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Why the term “zero day” needs to be in your brand’s cybersecurity vocabulary

(TECH NEWS) What’s at risk? Identity theft, botnet spam, corporate espionage, and loss of privacy. Better get to know the term “zero day.”

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Mobile trust and security

The other day I wandered into Best Buy at the mall. Nobody’s around and I’m alone with the sales guy. “Umm, what’s the most secure device you have here?” He takes a step back.

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Paraphrasing our brief conversation, Apple and Samsung make up 95% of his sales and he thinks Apple is safer. “Is Apple safer because they screen apps better?” Head nods.

“I heard Blackberry is working to secure Android for business users.” Sales guy had nothing to say about that.

Why do people trust Apple?

I wouldn’t take security advice from a Best Buy sales guy, but it does seem that people trust Apple more. Maybe because Apple stood up to the FBI in a very public way. Great marketing, Apple.

Most likely, Apple does care about the slippery slope of security, in terms of unlocking devices. (The same way Google cared about user data intercepted under the ocean.) But I don’t know Tim Cook personally. Even if I did, I wouldn’t feel more or less confident using Apple products because Tim’s not omniscient – he can’t see or control everything going on within Apple.

What’s different about Android?

I think people can generally trust me, but they can trust me exactly because they know they don’t have to.” –Linus Torvalds

What does that even mean? Well, Linus created the core “kernel” of the Android operating system, a customized version of Linux.

In other words, Linus Torvalds is the core genius inside every Samsung-Android smartphone at Best Buy.

Linux is “open source” which means anyone can look at the code and point out flaws. In that sense, I’d say Linus Torvalds doesn’t have to be as omniscient as Tim Cook. Linux source code isn’t hidden behind closed doors. My understanding is, all the Linux code is out there for anyone to see, naked for anyone to scrutinize, which is why certain countries feel safer using it–there’s no hidden agenda or secret “back door” lurking in the shadows. Does that mean Android phones are safer? That’s up for debate.

How security has changed

For a long time, Apple had the “security through obscurity” thing going for it. In simple terms, that means the bad guys go for low-hanging fruit first, the easy score. Is Apple hanging lower? Windows was the low-hanging fruit. But now that Apple is more popular, it has a bigger target on its back.

As we depend more and more on smartphones, and there’s more people, more money and more at risk, consequently there’s more incentive for hackers to penetrate deep into our devices.

If you read the book “Hackers” by Steven Levy, you know the original hackers were all about the “Hacker Ethic” which boils down to “Information wants to be free.” Sounds harmless enough. For whatever reason, the original hackers found secrets offensive, or they just saw “locked doors” as a technical challenge. Maybe they were idealists, but somewhere along the way, other interests crept in.

That leads us to the zero-day Apple exploit that has people concerned about their iPhones.

The origins of “zero day”

First, what does “zero day” even mean?

Back in the early 90s, a couple of my classmates were into downloading “0 day warez” which was nerd speak for “the latest video games released today.” Games had copy protection. So you couldn’t just buy a game and copy it for your friends, you had to buy your own copy. Hackers figured out how to break the copy protection and called themselves “crackers.” Crackers were competitive, in terms of who could crack a new game first.

For bragging rights, their goal was to crack a game within 24 hours, and that was the “zero day” game, as a full day had not gone by yet.

Fast-forward 20 years. Now you can watch the “Zero Day” movie on Netflix and the original meaning has morphed to mean “software that’s still secret.” Potentially harmful code could lurk undetected in your computer for years. But if your anti-virus scanner hasn’t detected anything suspicious yet, pop culture would consider that a “zero day exploit.” As far as the actual terminology used among hackers, who knows?

Should you be concerned? Almost by definition, most people aren’t targeted by zero-day exploits. Once an exploit is released into the wild and exposed, it’s no longer as useful to attackers, because then it can be studied and whatever hole it used (to penetrate your phone) can be “patched” to block future intrusions. Then again, older unpatched phones could remain vulnerable and ordinary people could be affected.

Patches for Apple vs. Android

In Apple’s case, they’re able to patch these holes within days. For Google, it might not be as fast, depending on the problem. It might take months to get a patch pushed out to everybody, or the fix might never come. For example, it sounds like Samsung is mostly concerned about security updates for its flagship phones.

Why the difference? My understanding is, Google can fix apps and push out patches at the “app level” as fast as Apple, if the problem is specific to a certain app. The main difference is that the Android market is larger and has more devices, and each Android phone manufacturer has a slightly different, tweaked version of the core Android operating system. Different Android manufacturers will push out updates on their own timeline.

Your best bet

If you want the latest (hopefully safest) operating system straight from Google as soon as possible, you’ll want an official Google phone, probably a “Nexus” branded device. According to something I read last night, I believe Android 7 directly addresses this shortcoming to some degree with a new auto-update feature. But for now, the Android ecosystem remains fragmented.

For the average person, what’s at risk? Identity theft, botnet spam, corporate espionage, and loss of privacy.

#ZeroDay

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PJ Brunet is a writer, full stack developer, and abstract artist. His first computer was a Texas Instruments TI-99. As a teen, he interned at IBM in Boca where the first PC was born. Graduating with a BFA, he gave California and New York a shot, but fell in love with Texas in 2004, the same year he started blogging about technology.

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Silicon Valley created tech for your family that’s too addictive for theirs

(TECHNOLOGY) Tech inventors are big on innovating and advancing tools, but a growing parenting trend in tech circles seems hypocritical.

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tech addiction in children

I consider myself an older Millennial. I was slowly but surely introduced to technologies as they became mass-marketable, but they didn’t affect every moment of my day-to-day life. I learned how to use computers in elementary school, I chatted on AOL as a preteen, and when I was 16, my parents gave me my own cell phone “for emergencies.” I promptly dropped it under the car seat, where it remained for a year, before I or my parents even noticed that it was missing.

In less than a generation, our relationship to cell phones has transformed completely. For one thing, my first cell phone didn’t have a touch screen. It didn’t have an internet connection. Hell, for an entire year, I didn’t even use the damn thing.

Fast forward to 2018, when your children can learn to use an iPad at the same time that they learn to use a toilet.

Interestingly, the tech whizzes who designed much of the technology that now pervades nearly every moment of our lives seem wariest of the negative impact screen time might have on kids. The NYT reports that the trend amongst Silicon Valley parents is to severely limit or even ban cell phone use by their children.

Parents in all echelons of the tech industry are limiting their kids’ exposure. Steve Jobs kept iPads out of the hands of his young children. The Gates offspring didn’t receive cell phones until high school (just like me, in 2001), and Tim Cook discourages his nephew from using social networks.

These concerned parents describe the addictive potential and negative consequences of screen time in increasingly pessimistic terms.

Athena Chavarria, a former Facebook employee, believes that “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Chris Anderson (yes that Chris Anderson), former editor of Wired and founder of GeekDad, says that when it comes to screens, “On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

Parents are even making contractual agreements to make sure their kids don’t use screens while under the supervision of their nanny or babysitter.

Like basically every human idea or invention ever, connected, screened devices reveal that our ability to create new technologies far outpaces our ability to understand the consequences – positive or negative – of that tech.

Those closest to the situation – the inventors themselves – are often the first ones to sound the alarm when they realize that their hard-won advancements may not have been such a great idea after all.

Said Chris Anderson of the addictive nature of cell phones, “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control.”

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Amazingly fun tech toys that are secretly educational

(TECHNOLOGY) STEM toys for children are fun *and* educational – here are some that have caught our eye.

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STEM tech toys for kids

There’s a new trend amongst startups – and amongst kids’ toys: educational playthings that teach your little ones STEM skills like programming and coding.

Toys that double as learning tools are nothing new, but digital, connected technology still is, and so is the idea that your toddler can get a leg up in the tech industry by getting an early start.

Parents, universities, and economists seem concerned that acquiring STEM skills will soon be the only way to guarantee a good job, despite reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that 3 out of 4 STEM majors end up in non-STEM fields anyway.

So if your kid is more into, say, baseball or dancing than computers, you might be wasting the pretty pennies these high-powered educational toys will cost you.

Kids, with their alarmingly short attention spans, are as likely to toss these toys back into the toybox as any other. But if your wee one seems to have a knack for all things technical – or if you’d just rather see them learn how to build a device than passively stare at one all day – then check out TC’s guide to STEM toys.

Even though these toys are marketed towards the younger set, I found myself a little envious, wishing I could take a few for a test drive – especially since many of them are modern, high-tech reboots on old standbys from my childhood.

Lego’s Boost Creative Toolbox uses the same classic Lego blocks, but allows you to animate and program your creations.

Several products cross-market with some of my childhood favorites; Dash Robotics has teamed up with Mattel to make Jurassic World robots, and Kano makes a Harry Potter Coding Kit that teaches kids to program a wand that can interact with digital content. There’s even Electro Dough which is basically electrically-conductive Play-Doh that can light up and make sounds. I want!

In fact, a lot of the toys combine arts ‘n’ crafts with STEM lessons. Adafruits makes a marker with electronically conductive ink that can light up circuits and interact with computer programs, and an electronic pencil that synthesizes music. Root Robotic’s little bot can draw pictures and compose songs.

For the more straightforward tech nerds, Makeblock, Evo, Robo Wunderkind, and Wonder Workshop all make programmable robots – a big step up from the “artificially intelligent” Furby’s of my childhood. Sphero’s Bolt is a ball-shaped robot, while Airblock makes a programmable hovercraft.

There’s the Pi-top Modular Laptop that teaching kids coding, and there are even opportunities for kids to build their own electronics; Kano offers a build-it-yourself computer.

The holidays are just around the corner – but whether STEM educational toys will be the next Tickle Me Elmo remains to be seen.

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A deepfakes creator for text so realistic it can’t be made public yet

(TECHNOLOGY) You know about video deepfakes, but the technology exists for doing convincing deepfakes for text. It’s so good that they aren’t ready to release it to the public yet…

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deepfakes text

Artificial intelligence is being used to complete more and more human tasks. But as of right now, news stories you read online – including all the articles here on American Genius – have been written by real human beings.

Until recently, even the most intelligent computers couldn’t be trained to recreate the complex rules and stylistic subtleties of language. AI-generated text would often wander off topic or mix up the syntax and lack context or analysis.

However, a non-profit called OpenAI says they have developed a text generator that can simulate human writing with remarkable accuracy.

The program is called GPT2. When fed any amount of text, from a few words to a page, it can complete the story, whether it be a news story or a fictional one.

You already know about video deepfakes, but these “deepfakes for text” stay on subject and match the style of the original text. For example, when fed the first line of George Orwell’s 1984, GPT2 created a science-fiction story set in a futuristic China.

This improved text generator is much better at simulating human writing because it has learned from a dataset that is “15 times bigger and broader” than its predecessor, according to OpenAI research director, Dario Amodei.

Usually researchers are eager to share their creations with the world – but in the case, the Elon Musk-backed organization has, at least of the time being, withheld GPT2 from the public out of fear of what criminals and other malicious users might do with it.

Jack Clark, OpenAI’s head of policy, says that the organization needs more time to experiment with GPT2’s capabilities so that they can anticipate malicious uses. “If you can’t anticipate all the abilities of a model, you have to prod it to see what it can do,” he says. “There are many more people than us who are better at thinking what it can do maliciously.”

Some potential malicious uses of GPT2 could include generating fake positive reviews for products (or fake negative reviews of competitors’ products); generating SPAM messages; writing fake news stories that would be indistinguishable from real news stories; and spreading conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, because GPT2 learns from the internet, it wouldn’t be hard to program GPT2 to produce hate speech and other offensive messages.

As a writer, I can’t think of very many good reasons to use an AI story generator that doesn’t put me out of job. So I appreciate that the researchers at OpenAI are taking time to fully think through the implications before making this Pandora’s box of technology available to the general public.

Says Clark, “We are trying to develop more rigorous thinking here. We’re trying to build the road as we travel across it.”

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