Connect with us

Tech News

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.

Published

on

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".

Tech News

The inventor of the internet wants to give back control of your data

(TECH NEWS) Using the internet has given us access to many things, but we’ve also lost control of our data. Can the father of the internet give it back?

Published

on

Multiple monitors set up on desk with control for data enabled.

Since it was first introduced in 1989, the internet has come a long way, both in good and bad ways. With several communication tools available online, connecting with friends and family on the other side of the world hasn’t been this easy. However, it has taken away something, too — the control over our data.

Our information is everywhere. Once it’s out there, there is very little, if anything, we can do to control how it’s being used or who’s using it. But, the father of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, wants to reinvent how users take back control of their data.

“We’re on a mission to change the way the web works and the way to basically make the web a better place for all of us,” said Berners-Lee on The Telegraph Live.

In an attempt to “fix the web”, Berners-Lee launched a privacy-focused startup, Inrupt. Using the company’s data storage technology called Solid, the tech company changes how data is stored to give you more control.

“Solid is the new way to connect to people and data. It’s an open-source web-based protocol that re-architects the way data is stored and shared,” said Berners-Lee.

With Solid, you put your personal data together into a personal online data store called a “pod”. Any kind of information can be stored in a pod such as websites visited, travel plans, health records, or credit card purchases.

The pod can be hosted on any Pod Provider, or you can host it yourself. Pods hosted on a Solid Server are fully compartmentalized from other Pods. Each one has its own set of data and access rules, and you decide who to share your data with using Solid’s authentication and authorization systems. And, you can also remove access to anyone at any time.

Inrupt was introduced back in November 2020, and the Solid technology is already being used by some large companies like the BBC and the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain.

The company’s business model is based on charging licensing fees for its commercial software, which uses Solid open-source technology. According to The New York Times, Inrupt has raised about $20 million in venture funding.

Getting data back into a user’s hands is very good. But, is it something that will quickly be adopted by everyone, including the tech giants?

Well, users will finally gain control of how they share their data. According to Berners-Lee, Solid will provide a “generic back-end store that works with all apps without modification.” This means developers don’t have to worry about creating back-ends for different apps.

And companies, what will they get out of it? According to Inrupt CEO & Co-founder John Bruce, over the years, he found that a lot of companies were “spending a great deal of time and money collecting and protecting user data.” So, “by moving the point of control of data from the organization to the user everybody wants.” (i.e. money is saved)

“This is just the beginning of how we turn the red web right side up, restore some of its original values, like how we empower everyone to participate in and benefit from a web that serves us all,” said the internet inventor. “The future of the web is a lot bigger than its past.”

Continue Reading

Tech News

This web extension protects your sensitive information while screensharing

(TECH NEWS) If you’ve ever had to share your screen, you know that sometimes, your sensitive information still slips. But this extension helps by blurring your info for you.

Published

on

Online presenter gesturing at a large Mac desktop computer, being cautious of their sensitive information.

In the time of video calls, video gatherings, and video everything, at one point or another, we will eventually need to share our screen and/or record video. When it’s time to present, there is one thing we don’t want to display to others — sensitive information.

While we can all take a good deal of precautions to make sure we don’t overshare, there is no guarantee we won’t miss something. After all, we’re human. The good thing about these modern times is that there is always someone trying to think of how to make our first world video problems go away.

Sanskar Tiwari, a software developer and educator at YouTube, found it time-consuming having to edit videos to blur over things such as API keys, account emails, passwords, etc. Plus, having to wait for videos to render made the process even longer.

To solve his problem, he created a new web extension named Blurweb. According to the website, the extension helps “people doing live screen sharing or recording video to make sure their sensitive information is secure.”

The extension does this by giving you the option to blur out things like inputs, links, email addresses, and images.

So, how does it work?

  1. Once you have the extension, you can go on any webpage and turn it on by clicking on the extension icon.
  2. When the extension is on, a tab with a Turn Off/On, Clear All, and Close option tab pops up.
  3. With the extension on, you can select any element on the page, and the tool will automatically blur it out.
  4. Once the sensitive information you want saved is blurred, you can record or share your screen without having to worry that you’re accidently displaying that information.

If you want to remove the “blur” from your elements, you can select “Clear All” and everything will go back to normal. You can also quickly toggle the tool on and off and close it once you’re finished.

Since Blurweb.app runs as an extension on the web browser, it can work on any website and even works offline. If you’d like to check it out, you preview it on their website here.

Continue Reading

Tech News

Star Citizen: A cautionary tale of Kickstarter and crowdfunding

(TECH NEWS) Why is the most funded game in history still in development and has no clear release date? Why crowdfunding as a concept cannot be seen as reliable from a backer’s perspective.

Published

on

Magnifying glass over Kickstarter URL and site, a crowdfunding website.

Kickstarter – at its core – is a brilliant idea (and I wish I’d thought of it first). Creating a funding platform to literally allow anyone to bring an idea to fruition by asking for – essentially – seed capital and investors en masse via crowdfunding is truly appealing in every sense of the word. Originally a stronghold of new inventions, gadgets, and apparel, it quickly spread into the entertainment industry as well, with hobbyist game developers, auteur filmmakers, and first time writers given the chance to use crowdfunding to breathe life into their creations.

Star Citizen first appeared on the Kickstarter platform way back in 2012 and was hailed as the next great space simulation game. The campaign was started by Chris Roberts – one of the grand masters of the genre – who created the legendary Wing Commander series while working at Origin Systems. While these might be unfamiliar to non-gamers, anyone who played computer and console games in the 80s and 90s would recognize each name as a juggernaut of the industry.

Without going into specifics, this is the equivalent of Steven Spielberg asking for money to make Montana Miles, a new franchise centered around an ace paleontologist and all around tough guy roughneck adventurer who maybe had a run in or two with certain historical societies while pursuing artifacts from an ancient and forgotten world.

Ol’ Steve is definitely gonna get backers. To really set this up, imagine he asked for money in the late 80s. That’s the kind of perfect storm situation we’d have here.

Star Citizen managed to bring in over $2.1 million from nearly 35,000 backers at its inception, and the fervor and excitement was high. This was due to the pedigree of those involved in the project and the fact that a massive space sim had not seen release in several years (the video game industry – like many others – goes through cycles, with certain properties and genres fading into and out of popularity). Fans eagerly donated, and it reached its original $500K goal quickly, with 9 people contributing $10,000 each and another 19 pledging $5,000.

Since then, additional crowdfunding was conducted by giving fans the option to buy ships and other digital goods to be used in-game, bringing the total to $339 million in the past 10 years (accounting for pre-production and other planning that was done prior to the Kickstarter campaign).

Backing up for a second, consider that I just said 10 years. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that the game is still not out and has no projected release date. If you go to their website, you can be directed to their Pledge Store to purchase ships and other items for a game that isn’t even done, and last released new public material way back in 2015. A side project meant to appease and entice backers – Squadron 42 – just announced its own delay.

And the developers have more or less given no reassurance or updated timelines. The prevailing theory is that this is the result of feature creep, but even this has sparked a number of heated discussions and angry denial from the developers.

Understandably, gamers are angry, and are (perhaps justifiably) lashing out (I won’t link to Reddit or any other forums, but it’s easy to sniff these out). There’s even a (hilarious) Imgur repository of broken promises and failed deliverables against a backdrop of developer feel-good rhetoric. At least one lawsuit has been filed.

Let me take a moment here to say that the gaming industry is no stranger to delays, and has also seen games be released in broken states. The biggest recent example is Sony pulling Cyberpunk 2077 from its digital storefront and offering refunds. Cyberpunk 2077 is the biggest and most anticipated game at the moment, but has been delayed countless times, suffered numerous glitches, crashes, is otherwise unplayable on console platforms (both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One), and been called a disaster.

Let’s not even go into talking about the legacy of delayed games, which stretches from Daikatana, Duke Nukem Forever, No Man’s Sky (though it should be noted that Hello Games has worked tirelessly to rectify the game’s original dismal state against its many, many promises)… The list goes on.

But we’re getting a little off course here by looking at traditionally funded games (even if there are dozens of problems there too). In terms of pure Kickstarter-funded debacles? There’s lots of examples, including DoubleFine’s Broken Age (famous for being the first major game to be crowdfunded and a story in and of itself), SpaceVenture (now over seven years late), and whatever it was that Yogscast game was trying to do (relevant because this was one of the biggest Youtube groups at the time). What about when backers paid for the Oculus Rift, only to have it purchased
outright by Facebook before it was even released to backers?

There’s too many fascinating and infuriating rabbit holes to go through.

So let’s talk about Kickstarter directly for a bit, because if we’re going to play the blame game (hah!), then we certainly need to consider their participation. As it stands, Kickstarter continues to operate with almost no oversight, and has remained a silent and invisible actor throughout these failures. In effect, they are a neutral third party.

Even worse, Kickstarter themselves say that a creator is under zero obligation to complete their project, and relies heavily on the fact that each and every crowdfunding campaign functions in a benefit of the doubt construct. If a creator reaches funding and is never heard from again, Kickstarter maintains that not only will they not pursue any kind of legal action, but doubles down on blaming the investing audience by stating that they knew the risks upfront. Put bluntly: Kickstarter has a very convenient excuse that “art works by different rules.”

In almost all instances, this has resulted in incomplete and abandoned projects, often fueled by lies, deception, and fraud. And yet, Kickstarter has dodged any and all liability, and it’s unlikely that backers can easily exercise any kind of legal action. A similar situation would be taking a contractor to court over an unfinished job, but having no way to actually enforce restitution even under a favorable judgement.

This doesn’t even take into account that there’s a chance of a rogue backer voicing so much dissatisfaction that they sue a company into bankruptcy. Sure, this sounds like reasonable punishment, is entirely legal, and conceivably is well within the rights of that person. But even so, does the blame lie with an inexperienced creator, impossibly high standards set by a (debatably unreasonable) customer, or with Kickstarter being an enabler?

The lofty goals of Kickstarter set against this backdrop of numerous pitfalls suddenly tarnishes its efficacy and integrity, exacerbated by a laundry list of what ifs and potentialities. There’s simply too many legal issues to navigate when it comes to crowdfunding.

I’m not even going to start going into more examples of failed Kickstarter projects, outright scams, and other clear cut bits of fraud and swindling.

Real quick, I want to mention a few other things – similar crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo have the same issues, GoFundMe is not without its own controversies, and Valve’s digital marketplace Steam gives developers the same loophole via its Early Access program by allowing them to keep a game in a forever-limbo state.

So I guess the lesson here is that all of these crowdfunding platforms should be treated with a similar attitude you might have when playing the lottery. At the least, try to vet the creator beforehand, as there are certainly viable companies that have run successful campaigns in the past. I encourage you to read user comments on a campaign’s page, research the company in question (have they put out successful products previously?), and be financially ready to lose the money you might put into a shiny new hypothetical.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Our Great Partners

The
American Genius
news neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list for news sent straight to your email inbox.

Emerging Stories

Get The American Genius
neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to get business and tech updates, breaking stories, and more!