Geek News: Latest Technology, Product Reviews, Gadgets and Tech Podcast News for Geeks

GadgetTrak Remote Tracking Software For Mobile Gadgets

Posted by tomwiles at 2:46 PM on February 9, 2011

GadgetTrak is a piece of software that you install on your mobile phone or laptop. The software will periodically check in and let you know the physical location of the device. If a camera is present, for example on a laptop, it can even take a photo of the thief and email it back to the owner. The software cannot be disabled by the thief.

For a Mac or Windows laptop, the price is $34.95 per year.

For Android and Blackberry phones, which includes remote data wipe ability, secure encrypted backup and a loud piercing audible alarm even if the device is in silent mode, the price is $19.95 per year.

For iPhone, iPod, and iPad, the GadgetTrak app is .99 cents, The iOS version does not include remote data wipe, but does include remote camera and push notification support to inform the thief of the GadgetTrak software’s presence.

Interview by Jeffrey Powers of Geekazine.

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Google Acted Illegally in UK

Posted by Andrew at 8:40 AM on November 3, 2010

Google LogoThe UK’s Information Commissioner today confirmed that Google breached UK’s Data Protection Act when the Street View cars captured personal data while collecting wi-fi network information.

As a result of this, Google will be required to sign an undertaking to take steps to ensure that breaches of the Act don’t re-occur.  Google will then be audited in nine month’s time to confirm that the required policies and training has taken place. Finally, once any legal obstacles have been cleared, Google will have to delete the personal data from the UK.

Currently, the Information Commissioner does not intend to fine Google, but will take further action if necessary

Information Commissioner's OfficeThe Commissioner, Christopher Graham said,  “It is my view that the collection of this information was not fair or lawful and constitutes a significant breach of the first principle of the Data Protection Act.  The most appropriate and proportionate regulatory action in these circumstances is to get written legal assurance from Google that this will not happen again – and to follow this up with an ICO audit.”

What’s interesting about this is that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had previously decided not to take action against Google because the sample data shown to the ICO was considered to be fragmentary and therefore unlikely to constitute personal data.

However, Google’s Alan Eustace admitted on Google’s own blog that, “A number of external regulators have inspected the data as part of their investigations (seven of which have now been concluded). It’s clear from those inspections that whilst most of the data is fragmentary, in some instances entire emails and URLs were captured, as well as passwords.”

The Commissioner then infers that because this happened in other countries, it happened in the UK, even if most of the data was fragmentary.  You can read the Commissioner’s letter to Google Inc here.

Personally, I’m pleased that Google is being held to account.  Far too often it seems that big business gets away with abusing our personal information.

Lower Merion School District Settlement

Posted by susabelle at 5:55 PM on October 13, 2010

The Lower Merion School (Pennsylvania) has agreed to a settlement with two students involved in the laptop spying case that made national news in February of this year.  It seems that the school district, which began distributing laptops to high school students in 2008, had installed remote webcam activation software on the laptops for use when a laptop went missing.  There were several problems, not the least of which was that no one from the district informed parents or users that such software existed.  There was also no district policy in place to regulate the use of the software, and no oversight of the people in charge of activating the software.  In the process, district IT workers had captured over 56,000 images from activated webcams, some of which were not from computers that had been misplaced.

A single student sued the school for its breach of trust, and the lawsuit threatened to go to class-action status to cover the 40 or so students whose images had been captured and stored by the district’s IT department.

The settlement amounts to $610,000, to be paid by the district’s insurance company.  The majority of that payout (over $400,000) is paying off the lawyers; the student who sued first will receive $175,000 in a trust, and a second student will receive $10,000.

The school district, in my opinion, is getting off very very lucky, as is the IT manager who thought all this was a good idea in the first place.  I’m all for retrieving stolen property, but I’m also all for covering everyone’s butts with well-written, clear-cut policy statements that state when snooping software can be used and why.  You can’t get in trouble if you’re being above-board, everyone knows what you’re doing and why, and you are very clear about how policy will be enforced.

This should also send a message to other school districts who may be considering similar snooping measures to cover district-owned computer equipment.

Google Family Safety Centre

Posted by Andrew at 1:00 AM on October 13, 2010

Google FamilyGoogle has setup the Family Safety Centre to help parents and teachers keep their children safe online.  After spending a little time in the resource, it seems to be a good introduction to online safety for children from a parent’s point of view.  If you need to know more, you can then take it further through some of the links.

The Centre has four main sections:

i) Google Safety Tools – information on Safesearch, which stops inappropriate material being returned in searches, and YouTube Safety Mode, which similarly stops age-restricted videos from appearing.

ii) Advice from partners – information from children’s organisations on cyberbullying, privacy, talking to strangers online, adult content and malware.

iii) Reporting abuse – if you find inappropriate material on any of Google’s properties (YouTube, Buzz, Picasa, Blogger), here’s how to flag the material to Google.

iv) Video tips from Google parents – a set of videos on YouTube from parents to parents.  In this section there’s also six basic tips for on-line safety.  Frankly, I think these tips should be more prominent as they’re good.
- Keep computers in a central place
- Know where your children go online
- Teach internet safety
- Help prevent viruses
- Teach your children to communicate responsibly
- View all content critically

Each country has its own slight variant, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, US and UK versions – there are probably others for non-English speakers. The main difference seems to be the list of partner organisations that Google has worked with (and spelling).

If you are a parent, you should spend a few minutes having a read of the information here.

Privacy in a Public World

Posted by KL Tech Muse at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2010

Facebook rolled out Places late on Aug 18, it allows you to check in where you are through Facebook. In its default mode it also allows your friends to check you in. Lifehacker has a good article on how to adjust your privacy settings for Places to a level you are comfortable with.

This again brought out the issue of privacy. Some of the answers to the issue of privacy by those who believe being public is best ranged from impractical to absurd, such as don’t be on these social sites, to change your name, which is what Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt suggested in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. (if you are unable to get the Wall Street Journal article PC world has a good review of it ) On the other side, privacy evangelist can sound like members of a lunatic fringe group, when they talk about things like RFID tags being the work of the devil.

Both sides are trivializing an issue which can very serious for a lot of people, especially women who have been in an abusive relationship, it is important that their lives remain private. In fact for them it really can be a matter of life or death. However they should be able to participate in social media sites to connect with their friends, like anyone else. If they can’t then the abuser wins. How public or private someone is should be an individual’s choice. They should be able to control that privacy level how ever they see fit. My biggest fear is that the decision making is being taken away from the individual. Just because I make part of my life public doesn’t mean I have given up my right to privacy in other parts of my life.

Anytime an application or website is created or changed in a way that affects a person privacy, that change should be made clear and public. It should not be hidden in the middle of a 65 page software license agreement. Each person should make their own choice on how public or private they want to be and it shouldn’t be a decision made others. I have made a choice to be public in most areas of my life, I however don’t presume that I have the right to make that choice for someone else.

Google WiFi – Wrong But No Big Deal

Posted by Andrew at 6:51 AM on July 29, 2010

Information Commissioner's Office logoThe UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a press release on Google’s collection of WiFi data that was obtained by the StreetView cars as they drove round.

In what appears to be a holding statement, the ICO says that it has reviewed samples of collected data at Google premises and confirms that the samples do not include any “meaningful personal details“.  Additionally, the information cannot be connected to an identified individual and it is unlikely to cause any harm.

However, the ICO confirms that collecting the information was wrong but there is nothing further in the press release to indicate if any penalties will be levied against Google.  Apparently the Information Commissioner will be taking a “responsible and proportionate approach.”

Do “Regular” People Know They Are Living Life in Public?

Posted by Alan at 6:48 PM on July 25, 2010

The recent privacy flap surrounding Facebook got me thinking.  Exactly how much are we all sharing?  What can be learned from it?  And how much of any of this does the average person know or understand?

I decided to take myself as a case study.  I may not be the average user – and most of you who read this techie site probably aren’t either.  But, we all know and/or are related to the “average user”.  And that is the person who is in danger in this modern, tech-based, privacy-challenged world.  I feel as though I can kind of compare myself to the average user in a strange sort of way.  It goes like this: I write for this site and my own and, sometimes, for others, and because of that, I have a vested interest in being found.  I want my writing found and I want to share it.  In fact, I have made the conscious decision to be easily found.  Plus, I want feedback.  I want to communicate with everyone out there and crowd-source questions and discussions.  Hence, it may appear that I share everything, but, I understand what’s going on in this space.  I realize that everything I post, regardless of rather or not I mark it as private, can be, and probably will be at some point, public.  Terms of use change.  I take NOTHING for granted.  I share nothing that I wouldn’t want the whole world to know.

Just about everyone who can access the internet is using at least one of these services that I looked at (and there are many more I didn’t).  And the average user gives not a single thought to what they are telling whoever wants to look.  Mostly who is looking is advertisers – either directly or because the site in question is sharing.  There are more nefarious onlookers as well, but to be fair, that is rare and requires the site to have security hole.

I will start with the one service I considered for this piece that I don’t use – Foursquare.  I don’t use it because I live in the country and it seems rather pointless for me.  Although, I guess I could rack up the “mayor” spots!  But, if you live in a metro area you may be using it, and what better way to let your stalker know where you are and when?  Since I don’t have experience with it I’ll leave it at that.

Let’s look at two photo sharing sites – Flickr and Picasa.  I use Picasa, myself, but most of you probably use Flickr. They are pretty much interchangeable though.  Picasa has settings.  Flickr probably has similar.  You can decide to not allow the general public to see your pictures and you can block GPS data from the photos. Do most users know this?  Probably not.

I am probably in the minority in using Wakoopa.  In fact, some of you probably don’t even know what it is.  It’s a simple program that tracks what programs I use.  It even includes some Webware programs.  What’s the harm in that?  Well, we will get to those possibilities later.

Another seemingly innocuous program is Goodreads.  As with Wakoopa, I may be in the minority using it, but I would guess there are dedicated users out there as well.  This site performs the simple task of keeping track of, and sharing, the books you read.  Like Wakoopa, what could be the harm?

Do you listen to music?  Do you love Pandora as much as I do?  Or, maybe you’re into Slacker or Last FM.  Everyone knows that their Pandora playlists are shared thanks to Facebook, right?  Slacker and Last FM can’t be very far behind on that gravy train.

My phone’s GPS tracks me via Google Latitude.  This one seems secure – only people I okay can see my location.  In all seriousness, I do trust Google, and maybe it will be my downfall, but other than a couple of stupid lapses, they seem genuinely to be trying to keep all of their overwhelming amount of data about all of us in check.  But, don’t get too comfortable, because Google knows EVERYTHING.  If management changes we are all in for a rough ride.  They have it all – our profiles, our email, our RSS feeds, and, most of all, our searches.  And that’s not even counting our location (if you use Latitude) or our thoughts (if you use Buzz).  And if Google Me is real, well….

Then there’s Twitter (and I’ll include Buzz here since they are the same type of service).  The great thing about Twitter is that you KNOW everything is public.  It’s designed that way.  They do allow users to set their accounts to private, but I assume few do.  And, let’s face it, few are sharing anything private on here…right?  Well, except those who lost jobs for posting things about their bosses or the woman who was sued for libel after posting about her apartment problems.  How many other stories like these are out there?  Far too many to count I am sure.  Let’s face it.  Even a service that is outright public from the start lulls the average user into a false sense of privacy.  And, what’s more, you can (and I do) allow the Twitter feed to cross-post to Google Buzz and Facebook.  Now if I say something dumb it has the maximum chance of being heard by the most people possible.  And, let’s not forget that Twitter makes it easy to add photos and videos to every tweet with such third-party services as TwitPic and TwitVid.  Oh, and just to top it off, I can geo-tag my posts so everyone knows exactly where I am.

Finally, there’s the black hole of privacy known as Facebook.  They have changed their privacy settings several times and only once (and that’s debatable) did it favor the users.  Facebook has an interest in users sharing their data.  That’s how they make their money.  If your settings are all private then it is bad for their bottom line.  So, they have slowly opened their doors to allow more and more user data to become public.  And they have made their privacy settings harder for users to understand.  The biggest thing they have done was to make settings opt-out instead of opt-in.  They gamble on the average user not understanding all of this.  And, let’s face it, they’re right.  Sure, they made some news with all of this, and some people got up-in-arms over it, but, did the public-at-large really hear and really understand?  Probably not.

Now let’s see what we can learn about me from all of this data.  I don’t use Foursquare so my stalker will not be happy here, nor will the marketers who want to know the kind of businesses I frequent.  From Picasa they will see my pictures, and those are posted to Buzz as well, but they are marked as private so I win one here.  Wakoopa tells everyone what software I am using, which is great for the marketers, but probably useless for my stalker.  Similarly, Goodreads will let everyone know that I am just about done reading A Walk In The Woods, which is useful to marketers, but less so to my stalker.  The same for Pandora – great to know what I listen to if you want to sell to me, but not so much if you want to find me.  And then we come to the last three services I looked at, and those are the ones the stalker is interested in – Twitter, Buzz, and Facebook.  Here’s where you know where I am, where I am going and who I am with, complete with exact GPS coordinates.

Can you build a good profile for marketing or stalking?  I would say it’s very easy to do so.  And, almost everyone that each of us knows is using, at the very least, one of these services.  Worse, they don’t know what the default settings are, and even worse than that, probably don’t care because they don’t understand the implications of them.  Things are not improving on this horizon any time soon, either.  In fact, if Facebook is any indication, they will get worse.  Yes, it’s great to have all of these services and they are very useful.  But, we need to take the time to understand them and what they mean.  People have been hurt – women with real stalkers.  Nobody should have to suffer because of vague terms-of-service or the questionable practices of some site that is out to make a dollar off of unsuspecting users.

Code of Practice for Privacy Protection

Posted by Andrew at 3:18 AM on July 21, 2010

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has published a pair of  guides about holding personal information online.  The first guide is a Code of Practice aimed at organisations, particularly, those that sell goods and services over the web and is to help them understand the data protection law and develop good practice.  The second is for individuals and is Protecting Your Personal Information Online.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is an independent body setup to promote and police the UK’s information legislation including the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

The new Code of Practice has several sections including how the law applies, how to operate internationally, individuals’ rights and pitfalls to avoid.  It also includes a number of special cases, e.g. when dealing with children.

The personal guide provides information on protecting your personal info and identity, online scams, cookies, browser settings and social networks.  Definitely worth a read, even if you are not UK-based.  It’s all good sensible stuff.

What’s been stirring the media is that for the first time the ICO has commented on “behavioural marketing”, i.e. adverts are tailored to your browsing activity.  There had been some debate about the legality of this but as long as its clear what is going on and the person can opt out, there’s no problem.  There’s more information on behavioural marketing here.

Regardless of whether you are in the UK or elsewhere or whether you are a supplier or a customer, it’s worth giving both guides a browse.

What Makes A Tech Success?

Posted by tomwiles at 1:23 AM on July 12, 2010

It seems in the world of computers and the Internet there is always a steady stream of new things on the horizon, as well as a steady stream of new products and services. It’s been this way for many years at this point.

There are always winners and losers. Winners can win big, and losers at worst fail to make any marketplace splash or even a ripple and end up in the tech dustbin of obscurity with few people ever knowing that the product or service ever existed.

What is it that makes for a successful product? Why is it that some products and services that seem very similar to other products and services end up becoming household names, while others end up being cancelled domain name landing pages?

It’s obvious there are a variety of factors that come into play. If it were easy to predict these things, we would have a lot fewer losers. Why did Twitter become a household name, whereas similar services such as Plurk and Jaiku languish in the shadows? What enabled Facebook to steal most of the MySpace thunder?

New products and services that end up being successful frequently incorporate elements and principles of previously-existing successes, but package them in more compact and useful forms.

Initially when Twitter came along a couple of years ago, I heard people talking about it, but I was a bit resistant to sign up. I felt like I had plenty of ways to communicate with people, so why did I need to add yet another account to a service that would steal away time I already had filled, only to ultimately let yet another account go dormant? I finally signed up for Twitter, and after I began using it I began to understand the value of it. With a service like Twitter, the more people that are using it, the more valuable it becomes.

About the same time I signed up for a Twitter account, I also signed up for a Plurk account. After a few visits to the Plurk website over a period of a month or two, I haven’t been back to the site since.

I believe what is valuable about Twitter is that 140 character limit per Tweet, forcing people to be succinct with their wording. Twitter and Tweet are cute names. The site design is simple, the blue bird logo pleasing to the eye, and the developers kept the API and name open to other developers, allowing an entire ecosystem of ancillary products and services to develop around it at the same time it was rapidly increasing in popularity. Twitter is very much like chat, which was already well established, but it had the added value that it either could be in real time, or not, able to be accessed from a vast array of devices beyond the Twitter website. Twitter also allows you to subscribe to just the people you want, and ignore or even completely block the rest. Twitter also allows you to reach out and touch people, and it allows you to monitor what others are up to whose lives are at once very similar to your own, yet often radically different. You can spend as much or as little time as you wish interacting with the service. Another thing that turned out to be incredibly useful with twitter is the vast 24/7 real-time data stream that it generates. Real-time Twitter data mining has proved to be quite valuable to many people.

To be honest I have always thought that many MySpace pages were often monstrous, unbelievably cluttered messes that often took a long time to load. Nonetheless, MySpace became popular because it obviously served a need with a younger demographic.

I’ve always thought Facebook’s interface is somewhat confusing, though allowing for far less cluttered and confusing-looking profile pages. I still don’t quite understand what got Facebook to the level of critical popularity – perhaps the less-cluttered, faster-loading profile pages gave it the critical edge over MySpace.

It should also be noted that Facebook allowed for an open API, allowing a myriad of interesting and often useful applications to be plugged in to its interface.

However it did it, Facebook managed to get to a critical mass of users where it became THE thing to sign up for and THE place to be to stay connected with family, friends and business associates. Something interesting has happened with Facebook that has never happened before – everyday, non-geek people who had never built website profiles in all the years they had been doing email and web browsing were suddenly signing up for Facebook in unbelievable numbers. Mothers, dads, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, etc. were suddenly showing up on the same service with their kids, nieces, nephews and grandkids. Once the ball rolled, Facebook became an incredible success.

I started noticing a while back that many people were starting to use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with each other in lieu of email. At this point I find myself getting pulled into that trend myself. These services don’t offer the relative privacy of direct email, but they allow for easy, frequent public conversations and easy sharing of personal media such as photos between friends and family on a global scale.

What I take away from the success stories versus the less-successful competitors is that oftentimes the differences in design and implementation can be slight, but those slight differences can offer real, tangible advantages to the end user. If those often-slight advantages can somehow help get the product or service to a critical mass threshold, they can find themselves catapulted to the point of planetary awareness.

Will You Leave Facebook If Privacy Issues Don’t Change?

Posted by J Powers at 8:20 AM on May 10, 2010
Facebook Logo

Facebook Logo

I went searching for a buddy on my Facebook profile. It wasn’t there. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find him. I caught him on Twitter and asked where he went. He told me that he deleted his Facebook profile due to all the privacy issues. I was not surprised – With all the issues that Facebook has seen in the last couple months, I could see why he did.

He was not alone. I have heard of a few social mediates also reducing their usage, if not nixing their Facebook profile. I definitely think about what I post on my wall and send in my message area. I delete those that post a game or other application on my wall and I don’t post anything that can be considered “Private” – Basically, try to keep the profile as clean as possible.

Recent privacy issues with Facebook make one realize that your online data could be open to users within a heartbeat. We hear about someone finding a vulnerability, usually after the problem was fixed. Too many in a small amount of time, and we have a crisis where the FTC might have to step in.

No different than in years past…

Whether it’s Facebook, MySpace, email, websites or whatever, people try to get in and people test the limits. I just put up a Wiki site. I put on certain privacies, but within a week, someone found a new way to get through. They posted jibberish sites – nothing that would be malware, which I could easily correct. I fixed the hole and moved on.

Facebook is the site that is under fire because everyone has a profile. At least over 400 million users. In comparison, the US population is at 307 million, over 6 Billion around the world. Heck, my mom is on Facebook.

These are people that might not be tech Savvy. They don’t understand how the site works and they don’t care. They just want to connect with friends and family. They may have heard the rambling about privacy and some may have taken heed, but most haven’t and are not upset with them right now – until their profile is infiltrated.

MySpace, AOL, GeoCities

Remember when we were all on MySpace? Remember when you switched to Facebook? Did you delete your MySpace profile, or do you still check it randomly?

Back in 2007, when MySpace was king, we had different types of privacy issues. The big issue was online predators. Sex offenders on the social network site set one raid to remove over 350 profiles from MySpace.

AOL had many privacy issues in the early years. 1998, we heard of how people found back doors to the “Walled Garden”. GeoCities was under fire for selling personal information. They settled with the FTC just days before they set their first IPO. Business before privacy?

Twitter, Friendfeed, MSN, Compuserve, BBS – These all have had privacy issues at one time. As a site grows, the bad guys realize it can become a great portal to try and take down or get someone’s money. They strike, the site counter-strikes – The battle continues. Rinse and repeat.

Step in the FTC

Privacy issues have escallated to the point where Facebook hired former Bush regulator Tim Muris to defend the social network and it’s privacy problems to the FTC. Of course, if you have a product that is 400 million strong, you definitely will have scrutiny. Regulation is there to protect. Whether the government should step in for regulation might be a whole other topic. Add in the fact that some of those Facebook profiles are non- US citizens; The rules get different.

So is it different, or just the same old?

Privacy is a big issue on the Internet. Whether it’s getting your email hacked or finding a back door on a social network. We don’t want our personal information in the wrong hands. But we also want to connect to the people we care about. In all reality, Facebook is working on their issues. If you leave Facebook for privacy, you might want to just leave the Internet altogether.

So when is too much? Are you thinking of or have you deleted your Facebook profile?