This Google app is raising privacy concerns and social media buzz

Maybe you’ve seen a friend – or more likely, a celebrity – using Google’s new Art & Culture app. You know, the one where their selfie is matched with the most similar-looking painting from Google’s enormous art database? Well according to Google, the app has already seen over 30 million downloads. Depending on your perspective, that either means 30 million people are just having some fun with this new tech, or 30 million people have just used Google’s facial recognition technology without understanding the privacy implications. As it turns out, many are concerned about the latter.

People are concerned that Google could be doing anything it wants with the facial data it collects via the application. To amend some of these worries, Google has added a disclaimer in the app, and written in a blog post that it “only keeps [the data] for the time it takes to search for matches.”

Despite this attempt to placate fears, some jurisdictions remain so skeptical of this technology that the selfie aspect of the Art & Culture app is prohibited. According to AdWeek, the selfie matching feature “isn’t available in Illinois and Texas, due to laws that heavily restrict how companies can use biometric technology.”

There are also conflicting voices on whether or not Google’s promises are to be believed. Travis Jarae, CEO of identity research company One World Identity, told AdWeek that “we have no reason to doubt Google’s claim that selfies are only stored in the cloud long enough to generate portrait matches, and are not saved on any servers.”

Jarae believes Google is likely using the selfies to “train and improve the quality of their facial recognition AI.” But he does want people to think about the data they’re giving apps and do research about the implications.

Conversely, the director of privacy and data for the Center for Democracy and Technology, Michelle De Mooy, told AdWeek that people should be wary. ““It’s important to consider that the only thing governing their practices at the moment (except in Texas and Illinois) is their privacy policy, which might change,” De Mooy explained.

The point to take away is, be aware of what data you’re giving applications, and read the privacy policies and disclaimers before you do. Be aware of the potential risk, and decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth it.

Verizon Go Unlimited now covers Canada and Mexico

If you’re subscribed or planning on subscribing to Verizon’s Go Unlimited plan, this week your money will be getting you more access all across the continent. From January 25 onward, the Go Unlimited plan covers talk, text, and data charges while you’re in Canada and Mexico.

Before January 25, Go Unlimited customers traveling to Canada and Mexico have to get a TravelPass if they want their charges covered. The pass will only cost you five dollars a day, but it’s even better not to pay anything. And a Verizon spokesperson has assured PC Mag that “new and existing customers on the Go Unlimited plan can take their talk, text and data with them to Mexico and Canada at no extra charge.”

There are some caveats, of course. Access in Canada and Mexico won’t be truly as unlimited as in the United States. According to PC Mag, “access to 4G LTE data in Mexico and Canada will be capped at 500MB per day. After you eat through that, Verizon will throttle your connection to 2G speeds until the next day.”

Other new perks to be introduced on January 25 include unlimited calling from the US to Mexico and Canada.

Toronto is Canada’s only shot at landing an Amazon HQ

Amazon has recently announced the top 20 cities that are in the running for its second headquarters. A lot of Canadians were excited when the e-commerce giant announced it was looking for a second HQ –  especially because there were more than ten Canadian cities on the list! Unfortunately for those north of the border, Toronto is the only Canadian city that has made the final cut.

According to CBC, Amazon received 238 applications from cities in North America to become Amazon’s second home. Amazon has stated over social media that narrowing that list was a real challenge. Now, Amazon says it will be taking a “deeper dive” into the proposals and “evaluate the feasibility of a future partnership.”

Amazon’s plans for its second campus include five billion dollars in spending on what will be a “full equal” to its Seattle HQ. Clearly, having Amazon move to your city would be a huge deal. It will add an estimated 50,000 high paying jobs, and as a point of reference, Amazon’s presence in Seattle from 2010 to 2016 added $38 billion to the city’s economy.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne offered her insight as to why Amazon should choose Toronto. “Ontario’s greatest strength is our people and that’s exactly what we communicated directly to Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos,” she said to CBC. “”No competing U.S. city comes even close to offering this level of talent, nor can they measure up in the ways we are supporting both workers and businesses.”

Competing with Toronto are Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus (OH), Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Montgomery County (MD), New York City, Nashville, Newark (NJ), Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh (NC), and Washington D.C.

You can pay for these VPNs with retail gift cards

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a hot topic in the midst of of net neutrality media coverage. Even if you’re looking to subscribe, it may seem a little out of your budget. But as it turns out, a few VPN services accept retail gift cards as a form of payment – so if you have any sitting around from Christmas or a birthday that you will never use, you might be able to put them towards something you want.

Slash Gear points out that using these gift cards instead of your credit card comes with the added bonus of being a little more anonymous. The publication suggests three top-notch VPNs that will accept gift cards as payment.

The first is Private Internet Access, or PIA. PIA is well known in the VPN world because its cheap, reliable, and does not keep any logs of your activity. Slash Gear explains that, “The company’s own VPN app includes a kill switch feature that cuts off Internet access if the VPN goes down, and it doesn’t censor or filter out any data (meaning you can torrent if you’re so inclined).”

PIA accepts gift cards from big companies like Walmart, Starbucks, and Best Buy. You pay for an allotted amount of days, with “$25 getting 100 days of service, $50 getting 366 days of service, and $32 getting 129 days.”

Second, Slash Gear recommends BlackVPN. BlackVPN offers servers in a variety of countries across the globe, supports big protocols like OpenVPN, and works on all major mobile OS platforms. Cost wise, it is split into three plans, “Global”, “Privacy”, and “TV”. Within each the servers and features vary.

BlackVPN accepts payments through the service Paymentwall, which in itself accepts gift cards from dozens of US stores, such as Walmart, Office Max, Costco, and American Airlines. It also accepts restaurant gift cards from smaller names like Bonefish Grill and California Pizza.

Finally, Slash Gear recommends TorGuard, a “relatively inexpensive VPN service with a no-logging policy and a variety of plan options for various needs.” TorGuard offers thousands of servers, an anonymous email service, and support for using the VPN on multiple devices at once. Of course, TorGuard accepts gift cards as well.

These are not the only VPNs that accept gift cards, but they are three that are reliable, popular, and come highly recommended.

Were you expecting more from chatbots in 2017?

In the past few years, we have seen lots of companies add chatbots into their flurry of services. They were meant to better connect companies to their consumers, resulting in immediate action that wouldn’t be possible without AI. But today, chatbots haven’t made the huge impact many have hoped for.

A recent article in Venture Beat explains that chatbots have missed the mark for a number of reasons: “Even discounting Microsoft’s Twitter bot becoming a neo-nazi supporter and other bots gone wrong, overall advances in the chatbot industry have failed to deliver the huge benefits we were promised.”

Venture Beat suggests that the main problem with implementing chatbots to replace humans as customer care operators or personal shoppers is that they do not yet produce seamless humanoid conversation. Chatbots cannot understand the nuances of language, like jokes, empathy, or intuition, that human conversation is built on. Venture Beat suggests AI could be decades away from perfecting this. But telling people in the now that they can interact with a bot similarly to the way they talk to a human is a recipe for disappointment on behalf of the consumer.

The second problem with chatbots in 2017, according to Venture Beat, was its wide, optimistic, and confusing interface. The article suggests that developers “dreamed of being like Tony Stark and exchanging witty jokes and deep thoughts with an omnipresent and seemingly omniscient cyber assistant. Well, that was a mistake. Conversations are hard to sustain for non-humans, and once a computer loses track of where it is in a two-way interaction, results can quickly break the ‘magic’ of the whole situation.”

Chatbots could be more successful with “clearly defined paths and funnels” that lead the user toward a functional goal by answering questions and providing information. Bots can still use natural language processing, but the realms of interaction should be more clearly defined with systematic boundaries.

Venture Beat’s final reason for the failure of chatbots in 2017 is that they are seen as a technology of giant name companies, and consequently not friendly for small businesses. The article explains that “throwing around names like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing scares the heck out of the average small business owner.” If your small business is already doing well on Facebook or Instagram, you might see unnecessary risk in adding a chatbot to their Messenger that is expensive and hard to understand and to measure.

“We need to come up with simpler yet equally effective solutions that bring this technology into our daily lives and help small business owners leverage the power of automated social interactions,” says Venture Beat.

Hopefully developers will be able to take this advice and create a more usable interface for an incredibly accessible platform.

Samsung smartphone users will soon have access to FM radio

Future generations of Samsung smartphones will be FM radio compatible to users across the United States and Canada. This is a feature that iPhone users do not have access to.

According to an article in Business Insider, Samsung has been working in collaboration with TagStation to enable FM radio on Galaxy smartphones through the NextRadio app. This will allow Samsung users to access FM radio “without pulling excess data or battery power from their smartphones.”

You may be wondering if people would even want to use FM Radio on their phones, considering the popularity of apps like Spotify and similar services. But in a way, FM Radio fits in a retro aesthetic that some smartphone users appreciate in their tech; the same way that vinyl is making a comeback. On top of that, TagStation president Paul Brenner said in press release that “having access to FM radio frequencies could benefit people in emergency situations…” and “…access to FM radio aided those affected by recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico, Houston and the Florida coast.” In some countries, FM radio access on smartphones is a key safety feature.

The next Samsung device to make this available will likely be the Galaxy S9, which the company promised to announce in late February.

US Senator wants Apple to answer for slowdown scandal

Cheap battery replacements might not be enough to appease consumers angered by Apple’s recent slowdown scandal, where the iPhone maker admitted to quietly slowing the performance of older phones in an effort to prolong battery life. One individual who is particularly fired up is Senator John Thune of South Dakota. Thune sent a letter to Apple this week, asking the company more questions about the scandal, and requesting a response by January 23rd.

Senator Thune is the chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which explains his interest in the matter. He said in his letter, addressed to CEO Tim Cook, that “Apple has failed to act with enough transparency,” reported The Verge. Thune also asks Apple whether “the company will issue updates in the future that slow device performance, and whether it tracked consumer complaints about performance issues.”

As has been widely reported, Apple has been compensating for the news of the slowdowns by offering a discount on battery replacements from $79 to $29. Senator Thune also wants to know how Apple arrived at that discount number, and whether is has considered free replacements or offering rebates to customers who have already paid the undiscounted fee.

Senator Thune is by no means the only government official to be concerned by Apple’s actions over this scandal. According to The Verge, officials in France are looking into a criminal probe of the company.

“Project eelo” operating system might be what you need to feel secure

Do you remember Gael Duval? He is the innovator that created Mandrake Linux back in 1998. According to an article in Tech News World, Duval has come out with a new mobile operating system called “Project eelo.” The software was designed to ensure a level of data privacy that your typical Android and iOS devices lack. Duval funded the project over Kickstarter.

Duval’s innovation promises a system that “will allow mobile phone users to regain control over their personal information at a price they can afford.”  Duval has also said that Apple is expensive, boring, and “going crazy with its products,” while Google has “become too big,” and has a penchant for spying and data tracking.

“They want to know as much as possible to sell advertising,” Duval wrote in his Kickstarter campaign. “People are free to do what they want. They can choose to be voluntary slaves. But I do not want this situation for me anymore.”

The language is strong, but a lot of people share Duval’s concerns. The campaign reached more than two hundred percent of its goal after only fifteen days, and more than two thousand people have registered at since December 20th, when Duval posted eelo updates.

According to Tech News World, Project eelo was developed from LineageOS, “which is an open source system that runs mainstream Android applications. Open source modules are layered on top of that, which help create a consistent mobile and Web system.”

Project eelo calls for developers to sell smartphones preloaded with the OS, while the software itself runs as a non-profit. Duval considers it a community project, and will welcome contributors. They plan to have downloadable ROMs for a range of devices sometime this year.

Tech News World says “developers will release privacy-enabled smartphone ROMs, as well as smartphones for ordinary users, with associated Web services. They have been testing custom builds of LineageOS/eelo on the LeEcho Le2 — a 5.5-inch smartphone with a 1080 x 1920 pixel screen, 3G RAM, 32 GB storage, a finger sensor on the back and a 4K camera.”


Stanford researchers promise your phone makes you feel good

Whether or not your phone obsession is an addiction is beside the point; according to a group of Stanford researchers, we need to reframe our negative connotation of phone culture. According to CNET, the Stanford researchers conducted two experiments to see if our need to be inseparable from our phones is actually a good thing. David M. Markowitz, one of the researchers, says the results were very hopeful.

In the first experiment, 125 people were divided into three rooms. The first room was left with their phones and allowed to use them as they pleased. The second group could have their phones on their person, but not use them or touch them. The final group were left gadget-free.

The research report stated, “Participants self-reported more concentration difficulty and more mind wandering with no device present compared to using the phone, while resisting the phone led to greater perceived concentration abilities than sitting without the device.”

The idea, says CNET, is “the mere presence of your phone is a more pleasant and productive experience than the complete absence of that beloved device.”

The researches says that this is because your smartphone represents your connection to a potentially social activity, and that this is positive because humans are inherently social beings. Look at this how you will, though. Although concentration difficulty can be frustrating, mind wandering is crucial for artistic pursuit and creativity.

Markowitz agrees that freedom to mind wander is important, but adds that “people often report worse psychological experiences when they are alone and have periods of free thinking compared to having anything else to do — for example, reading a book, even giving themselves negative stimulation such as electric shocks.”

In the second experiment, participants underwent surgery while either being allowed to use their phone or left without a device. Neither group, clearly, was undergoing a surgery that required general anesthesia. The researchers found that “those left bereft required six times the dosage of painkilling opioids than those with the phones.”

The people using their phones were given one of two activities; some were directed to play Angry Birds, while the rest were told to text. The report states that, “those who used phones to text needed fewer opioids than those who played with the birds.” Perhaps this goes back to the social connection.

Obviously phones can lead to unhealthy habits on behalf of the users. But if they can also improve psychological health or attitude in some situations, then it might be worth looking at them with a degree of positivity.

Some Android apps are listening to you without your clear consent

A recent scandal has broken in the news, reporting that certain smartphone games downloaded via the Google Play Store are listening to you through your microphone. Perhaps even more strangely, the apps aren’t listening to what you are saying; they are listening to your TV, computer, or whichever device you use to consume media. The apps even listen through the microphone while not in use.

The apps use microphone access to collect data on “what shows you watch, which ads you hear, and even what movies you see,” according to The Verge.  This is a particularly shady practice, especially considering the Federal Trade Commission has warned companies against undisclosed data collection. In 2016, it even forced certain developers to notify users.

A report in The New York Times identified more than 250 games on the Google Play Store that include a “specific type of software for monitoring users’ TV habits.” It was developed by a company called Alphonso. When apps use Alphonso’s software – or when they admit to it – it’s often without clarity. They hide their disclosure in the application description, always beneath the option to “read more.” And, as you might guess, it is very easy to miss that warning.

Some apps are a bit more forward. For example, according to The Verge, a game called Endless 9*9 puzzle by Imobile Game Studios asks for location and microphone access once installed, with no explanation as to why this information is needed. It’s only when you go into the game settings that the app discloses tracking “TV viewership details” in order to “show you TV related content and ads.” Because it does not say this when asking for access, users don’t truly consent to the practice.

So how should users be notified? The FTC has some suggested guidelines. As The Verge explains, “the commission has said that only including disclosures in, say, a YouTube video description isn’t acceptable, since not every viewer may see it. Since people can download these games without viewing the disclosure, the same issues could come up here.” Basically, the notification needs to be viewed by everyone downloading the app in a clear and unmistakable fashion.

Although more apps using the Alphonso software run through the Google Play Store, some do exist for iOS as well. If you’d like to double check to see which 250 games run Alphonso, the list is available here.