The Encryption Kerfuffle

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Anyone paying even slight attention to the news in recent years will have noted that our government specifically the NSA has been reading our mail and the mail of many folks overseas with what amounts to complete impunity. Regardless of any 4th amendment rights in the name of stopping terrorism and catching predators our privacy rights have been routinely and massively violated.

In a logical response to these actions Apple and Google have both released operating systems which encrypt content and communication to and from our smart phones. Without access to the passcode on the devices neither The feds, Apple or Google would be able to routinely decrypt the data.  These changes have led to calls from various off our data overlord to make these operating system changes essentially criminal.

Encryption isn’t new, if you could be bothered to do it, it’s been available from a wide variety of sources for a long time and none of those suppliers have been prosecuted for doing that so far. All Apple and Google are doing is making that the default rather than the exception.  If bad actors could get tough encryption before and they weren’t already using it, presumably this change will only protect the dumb and lazy bad actors. What it does do is it makes it harder for the NSA to conduct massive unwarranted collection programs against US citizens.

I for one am heartily sick of being routinely spied on and over policed by the people we pay to protect and serve.  I realize that in so saying I’m in danger of coming of as one of the right-wingnuts I excoriate on a regular basis…but really! Had the government shown any shred of decency or reasonableness in recent years I’d be less keen to take this line. However they have routinely used new technology, a flagrant disregard of our privacy rights and hackneyed and vague threats to tear up the constitution. They weren’t able to get the affordable healthcare site up on time but man they are great at listening in at massive scale.

So by all means make our phones and email much more secure, or at least secure enough so that the government will have to play by the rules it devised for itself to spy on their own people enmass. Just because you may have nothing to hide does not make it OK for our overlords to routinely check out what may or may not be going on in our lives. Get a warrant and make the case or leave us alone.

New Earthquake Warning Technology Facing Funding Shortfall

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Over the summer, San Francisco was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, leveling buildings and injuring 172 Bay Area residents. However, much of the Bay Area breathed a sigh of relief: They had been spared the big one, once again.

Unbeknownst to many Bay Area residents, however, researchers at places like the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with technology that would provide an early warning system for the next major earthquake. In this case, the technology worked, sounding an alarm just seconds before the North Bay quake.

ShakeAlert, as it’s called, is a partnership between Cal, the University of Washington, CalTech, the Southern California Earthquake Center, and the United States Geological Survey. And it is fascinating how it works:

The objective of warning of an early earthquake is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage, arrives.

Similar systems are already in use in Mexico and Japan, where they’ve provided early warning for quakes. Yet, it’s facing an $80 million funding shortfall — despite a state mandate to create an early-warning system and private funding supporting the research.

Currently, only private firms offer early warning systems, and these are primarily geared towards industry, not public works and individual consumers. If you want an early warning system to turn off valves in an oil refinery, for example, you can find the equipment to do it — if you can afford the materials, installation costs, and ongoing maintenance.

Testing of such systems uses real-time tracking of seismic events, paired with predictions, to determine accuracy, increase lead time on warnings, and estimate error rates. But experimental data still aren’t made public, even if such information could provide a public safety benefit.

Will California, or another U.S. state, have to wait for a major quake before the necessary funding is pushed through? This may be exactly what happens, as California is struggling to fund ShakeAlert and the necessary equipment, seismic observation stations, and personnel to make the system work with a high degree of accuracy.

Proponents of the ShakeAlert could release the rudimentary system, stressing that it is incomplete, not quite ready for launch, and potentially unreliable, but it is better than nothing. The launch would have to be accompanied with warnings that citizens shouldn’t get too complacent, because the advance notice provided likely wouldn’t be very extensive, and false alarms could occur. Citizens would need to back up ShakeAlert or a similar system with earthquakepreparations as already recommended by the state and other agencies.

Or, they could keep the technology under wraps as it remains under development, focusing on making it as good as possible before it’s released. In the meantime, earthquakes could cause millions or billions worth of damage accompanied by severe injuries and loss of life that could have been prevented had such a system been implemented, leaving officials in an unenviable position.

The images that have circulated the internet following the earthquake of broken wine stocks and bottles in Napa Valley and minor damage in other areas are just a tiny sliver of California’s possible future, the consequence of living on fractured and restless ground. In the face of that knowledge, how can the state defend a refusal to fund life-saving technology?

Apple has gone big. Will they ever go back?

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For the first few years, Apple’s iPhone product strategy was as simple as it gets: release one new model per year. To be clear, it is still simple, even as the company has released two separate models in each of the past two years. As Apple broadens its portfolio to target different market segments, the strategic considerations going forward become a little bit more complex.

Apple’s move upmarket to larger phones has been anticipated for quite some time, and investors are clearly optimistic about the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as shares continue to flirt with all-time highs. The company was able to partially resist the trend toward larger phones by releasing the 4-inch iPhone 5 in 2012. It was becoming painfully obvious that 3.5-inch displays wouldn’t be sufficient for much longer, especially in flagship high-end smartphones competing with Samsung Galaxies.

However, the shift from 4-inch displays to 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays is a bit different. The market for 4-inch smartphones will likely sustain itself. Apple now faces an interesting strategic conundrum. Each year, Apple shifts older models to successively lower price points. This strategy is beneficial because it effectively extends the useful life of each model to 3 years or more, which is utterly unheard of in the smartphone industry. That also means Apple milks plenty of value out of all the manufacturing gear it installs to produce the devices, getting a lot of bang for its capital expenditure bucks.

Under the current trajectory, the iPhone 6 would fall to the mid-range $100 on contract price in 2015, and subsequently be free on contract in 2016. That would also theoretically include discontinuing all smaller devices at that point, and 4.7-inch displays would be the norm.

Alternatively, what if Apple were to update each model for each market segment each year? Consumers in the market for 4-inch phones don’t want to always be relegated to last year’s specs and features. Taking this notion a step farther, Apple could even introduce 3 models per year to target each segment (4-inch, 4.7-inch, and 5.5-inch), and use the waterfall strategy within each. Seeing as how Apple is moving to two models per year, three doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

Of course, product depth has always been a key strength for Apple. The risk would be that Apple’s iPhone lineup becomes bloated to the point of distraction, which is a common weakness of rival smartphone OEMs. The aforementioned strategy would eventually expand the portfolio to 9 distinct devices, up from the current 4. The last thing that Apple wants to do is spread itself too thin, but the company could strike a balance.

It could also increase Apple’s capital requirements if the company needs to acquire even more manufacturing equipment. That’s not to say that Apple can’t afford it with its $141 billion in cash, and capital expenditures are currently less than 5% of revenue over the past four quarters.

But the benefit would be a stronger lineup within each discrete market segment, and Apple could exert its typical pricing power and extract a premium for its efforts. That might be worth the trouble.

Government Agencies Look to Tweaking Technology Instead of Innovation

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The future of government innovation in services and service delivery won’t necessarily be found in new technologies, but will instead come from remixing current technologies in new and interesting ways.

Anyone who drives has seen the sight – the car pulled off to the side of the road with a police car, lights flashing madly, parked in behind it. Drivers get pulled over for a number of reasons but the most common reason is exceeding the posted speed limit.

According to Statisticsbrain.com, an average 112,000 people per day receive a speeding ticket and at an average cost of $152 per ticket issued results in over $6 billion generated for government just from speeding tickets. That means that government agencies in the U.S. receive on average $300,000 in revenue per year per police officer just from speeding tickets.

Beyond radar and laser detectors, jammers, license plate covers and all of the other technologies drivers employ to try to avoid the dreaded speeding ticket, the newest technology in the driver-versus-police battle seems to be crowd sourced information.

For example, Waze is a social navigation, GPS, maps/traffic app that is available on both the Android and iOS platform. Besides crowdsourcing information on traffic flow, accidents, debris in the road, other Waze users also enter when they see a police officer on the road. Using location services like cellular and Wi-Fi triangulation, GPS networks, and other beacons, Waze can track your location and let you know when a police officer has been identified near you. So it is a legal way to know when there is a police officer right around the corner.

The technologies that enable Waze may also be the basis for the replacement of the traffic officer and the traffic stop. Since Waze and other navigation apps know where you are located, they can accurately calculate your speed at any given moment. This technology could feasibly also track when you don’t stop at a red light, or go the wrong way down a one way street, or a multitude of other traffic violations. The thing missing is positively identifying the driver as compared to someone just riding in the car. That is where the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System (NGI) comes in.

The NGI has recently been launched, and is a large facial imag4 capture system that includes a database to store millions of face pictures and the analytics software to effectively compare and identify facial images. Assuming that it were legally possible to combine the tracking technologies behind Waze or the onboard navigation system with cameras and the NGI system, it become technically feasible to issue accurate speeding tickets without the involvement of a human police officer. No need for traffic officers anymore and the revenue generated per police officer goes up.

This is all really cool for law enforcement and public safety agencies, but what does this mean for other government agencies? The key components that government agencies look for are that:

  • Innovation will be found through present technologies. Most innovations in government services will come from new ways of mixing current technologies and not necessarily new technologies. This example employs a mix of all of the four pillars – Social (found in Waze), mobile, cloud (found in the storage architecture for the NGI and in the navigation apps), and Analytics (found in the analytics necessary to determine the speed and in the facial recognition) which are hardly new technologies but combined in new and unique ways to improve mission efficiency and effectiveness.
  • The examination of service and delivery mix will be forced by innovation. New technology mixes will force government agencies to rethink services and how they are delivered. In this case, the manpower necessary for traffic enforcement could be reduced and redirected. In other cases such as disaster response, it may not reduce the workforce necessary but may increase the speed of response and the effectiveness of that response.
  • Privacy needs to be addressed. Any mixing of the four pillar technologies in government will have a necessary privacy component that needs to be included.

You Are Now Even More the Product

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“If you aren’t paying for the product….you are the product” is a widely used maxim in Silicon Valley.  Facebook has been the poster child for this for a while and it has just opened up another aspect of ‘you the product’. Facebook has just announced the release of its next ad product Atlas.  What it’s doing is using all the data it has collected about you (it says always anonymously) and is making it available to the world of advertising beyond the properties they operate. Essentially Facebook will offer an ad tag to publishers and app makers all over the web. Then as the publisher or app loads  the ad managed by Facebook, Facebook will use everything they know about you to serve a super targeted ad based on what you are interested in.

If you are a keen golfer Google will target golf ads to you as you search, it will target text ads to golf themed content  and will chase you around the web with retargeted display ads as you view content on other sites like CNN. The problem with that approach is that it’s heavily dependent on cookies which don’t work on mobile devices and are increasingly less effective on desktops devices.  Now Facebook will take all the info you have discussed and posted about to create a profile of your interests which doesn’t require search info or cookies to serve to you across different kinds of devices. It does that through the mobile Facebook app which tells the mothership that you are about to view an ad served by any app on your mobile device.  It’s both clever and a little creepy and likely to further bolster Facebook in their ongoing war with Google.

Worldwide Access to Internet is Slated to Launch Next Year

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Internet access is a vital resource for many these days. However, vast, rural areas of the world have no broadband internet access. One of Google’s latest “moonshot” projects seeks to fill that gap with balloons. This undertaking is called Project Loon, and the plan is massively ambitious: it calls for a large network of “towers” in the sky that receive internet access from antennas on the ground in one location and beam internet down to rural homes and locations below. Google has many challenges to overcome before Loon becomes a reality, but the team says it hopes to have a functioning service online by next summer.

Google had first revealed the existence of Project Loon in June 2013 and has tested Loon Balloons, as they are known, in the U.S., New Zealand, and Brazil. The balloons fly at 60,000 feet and can stay in the air for as long as 100 days, keeping their electronics powered by solar panels. Google’s balloons have now traveled more than one million miles total.

These balloons provide wireless Internet using the same LTE protocol used by cellular devices. Google has said that the balloons can serve data at rates of 22 megabits per second to fixed antennas, and five megabits per second to mobile handsets.

The Politics of Search

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Now that we spend so much of our time and money online it’s hard and probably unrealistic to separate the product from the politics. By the time you get to be as big and powerful as Google you can expect to trip over issues on a regular basis. Today is no exception. I honestly don’t know why Google backed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which appears to be a right wing-nut lobby group pushing back on multiple government oversight issues…but apparently they are ending their support because the group is one of the many on the right practicing active climate change denial.
I have to imagine that Google is hoping that the military moves against ISIS (or is it now ISIL) will keep this story to a very short news cycle. Google is a huge player in the DC lobby ecosystem and it has undeniably paid off. Although they are assailed on many fronts in the EU and Asia the US remains a very safe harbor. This kind of tin-eared support of anti oversight groups makes sense on an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” basis…but you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas. Google has been wildly successful in cultivating their reputation as cool  guys…albeit with a market cap twice the GDP of Scotland. Getting caught making nice with the folks who fervently supported Florida’s Stand Your Ground legislation won’t sit well with many.
The trick here is to lobby ferociously  but do it from a moral high ground…you stand in danger of losing that high ground when you share it with folks who are spending a lot of time and money trying to convince the world that the crazy climate change we are enjoying isn’t man influenced. Indeed Google itself is based in the same California which is currently in massive drought and in danger of burning down and blowing away. Let’s see if this story has legs.

Google is joining Apple in the fight for NSA privacy

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Google is releasing the next generation of the Android operating system next month, and it will encrypt data by default for the first time. This raises yet another barrier to police gaining access to the troves of personal data typically kept on smartphones.

Android has offered optional encryption on some devices since 2011, but few users have known how to turn on the feature. Now Google is designing the activation procedures for new Android devices so that encryption happens automatically; only somebody who enters a device’s password will be able to see the pictures, videos and communications stored on those smartphones.

The move offers Android, the world’s most popular operating system for smartphones, a degree of protection that resembles what Apple has done for the new iPhone operating system. Both companies have now embraced a form of encryption that in most cases will make it impossible for law enforcement officials to collect evidence from smartphones even when authorities get legally binding search warrants.

This move is part of a broad shift by American technology companies to make their products more resistant to government snooping in the aftermath of revelations of National Security Agency spying by former contractor Edward Snowden.

Expanded deployment of encryption by Google and Apple, however, will have the most direct impact on law enforcement officials, who have long warned that restrictions on their access to electronic devices make it much harder for them to prevent and solve crimes. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that police needed search warrants to gain access to data stored on phones in most circumstances. But that standard is quickly being rendered moot; eventually no form of legal compulsion will suffice to force the unlocking of most smartphones.

Privacy advocates are ecstatic about the changes by Apple and Google, and especially about their shift toward making encryption automatic, through default settings, so that users get privacy protections without taking any action on their own.

There remain significant differences between how Apple and Google are handling encryption. Apple, which controls both the hardware and software on its devices, will be able to deliver the updated encryption on both new iPhones and iPads, as users update their operating systems with the latest release, iOS 8.

That is likely to happen over the next several weeks, and for those with iOS 8, the encryption will be so secure that the company says it will lack the technical ability to unlock the phones or recover data for anyone — whether it be for police or even users themselves if they forget their device passcodes.

Germany…Really?

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Anyone who has ever strayed into the more exotic/weird areas of human sexuality could readily conclude that the Germans are nuts. Don’t get me wrong, I like Germany and Germans. I’ve done a lot of business with Germany, I even speak passable “three beer” german none of which changes my view….nuts to a person. If you ever wanted the perfect illustration of just how nutty Germany can be you need look no further than german justice minister Heiko Maas who has declared that in the interests of “consumer protection” that Google should reveal exactly how their search algorithms work.  As I type that it’s hard to not actually LOL.  The almost obsessive dislike verging into hatred of Google by many EU officials is famous. If they spent half the time they do trying to curb Google fixing their economy the EU wouldn’t be the fragile mess it is now. Yet they chip away at Google looking for any crack they can. Google is no doubt huge and powerful and holds about 90% of the EU market but they don’t have to use it…there are other search engines and email providers. If you use it, you don’t have to click on the ads either.

Suggesting that Google reveal in detail exactly how the sausage is made is absurd at so many levels. Spammers have spent decades trying to figure that out. Google (much like God) is all powerful and ineffable. Larry Page will stop serving Germany before he will reveal a line of code to an EU bureaucrat. Of course they won’t show what’s behind the green curtain. Even as the EU continues to peck away at Google with various regulatory or legal assaults there are probably some people over at the GooglePlex who are wondering why they bother. Were Google.de to shut down tomorrow the vast majority of current users would simply point their browsers at Google.com and the browser language options would do the rest. The electrons may have to go a little further..but hey it’s the speed of light so it’s not going to take that much longer.Yes, they are a monopoly and yes they have too much power and yes they are (the worst offense) american…but Herr Maas if you don’t use it your lights will stay on, the water will remain in your pipes and life will continue. Please find a different windmill to tilt at.

Android Going Wider

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Last week Apple gave us the larger, thinner, faster and considerably more expensive iPhone 6. Only they make the hardware. A while ago Apple pretty much invented then ruled the smartphone segment, now it’s a firm second to Android which already has over a billion users so far. Today Google announced the first Android One powered smart phones targeted at the emerging (ie third world) market and it’s coming out at just over $100. That’s an impressive move. It’s not that there haven’t been cheap smartphones out there, there have. This move is interesting because it represents a reliable high quality OS controlled by Google being offered on robust hardware built by major players.

Part of what has driven Google nuts in recent years is that Android as customized and deployed by phone manufacturers has tended to be both twitchy and bloated with custom modules added by the manufactures often to the detriment of the Android user. Not so in the case of Android One. In this version the handset makers will not be able to modify Android. They will be able to add their own apps but Google will control the OS and will be able to update it remotely. That means Google will be much less vulnerable to hardware driven weirdness and will be able to fix problems without relying on the handset guys cooperation.

Seen in the wider context of emerging markets it makes a lot of sense. Much of the developing world has gone straight to wireless without ever touching large scale copper wire. The addition of lower price high quality handsets and very affordable data plans means the the next billion Android users may be a lot closer than we may have thought.

Although this isn’t necessarily an immediate and massive cash win for Google, taking what amounts to global control of the user experience for what will amount to perhaps 30% of humanity is compelling. It will be Google Apps, search and thus ads which will become the global default. You have to admire the long term thinking.