Your devices’ latest feature? They can spy on your every move

phoneBy H V Jagadish, University of Michigan

We now have dozens of smart devices in our houses and even on our bodies. They improve our lives in so many ways – from lowering energy consumption in our homes to egging us on to be active.

But these smart devices respond to whatever commands they are given: we’ve had security experts demonstrate how cars can be hijacked remotely and medical devices in your body can be hacked and turned into lethal weapons. These risks are now well-recognized by technology developers, and there is a great deal of excellent work going on toward how to avoid them.

But there are other dangers we should be more concerned about that are getting less attention. Your gadgets could be providing a window that any hacker could see right through to spy on you.

Your stuff is surveilling you

Your laptop has a video camera built into it. When it’s recording, a little green light blinks on so you’re aware you’re being recorded. But it can be instructed to videotape your activities without the green camera light being on. And this is not just an in-laboratory warning of a hypothetical danger; it has actually been done, by over-eager school officials and by peeping Toms.

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

Is this thing on?
Amazon.com, Inc

Next generation wiretapping

A bad actor could figure out how to take control of any of these technologies to learn private information about you. But maybe even more worryingly, could your technology provider become, voluntarily or under compulsion, a party to a scheme through which you unwittingly reveal your secrets?

The recent battle between Apple and the FBI revolved around the feds’ request that Apple develop a custom insecure version of iOS, the operating system of the iPhone, to facilitate their hacking into a terrorist’s cell phone. Is breaking into a locked phone just the next step beyond a traditional wiretap in which the government asks an Apple or a Samsung to use its technology to bug the conversations of a suspected terrorist?

But modern phones can be used to do a lot more than listen in on conversations. Could companies be asked to keep location tracking on while indicating to the suspect that it is really off? It would seem to me hard to draw a line between these cases. No wonder some Apple engineers came out as “objectors of conscience” in the Apple-FBI matter. This case was dropped before Apple could be compelled to do anything, so there’s no legal precedent to guide us on how these next-step examples would play out in court.

It is, of course, valuable for law enforcement to monitor criminal suspects, to investigate ongoing criminal behavior and to collect evidence to prosecute. This is the motive behind wiretap laws that allow law enforcement to listen to your phone conversations with no notice to you.

Wiretaps actually got their start in the 1800s as tools of corporate espionage. In 1928, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. U.S. that it was constitutional for law enforcement to use wiretaps, and that warrants weren’t required. This decision was superseded only in 1967, by Katz v. U.S., which established a citizen’s right to privacy, and required law enforcement to obtain warrants before bugging a phone conversation. This was long after Congress had passed an act carefully restricting wiretaps, in 1934.

In the early days of wiretapping, there was a physical “tap” – a side connection – that could be applied to a real wire carrying the conversation. Newer technologies eventually permitted the telephone company to encode and multiplex many telephone calls on the same physical wire.

Technology has moved on, but the law isn’t clear yet.
Gawler History, CC BY-SA

In the United States, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) was passed by Congress in 1994, due to worries about law enforcement’s ability to keep up with new communications technologies. It requires communication companies to provide a way for law enforcement to place a wiretap even on newer communication technologies.

The law explicitly exempted information services, such as email. This legal differentiation between communications technologies and information services means companies are obliged to help the government listen in on your phone calls (with a warrant) but are not obliged to help it read your email messages (at least on account of this specific law).

In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that services such as Voice Over IP (think Skype) were communications services covered by CALEA, and not exempt information services.

Some have since wanted to further broaden this law, and doubtless the Apple FBI dispute brings this issue to the forefront again. Law enforcement will presumably push for greater surveillance powers, and civil liberty advocates will resist.

Nothing to hide?

Perhaps you don’t care about the privacy of criminals. But note that surveillance is not just of known bad actors, but also of suspected bad actors.

History teaches us that lists of suspects can sometimes be drawn way too broadly. You may remember the McCarthy era and J. Edgar Hoover’s reign at the FBI, which infamously included bugging Martin Luther King Jr.’s bedroom. Even today, there are attempts by the British Government Communications Headquarters to monitor everyone who visited the Wikileaks website, even just to browse. Some laws don’t make sense or aren’t fair, so even some “criminals” may still deserve privacy.

And it’s not just law enforcement overreach we have to worry about. Technologies like Finspy are commercially available today to install malware on your computer or phone and “recruit” it to spy on you. Such technologies could be used by anyone, including the “bad actors,” without the cooperation of your device manufacturer or service provider.

Wiretap laws, such as CALEA, apply to explicit communication actions taken by someone, such as actually making a phone call. Wiretaps do not track your movements in the house, they do not listen to your conversations when you are not on the phone, they do not videotape you in your bathroom – but these are all actions our various devices are now capable of performing. With the proliferation of devices in our lives, it is certainly possible to use them for surveillance purposes. There’s no question that by doing so, authorities will catch many bad actors. But there will also be a huge price to pay in terms of privacy and possibly wrongful arrests.

Finally, this may feel futuristic, but I assure you it is not. The FBI was already using a cellphone microphone to eavesdrop on organized crime as long as a decade ago. Commercial interests are not too far behind in doing much the same, with the purpose of targeting a better sales pitch.

Our omnipresent networked devices raise big questions that we should openly debate. How we balance these costs and benefits will determine the type of society we live in.The Conversation

H V Jagadish, Bernard A Galler Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Reposted under a Creative Commons license.

Advertisements

Looking for that Merlot cover for the Kindle Oasis? You may be in luck…

merlot oasisI just accidentally stumbled across a listing for the Kindle Oasis with the highly sought after Merlot cover shipping as soon as May 4th. The configuration available  is the 3G plus WiFi model without special offers. Be warned,though –  the price tag for the e-reader and cover is a whopping $379.99! Amazon is also offering a payment plan of five monthly payments of $76 to ease the sting. But, hey, if it is the cover color of your dreams, the May 4th delivery date is much more appealing than some of the June, July and even September dates being discussed on the forums.

Daily Links and Deals: Barnes & Noble Should Carry Indie Books

daily_links_1Today’s stories include an opinion piece on Barnes and Noble’s refusal to carry indie books in their stores, stories about data caps, low income access and more. In today’s deals, savings on board games for Table Top day! Also, Amazon is having a limited time sale ($20 off!) on e-ink Kindles, just in time for Mother’s Day.. You can also get a Fire HD 10 for $50 off if mom prefers a tablet.

Daily Links for Monday, April 25, 2016:

Comcast customers hate data caps, but making customers hurt is all part of the plan (The Verge) Ouch! That’s just plain mean!

AT&T ‘Access’ connects low income homes to the internet for $5 a month (The Next Web) This program has a lot of fine print, but it is a good start in attacking the digital dived.

Why Electric Cars Ruled The Roads 100 Years Ago (Jalopnik) What’s old is new again, right? This is a fascinating look at the history of electric cars.

Roku CEO opposes FCC plan to open up cable boxes (The Verge) I have several Roku players that are still working, even thought they are older.I can see how Roku would not want cable competing in its niche.

Microsoft gives OneDrive users until July to shrink their storage (Computer World) The reduction in storage space promised last November will be a reality this summer.

Barnes & Noble Should Carry Indie Books (Digital Book World) Sadly, all writers are not perceived as equal. While B & N carries indie ebooks, shelf space is a different matter.

Deals of the Day:

Amazon’s selection of Kindle Daily Deals includes The Blessing Way (Navajo Mysteries Book 1) by Tony Hillerman for $1.99.

In Today’s Deals, includes up to 40% off strategy board games for TableTop day!

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Amazon has some deals on both e-ink Kindles and Fire tablets. First, you can get $20 off the Kindle, Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle for Kids bundle.  Amazon is also offering the Fire HD 10 for $50 off for a limited time.

Amazon is still offering savings on the Fire HD 6, and deals on pre-owned Fire tablets. I am also still seeing the option for 5 payments of $58 for the Kindle Oasis pre-order. Yes, it is still not too late to order one, especially with the basic black cover.

You can also take advantage of a trade-in offer from Amazon on your old Fire tablet.

The Barnes and Noble Nook Daily Find is The Fight for Freedom by Marcus Ferrar for $1.99. The Romance Daily Find is The Selection (Selection Series #1) by Kiera Cass for $1.99.

Kobo’s Daily Deal is Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson for $1.99.

Kobo is having a 30% OFF SALE on select ebooks with a coupon. Sale ends Monday, April 25, 2016.

iTunes’ Weekly Bestsellers Under $4 includes Three Truths and a Lie: A Detective D.D, Warren Story by Lisa Gardener for $1.99.

Google has a selection of Topsellers Under $10.

(A note on Daily Deals: All prices current at the time of posting and subject to change. Most items marked Daily Deals are good for only the day posted.

Many large promotions have discount pricing that is set by the publisher. This usually means that titles can be found at a discount price across most platforms (with iTunes sometimes being the exception). If you have a favorite retailer you like to patronize, check the title on that website. There is a good chance that they will be matching the sale price.)


Daily Links are interesting links I discover as I go about my online day. The frequency and number of links posted depend upon the daily news. I also post other, different links of interest on Twitter, Facebook, and on the Google Plus eBook Evangelist Page.

Amazon (Finally) Makes Announcement on Fire HD 8.9 deregister issue

fire_announcementAmazon has made an announcement about the deregistration and factory reset issue on the Kindle Help Community forum:

If you’re having trouble finding your photos, apps, or other content on your Kindle Fire HD 8.9”, please check your current registration status by swiping down from the top of the screen, selecting More, and then selecting My Account. If your device is not registered, tap the Register button and then enter your Amazon account information. After you register your device, you may need to download your content again. To learn more, go to  http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201730090.

That link takes you to the Sync and Download Content to Your Kindle Fire page, There you will find instructions for syncing your content to your device:

To sync all content: With wireless connected, swipe down from the top of the screen to show Quick Settings, and then tap Sync.

The Sync Across Fire & Kindle Devices and Apps page implies that whether or not this restores bookmarks, highlights, etc.,  may depend on whether you have Whispersync enabled on your devices.

FYI: The Kindle Help Community forum is the one that is moderated by Amazon representatives.  It is not the same as the Amazon customer forums where customers comment and attempt to help other customers.

Related: Did your Fire tablet just de-register … again? June 17, 2016

Daily Links and Deals: 400 years after his death, here are the books that likely influenced Shakespeare

daily_links_1Today, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, his influence, books and a look at the film adaptations. Also, video games behind a paywall, universal languages and a browser with a built in VPN. In today’s deals, there is a Pebble Smartwatch and 14 bestsellers on sale across all retailer platforms.

Daily Links for Saturday, April 23, 2016:

White House now makes it even easier to petition the government (ReCode) The process of petitioning the White House has been somewhat convoluted. Hopefully, this will help.

Amazon locks top games behind a Prime paywall (Engadget) Do you find store exclusives distasteful? In this one, only a subset of store customers can purchase these games. What do you think?

Why a Universal Language Will Never Be a Thing (Motherboard) Do you speak Esperanto? Turns out that a universal language is more difficult than people thought for a lot of reasons.

Opera browser build adds a first: Free, unlimited VPN for secure surfing (PC World)  This is still in beta, but it is a really interesting idea. I don;t know how it will play out with sites and services like Netflix that are blocking VPNS.

Disney, CBS, Viacom worry FCC cable box proposal would do to TV what iTunes did to music (The Verge)Probably a valid concern….

And for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death:

400 years after his death, here are the books that likely influenced Shakespeare (Quartz)  and William Shakespeare 400th anniversary: The BFI collection of film adaptations you can watch online (The Independent). All of Shakespeare’s works can be found at Project Gutenberg for free!

Deals of the Day:

Amazon’s selection of Kindle Daily Deals includes 14 bestsellers like The Martian, Gone Girl and more. (Note: all the major e-tailers are offering these today.)

In Today’s Deals,  save 40% on select Pebble Smartwatches.

Amazon is still offering savings on the Fire HD 6, and deals on pre-owned Fire tablets. I am also still seeing the option for 5 payments of $58 for the Kindle Oasis pre-order. Yes, it is still not too late to order one, especially with the basic black cover.

You can also take advantage of a trade-in offer from Amazon on your old Fire tablet.

The Barnes and Noble Nook Daily Find is A Stained White Radiance (Dave Robicheaux Series #5) by James Lee Burke for $1.99. The Romance Daily Find is Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex for $2.99.

Kobo’s Daily Deal is The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood for $2.99.

iTunes’ Weekly Bestsellers Under $4 includes The Marriage of Mary Russel: A Marry Russell short story by Laurie R. King for $1.99.

Google is having a one-day sale on bestsellers. (These are the same bestsellers a Amazon’s Kindle Deal of the day)

(A note on Daily Deals: All prices current at the time of posting and subject to change. Most items marked Daily Deals are good for only the day posted.

Many large promotions have discount pricing that is set by the publisher. This usually means that titles can be found at a discount price across most platforms (with iTunes sometimes being the exception). If you have a favorite retailer you like to patronize, check the title on that website. There is a good chance that they will be matching the sale price.)


Daily Links are interesting links I discover as I go about my online day. The frequency and number of links posted depend upon the daily news. I also post other, different links of interest on Twitter, Facebook, and on the Google Plus eBook Evangelist Page.

Update to the Fire reset issue

fire HDXThere’s been a lot of interest in the post I wrote last night about the reports of owners of Fire tablets suddenly discovering their device had been deregistered without their knowledge.  I did try to call Amazon today, but had technical problems and got disconnected. Here’s the latest on the Kindle Fire deregister/factory reset issue that I can glean on the situation at this time:

Amazon is aware of the problem which seems to be particularly affecting the Fire HD 8.9″. This seems to be a bug or a glitch in software, at least as far as the 8.9′” devices are concerned. If you go to contact Kindle support, you will see the following:

help_screen_crop

(Click to enlarge)

The message under the ‘Call me now’ button says:

If you’re experiencing an issue with your Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, make sure your device is registered to your Amazon account. You can check your current registration status by swiping down from the top of the screen, selecting ‘More’, and then selecting ‘My Account’.

There was an estimate of  twelve minutes wait time to talk to Kindle support. That’s longer for Amazon in my experience. Given the long wait time, I think it is obvious that Amazon wants people to try to re-register their devices themselves before calling.

Several people reported the following response when they email or chat with customer service:

“We are sorry for the inconvenience you are experiencing. This is not we want our customers to experience.

In this regard, I would like to inform you that, the deregistration of your Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ Tablet is a known issue. As this is happening across many Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ tablets due a bug and our technical team is working to eliminate the bug.

This issue will be fixed in next 2-3 days. You need not worry about the content on your Kindle, as it will be safe in your cloud library and you can download them, once this bug is fixed in our server.

Thanks for your patience and understanding in this regard.”

One customer posted a different support response:

“Our servers were updated yesterday which seems to have introduced a bug causing devices to de-register, device which were connected to Amazon during this time got de-registered. But now the issue has been fixed.”

Some posters on the forums reported that they were instructed to re-register and then sync the device so that their content would reappear on the device. Others have reported being told that that they would have to manually download their books again. Some have reported being told that their libraries and apps would return within the next few days.

Many people have reported losing all their personal content, bookmarks, app data and email. Needless to say, a lot of people are upset with Amazon right now!

Amazon Kindle support definitely seems overwhelmed by the call volume. When I tried to  call earlier, I was transferred to a support rep, then the call was disconnected. Amazon did not call me back (generally,they do if that happens) and it took an hour and a half for the ‘Did I solve your problem’ email to arrive. The follow up email read like Amazon thought I hung on on them, so it may be an indication of just how widespread this issue is. If re-registering doesn’t work, you may need to try to call Kindle Support.

Safety PSA: If you have to call Kindle Support,use the ‘Contact us’ button on the help pages to initiate your call. There have been a number of scams perpetrated where people Google Kindle support and get the phone number for a fake site. They are then told they have to pay for support for their device. Amazon does not charge customers for customer service.

My own personal issue was with a Fire HD 6. I am not sure if the other Fire device resets are caused by the same problem, because other than the device setting resetting to default, most of my data is now showing on the device. I am still investigating the problem, but will probably wait until Monday to contact support again.

Do you have any info to share on the issue?

Update 2: Amazon has posted an announcement on this issue. Post here.

Related: Did your Fire tablet just de-register … again? June 17, 2016

Daily Links and Deals: Why You Can’t Find Prince’s Music Online

daily_links_1Today, a story about the death of music icon Prince and the mark he left on copyright, a car that lets you know when you’re speeding and more. In today’s deals, there’s a JBL speaker and a a RAV power charger, as well as deals on Fire tablets and accessories.

Daily Links for Friday, April 23, 2016:

Why You Can’t Find Prince’s Music Online (Motherboard) We lost a legend in the music world yesterday, and he left his mark on copyright issues, too.

In Europe, Ford will read the speed limit signs, prevent your speeding (Techcrunch) Does this mean no more trying to talk your way out of a ticket?

Comcast now lets some customers watch TV sans classic set-top box (Ars Technica) This is cord cutting without cord cutting…..

Sites that block adblockers seem to be suffering (The Stack) This article seems a bit skeptical, but I don’t read or link to articles behind paywalls anymore.

Deals of the Day:

Amazon’s selection of Kindle Daily Deals includes the delightful sounding Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School) by Jen Calonita for $1.99. It’s about a girl who lives in a boot who gets sentenced to a reform school with teachers like The Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella’s evil step-mother. That sounds like fun!

In Today’s Deals,there’s a JBL Flip Portable Stereo Speaker with Wireless Bluetooth Connection (Certified Refurbished) and a RAVPower 13000mAh Portable Charger.

Amazon is now offering the 8 GB $50 Fire in colors! Besides black, you can get blue, magenta and tangerine. The 16 GB version is only $20.00 more. And don’t  forget to protect your investment with a case! There are lots of cases, covers and accessories to choose from for 50% off.

Amazon is still offering savings on the Fire HD 6, and deals on pre-owned Fire tablets. I am also still seeing the option for 5 payments of $58 for the Kindle Oasis pre-order.

You can also take advantage of a trade-in offer from Amazon on your old Fire tablet.

The Barnes and Noble Nook Daily Find today features 9 books for Earth Day, including environmental classic Silent Spring by Rachel Carson for $2.99. The Romance Daily Find is In the Dark by Sally Eggert for 99 cents.

Kobo’s Daily Deal is Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman for $1.99.

iTunes’ Weekly Bestsellers Under $4 includes Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story by Rachael Kadish for $2.99.

(A note on Daily Deals: All prices current at the time of posting and subject to change. Most items marked Daily Deals are good for only the day posted.

Many large promotions have discount pricing that is set by the publisher. This usually means that titles can be found at a discount price across most platforms (with iTunes sometimes being the exception). If you have a favorite retailer you like to patronize, check the title on that website. There is a good chance that they will be matching the sale price.)


Daily Links are interesting links I discover as I go about my online day. The frequency and number of links posted depend upon the daily news. I also post other, different links of interest on Twitter, Facebook, and on the Google Plus eBook Evangelist Page.