Verizon takes an OATH: the death of AOL and YAHOO!

Two of the Internet’s oldest and most well known names, Yahoo! and AOL, will soon cease to exist.  With their purchases by Verizon, both companies will be merged into something called OATH.  While it remains to be seen just how well the combined company will do, one is for certain, neither company is anything like the companies we knew and loved or loathed, back in their heyday.

Indeed.

Yahoo! was THE search site. Period.  It was the Google of the late nineties and very early double-aughts. If you needed to find something, you went to Yahoo!.  I used Excite, a lot, but, like today and Bing, I found myself always using Yahoo!  Then, at some point, it became Yahoo! Powered by Google.  What? What’s this ‘google’?  I know it is a very big number that Carl Sagan used to talk about…but, what’s this ‘powered by google’?  So, I used Yahoo! to search for google.  The aforementioned number was the top choice, then…Google.com. I click the link and…viola! This empty page, except for the search bar and ‘google’ popped up.  Well, it looks like Yahoo! has company.  I eventually gravitated to Google for my searches.  Excite went belly up, as did most of the other search engines.  But, Yahoo! and Google were there.  Oh, this ‘MSN Search’ thing too…it eventually became useful and its name changed to Bing!, but that was years later.

Yahoo! lingered on…buying up hot properties in a desperate attempt to remain relevant, but…to no avail.  It became relegated to a collection of has-been properties, a few of which are still regarded in some fashion.

Only a few short years ago, Yahoo! was worth tens of billions of dollars.  Microsoft offered something like thirty billion to buy them, but then-CEO Jerry Yang figured that he could get ‘a better deal’ and held out.  He didn’t. He lost his title.  Marissa Mayer was brought in to right the ship…she couldn’t either.  Verizon got it for a tenth of what Microsoft had offered, not even a decade ago. I won’t even talk about the lack of security. Yikes.

America Online.

What can I say? I loved AOL.  I joined in 1992.  It was my favorite past time, well, other than a certain type of human interaction, that is.

Wow, just think, I could click a button, this loud, screaching sound came out of somewhere and, in a minute, I was ONLINE!  I had all kinds of things to do…look stuff up, download pictures, software, source code, short video clips…man, that was cool.  Sure, it took a LONG time to download files that, today, are smaller than most images on a web page, but, this was the early 1990’s and the Internet was new and not widely available. Bulletin boards were the hot things and these ‘chat rooms’ on AOL…yeah, those were cool. Perhaps the ability to share my knowledge with anyone was my favorite thing to do ‘online’.  I had written several demos and applications in this Visual Basic for DOS thing that was, for a few days, HOT.  Yep, HOT.  At least in the VB ‘room’ on AOL.  My demos and app were downloaded were downloaded…what, a dozen times.  Wow.  There was one demo, a phone dialer, that was downloaded about fifty times…I thought I was IT. Yep, fifty times. How freaking cool?

Well, as time went on, this Internet thing got big. REALLY BIG. And so did AOL.  AOL WAS THE INTERNET. For many, many people.  Think about that.

By 1998 or 1999, AOL was bigger than most tech companies. So big, in fact, that it bought Time-Warner Communications in 2000.  What a colossal mistake.  What AOL never counted on was the quick adoption of  high speed internet.  And the internal resistance within the Time Warner part of the company was overwhelming.  “these snot nosed punks aren’t coming in here to tell me what to do.”

By 2005, AOL was dead.  At least, to most they were. The company was still doing OK. It eventually spun off from Time Warner.  It became a collection of popular blogs and, believe it or not, they still had a sizable dial up customer base.  However, it wasn’t enough.

Verizon bought them.

And, now, they will be called Oath.

Admittedly, there’s a certain nostalgia surrounding both companies. That sound from-whatever-when you logged into AOL.  The anticipatory ‘You’ve got mail’. The excitement when the AOL home screen popped up (and, boy, that original DOS AOL client was both beautiful and cool) and, later on, the AOL Browser.  Yahoo! on AOL.

You know, now that I think of it, I kind of miss that sound from whatever and that anticipatory ‘You’ve got mail.’  Only kind of, though.

 

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Windows 10 and Privacy: what you need to know

Much has been said about the privacy – or, rather, lack of – in Windows 10. Well, don’t worry about it, it is much ado about nothing.  Most of what’s been written is FUD or a poor understanding of what you can do in Windows 10. 

There are a couple of features in Windows 10 that seem to be causing the confusion: Cortana’s ‘learning’ you and WiFi Sense.

First, Cortana.

This just amazes me.  People can accept Siri on an iPad or iPhone and think nothing of it.  Same for Google Now. Yet, put Cortana on the desktop and people freak out. Doesn’t make sense: Cortana is doing the same thing that Siri and Google Now do. It sits there, learning what you browse, remembers what you search and gets to ‘know’ you.  What do you think Siri does? Heck, going to Google.com for your searches is just as intrusive. Use gmail? Well, guess what…Google reads your messages, looking for keywords to serve up more ads.  Oh, and it is looking for things that might trigger legal action too.  Just ask the guy who got nailed for pornographic pictures in his mail.

Never fear, though…you can turn off Cortana if you are still reluctant to use the feature. Goto Settings, Privacy and tap/click Speech, inking and typing.  Here, you can click/tap ‘Stop getting to know me’ and that will stop Cortana from learning and monitoring what you do.  While in the Privacy settings, you might want to turn off the following: Camera, Location, Microphone and everything in General. You will, of course, kill most of the functionality of many applications, but you will protect the little bit of privacy you may have left.

Yes, I am being sarcastic.  Turning off most of the features I mention will render things like Bing search, Google search and even maps, useless. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING is OK.  On a desktop, with no touchscreen, there is no need to let Microsoft know how you write, so you can turn off that feature in Privacy->General. Also, you should turn off that bloody ‘Advertising ID’.  Finally, click the ‘Manage my Microsoft advertising and other personalization info’ link and change those settings accordingly. Want personalized ads? then don’t do anything, but, if you don’t want ads about panty hose showing up your Facebook timeline because your wife searched for them, then turn this off.

WiFi Sense

WiFi Sense is a feature that debuted with Windows Phone 8.1.  It does a lot, but nothing very scary.  If on, it will fill in, with bogus stuff, those nag screens in public wifi hot spots. It can ‘click’ the I agree buttons on those pages.  It maintains a list of hot spots and can map them for you.

More importantly, however, it allows you to give friends access to your home network with out giving them the password.  They MUST be using Windows devices for it to work, it will NOT work with, say, an iPhone.  And, it does not ‘give’ anyone your password. Once they leave, their device no longer ‘knows’ about your network.

Still worried?

Go through the settings application.  You will want to look through the privacy settings. Many are on by default, some are off, like Cortana. You do not have to let it even start collecting your data.  Simply reply ‘no’ when asked. You are asked the first time you search for something in Windows.

Wifi Sense can be turned off and you will still be able to use hotspots, but will have to give your friends your password.  It is YOUR decision.

Windows 10 is no more a privacy problem for you than anything else and, at least, you can control how much or how little privacy you keep.  Unlike with Google.

CES 2015: webOS, tablets and funky tv’s

The 2015 International CES is over.  Among the products and product lines shown off were curved Televisions, 4K TV, ‘quantum dot’ TV, TV dongles, tablets, smartphones and accessories, self driving cars and more computers-of all shapes and sizes. Oh, and smart watches and fitness bands. Lots of them.

So, where do we start?  Well, lets start with one of my favorite operating systems. This OS is now in televisions, phones and … soon, smart watches.  Yep, webOS is making a splash with LG spearheading the way.  They purchased the OS from HP in 2013 and began adapting it for use in smart televisions.  The first effort, while it sold five million televisions, was less than stallear. webOS 2.0, however, is said to be fast and easier to code for than the previous release.  It has also been shrunk down to watch size.  LG has, seemingly, teamed with Audi to produce a watch that can open the car doors, place calls and a plethora of things.  LG denies it and Audi was just trying to show off the car.  The Verge reports seeing an ‘about’ screen that shows the webOS version.  For a dead OS, it sure is making a splash.  The interesting thing is that, at the current rate, LG will have more webOS devices in the wild than Palm/HP Palm ever could.

Intel showed off its Compute Stick, an HDMI dongle for your Television that is a complete Windows computer on a stick.  Selling for $149, the Compute Stick features an Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and features a micro-SD slot for future expansion. So, it is a rather spartan PC, but, it is very portable and Wifi enabled,so you could just throw it in a bag, your pocket, whatever and take it with you instead of a laptop. The drawbacks, of course, are that you do need a keyboard and mouse AND an HDMI enabled display. But, if you don’t mind these limitations, the Stick might just be your travelling companion.  A cheaper, $89 version running Linux will also be available.  Though, the Linux version sports half the RAM and only 8GB of storage.

I’m no Sony fan, but, I would definitely purchase their newest 65 inch set. This thing is 4.9 mm thick. The 4K set is thinner than most current smartphones.  It is edge to edge awesomness.

In a big nod to Microsoft’s Surface tablets, a group of former Google engineers introduced the Remix. To be offered up next month via a Kickstarter campaign, the device has many of the same features of Surface, looks like the Surface and its software, another Android fork, even resembles Windows 8 applications and its mail client is a rip off of Windows 8 mail.  Still, It says much about Surface that these gentlemen would decide to ‘me too’ the tablet.

Speaking of tablets, there were plenty to choose from. From a six inch Windows tablet all the way up to a 65 inch, 4k enabled tablet from FUHU.  Perhaps the most interesting ones, however, are the under $150 Windows tablets which are going to be available in the next month or so.  There were no new Kindles, but there were a bunch of Android tablets as well. No one tablet really stood out (well, maybe that 65 incher) but they were all well represented.  Have a look on CNet’s News.Com for more.

For a complete wrap up of the events at CES, the Verge has a good summary.

That so called ‘data breach’ of iCloud? Didn’t happen

Long time readers of this blog pretty much know that I am not a big fan of Apple. While I do think they have some good products, I don’t like the way they treat their customers (like infants who need coddling, for the most part) nor do I like the perceived ‘premium’ that is Apple when, in fact, they aren’t any better than, say, HP or Sony.  So, when I heard about the data breach, err, alleged data breach of iCould, I was, initially, in the ‘huh, how about that…how are they gonna get past this?’ mode.

Well, it’s really very simple.  They aren’t 100% at fault. They do shoulder SOME responsibility, but, for the most part, the ‘breach’ was really nothing more than some phishing, luck and a brute force exploitation of something that Apple fixed as soon as it was known to the public.

First, the problem: a number of celebs, apparently, enjoy photographing themselves and, perhaps, partners in compromising poses in the nude. Now, that’s their business, not mine, but…to do so on an iPHONE!? C’mon. So, these iPhones were backing the photos up to iCloud.  My guess is that most of these people did not know this was the case. Some, perhaps, did and then deleted the photos. Problem was that pesky iPhone backup. The photos were there. Whatever the cause, these photos were up on iCloud in a space that was accessible if you knew where and how to get there.

Next, the back door.  When you get an iPhone, you have to set it up. One of the things you set up-or not-is the Find My iPhone feature.  You use your Apple ID and Password for this.  Problem is, and unlike other services or even other parts of Apple, there was no cutoff to the number of guesses for the password. IF you know the ID, you could take forever to guess the password. And, that is, very likely, how access happened. The perpetrator thanked ‘all of those who helped’, so he/she probably had many people hacking away at a few specific targets. Once they got in, they got what appears to be iPhone backup files.

Apple swiftly fixed the problem with the password by limiting the number of guesses allowed.

Now, while this is still a crime and not a laughing matter, I do have to wonder why the mainstream press made this out to be such a huge deal. It isn’t. Yes, I am sorry Jennifer Lawrence’s photos went public, I’d be pissed too, but…the press had other pressing things to report. 

That said, there are things you can do to protect your photos and data. And, remember, things like this can happen no matter what phone or device or service you use. These people did take advantage of a weakness in the Apple ecosystem. But, it could have happened purely by social means as well. So, what can you do?

First, enable two factor authentication. Depending on what service you use, this means a password and some other means, like identifying a photo, biometrics, whatever. Check into what your service offers.

Second, disable the auto upload of photos on your device. Apple enables it by default on the iPhone. Android, does not and neither does Windows Phone.

Third, check the privacy settings on the service.

If you must take ‘fun’ photos of an adult nature, don’t use a smartphone. Use a real camera.  Protect the media you store them on.  NEVER upload them. Once uploaded, there is always that chance they get out to the public. A disgruntled employee, a weakness in the system, poor passwords, you name it, it could happen.

Lastly, NEVER use identifiable email addresses. Create a cryptic email address at Outlook.com, Yahoo! or even GMAIL. Use that for your password recovery or even your account’s email. That way, most people won’t bother to try to break it.

So, there you have it.  Apple’s reliance on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Amazon’s AWS gives them rock solid foundations. They have made big strides in the front end as well. The steps they have taken to make the iPhone both safe and easy to use made this entire fiasco very unlikely to be anything other than what it was…a lucky hit by a few with nothing else better to do. Cut Apple some slack here.

Bad, bad Lero…err, USB…baddest USB in the whole town

USB. We all use it. It is ubiquitous these days. Our phones use it for power and to transfer data to and from the phone to a computer. Our keyboards, mice, mobile devices, external hard disks, cameras, you name it, it probably has a USB port.  Even some of our power outlets in the wall have them.  So, why am I saying something you already know? Well, two gentlemen at SRS Labs have ‘discovered’ something that many of us probably knew, but just didn’t want to admit.

usb-drive-2What’s that, you say?

Well, unless the USB device is a simple power adapter, it contains a tiny little computer.  Yep, the two dollar USB Thumb drive is, in fact, a full fledged little computer. It has a CPU, internal memory, firmware (the OS or software that makes it all work, including the complicated USB protocol itself) and, of course, the gigs of memory that you bought it for. So, what does this mean? 

Well, for the vast majority of things, it means little.  However, there is a significant portion of USB devices-mainly the aforementioned two dollar thumb drive-that contain EEPROM instead ROM.

EEPROM is erasable programmable read only memory. It is a type of ROM that can, with the right combination of hardware and software, have its memory replaced-something standard ROM cannot do.  ROM, or READ ONLY MEMORY, is a write once memory. That is, once you have ‘burned’ or uploaded whatever you want to put in it, it cannot be changed. So, you better get it right the first time.  Which is why, I’m guessing, that some of the lower cost drives use EEPROM instead of ROM.  Perhaps the same chips are used in two or three memory sizes. It is easier to re-burn an EEPROM with different parameters than to purchase unused ROMS, go through the hassle of burning them, etc.   EEPROMS are just convenient.

So, what, exactly does this mean? So what if they used EEPROM, what does that have to do with me?

Simple: YOUR USB device COULD be hacked and its firmware changed to accomplish something more nefarious than just saving your Leonard Nimoy musical collection. 

For example, say that two dollar thumb drive was intercepted at some point before it got to the store. It’s firmware changed so that when you plug it in, it makes a copy of itself on your computer. It plants something in your operating system that allows it to copy itself back to other USB drives. Oh, it also could record your keystrokes. Or, perhaps, it could encrypt your data. Bottom line is that you don’t know what it could do.

One concern is that the device, if compromised, could actually overwrite your computer’s operating system.  Now, the chances of this happening are astronomical. I chuckled when I heard it, but…it is not out of the realm of possibilities.  So, maybe unplug the thumb drive before you shut the computer down, if you do that.

Now, before you go throw them all away, consider this:  there’s been no known exploits.  Most USB devices likely use real ROM-certainly the firmware in that Seagate you bought is in ROM. The chances of your computer actually being able to re-program other USB devices is likely slim. These embedded computers are limited in what they can do.

I, personally, am not too concerned about this, but I will think twice about grabbing that freebie drive or getting them at the Dollar General or Five Below. (Note: those are two fine stores, but some of the merchandise may not be as fine. They cannot control distribution from end to end. Just saying)

The two researchers are presenting their findings at the Black Hat conference this week. I will follow up this post with any additional information they present.

Steven Nichols has a typical story that came out this past week regarding BadUSB. Have a gander here.

Firefox less secure than Internet Explorer

Now, that headline grabbed your attention, didn’t it?  Regardless of the validity of that statement, Firefox did, in fact, have the most exposed vulnerabilities at this years Pwn2Own event, sponsored by HP.

Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Adobe Flash were all compromised during the two day event, which saw HP dole out $850,000 in award money.  The monies were paid out for the exposure of the flaws. 

IE was exploited once on each day. Safari, a previous popular choice for exploitation, was only exploited by one team.  Chrome was also exploited, once. Both Safari and Chrome had their sandboxes bypassed, allowing code execution in the ‘real world.’

Firefox, on the other hand, was like a runny faucet, exploited three times on the first day and once on the second day.  Mozilla, however, is generally pretty quick in fixing the troubled browser, so I wouldn’t worry too much. If you use Firefox, be sure to update it when you get the notification.

In previous Pwn2Own events, Safari was generally the first to fall and the easiest. It seems to have fared a bit better this year.  Internet Explorer is generally a popular choice for teams to go after, but, it too, seems to be faring better in recent events. Both Google and Mozilla WANT their browsers to be exploited, so they can fix them and make them better. If this years event is any indication, Firefox should be bullet proof pretty soon.

YAWN…CES 2014 just happened…YAWN

Happy New Year!

As with the previous forty or so years, the year started off with the Consumer Electronics Show. Most previous shows have spotlighted trends or a trend in the industry that is going to be ‘big’ for the next few years, or, at least, until the next CES.  The last couple of years saw tablet computers and three-d television as the trends. Well, tablets were, three-d television? Well, we are still waiting for that to take off. This year, it’s wearable computing and curved television.

Wait, what?

Yes, curved television. Its supposed to help with the theatrical experience. Hmm…not sure about that. I think someone only had space in a corner of a room and decided they needed a curved screen.

Wearable computers.  This is a bit of a misnomer too.  When you carry your smartphone, you are, in effect, wearing it. So, this is really nothing new. However, smartwatches-a category that has been around since the 1970’s, and highlighted by Microsoft in the double oughts’-were THE thing. There were watches by Pebble, Sony, LG and Samsung. They SEEM useful enough, but, thing is, not many younger people wear a watch or WANT to wear a watch. So, I have to wonder who these are for…as geeky as I am, I’m not sure I’d want one either.  Well, maybe if it ran Windows Phone 8.

This is probably the first CES in years that was wholly unexciting. Maybe I’m just jaded now, maybe I just don’t get as excited for tech, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, CES failed to get me interested enough to write more than what I just did.