Federal Tech News · Software News For Professionals

Four Technology Related Issues That The Government Must Solve!

Constituents are yelling at their representatives in town-hall meetings about health care, tax reform, the budget and the environment, and other topics that have boiled over at the start of the Trump administration.

Perhaps you are among those cranky constituents. If so, please bring up the following tech-policy problems that could all be addressed by legislation that already exists — and in some cases, has spent years kicking around Capitol Hill.

Broadband privacy

The head-spinning rush by Republicans in the House and the Senate to block pending Federal Communications Commission rules banning Internet providers from selling the browsing histories of their subscribers without permission has gone over about as well as a Senate filibuster consisting of recitations of the browsing histories of randomly-selected taxpayers.

For instance, on Thursday night, constituents of Sen. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) tore into him for backing that bill and suggesting they would have to wait for comprehensive privacy legislation covering not just Internet providers but sites like Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Facebook (FB). One asked the senator if he’d sell his own browser history if the crowd took up a collection to pay for it.

There is a bill that would reverse this change — Sen. Ed Markey (D.-Mass.) has proposed one that would restore the pending rules. But S.878 has no realistic chance of passing with the current republican majority and president. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask you representative about it.

Email searches

Next up on the privacy checklist, we have the woefully overdue reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. This living fossil of a law assumes that email stored online for more than 180 days is abandoned and therefore shouldn’t require a warrant for law-enforcement investigators to search.

That was technologically unsound in the 80’s and in the age of webmail it’s absurd.

Sure, major email providers insist on warrants anyway, but are you sure you don’t have any data stored online with a smaller company that doesn’t want to tangle with prosecutors in court?

The House has already done its job by passing the Email Privacy Act, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R.-Kans.), in a voice vote — the closest thing to a unanimous vote. Senators, go and do likewise.

Border device searches

The odds of having Customs and Border Protection agents seize and search your phone when you return from an international trip remain below a hundredth of a percent — but CBP agents are also conducting those searches far more frequently compared to previous years.

The latest numbers, from a CBP spokesperson: 14,993 arriving travelers had their electronic devices searched from October through March, versus 8,383 in the corresponding period a year earlier. Note that this spike in searches predates President Trump; the Obama administration bears responsibility for this too.

The Protecting Data at the Border Act, put forth by a bipartisan group of representatives and senators, would require CBP agents to get a warrant to search your device’s data, with exceptions for emergency situations.

Building out broadband

We keep having arguments over issues like net neutrality (the principle that your Internet provider shouldn’t block, slow or surcharge sites) and broadband privacy because so many of us don’t have a choice of broadband providers.

The FCC’s latest stats show that only 24% of census blocks have two or more providers offering downloads of at least 25 megabits per second. Worse yet, 29% don’t have anybody selling a connection that fast.

Many Democrats advocate letting cities and counties build their own municipal broadband networks, to which Republicans often reply: “socialism!” But tech-policy types on both sides agree that a “dig once” policy requiring that federally-funded infrastructure projects include conduits for new broadband connections would make it easier to build new networks.

Such a bill exists — Rep. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.) introduced it in 2009! But Congress keeps putting it off to the side. Yet another draft of this Broadband Conduit Deployment Act is now circulating, and you should ask your elected representatives about it.

The fact that we’re waiting on legislation to make meaningful changes in those areas is another thing you might want to consider when speaking up to your hired workers in Washington.

General Tech News · Software News For Professionals · Tech For Travelers · Uncategorized

Wider Laptops Aren’t Always The Best Option. Especially When Flying.

For the past several days, frequent travelers have been dreading something far worse than being stuck in a middle seat: having to check their laptops and tablets before flying home from Europe.

That’s the fear invoked by news reports that the Department of Homeland Security will expand its current ban on large electronic devices in the cabins of flights to the U.S. from the initial 10 airports across Africa and the Middle East to all U.S.-bound flights coming from anywhere in Europe.

Until we see the details of this plan’s implementations, we’ll have to hold off on some questions about a policy that almost no other country imposes.

Still, you should wonder what airlines might do to cope with such a ban, and what that might mean for your safety and the safety of your data.

Checking your laptop

The cardinal rule of checking baggage is not to put anything valuable into a bag that will spend hours in the custody of strangers, many of whom don’t work for the airline you fly.

Some foreign airlines blindsided by the electronics ban announced in March responded by setting up systems to check laptops at the gate or even on board, then keeping them with airline staff members until reuniting the devices with their owners after the flight.

That’s what Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have done. The first three also offer loaner devices — laptops at Emirates and Qatar, iPads at Etihad — to passengers in business or first class.

People who have used these airlines’ laptop-check services — see, for instance, travel-blog reports on flights with Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Turkish — have generally had positive things to say about them.

Note that this service may not alleviate the fire hazard posed by their lithium-ion batteries, which are already banned from being shipped as cargo on passenger aircraft.

Analyst Bob Mann, president of the airline-consulting firm RW Mann & Company, warned that leaving this work to passengers would be even worse: “Given passengers cannot be presumed to know how to properly pack spare and in-use batteries and devices, this proposed order has very serious safety implications for every flight on which it is imposed.”

And flights from the U.S. to the Middle East involve far fewer people: 9,753,172 passengers in the 12 months ending last June, versus 59,401,505 travelers between the U.S. and Europe over that period, according to Department of Transportation statistics.

Protect your data if you can’t protect your device

Should the current ban be extended across Europe, travelers with gadgets would have to hope that their airlines would provide some sort of gadget-concierge service like those Mideast carriers.

But U.S. airlines — none of which fly out of the 10 airports covered by the current ban — have yet to say how they might deal with a wider prohibition on in-cabin electronics.

Neither United Airlines (UAL) nor Delta Air Lines (DAL) responded to requests for comments on the matter. A representative with American Airlines (AAL) referred me to the trade group Airlines for America, which wouldn’t set individual baggage policies.

If your airline will gate-check your laptop, you should not have to worry about baggage handlers stealing it. But you should still be ready for consequences worse than, say, nine hours of unproductive boredom between Frankfurt and Washington.

The cost of a lost laptop or tablet may not be an issue with devices worth less than thecap on liability for luggage (currently, about $1,550). But the data on them is another issue.

“We recommend that people that can, travel with a Chromebook,” advised Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. Those cheap, light laptops backup your data automatically to Google (GOOG, GOOGL), allowing you to wipe one before handing it over, then restore it on arrival.

If you must carry a “real” laptop, Hall advised setting a “reasonably complex” password and powering the device down before checking it.

Another tech-policy expert had similar advice about bringing hardware you can’t quickly reset and restore once you get home.

“Ultimately, travelers should be more careful with the devices they choose to bring across borders under these new regulations,” wrote Amie Stepanovich, a policy manager and counsel with Access Now. “In many cases the best advice will be to leave the laptop at home.”

Gaming News · General Tech News · Software News For Professionals

The First 3 Screen Laptop Will Change How You Play Games!

Have you ever wondered what a 17-inch laptop would look like if someone strapped two extra screens to its sides? Well, that’s both an oddly specific thought, and exactly what the insane folks at PC gaming company Razer have dreamt up with their new Project Valerie concept laptop.

Debuting at CES 2017, this behemoth of a gaming rig features a brilliant 17-inch, 4K-resolution display with 100% Adobe RGB color accuracy that ensures everything from movies to the latest games look absolutely gorgeous.

Flip the onboard switch, though, and out slide two additional 17-inch, 4K-resolution panels. Aggressively unnecessary? You bet. Ridiculously cool? You know it!

The idea behind Project Valerie is to give gamers the ability to use multiple monitors without having to deal with a rat’s nest of wires on their desks. Of course, the feature comes in handy at work, too. With three screens you can multitask with a number of programs at once without having to search through a million tabs and minimized apps.

Razer’s over-the-top laptop also virtually guarantees that you’ll be the most hated person at your local Starbucks when you deploy its massive screens.

That much added mass also means that the Project Valerie will weigh just a bit more than your MacBook Air. According to Razer, the system is expected to weigh less than 12 pounds, which isn’t exactly lightweight.

Naturally, Project Valerie will be an absolute performance monster. Razer says it will equip the laptop with Nvidia’s (NVDA) latest GeForce GTX 1080 graphics chip, which means the system will be able to handle VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

Like every Razer laptop, Project Valerie’s keyboard will include the company’s Chroma lighting system, so you can show off your gaming bona fides whether you’re pounding out TPS reports or pounding n00bs in “Overwatch.”

Since Project Valerie is still just a concept device, there’s no guarantee it will ever hit the market. Even if it does, it will likely cost a good chunk of change thanks to its high-end displays. Still, I’m holding out hope that I’ll one day own a ridiculous three-screen laptop just like I’ve always dreamed.

Apple News · General Tech News · Software News For Professionals · Virus News

Mac Users Are NOT Safe From Ransomware!

Hundreds of thousands of Windows PCs around the world have been hit by a nasty strain of ransomware called WannaCry 2.0.

Ransomware is a form of malware that completely encrypts your PC. The only way to get the key to unlock your photos, documents and music is to erase your hard drive or pay a ransom.

This particular type of ransomware is only affecting Windows computers, but that doesn’t mean Apple’s (AAPL) Macs and MacBooks are immune from these types of attacks.

See, contrary to popular belief, Apple’s desktops and laptops aren’t inherently safer than those running Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows operating systems.

Yes, WannaCry 2.0 does exploit a vulnerability in older versions of Windows, but Microsoft issued a patch to deal with the problem well before this malware exploded across the web.

Windows is hurt by its popularity

None of this points to Microsoft’s current operating system, Windows 10, being more susceptible to malware than Apple’s macOS or OS X. In fact, the real reason hackers and criminals attack Windows is that it’s the most popular desktop operating system in the world.

“Cyber criminals are generally looking for a scenario that will maximize the return on their investment,” explained McAfee CTO Steve Grobman. “What that means is they will invest in creating a malware or ransomware campaign that they believe will generate the maximum amount of ransom payment by the victim.”

One of the key elements to a successful ransomware attack is the use of social engineering to trick victims into downloading infected files in dubious emails.

To sucker enough people into doing that, though, criminals have to cast an incredibly wide net. And since Windows is far more popular in the world than Apple’s OS X and macOS, hackers go after Microsoft’s operating system.

“Given that the vast majority of deployed platforms in corporate environments are Windows, there is a lot of attention on looking for exploitation vectors of the Windows platform,” Grobman explained.

In other words, if Apple’s macOS and OS X were as popular as Windows, we’d see a heck of a lot more malware designed to attack Apple’s machines.

We’re only human

Vulnerabilities like the one used in the WannaCry ransomware are the result of human error when developing an operating system. Humans, like you and me, are notoriously fallible and are the ones who build and program operating systems like Windows.

Companies like Microsoft and Apple continually work to find these vulnerabilities before criminals can exploit them. But with millions and millions of lines of code to comb through, it’s nearly impossible to find every issue. What’s more, each update to an operating system can introduce new vulnerabilities that didn’t exist beforehand.

Apple does have one advantage over Microsoft when it comes to issues like malware: it builds both its own software and hardware. That means that if Apple finds an issue with a piece of firmware for its MacBooks or Macs it can provide an update that addresses it.

Microsoft’s software is installed on machines built by a slew of companies including Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP and others. Each of those organizations might have their own firmware that can be exploited that would need to be fixed with Microsoft’s help.

So no, Apple’s MacBooks and Macs aren’t more secure than Windows-powered machines. If you’re running a new operating system and are sure to keep it properly updated, your Windows and Apple laptops and desktops will be equally secure.

General Tech News · Software News For Professionals · Virus News

Nobody Likes Ransomware!

On May 12, a computer worm called WannaCry infected 320,000 Windows computers in 150 countries—and made headlines around the world. Here’s what you need to know.

Meet ransomware

Why the headlines? First, because WannaCry is one of the most widespread cases of ransomwaresoftware that encrypts all of the files on your PC, and will not unlock them until you pay the bad guys. In WannaCry’s case, you’re supposed to pay $300 within three days; at that point, the price goes up. If you still haven’t paid in a week, all your files are gone forever. (Here’s what it looks like if you’re infected.)

(Why can’t the authorities just track who the money’s going to, and thereby catch the bad guys? Because you have to pay in Bitcoin, which is a digital currency whose transactions are essentially anonymous.)

The second notable feature: The WannaCry malware took advantage of a security hole in Windows that had already been discovered by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). But instead of letting Microsoft (MSFT) know what it had found, the NSA kept it a secret and, in fact, decided to write a “virus” of its own to exploit it.

Ransomware is nasty. There’s no way out, no fix. And even if you pay up, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your files back; some of these ransomware people take your money and run. (Why can’t these low-life hackers have more of a sense of decency?)

How security holes get patched

So why doesn’t Microsoft fix Windows’s security holes? It does—all the time. For example, if you have Windows 10, you’re safe from WannaCry. And even if you have Windows 7 or 8, and you accept Microsoft’s steady flow of software updates, you’re fine, too; Microsoft patched this hole back in March.

The only people vulnerable to WannaCry are people running old versions of Windows, and people who don’t keep their Windows updated with Microsoft’s free patches.

Here’s the real irony: Typically, a researcher discovers a security hole in Windows—and quietly tells Microsoft. Microsoft’s engineers write and release a patch—for a hole the hackers hadn’t known about before. But the bad guys know that millions of people won’t install that patch. So they write the virus after Microsoft has fixed the hole! They get the idea from the fix.

In any case, ransomware loves to target corporate networks: hospitals, banks, airlines, governments, utility companies, and so on. These are places that often don’t regularly update their copies of Windows. (Lots of them still run Windows XP, which is 16 years old. Microsoft no longer supports Windows XP, but to its credit, it has written and released a patch to prevent WannaCry for Windows XP, too.)

How not to get ransomware

If you’d rather not get a ransomware infection on your PC, here’s what to do.

  • Back up your computer. I know you know. But only 8% of people backup daily, according to a 2016 poll of over 2,000 people. For $74, you can get a 2-terabye backup drive, and use your PC’s automatic backup software. Thereafter, if your files get locked by ransomware, you lose only a couple of hours as you restore from your backup. (For best results, keep the backup drive detached when you’re not using it, since some ransomware seeks out other connected drives.)
  • Turn on automatic updating of Windows. Get those patches before the bad guys do.
  • Don’t open file attachments you’re not expecting. Even if they seem to come from people you know. Don’t open zip files that come by email. Don’t ever click links that seem to be from your bank, or Google, or Amazon; they’re just trying to trick you into giving them your passwords.

Backup, turn on updating, don’t open email attachments you’re not expecting.

This has been a public service message.

General Tech News · Software News For Professionals

Salesforce Brings Forth Einstein Analytics To Help Professionals Optimize Their Daily Activities

Salesforce launched its Einstein Analytics app portfolio on Thursday, leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to boost the analytics capabilities available to users on its CRM platform. According to a press release, it will help find new insights and recommend “actions to accelerate sales, improve customer service and optimize marketing campaigns.”

Customers already have access to some analytics tools in Salesforce, but Einstein Analytics is supposed to weave AI into those tools so that they provide more effective results. Analytics are more “important than ever before,” the release said, and the new offering could help users improve their approach, without having to write the algorithms themselves.

“With Einstein Analytics, every CRM user can now see not only what happened in their business, but why it happened and what to do about it, without requiring a team of data science experts,” Ketan Karkhanis, general manager of Salesforce Analytics, said in the release.

Some of the apps in the portfolio are specific to roles in areas like sales, customer service, and marketing, the release said. These apps measure a set of key performance indicator (KPIs) that are specific to that role, in order to help the user do their job more effectively. For example, apps specific to marketing professionals will offer certain actions to take to improve a campaign, based on the data presented, the release said.

Salesforce also launched Einstein Discovery, which provides “actionable AI” to users. Einstein Discovery checks the validity of trends in data, explains how it identified the trend, and walks users through next steps they can take to act on it, the release said. After looking at sales data, for example, Discovery can identify what factors most impact the closing of a deal, and how that varies by location and more, the release noted.

As reported by ZDNet’s Larry Dignan, business users can also build their own models in Discovery in order to glean insights from their data.

In order to help its users get started working with analytics, the release said, Salesforce has also released 12 online learning courses to build out user knowledge of Einstein Analytics. Additional apps in the Salesforce AppExchange provide professionals with a way to boost the power of Einstein Analytics as well, the release said.

Einstein Discovery is available now, starting at $75 per user, per month. Custom Einstein Analytics Apps, also available now, cost $150 per user, per month to start.

The 3 big takeaways for our readers

  1. Salesforce’s new Einstein Analytics app portfolio wants to add additional AI power to the platform’s analytics tools, making it easier for businesses to get real insights.
  2. Some Einstein Analytics apps geared toward sales, customer service, and marketing are built around the KPIs for those segments.
  3. Salesforce also launched an “Actionable AI” tool called Einstein Discovery, which allows users to build their own models for data analytics, among other features.