Increasing Understanding of Technology and Communication

When is it Worth Giving up Personal Information?


Would you trade Personal Information, such as ‘when you are home’ and ‘in what rooms’, to save a few bucks on your energy bill, even if it meant sending this data to a distant tech company?  This is one of the hypotheticals laid out in a new report from Pew Research Center, which found that more than half of the 461 adults it surveyed couldn’t stomach the idea of.

But thermostats that collect data on people aren’t hypothetical.  In fact, they’re quickly becoming the standard: by 2017, market research firm Parks Associates estimates more than half of the thermostats sold in the United States will be “smart.”  One of the biggest players in this market is “Nest”, which is offered by Google with parent-company Alphabet, that make much of its revenue by tracking our behavior and selling us targeted ads.

So why the disconnect between thermostats and Americans’ distrust of the data that makes them work better?  Part of the answer may be that consumers don’t understand what they’re giving up when they pick up that shiny new device.

Lee Rainie, lead author of the report said, “Modern life is really a life of almost ceaseless transactions like this.”  These little tradeoffs happen with almost every online click, when using a smartphone, or even getting on a bus.

Often, the benefits to giving up your data are obvious: Cheaper energy bills or convenience of a swipe into a transit system.  But the potential pitfalls can be more abstract.  For example, it’s hard to tell what consequences you’ll face if a company is tracking your web browsing today.

Still, consumers show a paranoia about how their data may someday be used against them.  “There’s a very strong sense that people don’t know the details of [these deals] and that makes them unnerved,” said Rainie.

To help understand how people judge these trade-offs, Pew laid out a handful of different situations in its latest report.  Answers suggest that Americans do not view the tracking of personal data as an all-or-nothing proposal.

Car insurance companies offering discounts, just like smart thermostats, this is something that’s already happening: Firms like Progressive and Liberty Mutual have programs that ask people to give up detailed information about their driving habits in exchange for a discount.  Focus group responses to these scenarios hit respondents close to home.

“They don’t like the idea of places that used to seem very private, like their homes or their cars, being monitored.”  And because these are practices already commonplace, respondents may have already had to think through the implications.

Indeed, a recent Accenture study of 28,000 consumers in 28 counties found that security and privacy concerns are among the top reasons why people did not buy smart home and wearable products.  Nearly half of respondents, 47%, cited this concern.  Of those who would buy smart devices, nearly a quarter told Accenture that concerns about security breaches delayed their plans to do so.  And 18% said this worry prompted them to stop using smart devices altogether.

However, Pew posed a scenario that elicited a different response.  The group was asked, if someone was stealing personal belongings from your workplace, would it be ok if the company installed a camera system with facial recognition technology to catch the thief – even if the company could keep the footage and the feeds could also be used to track employee attendance and performance?  By a two-to-one margin, 54% to 24%, people said that arrangement was acceptable.

Previous Pew surveys have found that few people feel they have much control over how data collected about them is collected or used.  In this latest report, they noted that focus groups were “much more likely to speak of the darker side of personal information tradeoffs” than their benefits.

One participant said, “I really think that the next generation will not even understand the value of privacy.  Privacy will be a thing of the past.”

Read Article (Peterson & Tsukayama | | 01/14/2016)

The issue of who controls our personal data has never been more critical. And more and more people are realizing this control begins – in the palms of their own hands.

Digital literacy has also never been more critical than it is today.  But for most, gaining it is a problem by itself.  Where, who and how?  Our webinars provide a long-term solution to this issue, but first requires your support – please do so today.

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Biometric Password Risks Outweigh Benefits?


Devices can recognize you from your fingerprints, iris pattern and even your heartbeat but a stolen password can be changed, stolen fingerprints cannot. Biometric security doesn’t rely on your memory, but who you are. It swaps passwords for digital readings of anatomical features such as your face shape, fingerprint, iris, heartbeat and even brainwave patterns.

“The password system is severely broken,” says Thomas Keenan, a professor and expert in biometrics from the University of Calgary. “We’ve been relying on them for 40 years, but people now have so many and they are so complex that we can no longer remember them. You can’t forget body parts and they are much harder to duplicate or steal.”

It’s not only phones and operating systems incorporating the technology: ATMs, cars and briefcases have all been secured with fingerprint (and sometimes palm vein pattern) recognition technology. Starting January 2016, a company called “Sentinl” will start selling “Identilock” a gun-lock that will only release the trigger when the rightful owner’s finger comes in contact with it.

“Data breaches are very common. If biometric information is stored on a mass scale it can be hacked into and stolen and we may lose control of it,” warns Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

The same characteristics that make biometrics seemingly secure are what also makes them so intrusive. If passwords are stolen, we can change them. We can’t change our fingerprints or faces. History has shown that soring any kind of personal data presents a tantalizing bounty to malicious hackers – as demonstrated when the fingerprints of 5.6 million US federal employees were stolen in September.

Biometric hackers from Germany’s Chaos Computer Club bypassed Apple’s Touch ID just days after it launched by taking a photograph of a fingerprint on a glass surface and using that to create a fake finger that could unlock the phone. A year later the same group cloned the thumbprint of the German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, after photographing her hand from a distance at a press conference.

It’s not just fingerprints that can be spoofed. Some facial recognition tools can be fooled by simply holding up photos or videos of the individual. Meanwhile, a team of Spanish researchers managed to trick eye-scanners with reverse engineered fake irises.

Jennifer Lynch also said, “But the risks are outweighed by the benefits,” pointing out that the convenience of biometrics means that people who typically eschew passwords because they are too fiddly are more likely to secure their devices.

Read Article (Olivia Solon | | 12/08/2015)

Does Jennifer Lynch use biometric security? This is an innovation that’s outstanding in theory, but fades in the light of reality. I’d wait until it was spoof-proof.

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Microsoft Finally Stands up Too Hackers


For years Microsoft has been known as, amongst other things, an easy target for hackers.  Products were so infested with vulnerabilities that Bill Gates once ordered all engineers to stop writing code for a month and focus this time to fix bugs in software they had already built.

But, Microsoft seems to have cleaned up its act, they’ve even impressed security specialists like Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for F-Secure who used to cringe at Microsoft’s development practices.  Mr. Hypponen said, “They’ve changed themselves from worst in class to best in class.  The change is complete. They started talking security very seriously.”

Still, online hacking has become even more startling, such as the theft of personal data from millions of Target customers and terabytes of private emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment (both companies use Microsoft products).  Even though Microsoft hasn’t been blamed for allowing these attacks, critics insist that the tech giant should do even more to make digital systems resistant to breaches.

Soon after becoming Microsoft’s chief executive in February 2014, Satya Nadella instituted a monthly meeting with security leaders from across the company.  The meet to discuss industry trends and analyze threats.  Microsoft’s security managers are now moving into the same facility after being scattered around the company’s campus in the Seattle suburb.

There are still plenty of bugs being discovered in Microsoft’s code. But some of the fears about the security of their programs have gradually subsided.

There is no doubt that Microsoft has made preventing hackers a priority.  The latest version of their operating system, Windows 10, has a feature called Windows Hello that allows people to log into a PC with a scan of their finger, iris or face instead of using a password –weak passwords are a common cause of data breaches.

Read Article (Nick Wingfield | | 11/17/2015)

Microsoft should have addressed their coding vulnerabilities long ago, focusing for a month definitely isn’t enough. Their development process should have included a task element that addressed these issues.

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Blackphone 2 Encrypts Everything by Default


The original Blackphone was a joint venture between Silent Circle and Geeksphone in 2014, claiming first to be secure-by-design through full device encryption by default. It was, however, criticized for a lack of design focus and for not offering access to Google Play. Instead they pitched their own store selection of privacy optimized apps, which appears to have made the masses unhappy.

The message was obviously received and the Blackphone 2 was launched 28 Sept 2015 offering all functionality of the most cutting edge smartphones, without compromising on privacy and security. It’s powered by a modified version of Android Lollipop, known as Silent OS which provides full device encryption and a security center for managing privacy and security settings.

Users can fine tune their app permissions and the data apps have access too, they can also create separate secure “spaces” for sensitive business data and personal apps. The device comes with ‘Silent Phone’ –a private communication app which offers encrypted, secure voice calls, conference calling, video conferencing, secure text, and file transfers.

Also included is a ‘remote wipe’ setting, should the phone be lost or stolen this would effectively delete everything on the device. “Today our privacy is increasingly threatened by governments, businesses and individuals,” said Bill Conner, President and CEO of Silent Circle.

“In addition, the growing number of companies where employees work on their own devices in and out of the office means that it is ever more vital to build smartphones that deliver on privacy.”

Blackphone 2 has an octo-core Qualcomm processor, 3GB RAM, 32GB internal storage, removable Micro SD card, 5.5-inch Gorilla Glass display, and a 13MP camera.

Even though the device is aimed primarily at the business market, with its new added support the company hopes that its high-end security, specs and improved design will make it an attractive option for privacy-conscious consumers.

You will soon be able to purchase this device directly from the Silent Circle website for $799.

Read Article (Sophie Curtis | | 09/28/2015)

This is in fact a major step forward for all mobile device users, whether you’re concerned with privacy or not. Sooner or later invasion of privacy will affect everyone, it’s just a matter of time.

The message here is, the digital world demands we all need to be at the very least “a little tech-savvy”.

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