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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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Tech News

Want to save snippets of a Zoom meeting? Listener makes it possible!

(TECHNOLOGY) Listener lets you screenshot or bookmark important sections of live meetings, as well as curate a playlist of snippets, to share or playback.

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Listener for Zoom tool landing page on laptop.

We live in a very computer-mediated world where the bulk of communication is done virtually. Many of us spend a great deal of time – whether for work or pleasure – on video calls connecting with people that we’re unable to meet with in person.

Zoom became the unofficial mascot for the pandemic and has shown no signs of going anywhere. So naturally, people are looking for ways to put this to even more of an advantage – like by creating messaging extensions to utilize in lieu of live meetings.

Now the folks behind Listener are getting in on the action by creating Listener for Zoom.

The new tool allows users to bookmark important moments of Zoom calls in real-time and easily turn long recordings into bite-sized video clips.

As founder Nishith Shah puts it, “Zoom meetings just got more productive!”

Listener allows users to do a myriad of things, including live bookmarking to create short video clips; ability to transcribe your entire meeting; edit video clips by using transcripts instead of struggling with video editing tools; share video highlights with your team; create playlists from video highlights across different Zoom meetings to tell powerful stories; use projects to organize your meetings and playlists.

Founders say that Listener is designed for pretty much anyone who uses Zoom. In early testing, the founders found that it is especially helpful for product managers and UX researchers who do customer interviews.

They also reported that early-stage founders have been using Listener to add powerful customer videos to their investor pitch decks. It is also helpful for recruiters and hiring managers who search transcripts across hundreds of hiring interviews to remember who said what and to pass on important clips to other people in the interview process.

The tool is also beneficial for teams and hiring, as customer success and sales teams create a knowledge base with Listener to train and onboard new employees. They also use it to pass on customer feedback to the product teams.

This could also be great for clipping video elements that are appropriate for social media use.

On January 11, 2022, Listener was awarded #3 Product of the Day on Product Hunt.

Listener for Zoom is free while in Beta. The tool works only with licensed (paid) Zoom accounts.

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Opinion Editorials

Job listings are popping up left and right, so what exactly *is* UX writing?

(EDITORIAL) While UX writing is not technically new, it is seemingly becoming more and more prevalent. The job titles are everywhere, so what is it?

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UX writing

The work of a UX writer is something you come across every day. Whether you’re hailing an Uber or browsing Spotify for that one Drake song, your overall user experience is affected by the words you read at each touchpoint.

A UX writer facilitates a smooth interaction between user and product at each of these touchpoints through carefully chosen words.

Some of the most common touchpoints these writers work on are interface copy, emails, and notifications. It doesn’t sound like the most thrilling stuff, but imagine using your favorite apps without all the thoughtful confirmation messages we take for granted. Take Eat24’s food delivery app, instead of a boring loading visual, users get a witty message like “smoking salmon” or “slurping noodles.”

Eat24’s app has UX writing that works because it’s engaging.

Xfinity’s mobile app provides a pleasant user experience by being intuitive. Shows that are available on your phone are clearly labeled under “Available Out of Home.” I’m bummed that Law & Order: SVU isn’t available, but thanks to thoughtful UX writing at least I knew that sad fact ahead of time.

Regardless of where you find these writer’s work, there are three traits an effective UX writer must-have. Excellent communication skills are a must. The ability to empathize with the user is on almost every job post. But from my own experience working with UX teams, I’d argue for the ability to advocate as the most important skill.

UX writers may have a very specialized mission, but they typically work within a greater user experience design team. In larger companies, some UX writers even work with a smaller team of fellow writers. Decisions aren’t made in isolation. You can be the wittiest writer, with a design decision based on obsessive user research, but if you can’t advocate for those decisions then what’s the point?

I mentioned several soft skills, but that doesn’t mean aspiring UX writers can’t benefit from developing a few specific tech skills. While the field doesn’t require a background in web development, UX writers often collaborate with engineering teams. Learning some basic web development principles such as responsive design can help writers create a better user experience across all devices. In a world of rapid prototyping, I’d also suggest learning a few prototyping apps. Several are free to try and super intuitive.

Now that the UX in front of the writer no longer intimidates you, go check out ADJ, The American Genius’ Facebook Group for Austin digital job seekers and employers. User-centric design isn’t going anywhere and with everyone getting into the automation game, you can expect even more opportunities in UX writing.

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Tech News

How Apple is trying to combat the AirTag backlash (hint – its not working)

(TECHNOLOGY) Apple’s weak-kneed attempts at fixing their AirTags issues aren’t working. They can be placed on anything (or anyone), and it is detrimental.

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Apple airtag being held between two fingers.

A few weeks ago, I wrote up an article on how the Apple AirTag can be used to stalk and track people, and now it’s happening. Unfortunately, not all stalkers have the same glamour as Joe from the hit series You.

Engadget reported that model, Brooks Nader, says someone used an AirTag to track her. Per her account, she didn’t receive the notification until she was walking home, alone, at night. If that’s not scary enough, now imagine she was an android user. The only way for her to know someone was tracking her would be if she had installed the Tracker Detect app.

As stated by TechCrunch, “Apple has made its own post-launch efforts to tighten up how AirTags that don’t belong to a certain user can be detected, but these notifications have proven buggy and have often waited far too long to alert users. Add in the fact that Apple has seemed to treat Android integration as an afterthought, not a necessary partnership in order to ship a device like this, and Apple’s incompetence looks a bit more severe.”

The app itself, which was released on December 11, 2021, is getting a lot of negative feedback. One issue is that to see if you’re being tracked you have to manually scan to find the AirTag. How often and when you do that is up to the user. Whereas with the Apple Find My app, it alerts you automatically without the user having to scan anything. It’s not perfect, however. It’s buggy and can take hours to notify the user that an AirTag is tracking them. However, it’s still better than the android app.

Another dreadful scenario that hasn’t been factored in this equation is children. Not all kids have devices, much less Apple devices, nor should they necessarily, but if someone was going to track them, they would be easy targets.

Apple, for the love of all that’s decent, pull AirTags and reconsider how they function. Examine the ways an AirTag could be used without using the mesh network of all iPhone users so that it doesn’t continue to emit a location or, I don’t know, give up. If it doesn’t mean anything to you to risk other’s lives with this product then consider the possible dangerous consequences as a reflection on Apple.

Contrary to popular belief, not all publicity is good publicity.

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