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January 29, 2016

What Is 'Vuvuzela Texting'?

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Is privacy something you value on your smartphone? Most of us assume some level of inconspicuousness while using any number of electronic devices. From cell phones and Internet browsers to desktop computers and software, the information we send and receive on a daily basis is actually a lot less secure than you may realize. And that’s okay, for most of us.

Most of us don’t need super tight, military-grade security on our devices. For most people, security can be managed using encryption software, firewalls, passwords and so on. But even still, the security of our most basic communications, like texting, can be compromised. That is, until now. 

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a text messaging system called Vuvuzela—a system they believe almost guarantees a user’s privacy and anonymity. 

 

How Does Vuvuzela Work?

Here’s how it works: the system sends different encrypted messages to three different servers designed to unwrap the encryption one at a time. For anyone attempting to intercept these messages the process is made far more difficult. However, successful interception of one of the three messages can still reveal information about the sender and the intended recipient. 

Vuvuzela takes the process one step further by sending out decoy messages from each server after a communication has been transmitted. These messages are encrypted and sent to other secure destinations. Moreover, this process repeats itself every time a message is received, creating a massive amount of traffic and noise. 

This noise is precisely what protects these messages—it also birthed the name Vuvuzela, which comes from popular noise-making devices used by fans at sporting events. The idea is pretty simple: make an online environment so loud no one can make sense of it.

 

Similar Technologies 

The new security system comes to light just as another recedes into the shadows. In Dec. 2015, Tor (the onion router), an anonymity tool used on the Dark Web, was hacked by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in alleged collaboration with the FBI. 

The nature of the research is still shrouded in mystery, but the online software that promised Dark Web users discreteness wound up getting a bunch of people arrested and several websites disbanded. 

Vuvuzela may be the anonymity tool that was promised by Tor—except, this time, it might actually work. 

It’s hard to say if technology like Vuvuzela is really necessary for everyday communications like texting—unless you’re Edward Snowden. Some people don’t even like the idea of complete anonymity on the web, period. And still others suggest it’s the only way to maintain a truly democratic online space.  

Either way, knowing more about where security breakdowns occur on our personal devices is a lot better than being completely in the dark. For people that text (which is pretty much everyone), unless you plan on using a security system like Vuvuzela, know that these messages can be intercepted rather easier by a person (or government agency) with the correct tools and wherewithal. 

 

January 24, 2016

Honolulu PD to Introduce Text 911

 

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Nobody wants to wind up in a life or death situation; but in the event that an emergency occurs, it is certainly good fortune to be carrying a cell phone, right? In general, the use of cell phones in emergency situations has helped dispatchers and first responders act quickly—which in turn has saved countless lives. This fact is due, in part, to the location features in most smart devices that allow emergency services to track a caller. Moreover, explaining a situation over a mobile device is far more efficient than typing up an email or sending smoke signal—most of the time. 

In some rare cases, it’s not possible or safe to communicate orally during an emergency. Who can forget the intense moment from Liam Neeson’s 2008 hit Taken, when his daughter is lying facedown under a bed praying her attackers don’t find her? Meanwhile, her father waits helplessly on the other line while she is carried away, presumably for making too much noise on her cell phone. 

This is just one exaggerated example but, truth be told, the ability to text 911 could come in handy under certain circumstances.

 

How Texting 911 Works

Just last week, the Honolulu Police Department announced its plans to launch a Text 911 system, an emergency service that will allow anyone with text features on a phone to text for help. This system includes police, firefighters, and paramedics and works similarly to the phone system we commonly use.

According to the Honolulu PD, the system is not yet available but expected to launch sometime in the next few months. While this is a great service to offer residents of Oahu, it’s most certainly not the first of its kind. 

Vermont, in fact, was the first state to organize a statewide text-to-911 system in 2014. A successful trial run with Verizon in 2012 dispelled any doubt naysayers had about flooding dispatchers with negligent texts. In 2013, Vermont received approximately 150 text-to-911 messages, ten of which helped victims of domestic abuse successfully communicate their situations without compromising their safety. 

However, Vermont’s success is tightly linked to a centralized public-safety system that makes room for fast action and changes to protocol. This is not the case everywhere. Most of the time, public safety initiatives like the text-to-911 system require participation from city or county level officials—which amounts to a lot more time and money. 

The bottom line: state emergency call centers will have to adopt several new technologies in order to make text-to-911 a viable solution for everyone in the US. Despite support from the FCC, this has not come to fruition just yet and will likely proceed slower than expected for obvious bureaucratic reasons. 

For now, emergency services still emphasize the importance of making a voice call to 911 in the event of an emergency. While texting may be necessary under obscure circumstances, one huge disadvantage of the service is that emergency call centers are not yet able to track an emergency text. 

Smoke signals are also not advised. 

 

January 16, 2016

Hyperlocal Messaging App Partners with Twitter

 

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What could possibly be easier than making purchases online? A new localized messaging app called Lookup is attempting to make things easier with offline initiatives. Lookup, a Bangalore-based free messaging app is taking over consumer’s offline space, helping to deliver food, book flights and schedule appointments. 

In January this year, CEO and Founder of Lookup, Deepak Ravindran, raised $382K in seed capitol, which included money from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. 

Nine months after the seed funding round, Ravindran locked in $2.5 million in series A funding led by Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures, Global Founders Capital and again, Biz Stone, to name but a few. 

 

Social Networking

It was no surprise when, at the end of last year, Lookup officially partnered with Twitter, adding some 350 million active Twitter users to the app’s growing user base. According to Ravindran, the partnership will be mutually beneficial. 

“Our idea is to make Lookup ubiquitous," said Ravindran. “Twitter's real-time communications platform could not be skipped for Lookup's on-demand local commerce service.”

Local service is what Lookup is all about. Using chat features already available in most smartphones, users simply text or chat special requests to Lookup—things like dinner reservations, movie tickets, hair appointments and more. 

With Twitter now onboard, the service will implement use of a Twitter handle (@Lookuplite) to make these same requests in real time in both public and private conversations. Just Tweet a request @Lookuplite and a response will appear shortly after to service the request. 

Twitter’s partnership will provide a much larger audience to the delivery service, as well as streamline the user experience both on and offline. 

“We want Lookup to be the Google equivalent for finding products and services offline, said Ravindran. “For this, we hyperlink every local store near you with a simple chat app which give you synchronous connection to the verified vendor.”

 

Lookup Looks Forward 

Currently, the app is operational in three local areas throughout India: Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi. Millions of Indian users are already using the app service to acquire goods and services without making a call, using multiple apps or searching the web. 

“I’m honored to be a part of Deepak’s next big project,” said Stone. “I’m very excited about working with such an inspiring entrepreneur, whom I share common ideologies with.”

Lookup is already pushing forward with new developments including Offline API—a unique concept where users can get access to anything on demand from local merchants. Additionally, the startup is focusing on streamlining the booking process, adding new vendors and building out its user base.  

With a friend like Twitter (or Stone) in the startup’s corner, it’s safe to bet this won’t be the last time Lookup gets noticed. 

January 15, 2016

Yahoo Class Action Suit to Go Ahead

 

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Nobody likes going to jury duty, but being part of a class action lawsuit may not be so bad. That’s because “the class” or persons affected by illegal conduct stand to benefit from one or several persons’ efforts to sue on behalf of the group. 

According to court documents from the Northern District of Illinois, Easter Division, as many as 500,000 people stand to gain $1,500 for each unwanted text message received from Yahoo! Messenger, thanks to a 68-year-old woman named Rachel Johnson. 

And that’s no small chunk of change for Yahoo!, which may lose an estimated $750 million if the class action suit goes through. So far, the forecast doesn’t look good for the online messaging service. 

 

Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)

According to protections outlined in the TCPA, Yahoo! unlawfully sent Welcome Messages to the plaintiff after she received a personalized message to her cell phone through a feature called Mobile to SMS Messenger Service. This particular feature converts a Yahoo! user’s online text into a mobile message—the process is also called PC2SMS.

After Johnson received the first personalized message regarding a loan, a follow up message was received welcoming her to Yahoo! Massager. Johnson claims she never gave consent to Yahoo! to communicate with her via text, nor did she sign the company’s terms of service agreement. 

Yahoo! told Judge Manish Shah that the plaintiff had, at some point, signed up for one of Yahoo!’s smartphone apps or services, which would have satisfied the terms and conditions required under TCPA. This argument however was “a shot in the dark,” according to Judge Shah, who has ruled that the case may proceed. 

 

A Shot in the Dark 

Yahoo! definitely erred in this case—mostly because its primary argument assumed one piece of information: 68-year-old Johnson must, in fact, have downloaded a Yahoo! app or service to her phone prior to the incident. 

The plaintiff however, did not have a smartphone at the time, and instead had a flip phone incapable of downloading applications from the Internet. Looks like grandma’s resistance to new technology is finally paying off!

 

The Intermediary 

Concerns over what’s called an “intermediary” were raised in this case and may set some unique precedence for similar lawsuits in the future. 

According to court documents, Johnson never signed any terms and conditions with Yahoo!; she did however fill out an online application for a personal loan at CashCall.com. Within the promissory notes of the loan application, Johnson consented to receive phone calls and text messages from an automatic dialing system. Yahoo! argued that the first personalized message granted prior express consent—in this case, CashCall.com is the intermediary. 

According to previous cases, intermediary consent has two requirements: 1) consent given by the recipient to an intermediary, and 2) consent conveyed by the intermediary to the sender. Yahoo! was unable to satisfy these requirements, and the intermediary argument fell short in this case. 

But that doesn’t mean we won’t see more of this shady, backdoor communication. In fact, using this intermediary argument to defend spam and unsolicited text messages could be a slippery slope that sidesteps most of the TCPA entirely. 

Johnson and her class of some 500,000 people are on their way to proving a huge point in the mobile marketing industry; but the industry moves fast and will likely use this court example to ensure the back door stays open. 

 

January 06, 2016

The Apple Watch Isn't Going Anywhere

 

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The Apple Watch was one of the most profitable gadgets sold throughout this year’s holiday season. According to one report, an estimated 6 million units will be sold by year’s end, making the Apple Watch the most popular wearable on the market.

While some may scoff at the idea of wearable technology, it’s clear that a large number of consumers favor the advancement of flashy phone accessories despite high price tags and minor hiccups from first-generation models. For those on the fence about whether or not these time-keeping wearables are just another fad, the forecast in 2016 looks bright.  

 

What the Numbers Reveal

The wearable market is likely to be dominated by the Apple Watch until 2019—giving the wrist device a wide birth for improvement, as well as more time to grow app development and diversity. According to a report by International Data Corporation (IDC), this year alone Apple sold 13 million watches for a little over 60 percent market share. If these trends continue, by 2019 the total number of units sold will reach almost 50 million.

Edging out some of Apple’s profits will be Android Wear, which sold a modest 3.2 million units this year. However, by 2019, Android will have acquired almost a 40 percent market share—impressive, but certainly a distant second to Apple. 

The numbers strongly suggest the Apple Watch and other wearable devices are headed for greener pastures, but the utility of these devices is still far from necessary in 2016. Most people won’t be able to afford the phone accessory simply because it’s still too expensive and requires newer (more expensive) versions of the iPhone. The next iteration of watches will likely not be much cheaper. Additionally, most people that have an Apple Watch are still using their iPhones just as much as they were before, which, at its core is what wearable tech is all about. 

On the positive side, Apple Watch is listening to consumers and making improvements. It also features some of the most sophisticated health software available. But unless you’re trying to get in shape, keep time, or occasionally respond to a text while driving, few people will benefit in an extraordinary way.

 

So what does all this mean? 

In some ways, the Apple Watch and other wearables are behaving just like a trend first starting out—most people ignore it until it goes away (3D-TVs) or until they simply can’t live without it (cell phones). 

The questioning remaining is whether the Apple Watch will take on enough utility to prove valuable in addition to a cell phone. Right now, the answer is no. But given the nature of the smartphone industry, it’s very possible that developers will come up with new and inventive ways of using technology to solve all kinds of unique problems. 

January 02, 2016

Does Ending a Text with a Period Make You Seem Cold-hearted?

 

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Conveying and registering a wide range of subtle emotions in face-to-face conversations is instinctive. A curl of the lip here, widened eyes there. Facial movements are just so expressive, and our ability to process them so sophisticated, that written communication is fraught with problems caused by their omission. 

Computer-mediated Communication (CMC) has given us plenty of answers to this problem, from emojis and emoticons to gifs and selfies (not to mention Facetime and Skype, which brings us back to picking up on real time facial tics), but one question still plagues texters: if you finish a message with a full stop, does it suggest a degree of callousness to the reader? 

 

Science says yes.

 

A new study led by New York’s Binghamton University has found that SMS messages ending with a period are perceived as less sincere. As part of a paper titled ‘Texting Insincerely: the Role of the Period in Text Messaging,’ researchers presented a group of 126 undergraduates with a series of 16 conversations framed in two different ways: as handwritten notes or as text messages. A typical exchange began with an invitation (“Dave gave me his extra tickets. Wanna come?”) which was followed by a variety of one-word responses (“Okay” and “Sure” etc) each one with or without a period. The results showed that, when the reply is sent via SMS and concluded with a period, subjects rate the response as less sincere than when no punctuation is used. No such effect was reported in the handwritten note samples. 

To slavish devotees of proper grammar, this may come as a surprise. After all, finishing a statement with a period is what was drummed into us at school. It’s the correct way to write english, isn’t it? 

According to the research team, the lack of social cues present in text message communication has imbued punctuation and other keyboard characters with fresh meaning. For a generation of texters, periods convey brusqueness, a sense of finality that seems to ask to be left alone. Without the full stop, the conversation is left open ended, inviting the recipient to continue the dialogue. 

We're not sure how we feel about the period-less sentence, even in a text message. But if you want to indicate an open-ending to your SMS messages and invite further discussion, it's three times quicker than an ellipsis...

December 11, 2015

Net Neutrality: Confusion Reigns Over Text Messaging's Status

 

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified fixed and mobile Internet access this year as “common carrier services.” This reclassification falls under Title II of the Communications Act. It aims to use net neutrality rules to prevent carriers from blocking text messages. 

What kind of text messages? Bulk text messages, which at this time aren’t exactly regulated. Bulk texting, as with bulk emailing, is a huge business, and many bulk texts are useful. Others fall under the spam variety, such as those saying the receiver has won the lottery and has to pay a certain amount to “unlock” the winnings. And while blocking “spammy” text messages may seem like a good idea, what constitutes spam is currently under review. 

Verizon created a lot of controversy some eight years ago when it blocked messages to users from an abortion rights organization. The carrier reversed its stance following a New York Times article about the issue, however it caused Public Knowledge and other advocacy groups to petition the FCC. The groups urged the agency to disallow wireless carriers from refusing to provide short codes because of content.

The FCC didn’t respond to the request, however the agency recently solicited public comments regarding a petition started by Twilio, a messaging company who argues carriers must adhere to common carrier rules regarding text messages. 

"The wireless carriers' practices of blocking, throttling, and imposing discriminatory content restrictions on messaging services traffic is not only a daily occurrence, but an increasing threat to the ubiquity and seamlessness of the nation's telephone network," Twilio said in a petition.

 

Free Reign

The messaging company received support from Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and Free Press, all of which stated carriers currently have "free rein to abuse their gatekeeper position,” and that "Discriminatory text message blocking by the carriers not only raises competitive concerns, but also interferes with free speech rights."

Unsurprisingly, AT&T, Verizon, and the CTIA—a trade group representing most wireless carriers—are asking the FCC to reject Twilio’s request. T-Mobile and Sprint did not make official statements, however they are represented by the CTIA. 

"Twilio frames its Petition as an effort to curb what it calls the 'blocking' and 'throttling' of messaging traffic but in fact, Twilio is asking the Commission to invalidate consumer-protection measures that prevent massive quantities of unlawful and unwanted mobile messaging spam from reaching and harming consumers," CTIA wrote.

Verizon’s comments to the FCC were similar: 

"Despite the successful growth of mobile messaging from a niche product to a massively popular means of nearly spam-free communication, Twilio wants to upend the status quo by subjecting wireless providers’ messaging services and the industry-developed common short code system to Title II," Verizon wrote. "That is a solution in search of a problem and would open the floodgates to spam, harming consumers that have come to depend on messaging services."

The FCC's net neutrality order was put in effect last March and prevents carriers from block messages delivered over the Internet. However, the FCC did not make clarifications regarding traditional text messages.

November 12, 2015

New ATM Concept Brings Mobile to the Fore

 

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Will that be cash or credit? These days most of us use plastic to pay for just about everything—from groceries and clothing to digital music and parking meters. But this hasn’t stopped Diebold Inc. from introducing a new line of ATMs aimed at providing future consumers with a unique mobile banking experience. 

In late October, Diebold unveiled two new ATM concepts at the Money 20/20 tradeshow in Las Vegas. The Irving and Janus models are the latest series to exclude common components of traditional ATM design and functionality. Most notably, both designs feature cardless transaction capabilities and mobile integration, which according to Diebold, will create a smoother and more convenient experience. 

 

New Features

Unlike traditional ATMs, the Irving is a sleek, screen-less, and pad-less terminal. Near Field Communication (NFC) activates the ATM when a user approaches the device.  NFC syncs with a user’s smartphone, thus eliminating the need for various material interfaces. To access funds, users verify their identities using contact-less technologies like QR codes or iris-scan and then withdraw cash. The Irving is also 32 percent smaller than traditional ATMs.

While the Irving delivers on speed and convenience, the Janus offers customer service in an entirely new format. The Janus is a dual-sided terminal, sharing basic components like alarm boards and connectivity, but can individually service two users at once from each side without compromising security or privacy. 

The Janus also incorporates mobile access features like NFC and QR code technology but also offers a tablet touch screen, which allows users to scan checks and sign documents. Additionally, if a user needs assistance, the Janus offers a 24-hour video teller for more complex problems. 

 

But Are They Safe? 

Mobilizing the ATM experience is a likely evolution. As consumers become increasingly familiar with mobile integration and applications, especially with the proliferation of banking apps, the need for brick-and-mortar bank locations decreases. But are these new cardless ATMs safe for consumers? 

Diebold’s ATM concepts reassure users with safety features covering several types of threats. First, the new machines remove nearly every skimming threat, because users would not have to slide a card or type a PIN. Second, the QR codes and other scanning technologies don’t contain any sensitive data about the user; they simply notify the smartphone of the connection. Connections are also set to expire after a short length of time, so even if the phone were lost or stolen, accessing the account would be impossible without proper user identification. And finally, the increased speed of the transaction greatly shortens the amount of time a person spends at the terminal.

Like all mobilized tasks, the use of mobile integrated ATMs will probably take some getting used to. In the future, it probably won’t be the end of the world if you forget your wallet at home, provided that you have your cell phone.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeremy Pollack has a B.A. in English from USC and has been writing professionally since 2001. He is the founder and editorial manager of Compelling Content Solutions, A copy writing and content marketing services company.

 

November 06, 2015

Roaming Charges Have Been Scrapped in Europe

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The extra costs associated with using a mobile phone in European countries other than the one you live in are to be scrapped. The ban on data roaming charged, agreed by MEPs in June after years of negotiations, has been passed into law, and will take effect from 15 June 2017.

Roaming charges are currently added to phone bills when users browse the web, make calls or send text messages while abroad. Once the ban kicks in, tourists traveling within the EU won’t notice any difference between the cost of mobile connectivity at home and abroad. The move was described by former vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding as “a victory for consumers.”

It’s been a long road for anti-roaming campaigners, as EU member states voiced concern about the potential financial impact on their domestic telecoms providers. A proposal for a roaming ban to take effect this year was scrapped after negotiations stalled. 

The overall ban will be preceded by a ‘phasing out’ process to lessen the burden on operators and allow time for the infrastructure to adjust.  

As things stand, operators can charge tourists up to 22 cents (around 14 pence) per minute for outgoing calls, five cents for incoming calls, six cents per text message and 20 cents per megabyte of data. That’s in addition to their regular tariff. As of April 2016, the costs will be reduced to five cents per minute, two cents per text message and five cents per megabyte.

The impending ban has been welcomed by consumers and campaigners, especially advocates of net neutrality, who broadly oppose unregulated tariff-setting for electronic communications. Under the new telecommunications law, operators will be required to treat all web traffic equally. For net neutrality advocates, the ban on roaming charges is another victory in the fight to keep the lines of digital exchange as open and free to the widest number of people possible.

 

October 20, 2015

Be Wary of the Latest Text Message Bank Fraud Scam

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Internet scams make the news fairly regularly, spurring conversations about prevention with advice from experts as well as victims. While most of us know not to provide personal information via email, or when asked to do so by a pop-up window, few practice the same caution with regards to their smartphones. 

The latest scam involving identity theft is presenting itself to mobile users via text messages. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) recently got involved after several complaints surfaced regarding text massages from alleged financial institutions requesting data verification through a live link in the message. The BBB warned consumers about the fraudulent texts and reminded them of a similar case back in 2012. 

 

How it Works 

According to the BBB, mobile users were receiving alerts from their personal banks, asking them to verify their names, online IDs, and passwords at a site linked in the messages. In most cases the URL had the bank’s name included (or some variation of the name) and appeared to be almost identical to the legitimate website. Unsuspecting users would enter their personal data into the fraudulent site and would become at rick of identity theft and subsequent financial loss.  

Scams like these are, in essence, very similar to those we regularly encounter on laptop or desktop computers—usually via email or pop-up window. Over time most people have learned to avoid these scams and report them to the appropriate authorities.

So, what makes this so different? The success of this scam is tied to the emotional and irrational belief that our smartphones are safer because they are typically in our possession at all times. The intimate space of text messaging is falsely perceived as secure, more trustworthy, and relevant. 

This is unfortunately not the case. Just like unwanted push notifications, incoming solicitations and scams are very real threats if certain settings are left unchecked on a smartphone.

 

How to Combat Text Scams 

Most of have learned to deal with dubious emails and pop-up windows by deleting suspicious messages. Use the same caution on your smart device. Ignore the instructions of a text message asking for your participation to retrieve or verify personal data via text.

Further, you should check your phone bill every month. Check for services you haven’t ordered. Fraudulent changes may appear as one-time charges or be labeled ‘subscriptions,’ and may appear on each monthly bill.  

Commercial text messages, push notifications, and text subscriptions should lawfully provide you with an easy way to unsubscribe from them. If the option doesn’t appear to be available to you, check with your service provider to ensure your account hasn’t been compromised.  

Finally, ask your phone carrier about blocking third-party charges. Most phone carriers allow third parties (app companies, special ringtone services, etc.) to charge you for their services. Some carriers also have a way to block third parties from making charges. 

Don’t be afraid to call your service provider if you ever have any questions or suspect fraudulent activity. The worst thing mobile users can do if they suspect they are being scammed or unlawfully charged for services they don’t receive is nothing. Be proactive about your mobile safety, and you won’t become a victim of mobile scams.