Saturday, March 16, 2013

Google Collects Things People Shouted From Rooftops - Ordered to Pay Someone Else As Punishment

from DailyTech:

Google Ordered to Pay $7 Million to U.S. States for Wi-Fi Snooping Incident

Google is finally settling a three-year investigation this week into a Wi-Fi incident that occurred when compiling data for its mapping service.

Google's Street View mapping cars had accidentally collected personal data, such as home wireless network passwords, between 2008 and 2010. The cars were out collecting images and data for the Street View mapping system in Google Maps, and were using an experimental computer code in the cars' software while doing so. This led to the accidental collection of personal data.

The settlement orders that Google split $7 million among 38 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia, which were involved in the incident.
Read the rest here.

First off, some background. A few years ago when Google's cars were driving around the country taking the pictures that are now part of the popular "street view" part of Google Maps, the cars were (accidentally, Google says) also taking snapshots of something else. As they were driving around photographing streets, businesses, neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and everything else, the cars also had software running that was recording Wi-Fi signals.

Why did this cause a problem? Because whatever you do with your wireless laptop, smartphone, tablet computer, or anything else that communicates over Wi-Fi could be intercepted and recorded. This is a basic principle of radio communication. This can include instant messages, emails, Web browser requests (like what URL you are visiting)... anything that you do on your Wi-Fi.

Does this creep you out? Well, it shouldn't. Because you should have the sense to do something very basic on your home Wi-Fi: put a password on it. Don't leave your Wi-Fi in the open. When you put a password on your Wi-Fi, it is encrypted, and although traffic can be recorded, it doesn't make any difference... because it's in a code which nobody likely cares enough to try to break. It's secure enough that recording it doesn't make any difference.

On top of that, if you are logging into a site... say, your bank, or your credit card provider... the URL on your Web browser should start with "https://" (and not just "http://" - the "s" is the important part). If it does not, it's time to choose another bank. The "s" means that the bank is encrypting (encoding) all of the communication between you and it, so even if you are on an unprotected Wi-Fi network, your password and other communication is still in a code that is too strong to be worth trying to break.

So despite the fact that most everyone has gotten the clue and set up passwords on their Wi-Fi, and despite the fact that even email services lik Gmail encrypt your password with https://. and despite the fact that Google admits that it recorded the Wi-Fi signals and says it was an accident, and despite the fact that they have promised to erase the recorded information... Google is being told to pay some sort of punitive damages.

But not to the people who had Wi-Fi signals recorded. Not to the individuals. Directly to the states.

How were state governments harmed by this? They weren't. Really, the consumers weren't harmed either. This is a tempest in a teacup. And how does a $7 million settlement teach anything to a $100+ billion company? It doesn't. Google probably contributes that much to the United Way every year. Heck, Google probably spends that much in fuel for the Street View cars every year!

This whole thing is silly. I hope at least part of that settlement with the states goes to pay the salaries for the judge and other people the courts employs to hear cases like this, so none of my taxpayer dollars paid for it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Situation - And A Recipe

I just got an email. The email says "Your cell phone battery is getting low!" I checked my phone, and sure enough, the battery was down to 15%, so I plugged it in to charge during the afternoon so I don't run out of juice before bedtime tonight. Who emailed me? Well, the cell phone did, of course! Actually, it texted me... but let me start from the beginning.

A Locale Situation
One afternoon a few weeks ago I realized (when I was already on my commute home from work) that my phone battery had run down. I have charging cables in the car, of course, but my commute is only long enough to charge it partway... I ran out of power again later that evening. I realized that I had already set up something to check the battery level of my phone: a "Situation" in an app I use called Locale. In a nutshell, a Locale Situation monitors "Conditions" (such as your physical location, the time, or whether your phone is face-up or face-down) and when they match a set of Conditions you have configured, it activates "Settings" which can be settings on your phone or might be other actions. The app allows you to add new Conditions and Settings through a plug-in architecture. I've set it up to do things like make sure Wi-Fi is on when I'm at home and turn off the ringer when I'm at church.

I had also set it up to turn down the brightness of my display automatically when the battery power is below 15%, on the theory that this will stretch the battery just a little longer. That didn't help me realize that the battery was getting low that day, though, so I wanted to do something more.

Enter the Send SMS Plug-in. When you install the plug-in, you get a new "Setting" in your options - the "Setting" does not change a setting on your phone, but instead it automatically sends an SMS message from your phone to whatever recipient you like. This is terrific, but I didn't really want to be notified via SMS on my phone. When I'm at work and my battery gets low, I want to get an email... I monitor my work email closely when I'm at my desk, much more closely than I monitor the SMS stream on the phone itself. I tried sending an email through the Send SMS Plug-in, but even though you can do that through the stock SMS app, you couldn't do it through Send SMS. There are other apps (like this one) which I could have used, but SMS messages can often be sent even when the phone is having trouble connecting to the Internet. I wanted to send an SMS message, but receive an Email.

Enter IFTTT.

IFTTT (pronounced exactly how it looks, like the word "if" and then the letter "t") stands for "IF This Then That." And that adequately describes what IFTTT does - you associate it with things you do (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, CraigsList, Evernote, the time, the weather, etc.), and then configure associations so that if a certain condition exists on one of those things, something happens on another of them. The "things" are called "Channels" and they may act as either the instigator or the recipient of an action. For example, when this blog post is published, IFTTT will see it in the RSS feed and will automatically schedule it to go out to my Twitter stream via HootSuite. In this way (if a condition exists, do something) it is similar to Locale, except almost every IFTTT Channel can be checked (like a Locale "Condition") or do something (like a Locale "Setting").

IFTTT has Channels for SMS and Phone Calls. Once you've set them up to match your phone, an SMS message from you can trigger something (for example, automatically save the SMS to a new note in Evernote), or IFTTT can send an SMS to your phone. The Phone Call channel can either receive a call (which it then can transcribe) or place a call using text-to-speech. Finally, IFTTT can send an email, using the Email channel, to any address you like.


I set up an IFTTT "Recipe" to receive SMS messages from my phone with a Twitter-style tag which indicates that I am at work, and forward those messages to my work email address. Then I set up Locale to check my battery level and my SSID, and if I'm on my work WiFi network, Send an SMS reading "Your cell phone battery is getting low!" with the special "I'm at work" tag to the IFTTT SMS number. I also set up a separate Locale/IFTTT combo to actually call me via voice if my battery gets low and I'm not at my desk! In theory, I should never again discover that my phone battery is discharged below the point of no return... I should always know about it ahead of time.

So that's how I wound up today getting an email from my phone that the battery was low. Pretty cool? Yes. A little convoluted? Kinda. Pretty geeky? Definitely. Useful? ABSOLUTELY.

Do you use Locale or IFTTT? Have you set up any groovy Situations or Recipes that you'd like to share? Have you ever used synergy between multiple online services to build something cooler than the component parts? Tell us about it below in the Comments!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Terrestrial Radio Needs to Step It Up!

'Radio Transmission Towers Atop Mt. Wilson' photo (c) 2011, Andrew The radio industry has been in quite an uproar in the past ten years or so. Out of the sight-lines of most people, there has been a real struggle involving traditional "terrestrial" radio (which comes to you directly through the air to an old-fashioned AP or FM radio), satellite radio, and Internet radio. Each has its advantages and drawbacks; terrestrial radio is free and has the advantage of being local in scope (paradoxically, some stations have switched to a syndicated format with no local programming, giving up their biggest trump card over the others); satellite radio is available pretty much wherever you are for a monthly subscription fee which never changes, and there are a zillion channels to choose from; Internet radio offers even more stations than satellite, with the added benefit of being highly customizable (like Pandora or Songza).

Each of the three also has its drawbacks (terrestrial radio has a limited range, statellite radio requires the purchase of expensive equipment and has an ongoing subscription cost, Internet radio can be expensive based on your bandwidth usage and can be glitchy if you have a slow connection). Terrestrial radio stations have tried to fight back by broadcasting online in addition to their on-the-air signal; my guess is that this strategy meets with some degree of success, because these days it's not easy to find a terrestrial station which doesn't also have an online stream. But I think terrestrial radio stations are not doing everything they can to make technology work to their advantage.

For example: one of my cars has a radio that can display the name of the song you're listening to as it plays... if the radio station's transmitter is broadcasting that information. I'm amazed at the number of stations that either don't provide that information at all, or just continuously broadcast the station's call letters and station motto. Come on, people! This tech has been in place for years now! You KNOW you have this information. You've got a computer logging every song that is played anyway, and even if you don't, in this era when any smartphone with Soundhound or Shazam or Midomi or any number of other apps can instantly identify a song based on just a few seconds randomly selected from the middle of the song, there's no reason to not automatically provide that information to your listeners. And you don't even have to burn airtime having your DJ say the title. It's just THERE.

But if the terrestrial stations really want to keep people from heading to Best Buy and picking up that Sirius or XM box, I think there are things they could invest in as an industry that might keep people in their court.

I think every new automobile radio should have a GPS sensor in it. I don't think they should necessarily have navigation information built into them, but I think they should know where they are in the world. Why would this be useful in a radio? Because if you know where you are in the world, and you know what stations exist there, then you can provide a list of available stations to choose from. If there was a list that could be downloaded periodically, I'll bet people would go to the trouble to set it up. If you park your car in your garage and you have WiFi in your home, chances are your car could access that signal (maybe even using the car radio antenna!) and download. If you don't have a signal where you park but your cell phone has hotspot capability, you could use that to periodically update your list. Or you could park out in front of McDonald's or Starbuck's or somewhere else that has a free WiFi signal, and in a few seconds your list could be updated.

Or maybe there doesn't have to be a master list at all! It would be entirely possible for a radio, over time, to gauge the availability and strength of radio signals in places where the car goes, and build its own list over time. With digital memory as cheap as it is, you could store a great deal of information. Heck, it would even be possible to share that information with other radios nearby, so if you're sitting in a traffic jam or parking lot, your radio could be comparing notes with other radios about what frequencies are available where. You might find that you drive to a new place and your radio already knows what stations are there!

But let's back up even further. There are only a few places I frequent... I live in the Tulsa Oklahoma area, and my brother lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Sometimes we drive to Oklahoma City, and I have family in Shreveport Louisiana. In each of those places I have stations I like to listen to, but I only have twelve or so radio presets to play with. Just my Tulsa stations fill up those buttons; when I visit my brother in DFW, I have to reprogram my radio presets. Why not have an arbitrary number of preset banks, which are sensitive to location? Why can't my radio show my Tulsa presets when I'm in Tulsa, and when I'm in Dallas, show me my favorite stations down there?

And let's go even one step further. In Tulsa, one of the stations I listen to has three separate frequencies that all broadcast the same programming. Depending on where you are in town, any one of the three might have a stronger signal than the others. Why shouldn't I be able to group the three so that, based either on my physical location or signal strength, the channel automatically changes to the best signal? And even better: that station is one of those local stations that is actually part of a national network. They just launched a frequency in Dallas. Why can't my button for them in Tulsa be the button for the same programming when I get to Dallas? Stations could provide a downloadable list of their own frequencies that could be used to program this new, cool, technology-enhanced terrestrial radio. Heck, stations could even provide an internal link to their Internet streams if they wanted, so Internet-capable radios would be able to switch to the online stream when they are out of range of the over-the-air signal. I think it would make sense for the terrestrial radio industry to invest actual money in developing these technologies, because when they become available, it will benefit them tremendously.

I won't even go into things like the possibility of the radio being able to make suggestions based on genre (rock, country, talk, etc.) because those capabilities are already out there in some existing radios. That technology suffers from the same problem the Song ID technology suffers from: stations don't always provide that information in their signals. I could also brainstorm from the perspective of the marketers: transmit the station or show's call-in number with the signal so your radio could dial your cell phone for you (there's a "distracted driving" case for the lawyers) or use the GPS capability to let you know when one of the station's advertisers is nearby. There are so many ways that car radios could be enhanced, it's kind of sad that in general, car radios still do basically the same thing they did in the 1970s when you knew what station you were on by looking at where the stick was over the list of numbers.

Terrestrial radio hasn't been making the effort to beat out their competitors in outer space and on the Internet. Many new car radios come with a line-in jack; mine doesn't, but I have a small FM transmitter that I can use to play music from my cell phone through my car radio. Even now, I can choose Internet radio over terrestrial if I like. As bandwidth continues to get cheaper and Internet music services continue to get better, traditional radio needs to step up its game, or it's nothing but downhill from here.

(Since I wrote this post, I've learned that 4G is coming soon to a car near you. Get on the ball, radio stations!)

I'm not a radio industry professional, and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some of my details wrong. Do you know something that contradicts the ideas I've presented here? Any more ideas that could be incorporated into car radio technology that would make listening to over-the-air radio easier or more enjoyable? Has the terrestrial radio industry made an effort to help technology along? Join the discussion below in the comments section!