Thursday, 23 October 2014

Private Apps Are Watching You


Jonathan Zdziarski, a leading security expert with significant expertise in the Apple eco system, wrote his observations after taking a quick look at the Whisper app for the iPhone. By now you probably know that Whisper, an app meant to fill the niche for secretive social media, is the exact opposite. What I found interesting is how the app accomplishes this, as revealed by Zdziarski.
First, note how the app creates a unique ID for the user's device. Unlike anything else so far that may have been used to identify you on the Internet, such as an IP address, there is no plausible deniability here. This identification pinpoints the exact device, regardless of whether you are trying to use VPN or TOR to obscure your identity. Nothing that we can access through a web browser has the ability to achieve this without inflicting severe malware; this is, therefore, a significant “achievement” for apps. 
Second, note the casual way in which the app demands to know your exact location, even though nothing it can offer really needs anything finer than rough. Let us recall that an IP address alone is enough to identify one’s location already. This spells contempt for the user on many grounds, starting from disrespect for battery life and moving on to disrespect for their privacy. All for unnecessary reasons.

OK, you may not have heard of Whisper before and may definitely not be interested in using the app. Fine; I’m not interested in it, either. That does not mean other apps you are interested in do not pull the same tricks. I already noticed certain freemium games, such as Godus, having the uncanny ability to remember where we got to in the game despite device resets, restorations and iOS upgrades. We already know Rovio collects such information about its Angry Birds users, so much so that the mighty NSA had decided to tap into their databases.
The lack of attention society pays to such abuses of privacy mean app developers feel as if they have the mandate to push further through. I suspect that by the time we wake up it will already be too late.


Image by Tim@SW2008, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

You Know People Don't Give a F*ck abouy Copyright

When every time people feel the need to use images to support the written message they are trying to convey, they will - without fail* - infringe someone’s copyrights.


*The only exceptions to this rule that I am able to observe take place in:
1. Cases where the written message goes out to the outside world, which could leave the messenger legally exposed.
2. Cases where the messenger objects to copyright to an extent that they prefer to wage war on it by utilising material licensed under Creative Commons licences.


Image by Sam Teigen, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Google's Education

My son’s school ran an evening presentation for parents detailing its IT policy for the next three years. I won’t bore you with the details of this two hour long presentation; more than half was devoted to “Doh!” grade material along the lines of the case for letting kids learn about/with computers in the first place. The policy itself is good, and – to this self declared expert – stands well on that very unattainable equilibrium of price, value and practicality. I will also note the school principle stood out to let us know parents who cannot afford the cost will be supported, a point whose absence I would consider casus belli on any school IT plan.


My wife allowed me to attend the session only if I promise to behave. Which is one of the reasons I did not make a fuss of what I consider to be a deep chasm in the presenter’s understanding of the concept of online privacy.
Under the banner of privacy, the presented informed us the school kids will use either Google’s educational apps and/or Microsoft Office 365 educational suite. Both are cloud based. The reason this was presented under the privacy flag? Each child will have their own separate account, and the whole school will have its own area that no one else can touch.
This is where I have my reservations. Yes, no one else can touch this area, NSA & Co excepted, but what about Google itself? Surely, it does not provide all these educational facilities because it thinks my child and his school colleagues are so good looking? No, I was told, I needn’t worry; Google promises not to do anything with the information it collects through the educational program. They even have a separate privacy policy to cover that program.
So I went and checked that privacy policy. You can go to pages explaining it to the laymen, such as this one here. This is where the presenter’s naivety struck me. I could accept such naivety a while ago, but in this post Snowden age? In an environment where we know governments and companies lie to us and hide behind carefully spun words to hide their true acts? No.
Have a look at the following clause from Google:
We do not scan your data or email in Google Apps Services for advertising purposes.
Note the glaring absences. Sure, in its creation of a personal dossier of its users, Google will not use anything done through its suite of educational apps. However, do note that Google does not limit itself when it comes to things done outside that suite. For example, what if a child starting to explore their sexuality ventures outside Google’s apps while using the same browser they’re logged in to Google with? And what if those websites the child visits ring Google back through facilities such as Google Analytics, DoubleClick or Google Adsense? Google’s privacy policy does not say what Google will do with information it collects this way. Given what we have learnt from Snowden, this reads like Google having a field day to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Google’s educational suite is pretty good and I suspect the vast majority would consider me a paranoid for the threat I consider Google to pose on my son’s privacy. However, my point here is simply to point out that Google is no angel; that Google is giving away free stuff, like its Android operating system, because it makes money out of our privacy. It makes tons of it. And we shouldn’t ignore that when we consider our children’s education options.
This is why, out of the two options, I would prefer my son to use Office 365. It’s not that Microsoft is a beacon for privacy; it is to do with Microsoft having less of a strangle hold on the Internet. In this world where your privacy is guaranteed to evaporate once you venture online, my risk minimisation approach includes hedging my bets with the various players. I apply that approach with my choice of cloud storage providers, and I suggest it applies to schools’ IT policies just the same.


Image by Giulia Forsythe, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

New York, New York


A Twitter friend (now here’s a term worth exploring!) published her Central Park wedding photo on Instagram. New York weddings for an Australian are obviously a special affair, but if you care to look at the photo you would see the wedding was special in at least one other way: it was a gay wedding. Isn’t New York special?
As it happens, New York has special meaning to me, too. I’ve touched it before, how this Tel Aviv boy’s visit to New York opened my eyes. New York was the place my father and I climbed all the way up the Statue of Liberty (all knees involved in the proceedings hurt for a week; steep stairs). New York is where my father and I shared a hotel room just opposite the Chrysler Building, with that most wonderful of buildings glimmering for our pleasure every morning. And New York was where my father and I took the lift up to the top of the Twin Towers, a lift remembered for counting floors in tens and making me feel, for a minute, as if I was an astronaut. I have many quarrels with the 11 September terrorists, but taking down this venue of personal importance, the building I probably looked up to the most (pun intended), is right there at the top.
I can’t speak for my friend, but it does seem to me as if New York had fulfilled a similar role for her as it did me. For both of us New York was a place we came to visit in order to achieve the impossible, after which we came back to the real world. This child returned to the backwater that Israel was at the time, while my friend returned to a country that does not grant her equal rights. And now, in my thoughts, I just came back from a city where I still have a father.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Love Me Tinder


The social life of an adult seems to have its stages. We have the stage when everyone you know gets married, which is followed by the stage where everyone you know has their first child. During each of those stages it feels cool to be there with the norm; disobey it and you’re the outsider who is under constant pressure.
Well, now it seems I am on to the next stage of my social life. Once again, everyone around me seems to be taking part in this cool rite while I am left to fill the role of the outsider. Welcome to the age when it is cool to divorce!
It really does seem as if every social interaction I get in the company of males my age quickly deteriorates into the merits of leaving the old life behind and the sparkle of returning to one’s bachelor’s days. They even got the apps to support them: Tinder, an app I first heard of through a Time magazine article, is a hit with this demographic. [If you haven’t heard of Tinder then, boy, you are so uncool! It’s a dating app featuring nothing but photos of potential candidates, as taken from their Facebook accounts.]
Me, I’m used to the role of the uncool sceptic. It doesn’t take long to figure out that loudness does not equal numbers; the bulk of the people I know are still with their original partners. Psychologically speaking, it doesn’t take much to figure out the glorification of the divorce is meant to act as a mechanism to compensate for the damage that comes with admitting failure.
I’m not saying that divorcees are losers or anything like that. To each their own way and their own solutions. I am only trying to point out that cool trends are not always what they crack up to be. Besides, it’s not like my original bachelor days were all the rage; the original reasons for being happy to have found a partner in the person I now call my partner still stand today. Probably even much more than they did back then.
Then again, I was never cool.


Image by Jo Christian Oterhals, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Friday, 3 October 2014

Family Sharing, Apple Style


One of iOS 8’s core new features is Family Sharing. Since I like my family and I like sharing, I will dedicate a post to the feature.
Up until now, Apple allowed an Apple ID to be used across up to 5 computers and as many iOS devices as one wanted. Naturally, because I did not want each family member to have to repurchase any app that I had already paid for, we ended up with my account used on all the family’s iOS gadgets. Which can be a bit of a pain, especially in the iCloud department and given my very strict approach to matters of security.
Enter Family Sharing. Now, with iOS 8, each family member can use their own Apple ID while purchases are shared between family members. Also, future purchases all come off the central account (in my family’s case, mine), with the exception of members that decide to use iTunes cards on their own account (but why would they?). Things can also be set up so that certain family members require other members’ approval for purchases while other family members can be set up as official request approvers. Don't take my word for it, read Apple's features list here.
From Apple’s point of view, as a company whose core product is an overpriced ecosystem, Family Sharing makes perfect sense: make the life of its loyal users lovelier and you can rest assured thoughts of defecting to the much cheaper Android Land are quickly subdued. Essentially, we're talking about Apple taking care of its milking cow.
That’s very nice of Apple, I agree, but I would also point out that in order for this whole thing to work two things need to happen:
  1. iOS users should be able to set Family Sharing up, and
  2. The environment, apps and all, needs to support it.
Sadly, I am here to report that neither is taking place. Instead of Apple delivering the slick product one normally associates with the Apple brand, Family Sharing is proving to be half baked, defective and - worse - broken by design. In other words, Family Sharing is joining other recent Apple failures in giving away the impression that things aren’t going all that well up there in Cupertino.
Allow me to regale you with the details.

Once iOS 8 was out, I made sure to upgrade the family’s arsenal of relevant gadgets – iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs – as quickly as possible. Or rather, as quickly as Apple would let me; it took ages for the upgrade, now fed exclusively through Apple’s own servers, to trickle down our separate gadgets. For the record, I do consider the upgrade important and dare I say mandatory for security reasons alone: Apple did some great stuff in iOS 8 to help users, and only the users, own their iGadget.
Once we were all upgraded I went ahead and set Family Sharing up. It was a fairly quick affair; if you want a nice guide for setting it up, check this one out.
Problems started when the time came to install apps I already purchased on the family members’ gadgets. They wouldn't let us do so without paying, again. I also noted that on certain family members gadgets apps purchased by me would update, while on other family members’ gadgets an error message would appear, informing them the app was purchased under a different account and blocking the update. So much for family sharing, then.
I checked the interweb but found no accounts of people facing similar problems, so I dared and contacted Apple’s support through their website. I will give Apple much praise there: their support efforts proved incredible! I clicked on their site’s “call me” button and provided my phone number; I was informed someone would call me in 2 minutes; and, to my astonishment, an Apple representative did call me after 2 minutes! I didn’t even have to spend money on a phone call.
First thing first, the Singapore based Apple support woman I was talking to explained that in order to access previously purchased apps for downloading I shouldn’t be searching for them using the normal app search facilities. Instead, I should look for them under the “Purchased” tab of the Appstore app. Dumb and rather unintuitive, and by now I can also say wrong, but I’ll live with that.
Alas, a family member’s iPhone still wouldn’t budge. It still demanded payment for apps I previously purchased; not only that, it would show conflicting information with regards to who is logged in depending on whether you asked the Appstore app or the iTunes app. The Apple support people told me, as we were trying things out, that when I logged in under the family member’s account it actually showed them that I was logging in as myself; I had to send them screen shots for them to believe me. That’s one nice iOS 8 bug right there, and apparently I was the first to call Apple on this one!
Things got complicated and I was escalated three technical levels up during the call. That initial call ended up lasting for more than an hour, after which the woman assigned to help me kept contact with me for several days over email and phone until my problem was finally solved. Turns out that after establishing Family Sharing, that problematic family member of mine still had to verify their account again, without being prompted, and initiate the process by very non intuitively clicking on their email address on a secondary Family Sharing setup screen. In my book, that’s a bug, too.
I will stress my praise for the Apple Support team’s efforts. I severely doubt any other operating system provider would have gone as far as Apple did (Microsoft, for example, didn't prove half as helpful when I contacted them in the past). Clearly, Apple makes an effort to hold on to core users of its ecosystem, providing us with another reason to keep inside.

But then came IMDB to spoil the party. You see, contrary to initial reports, Family Sharing is flawed by design. It is flawed because a day after iOS 8 was released, Apple announced developers would be able to determine whether Family Sharing is enabled on their apps. Not only that, developers would be able to specify cut off dates for Family Sharing.
Now, let me ask you this: what good is Family Sharing if it has exceptions? Does Apple really think people would repurchase apps? No sane person would do that; instead, people would just login under their previous account, the way we all did prior to iOS 8. What we have here is a pretty dumb way to ensure that over time, Family Sharing is useless and meaningless. Apple really made an effort at stupid with this one!
Which is exactly what the Amazon owned IMDB app chose to do. Granted, IMDB is a free app, but – probably due to reasons involving being better abled at tracking users down – it had decided to not support Family Sharing. The result? The IMDB app would not update on family members’ iGadgets, only on mine.
Given that IMDB is a free app, I went ahead and deleted the app from one offended gadget under the assumption I’d be able to repurchase the app through the gadget’s corresponding account. After all, IMDB is a free app, so even though I think it’s stupid to ask me to repurchase it I’ll survive doing so. But no! The Appstore app will not let me repurchase the app; because Family Sharing is set up, it still displays the “cloud” download symbol when I select the IMDB app, signifying the app has already been purchased. It gets worse: When I click on the cloud symbol, I received an error message telling me the app was purchased under a different account.
Things aren't much better on another family member's iPad: I did not delete IMDB there, but - as a reward for my loyalty - no other app can be updated. There's no error message or anything, they just won't update. [4/10/2014 update: it seems my inability to update all other apps was related to an Apple Appstore outage rather than Family Sharing; I am now able to update the rest of the apps, but not IMDB.]
Do you get what’s happening here? Apple’s Family Sharing has left one family member unable to use an app, and another family member unable to keep their apps up to date!
I contacted Apple for help with this one two nights ago. I am still waiting on their reply.

Long story aside, it is clear iOS 8’s Family Sharing is bugs galore. When one of the main reasons for forking out the extra cash for an iOS gadget is that it "always works", Apple is clearly doing itself a disservice here.
Great support efforts or not, Family Sharing is a poorly designed and conceived product.


Image copyrights: Apple, used under the assumption of fair use


21/10/2014 update:
I was hoping Apple would address the bugs I have identified in Family Sharing in its iOS 8.1 release, issued today (Australia time). It didn't.
I am still encountering the same problems, albeit with a slightly different error message. Check the following iOS 8.1 error message out:


As you can see, when I use a family member's iPhone to click on the "Free" button to purchase the app (Dropbox) which I had previously bought on my own account, the Appstore app does not let me buy the app; instead it gives me this lovely error message.
I canvassed the matter with Apple's Support again, this time via online chat. They promised to get back to me, admitting that something stinks here, but in the meantime we have found a workaround: logging out of the Apple account and in again, inside the Appstore app, temporarily retrieves the ability to purchase previously purchased apps. But only temporarily; I had to repeat the act several times to get through the whole backlog of applications that would not support Family Sharing (but offered updated versions to the previously installed ones).

Thursday, 2 October 2014

All you need to know about contemporary Australian politics in 13 bullet points

  1. Like any organisation worth its name, and like most other political parties, the Australian Liberal Party’s chief concern is with the preservation of the Liberal Party.
  2. In order to ensure its preservation, the Liberal Party needs money.
  3. In order to get money, it needs to be on the good side of its beneficiaries. Which, in the case of the Liberal Party, is the rich ruling class (aka "The One Percent").
  4. Therefore, the Liberal Party is dedicated, first and foremost, to serving this class.
  5. In its wisdom, the Australian electorate has decided to put the Liberal Party with its allies (aka "The Coalition") in charge of running Australia.
  6. Once in control, the Liberal Party wasted no time in doing its masters’ bidding. The prime manifestation of that is its budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
  7. Clearly, the Australian people did not like a budget that screwed the vast majority of them in and out.
  8. The popularity of the Liberal Party started to sink faster than the Titanic.
  9. It became obvious to Liberal Party leaders that, if they want to further pursue their goals, the public’s attention needs to be distracted.
  10. A new old enemy has been quickly retrieved from the recycling bin, ISIS.
  11. Australia is now waging war on ISIS, both internally and internationally.
  12. Feeding off pre-existing xenophobia, previously witnessed through attitude towards the plight of refugees, and with the aid of the media, the public proves easily distracted.
  13. Now free to return to its core agenda of serving the ruling class that feeds it, the Liberal Party passes new legislation allowing those in power to do whatever they want to whoever they want.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Walking in Your Footsteps


This blog had spent more than a words on Israel's famous Prisoner X. Specifically, on how a person and their trial could be removed from the public record.
Australia was never too far behind, as Muhamed Haneef will tell you. Now, however, Australia is taking the significant step of legalising the whole concept to an unprecedented degree.

China and Russia, look behind you! Australia is coming!