Phone App Flim-Flam

How much do you really know about — and how much should you really trust — the apps that you are downloading and installing on your phone?

best_android_phone_uk_phonesLast week I ran across an on-line article with the unnerving headline “Two-thirds of all Android antivirus apps are frauds.”  The article reports on testing that was performed by an Austrian group called AV-Comparatives that specializes in testing antivirus products.  The group looked at 250 Android antivirus apps that were available on the Google Play Store.  It installed the apps on phones, then tried to download malicious software that was in use last year and therefore should be detected by any decent, functioning antivirus app.

The testing found that more than half of the apps didn’t work as advertised.  Many didn’t “scan” and analyze the code of the downloaded software at all, and instead just checked the title of the software against “whitelists” and “blacklists.”  As a result, some antivirus apps found themselves to be malware because the developers forgot to include them on the “whitelist” of approved software.  In addition, some apps were easily fooled because package names that included references to reputable software creators, like “com.adobe,” could bypass the software and permit malware to be installed without detection.

In all, the Austrian group found that 170 of the 250 antivirus apps failed the basic detection tests and were either ineffective or unsafe.  AV-Comparatives concluded that many of the apps were developed by amateurs or were basically being used as platforms for ads and were not legitimate antivirus protection.

I use an Apple iPhone, so I’m not directly affected by issues with Android antivirus apps, but the testing of the antivirus apps raises a more basic question — how are apps being screened, and how much of what is made available to the general public, on either a free or paid basis, is valid and works as advertised?  And, even worse, is anyone trustworthy actually looking at the apps to see whether they are vehicles for getting access to personal phones for fraudulent purposes?  How does anyone know that the app they are downloading isn’t a technological Trojan horse?

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Saving Photos

My cellphone is old, and I regularly get messages telling me I’m up to storage capacity on things like phone messages and photos, and it’s time to start deleting.  The phone messages aren’t hard to get rid of — the fact that I haven’t deleted them already is just due to inattention, really — but the photos are a much harder call.

Sure, I could dump every photo that I’ve ever taken onto my home computer or store them in the cloud, but that’s not really a true solution — you just end up with a huge array of photos that are creating storage capacity issues somewhere else.  And if you’ve ever tried to find that one photo you are thinking of in an indiscriminate mass, you know it can be a frustrating and time-consuming task.  It’s similar to the problem that many of our parents and grandparents had — they’d have boxes  and boxes of unorganized Kodak and Polaroid photos from family trips, reunions, and other events, and one of their long-lasting resolutions was to actually identify who was in the curled up and browned-out photos from the past and put them into some kind of meaningful order in photo albums.  In many families, like mine, that just never got done successfully.

In my view, the key is to suck it up and engage in careful editing on the cellphone itself, respecting the device’s storage issues and limiting your library to those really worthwhile photos that you think you actually might look at in the future.  Where are you most likely to look at photos, anyway?  These days, it’s on your cellphone, when you are with friends or waiting at an airport gate for a plane and want to remember a good time from the past without going through some elaborate storage retrieval process.

So, how do you make the call on what to keep and what to delete?  It’s easy enough to delete the out-of-focus shots, of course, and there are always some photos that, when you look at them later, you wonder why you took them in the first place.  But once you’ve discarded the chaff, it’s a lot harder.  How many photos of beautiful sunrises or sunsets do you want?  Which photos of family and friends should you keep indefinitely?  When I look at the older photos on my cellphone, I see that there’s a pattern:  I have kept photos of special people, and places and times that I want to remember.  There’s a photo of Mom and the rest of the Webner clan at her last family birthday party, for example, and photos of me and Kish on vacation, and the photo with this post that was taken on Lake Louise in Canada on a perfect June day when the color of the water and the backdrop of mountains was just dazzling and we walked along the edge of the lake just reveling in the scenery.

My test is simple:  what do I want to remember, and what really makes me smile?

 

Messing Around With Genes

Since 2015, Congress has included language in its funding bills to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from approving any application to create in vitro fertilization children from embryos that have been genetically modified.  Because the prohibitory language has been included in funding bills that have expiration dates, it needs to be renewed every year.  The House of Representatives just passed legislation that includes the renewal language, as part of an effort to fund certain governmental activities like food stamps and drug approvals.

Khan1The issue of genetic modification of embryos has some special urgency these days, with the recent news that Chinese scientists have announced the birth of the first genetically modified children — twin girls whose genes allegedly have been altered to supposedly make them specially resistant to HIV.  The Chinese scientists used a protein to edit the genes on a “CRISPR” — a stretch of DNA.  Some people question the validity of the Chinese claim about these so-called “CRISPR babies,” but there is no doubt that genetic manipulation of human beings is moving from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science fact.

The bar to such activities created by Congress ensures that efforts to genetically modify humans are not going to be happening in America — at least for now.  Is that a good thing?  The FDA Commissioner has said:  “Certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket. Anything less puts the science and the entire scientific enterprise at risk.”  Others argue that Congress has taken a “meat axe” approach when it should be crafting a more nuanced policy that recognizes that some genetic manipulation could be beneficial.

It’s hard to know what’s right.  Scientists have been involved in the reproductive process for years, and their work, through processes like in vitro fertilization, has allowed people who are struggling to conceive to realize their dream of having children.  But I think the notion of scientists tinkering with genes to create “better” human beings crosses a line in several ways.  First, I’m not entirely confident that scientists know what they are doing and that there won’t be unintended, negative consequences from the removal of the genes the scientists snip out.  Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that scientists have been wrong before, and its reasonable to think they might be wrong again — only this time, their errors wouldn’t just be about the impact of certain foods or the properties of atoms, but would directly affect specific human beings.  Second, where do you draw the line in genetic manipulation?  Modifying DNA sequences to try to avoid diseases or debilitating health conditions is one thing, but what if scientists want to edit genes to create humans who are smarter, or more athletic, or taller?  Do we really want to permit the creation of “designer people” — like Khan Noonien Singh, that memorable Star Trek character who was genetically modified to be a kind of superhuman?  And finally, as this article points out, the whole issue brings up uncomfortable memories of the eugenics arguments of the early 20th century, where certain ethnic groups and traits were considered superior and others inferior.  If “improved” humans are created, where does that leave the rest of us?

In my view, this is an area where a sweeping rule makes sense — at least initially.  I think we need a lot more evidence, and a lot more thinking, before we should allow scientists to go messing around with human genetic material.

Communications Breakdown

Recently I got an email my favorite uncle sent to my gmail account.  In the email, he posed a question about something, and when I opened his email I found that the gmail autobots had already provided me with three options for a reply email — “yes,” “I don’t know,” and “no.”  Any one of the three options would in fact have been responsive to the email question.

cyberAII found this troubling.  Of course, the proposed response options revealed that the gmail autobots had read the email to me, had interpreted the question correctly, and were sophisticated enough to develop likely responses.  It wasn’t a matter of simply seeing a question mark and generating standard replies; the proposed responses wouldn’t have been appropriate for a question about where something happened or when something was bound to occur.  But the privacy issues involved in this “read the email and suggest responses” process really didn’t bother me all that much, because anybody who thinks there is much privacy in gmail communications is really kidding themselves.

No, what bothered me instead was the continued roboticization of our interpersonal communications.  I wondered how many people, faced with this same scenario, would simply have chosen one of the three response options, used the phrasing proposed by the autobots, and been done with it.  The concept offended me, so I typed a response to the question in my own words — and of course the autobots made suggestions about my wording and employed autofill in case I needed to make the communications process even faster, more hassle-free . . . and less personal.

The whole incident made me think about how, in some respects, technology isn’t aiding meaningful human interaction, but instead might be effectively preventing it.  How much of our communications — from the “Happy birthday” wishes on Facebook to the proposed responses to email messages — is in fact a canned bit of programming sent by pushing a button, rather than the actual expression of a human being?

Nobody sends handwritten letters any more, but is a personally typed, self-composed email too much to ask?

Bad Robot

In these days of constant technological innovation, you almost expect to read about new marvels in robotics and “smart” technology on a daily basis.  But sometimes technological advancements aren’t really advancements at all.

russia-fake-robotConsider Boris the Robot, lauded on Russian TV as a cutting-edge development in robotics with the ability to walk, talk and dance.  Boris appeared on a broadcast, spoke in a robotic voice about his desire to learn to draw, and then danced to a song called Skibidi.  The broadcast said Boris’ dancing was “not that bad.”

But skeptics of Boris abounded.  How in the world could Boris move around without any observable external sensors, they wondered.  And why did the robot make so many “unnecessary movements” while dancing?  (A standard one hopes is never applied to human dancers, incidentally.)  And it also was suspicious that Boris just happened to be configured in a way that would have allowed a human being to be inside.

And then the illusion all came crashing down when a photo of Boris from behind showed a clearly visible section of human neck between Boris’ head and body.  Alas, Boris was in fact a guy in a robot suit — a robot suit specifically designed to give people “the near total illusion that before you stands a real robot.”

It just goes to show that it pays to retain a bit of skepticism about claimed technological advancements.  Before you buy that touted “smart” appliance, consider whether it’s really all that “smart” after all.  And before you go ga ga over a robot doing a twitching dance to modern music, be sure to check the neck area.

Smarter Than The Average Fridge

Recently I came downstairs in the morning, opened the refrigerator to get my customary glass of orange juice, and noticed that the juice was warmer than usual.  My internal sensors started sounding, and after a little checking I realized that the refrigerator didn’t seem to be cooling anything — or for that matter, working at all.

So, how to try to fix the problem?  The refrigerator is one of those big, multi-section units that was installed by the people who lived in this house before we bought it three years ago.  Given the constant advances in “smart appliance” technology, our refrigerator therefore isn’t at the head of the class, but it’s not like the simple old Norges or Amanas of my childhood, either.

It was a situation that called for some careful analysis.  After an initial examination of the device, I realized that the front display screen, which allows you to set the desired temperatures for the different sections, select cubed ice or crushed ice, and use a “power cool” feature, was illuminated.  I reasoned that that meant that the refrigerator was connected to a power source — which was a good thing because the refrigerator is much too heavy to actually move to visually check whether it was plugged in.  After feeling an initial flush of pride at my deductive powers, I then realized that the “0” in one temperature monitor part of the screen and the “FF” in an adjacent part of the screen were together spelling “0FF,” and I felt like an idiot.

I shook off the embarrassment.  A thorough examination of the interior and exterior of the refrigerator did not identify any switch or other method for turning the refrigerator back on, so the next step involved calling customer service — which was unavailable because it was a Saturday, and who would need to have a working refrigerator on the weekend?  Then it was on to the manufacturer’s website to see if it had any useful information.  There were dozens of tips on the website, but of course none that addressed our problem.  The best guess was to try to cut power to the unit, restart it a few minutes later, and see if it cycled back to the “on” position.  This allowed me to become better acquainted with the circuit breaker in the basement, but it didn’t work either.  At that point, we decided the best course was to just accept that the refrigerator wasn’t working, remove the food that was now at room temperature, and just wait until Monday to call for servicing.

On Monday, Kish called customer service, and was told that there probably had been some unnoticed overnight power surge or brief cutoff that caused the refrigerator to cycle to “off” mode, and she could restart the unit by pushing two of the buttons on the front panel simultaneously.  It worked, and we were back to having a functional refrigerator again.  I was a bit miffed, however.  Would it really have been so hard to have the two buttons to be pushed illuminated and blinking in some fashion, so we would have some clue about how to restart the device, or to have a message flash on the panel that gave us useful instruction?  Or, have clear guidance on the website advising what to do if your refrigerator is showing “0” and “FF” on the panel?  Shouldn’t a “smart” appliance provide such information under the circumstances?

Maybe I’m just mad because my refrigerator apparently is smarter than I am.

 

Think Before You Write

The on-line world once seemed like a fun, open place where you could easily and happily keep track of your friends’ trips, kids, and birthdays.  But as it has developed it seems to get angrier, and weirder, and creepier every day — to the point where many of the thoughtful people I know have decided to retreat completely from “social media” and avoid the on-line world like it’s a dangerous dark alley in the low-rent part of town.

7c7c8b97667c29573fc3c794bc33d0ca-night-time-night-photographyWhy have they decided to abandon Facebook and remove themselves from the internet to the maximum practicable extent in today’s on-line world?  Consider this story, about a woman who posted a negative on-line review of a local tavern where she’d gone for a bachelorette party.  She says she and her friends were well behaved and were inexplicably treated rudely by the bartender, so she gave the bar a bad rating, and some highly critical comments, on Yelp.  Other patrons of the bar, and the bartender, say the bachelorette party group was drunk and disruptive.

If we simply had a disagreement about what actually happened at the bar when the bachelorette party arrived, there would be no story here — we all know that there are two sides to every story and people’s perceptions of events can differ.  But this story took a sick and twisted turn when some people started reacting to the bad review by posting ugly, sexually explicit comments about the reviewer, found her Facebook page and where she worked, and even went on her wedding website and RSVP’d that they would be attending.  It’s a classic example of over-the-top, alarming cyberbullying that, unfortunately, has become increasingly common on-line.  And you never know what might trigger such behavior; a comment that you consider to be fair under the circumstances might push a cyberstalker over the edge and make you their target.

My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s not bad advice to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to write something negative on-line.  These days, who knows where a few harsh words might lead?