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Amazon Sidewalk unveils more privacy issues (insert surprise here)

(TECH NEWS) Amazon is enabling the Sidewalk option on home devices, which is alarming from a privacy perspective under the guise of strengthening your home network.

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Amazon Sidewalk promotional image with key, dog, and phone in flat illustration style.

Alexa has become a staple of daily life for numerous people. As a digital assistant, Alexa’s worth is measured entirely by how often one would access the service, and can become invaluable in a number of situations. Voice commands are easy to issue and intuitively understand. I appreciate the ease the technology provides, as it can help shrink the gap between the less savvy users while still empowering them to embrace an increasingly digital world.

The concept of an always-on and potentially always-listening device has raised privacy concerns for a while now, and this has been magnified by the pandemic due to an increase of employees across the nation who work from home permanently. While the general idea is that Alexa doesn’t trigger an action or carry out a command without the wake word, it has been found to react to similar sounding words and phrases. For fun, South Park intentionally tried to interact with the devices during an episode to draw attention to the uneasy idea of everything being heard and transmitted to Amazon.

I could continue with numerous other instances – advocates questioning whether or not Alexa violates the privacy of children, eavesdropping on confidential information, and others if need be.

Most consumers are somewhat aware of this idea; after all, it’s easy to understand that the devices are designed to work at all times and act upon commands. There may not be complete comprehension with respect to personal data, but the general concept remains – the trade of convenience and privacy so that life can be made marginally less hectic through the use of miraculous and omnipresent systems that help guide our lives.

In short: Some people just really like to know the weather, or have a running grocery list, or instantly play music without breaking out of their current routine. Admittedly, it is an easy sell in a lot of regards.

Amazon, however, has brought forth another option that privacy advocates find troubling – the automatic execution of their Sidewalk service. Simply put, it takes Amazon connected devices – the Echo smart speaker, Ring Spotlight Cam, and/or Ring Floodlight Cam – and bridges them together to form a mesh-like network over Bluetooth or 900Mhz radio signals. The idea is appealing – it provides better connectivity to other smart devices, which can result in more stable connectivity and fewer dead zones across a home.

In theory, this is fantastic – users can now think of their devices as all sharing a unified network and wireless ecosystem that will help lower the chance of dropped signals, and allow them to speak commands from further away and better guarantee their action is executed. Even better (with a big asterisk, explained below), it can connect with devices in a neighbor’s home, building a network that stretches across multiple houses.

And so once again, this idea – in theory – is fantastic. However, there are a number of caveats and concerns that must be explored.

First, Amazon is choosing to turn this on automatically across the devices. Let’s set aside the idea that this shows a corporation making choices and decisions for their consumers (even though that alone should be a huge red flag) – the issue here is that Amazon is enabling a service by default, and requires someone to opt-out. This means that numerous users will not know it is on; perhaps they missed the announcement email, or don’t understand the ramifications, or otherwise feel unsure or unsafe in making changes to their devices.

It’s clear that Amazon knew a backlash would come from this, as they prepared a lengthy whitepaper detailing their commitment to privacy even with the Sidewalk service enabled. But advocates are rightfully upset in the face of Amazon’s handling of private information in the past and accusations of potential spying, and should question whether or not this is an attempt to become further entrenched in the homes of consumers.

The rollout – which was planned by the end of the year in the United States – appears to be live already (albeit sporadically). Users at Reddit are have found it enabled, and have pushed for others to turn it off immediately in the name of security and privacy. As such, despite Amazon’s insistence that this service is still in a planning phase, it has been stealthily deployed.

Another problem is that the service is designed to utilize a small bit of each owner’s bandwidth in order to run successfully. This means that neighbors could leach off each other, potentially directing traffic through someone else’s connection. In an age where service providers are planning to impose data caps and charge users for going over their allotment, this could potentially mean costs increasing despite no change in behavior. Also, who knows what your neighbors are searching for?

In the past – prior to wireless networks being the norm – it was common for hackers to participate in “wardriving,” which meant they would drive around and find open networks. While this could have been innocent in nature, it opened up the possibility of stolen data, slowed connectivity, and other issues. Amazon’s Sidewalk service essentially renews this kind of behavior and makes it the default choice for device owners.

Amazon has plans to introduce this service in other nations as well, and has already seen upset users lashing out on Twitter and in other spaces.

Perhaps most alarmingly is the idea that there is a distinct possibility that Amazon is preying upon the average user to simply not care enough to want to make this change, or perhaps ignore it outright. In turn, if they see adoption at a high percentage, it might only encourage further, similar actions. This is kind of a slippery slope argument, but it’s not uncommon for others to follow suit if there is money to be made.

The idea that a huge corporation can make such a change and essentially get by with “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” while also dangling flashy, shiny baubles (in the form of “convenient features”) should absolutely cause users some level of stress and concern.

Privacy advocates continue to actively fight such things, and users should absolutely consider whether or not they want to freely give away the control of their devices and the protection of their personal data.

Lastly, If you’d like to check and/or turn Amazon Sidewalk off (and I personally suggest you do), please do the following:

  1. Open Alexa App.
  2. Go to Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk
  3. Turn it off

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

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This tool is your ‘hack’ to a simultaneous live stream across platforms

(TECH NEWS) Ever wondered how companies host a live stream simultaneously across multiple social media platforms? Restream is your trick to doing the same.

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Man in front a red smartphone on a stand, setting up for a live stream.

Distributing live content on various platforms helps build your brand presence and grow your audience. But, how do you get that broadcast to live stream to several platforms simultaneously? And, how are other content creators doing it?

Well, the answer to both of these questions is — Restream Studio.

With this tool, you can stream live video to over 30 platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, all at once.

You can also be the host of your own show and invite guests to join your live streams. And, even increase your brand awareness by slapping your logo on your live video.

So, how does Restream work?
First, you register on the website and connect your platform accounts. When you’re ready to stream, add two or more social media channels to your Restream Dashboard. Then, press start on your stream. You can stream using your webcam from a browser or your choice of streaming software, such as OBS Studio, SLOBS, Elgato, XSplit.

Now, ta-da! Your single stream is available on multiple platforms.

Cross-Platform Chat
Restream removes the hassle of switching between platforms to read and reply to messages. Comments from different platforms are available on a single screen, and you can differentiate between each one by the social icon logo attached to each message.

Also, you can display a chat feed on your live stream by using the Chat Overlay feature. This chat box is displayed on top of your video and makes for a much more engaging stream because everyone can take part in the conversation. And, if you want to give your chat box a little more edge, you can customize its look by using one of Restream’s 20+ ready-to-use templates.

Oh, and you don’t have to worry about any potty mouths! Offensive words can be masked out and nasty messages can be hidden from view.

Analyze Stream Performance
You don’t know how well your content is performing unless you analyze it. To measure your success, Restream places all your multiple platform insights on a single interactive dashboard.

The tool takes a look at these six metrics: streams, average duration, streamed time, chat messages, average viewers, and max viewers. In the dashboard, you can see an overview for each metric, but you can click on each one to see further detailed information.

To Restream or not to Restream?
Live streaming has come a long way since the radio broadcasts of the 1990s, and expensive and clunky equipment isn’t your only option now. There are easier and more cost-effective solutions to live stream across multiple platforms like Restream Studio.

So, if you’d like to give Restream a try, you can sign up for a 1-month free trial to get access to all their features. After your trial is over, you can still use Restream for free. The company offers a free plan that gives you access to stream to 30+ platforms using 1 channel per social platform.

If you want to continue using all the features you can upgrade your plan by purchasing a monthly or yearly subscription. With a paid plan, you’ll have access to features that give you the ability to add extra social channels, let you record streams, and remove Restream branding.

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Tech News

Chatbots: Are they still useful, or ready to be retired?

(TECH NEWS) Chatbots have proven themselves to be equally problematic as they are helpful – is it time to let them go the way of the floppy disk?

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Man texting chatbots leaning against a brick wall.

All chatbots must die. I’d like to say it was fun while it lasted, but was it really?

I understand the appeal, truly. It’s a well established 21st century business mantra for all the side hustlers and serial entrepreneurs out there: “Automation is the key to scaling.” If we can save time, labor, and therefore money by automating systems, that means we have more time to build our brands and sell our goods and services.

Automation makes sense in many ways, but not all automation tools were created equal. While many tools for automation are extremely effective and useful, chatbots have been problematic from the start. Tools for email marketing, social media, internal team communication, and project management are a few examples of automation that have helped many a startup or other small business kick things into high gear quickly, so that they can spend time wooing clients and raising capital. They definitely have their place in the world of business.

However promising or intriguing chatbots seemed when they were shiny and new, they have lost their luster. If we have seen any life lesson in 2020, it is that humans are uniquely adept at finding ways to make a mess of things.

The artificial intelligence of most chatbots has to be loaded, over time, into the system, by humans. We try to come up with every possible customer-business interaction to respond to with the aim of being helpful. However, language is dynamic, interactive, with near infinite combinations, not to mention dialects, misspellings, and slang.

It would take an unrealistic amount of time to be able to program a chatbot to compute, much less reply to, all possible interactions. If you don’t believe me, consider your voice-activated phone bot or autocorrect spelling. It doesn’t take a whole lot to run those trains off the rails, at least temporarily. There will always be someone trying to confuse the bots, to get a terse, funny, or nonsensical answer, too.

Chatbots can work well when you are asking straightforward questions about a single topic. Even then, they can fall short. A report by AI Multiple showed that some chatbots were manipulated into expressing agreement with racist, violent, or unpatriotic (to China, where they were created) ideas. Others, like CNN and WSJ, had problems helping people unsubscribe from their messages.

Funny, shocking, or simply unhelpful answers abound in the world of chatbot fails. People are bound to make it messy, either accidentally or on purpose.

In general, it feels like the time has come to put chatbots out to pasture. Here are some helpful questions from azumbrunnen.me to help you decide when it’s worth keeping yours.

  1. Is the case simple enough to work on chatbot? Chatbots are good with direct and short statements and requests, generally. However, considering that Comcast’s research shows at least 1,700 ways to say “I want to pay my bill,” according to Netomi, the definition of “simple enough” is not so simple.
  2. Is your Natural Language Processor capable and sophisticated enough? Pre-scripted chatbots are often the ones to fail more quickly than chatbots built with an NLP. It will take a solid NLP to deal with the intricacies of conversational human language.
  3. Are your users in chat based environments? If so, then it could be useful, as you are meeting your customers where they are. Otherwise, if chatbots pop up whenever someone visits your website or Facebook page, it can really stress them out or turn them off.

I personally treat most chatbots like moles in a digital whack-a-mole game. The race is on to close every popup as quickly as possible, including chatbots. I understand that from time to time, in certain, clearly defined and specific scenarios, having a chatbot field the first few questions can help direct the customer to the correct person to resolve their problems or direct them to FAQs.

They are difficult to program within the expansiveness of the human mind and human language, though, and a lot of people find them terribly annoying. It’s time to move on.

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Tech News

Get all your digital organization in one place with Routine

(TECH NEWS) Routine makes note-taking and task-creating a lot easier by merging all your common processes into one productivity tool.

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A desk with a laptop, notepad, smartphone, and cup of coffee settled into an organized routine.

Your inbox can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. Without organization, important emails with tasks, notes, and meetings can become a trash pile pretty quickly. Luckily, there are a lot of tools that aim to help you improve your efficiency, and the latest to add to that list is Routine.

Routine is a productivity app that combines your tasks, notes, and calendar into one easy-to-use app so you can increase your performance. Instead of having to switch between different apps to jot down important information, create to-do lists, and glance at your calendar, Routine marries them all into one cool productivity tool. By simply using a keyboard shortcut, you can do all these things.

If you receive an email that contains an actionable item, you can convert that email into a task you can view later. Tasks are all saved in your inbox, and you can even schedule a task for a specific day. So, if Obi-Wan wants to have Jedi lessons on Thursday, you can schedule your Force task for that day. Likewise, chat messages that need follow-up can also be converted into tasks and be scheduled.

To enrich your tasks, notes can be attached to them. In your notes, you can also embed checkboxes, which are tasks of their own. And if you have tasks that aren’t coming from your inbox, you can import them from other services, such as Gmail, Notion, and Trello.

To make sure you can stay focused on the events and tasks at hand, Routine makes it easy to take everything in. By using the tool’s keyboard-controlled console, you can access your dashboard to quickly see what tasks need to be addressed, what’s on your calendar, and even join an upcoming Zoom session and take notes about the meeting.

Routine is available for macOS, iOS, web, and Google accounts only. Overall, the app centralizes notes and tasks by letting you create and view everything in one place, which helps make sure you stay on top of things. Currently, Routine is still in beta, but you can get on a waitlist to test the product out for yourself.

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