Tuesday, December 17, 2019

3 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Security on the Internet

I know it can feel like the only way to have any kind of security with Internet hacks and exploits these days is by going offline and heading to a cave. But there are a few relatively easy steps you can take that will make a big difference.

  1. Use a password manager. One of the worst things you can do is to use the same password over and over again. Another no no is to use passwords that are easy to guess, e.g., Password or 12345 or even something you think is clever like P@ssw0rd. I know a number of people who create good passwords and write them in a book. Okay, if that works for you. I exhausted my good passwords years ago and now suffer from password overload. One of the benefits of a password manager is that they create randomly generated secure passwords for you on demand. And they can be accessed wherever you are so you don't need to generate a new password when you're traveling and the app you need for your hotel reservations has mysteriously forgotten your password. Your trusty password book is a thousand miles away and seemingly your only option is to do a password reset and hope that all works out in a timely fashion.Of course, you will need a good strong password for your password manager - preferably a phrase you can remember.
  2. Use two factor authentication whenever possible. I know this one is a hassle. I frequently mutter unkind things under my breath when I need to log in again to LastPass (my password manager of choice), Google, Facebook, etc. Basically, if it's something that you REALLY don't want hacked, e.g., your password manager, two factor authentication is really important. Google is also very important as Gmail is a primary email for me and someone getting into that could do serious damage. Facebook is more to eliminate the worry that many have that they're getting hacked when it's an impostor. Consequently, I don't need to panic when I get those bizarre messages from friends telling me I've been hacked and to forward to everyone I know. I don't think so...
    Two factor authentication can take a number of different forms. The least secure is a text, phone or email message giving you a code you need to enter into a form as verification. The reason it's the least secure and effective is that if you're being targeted, there's a good chance the culprit trying to gain access to your accounts may have already accessed phone data and/or email. There are authenticator apps. I use one from Google. It continuously generates random number combinations. Of course, if you lose the device where the app is, or you don't have Internet access, you're out of luck. In addition there are physical devices or fobs. We have one for the state that works like my Google authenticator constantly generating random numbers. There are also fobs that act as keys. You plug them in and they unlock access to devices, apps, websites. The downside here is that you always have to have the fob with you.
  3. Keep software and firmware up to date. I know there have been some problems in the past with updates, particularly operating system updates for Windows or Mac which have made many people wary about updating software. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Some of those concerns are valid, particularly when we're talking about major features updates, e.g., from Windows 7 or 8 to 10 or one of the annual Apple Mac OS or iOS updates. It can happen that peripherals like printers need new drivers to operate and/or frequently used software or apps are not updated right away or at all and stop working. Yes, there are good reasons to wait at least a few weeks for some of the bugs to get worked out before jumping to the next shiny version.
    But one should make the leap eventually. Major releases often include major fixes for bugs and security flaws. And the more incremental periodic updates throughout the year should just be downloaded and installed automatically. These include patches to serious security vulnerabilities. You don't want to wait on these.
    Microsoft saves up most of their updates for a monthly "Patch Tuesday". This is generally on the second Tuesday of the month. This is when Microsoft rolls out updates for Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, etc. It is not a features update that one needs to be concerned about but rather important security updates and tested bug fixes. But you should also note that if the security update is important enough, Microsoft won't wait until the second Tuesday but will release it as soon as it becomes available.
    Automatic updates are the easiest way to make sure that your devices have the latest security and bug fixes for your computer, phone, tablet.
    But you may very well have other Internet connected devices that also need security and bug fixes. Your router is an important and vulnerable piece of hardware that is frequently overlooked. Be sure to change the default password and keep router firmware up to date. In fact, just about every IoT (Internet of Things) device is also subject to the threat of hacking and misuse: smart plugs, smart bulbs, smart TVs, smart thermostats, streaming devices (Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV), video doorbells (Ring, Nest), baby monitors, home security systems, voice assistant/speakers (Amazon Echo, Google Nest/Home, Apple Homepod), smart appliances (refrigerators, microwaves, crockpots controlled by apps via the Internet). Often times, brand names will update automatically. Or you can go into the app or visit the product website to download and install updates. Unfortunately, many of the bargain brands won't ever offer updates. Beware of those. As in many other situations, you get what you pay for.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Evaluating Tech Gifts

Are you looking for some assistance in determining whether or not a particular tech device might be an appropriate gift this holiday season? I'd like to recommend a couple of websites that can provide useful information for your decision making process.

Wirecutter https://thewirecutter.com/

Wirecutter is from the New York Times and provides reviews of a wide variety of items. They're also known for evaluating deals and recommending best deals on big shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Mozilla *Privacy Not Included https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/privacynotincluded/

Mozilla, the people who brought us Firefox also bring us a website evaluating some of the latest tech devices in terms of privacy. The ratings range from Not creepy! to Super creepy! They rate in terms of what they deem Minimum Security Standards - Five basic steps every company should take to protect consumer privacy.

  • Encryption
  • Security updates
  • Strong password
  • Manages vulnerabilities
  • Privacy policy
As you might surmise, products rated Not creepy! pass these five standards. As they climb the creepy scale, you'll see where they come up short according to Mozilla's evaluation process. Good to be aware of. And even if you aren't concerned about privacy, you may want to keep in mind your potential gift recipient.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Advances in Accessibility

Both Google and Apple have had their developers' conferences for the year where they unveiled all kinds of new features. What stood out to me, in particular, however, were the advances in accessibility.

Let's start with Apple. This article from Tech Crunch goes into a lot of detail about the various accessibility advances coming up in Apple's various operating systems to be updated this fall: Apple’s global accessibility head on the company’s new features for iOS 13 and macOS Catalina.

Voice control is the first big advance discussed at the keynote. It purports to allow seamless movements between navigating, using apps and creating and sending content. The video shown at the keynote makes it all look quite usable.

And to learn more about other existing accessibility features in Apple software and devices, check out this article from iMore: Apple: Accessibility is a Human Right.

This CNET video from YouTube gives a good summary of Google's recent announcements at its annual I/O conference. The first part covers mostly accessibility features including text to speech using a phone's camera, AI assisted voice control, live captioning, etc.

Of course one of the downsides to Apple's offerings is that they're limited to Apple devices: iPhones, iPads, Macs, etc. As these devices tend to be more expensive, that can limit their reach. Google makes apps available on multiple platforms and the Android operating system runs on a wide variety of devices ranging from very cheap to high end. The problem is that Android Q may never run on most of the devices currently on the market. And, for now, some of the features are limited to Google's own Pixel devices.

Another major player in the accessibility arena is Microsoft. They produce apps like Seeing AI which is available for iOS (not yet for Android) and allows a user to point the device's camera at text and have it read aloud. It also attempts to identify objects in photos. When I tested it, it identified a red flower and my dog with a toy in his mouth as a brown dog with a frisbee - close enough. But when I asked it to identify a mountain range, it could only identify the clouds. It seems to default to grey a lot with colors and wanted to make my dog green. It was spot on with currency and identifying products by their barcode.

There's an entire section on the Microsoft website devoted to Accessibility In addition, they have a YouTube channel devoted to Accessibility Training called MSFTEnable which includes a number of training videos exploring how to use many of their accessibility features.

There is progress being made and tools we can all use to make our websites, trainings and resources more accessible to everyone.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Testing Voice Assistants 2019

In Facebook memories today, I was reminded of a fun little test I ran 3 years ago comparing the responses of various voice assistants to some possible Valentine's Day queries and interactions. Here were the initial results:

Fun with AI on Valentine's Day: Pt. 2
1) What's a good gift for my boyfriend for Valentine's Day?
Alexa: no response
Siri and Google: list of websites with gift suggestions for guys on Valentine's Day.
2) Where's a good place for dinner on Valentine's Day?
Alexa: no response
Google: lists of websites with recommended restaurants for Valentine's Day in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, NYC, etc.
Siri: list of 12 restaurants in Billings with reviews on Yelp.
I'd have to say it's a tie between Siri and Google. Siri nailed the local and provided recommended restaurants within a mile of my location. But not all fit with the Valentine's Day theme. I wouldn't pick Pug Mahon's for a romantic dinner. It's not open today. 😉🍺
Google picked up on the romantic theme. If I were a Google exec with a private jet, I'd have a world of possibilities.

And here are the results from 2019:

Happy Valentine's Day
Alexa: Ah, that's sweeter than a box of chocolates. Happy Valentine's Day to you, too.
Google Assistant: Happy Valentine’s Day! If you want to say “I love you” to someone special, you can try saying it in Mandarin. It’s pronounced "wo ai ni" 💗
Siri: Happy Valentine's Day
Cortana: Happy Valentine's Day to you!

What's a good gift for Valentine's Day?
Alexa: Hmm, I don't know that.
Google Assistant: List of websites with gift ideas for Valentine's Day but also included some suggestions for possible search refinements, e.g., What do you get guys for Valentine's Day?
Siri: List of websites with gift ideas for Valentine's Day (those at the top for women. Apparently more people search the web for gifts for women than for men).
Cortana: I'm sorry I can't help out with that one, but I found this on the web. List of websites with one for her followed by one for him. Very egalitarian. 😄

Where should I have dinner on Valentine's Day?
Alexa on Echo Show: 10 Creative Valentine's Day Date Ideas video from USA Today
Google Assistant: Listed 3 nice restaurants within 6 miles.
Siri: List of 5 restaurants within one mile. One was fast food and another, Pug Mahon, was recently closed. 
Cortana: I'm sorry I can't help out with that one, but I found this on the web. List of websites mostly with recipes and a couple with reasons why you should never go out for dinner on Valentine's Day. I guess it answered the question.

Will you be my Valentine?
Alexa: That's sweet to ask but I already have a strong connection to your WiFi.
Google Assistant: I found a few places within 0.8 miles (??)
Siri: I don't have an answer for that
Cortana: Of course I can be your virtual Valentine. Would you like me to sing a love song to celebrate? 
(And goes on to sing, yes sing!)
Red is the rose in yonder garden grows, and fair is the lily of the valley, clear is the water that flows from the Boyne, but my love is fairer than any.

Conclusion: Google Assistant is probably the most efficient at answering questions and providing the kind of information one is looking for but it's lacking in fun.
Alexa is fun to interact with but results differ depending on whether you're interacting with just the voice assistant via Echo or a visual interface on an Echo Show or Spot. I think you'll often get more useful results with a visual interface.
Siri continues to be an also ran. The choice of genders and nationalities offers some personality but it continues to lack the ability to meet what I would consider basic expectations from a voice assistant.
I'd never used Cortana before and was surprised by both the natural voice and quality of responses. But singing a love song verged on creepy to my mind. Flashbacks to "Her".

One additional note: I tested Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana all on an iPad. So, while it is disappointing at first glance that Apple's entry into the AI/voice assistant race is rather lackluster, iOS users do have other options through apps. You can also access Alexa through an iOS app. I'm assuming most of these, aside from Siri, are also available to Android users through the Google Playstore.