internet connected computer. Adobe is now offering their Creative Cloud and has gone so far as stating that when the currently released suite of applications has run its course, permanent licenses will no longer be available. In Adobe's case, the software resides on your computer, but continuous updates are offered.

Read more: Who Owns Your Content?

Does Your Computer Have the Right to Remain Silent?

First a disclaimer: I'm not an attorney.

Under our Constitution, people have the right to remain silent and cannot be forced to make statements against themselves. Does this concept extend to their property? The short answer is no. If, for example, you have something that is evidence in a safe deposit box, a court could order your physical action to unlock the box as the action in this case is not evidence. Absent your cooperation, they could force it open. Either way, opening the box is a physical act and not testimony. What if what they want is information on your computer's drive which is encrypted?

Read more: Does Your Computer Have the Right to Remain Silent?

The Art of Staying Up To Date

Change is the only constant. Or so reads one of the translations of Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 BCE - 475 BCE). Everybody I have known in the last few decades has grown up with change. Autos constantly evolve, clothing changes seasonally and annually, and technology changes more often than we think about. 

Silence is Productive?

First the cell phone, then the smart phone. How connected are you? Thirty years ago I had a boss who was debating getting a mobile phone for her car. The debate she was having was would the ability to talk to people on her commute, disrupt her quiet thinking time? Eventually, she moved closer to work, and got the phone, so the loss of the quiet time wasn't an issue.

Read more: Silence is Productive?