Facebook's Messenger: What's the flap?

Earlier in the week, the internet blew up over Facebook’s distribution of Messenger, their new instant messaging app (the much heralded WhatsApp they purchased for $19 Billion in February). The concern was over “revelations” about the invasive permissions the app was demanding on your cellphone once installed. For those of you dear readers, particularly friends and family, who don’t consider themselves to be living on the hairy, bleeding edge of technology but want to be safe in your mobile device (yeah, that’s the en vogue term for “cell phone” now), let me endeavor to help separate wheat from chaff.

While available for iPhone (which run’s Apple’s iOS operating system) and Android (the Google operating system on phones like Samsung’s Galaxy line or Amazon’s Firephone), as far as I can discern, the uproar developed quickly in response to Messenger’s Android Terms of Service which request a wide range of apparently invasive permissions, including the power to call phone numbers and send texts without your oversight.  Given the fact that Facebook is doing all they can to move their users to Messenger as quickly as possible (in other words: FB users are being assaulted by requests/orders to install Messenger on their phones, from which a huge percentage of Facebook usage originates…particularly instant messaging).

Per the Huffington Post’s Sam Fiorella, Messenger can:

  • Change the state of network connectivity
  •  Call phone numbers and send SMS messages
  • Record audio, and take pictures and videos, at any time
  •  Read your phone’s call log, including info about incoming and outgoing calls
  • Read your contact data, including who you call and email and how often
  • Read personal profile information stored on your device                              
  • Access the phone features of the device, like your phone number and device ID
  • Get a list of accounts known by the phone, or other apps you use.

… so if you download Messenger on an Android phone, as many millions have already done, you give Facebook theoretical permission to look at virtually everything you do.  Things operate a bit differently on an iPhone under iOS, but the basic (which I am about to explain) are fundamentally the same).

These kinds of permissions are not only common, but (if you think about them for a moment) necessary for the apps that request them to do their jobs, inasmuch as they actually require large amounts of personal data to do what we want/expect them to do. Whether its viewing what Wi-Fi networks we are attached to and the devices on that network or viewing our contacts or call logs, these actually (for better or worse, are fairly common. This is not say its not an important issue – I am just attempting to point out: you may already be granting these permissions to other apps that might not be quite so forthcoming about what they require to do their job.

Consumers’ unease is understandable, particularly since so few of us have any idea what we give apps permission to do. According to one study, it would take the average person 250 hours a year to read every terms of service he encounters on the daily — which justifies why fewer than one in 10 people actually read the terms in full.

In fact, our collective ignorance over this whole app permissions thing probably explains the hullabaloo over Messenger. Yes, it’s potentially “insidious,” to quote Fiorella, but so are Viber, MessageMe and virtually every other popular messaging app, all of which request comparably creepy permissions. On my insidiousness scale, at least, that ignorance of the devices and programs we use every day probably ranks higher than one overreaching app.

Now, I think it might appear that I’ve undersold the privacy concerns represented by Facebook Messenger’s permission requirements: fair enough. This concern was highlighted a few weeks back when the standalone Messenger app permissions were updated to now include access to call records, as well as access to the phone’s mic and camera and contact data. Messenger now wants to do the following and asks for blanket permission upon install or update:

“Record audio with the microphone … at any time without your confirmation”

 Take videos and photos using the camera

Access the phone’s call log

Read data about contacts stored on the phone, “including the frequency with which you've called, emailed or communicated in other ways with specific individuals.

Essentially, Messenger could essentially spy on a user and keep track of mobile usage and habits, and even conversations. The issue tracks across mobile phones as the features requiring these permissions are common across platforms (the same problem on Android phones would exist on Apple’s iPhone, Windows Phones, etc.).

Granted, Facebook is known to keep track of usage, content and user information in order to aid its targeted ad campaigns for advertising clients. Google does this, Amazon does this… what do you think Google is doing distributing the Chrome Browser for free? So-called “free” services like most social networks, email providers and other cloud services today, are free because they profit from advertising and other commercial revenue arising from their ability to track and analyze user behavior. Therefore, we can expect social networks and even services like Google’s AdWords to target commercial messages based on our interests — some of these messages, you may find, are actually beneficial to you. I've certainly been pleasantly surprised (not that they found their way to me, but that those companies tracking/selling my information were actually providing me a service  that I found of value!).

The problem, however, is that the claim that private messaging is “private” in the first place. There is a class action lawsuit now filed which purports these to be a  misrepresentation. Representing to users that the content of Facebook messages is ‘private’ creates an especially profitable opportunity for Facebook (or, similarly, Google, Apple, Spotify, Amazon, etc.), because users who believe they are communicating on a service free from surveillance are likely to reveal facts about themselves that they would not reveal had they known the content was being monitored.

The class action lawsuit seeks up to $10,000 in damages for each Messenger user in the US. Facebook, however, maintains that the allegations are “without merit” and it intends to “vigorously” defend itself from the lawsuit. This ought to be interesting, don’t you think? Make no mistake: it will represent an historic decision in a confluence of economic and privacy rights.

Robugtix: The Animated, Robotic Spider!

OK, how cool is this?! Its a robotic spider, available today for mail order from Hong Kong, (foronly $3,000!). It contains 26 tiny and very delicate servo motors...3 per leg and two for the body. They are so tiny and delicate that you can strip the gears if you put the darned thing down indelicately, as demonstrator (in the video below) Adam Savage recounts when ex.plaining why he built the nifty box to haul it around and work on it! 

If you're a young person, looking for the reason that you (a) should learn how to work with your hands and use tools well and/or (b) learn to program, look no further. Apparently, the guys who built this (who named their company Robugtix) did so not because they wanted to make a robotic spider but to help them better flesh out their motherboard/controller...so they obviously plan on doing a lot more cool stuff. Geesh, just figuring out the math the mimics the natural movements of an animal articulating 28 joints is pretty impressive...I'm exciting thinking about what else they might do!

A "Russian Internet" ? Putin's dream of "information wants to be free"

A new Russian law requires companies to store Russians' data within Russia's borders, out of reach of the NSA, and in reach of Russia's own secret police. We only have to look at recent history in China to see where this is headed, in my humble opinion.

I suspect we can thank Edward Snowden's revelations and the reaction of the world's governments to them to explain this, but clearly Vladamir Putin's Russia is displaying more of an authoritarian control over its citizens that is reminiscent of Iran's or China's governments than it is of Western democracies.

The Russian law utilizes copyright enforcement as its raison d'être, which is nothing new for Putin's regime: when Russian cops seized the computers of independent newspapers under the rubric of hunting for pirated software, they also "just happened to secure" journalists' confidential sources and notes. It allows the state the right to censor the press for alleged infringement.

Russia's new legislation squashes the democracy of the internet to achieve a status similar to that of neighbor China: a huge market for Internet users, with a massive censorship system that can block non-compliant foreign Internet services. In China, this has resulted in companies like Yahoo and Google locating their servers within the grasp of Chinese spies (who used them to hack both the American Internet companies and spy on internal dissidents, prompting Google to eventually leave China), as the only way to get access to the market and compete with homegrown, regime-friendly services. While one can sniff and turn up their nose at such governmental maneuvers as "high handed, totalitarian nonsense that will suffer the wrath of the market", history suggests that free market economies may avoid Russia, but, in the process, convey acceptance of the precedent in the process.

Compliance to access to the Russian Internet market will likely tread down a well trodden path -- a few years' worth of complicity in attacks on activists, assisting imprisonment of people who use curse words (but only if they're the sort of people the Kremlin needs an excuse to jail) -- only to find your company exorcised from the Russian economy when it serves the government's needs, its servers seized, and a locally run business like Yandex or Vkontakte getting your market-share.

Vkontakte? That's the "Russian Facebook" -- the site's founder Pavel Durov was apparently forced to sell his stake in the company earlier this year, after taking part in anti-Putin rallies. The new owner is a Kremlin-affiliated oligarch whose fortune was Kickstarted by fire-sale-priced access to media assets seized from another oligarch who'd fallen out of Kremlin-favor.

We have watched this battle playing out already with such leading hi-tech enterprises such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft doing their best to quietly comply with governmental requests without kicking up too much publicity. No doubt China, Russia and others have taken this into account when assessing if they can get away with such policies onto the world stage.


Congress Unlocks Cell Phones; President Expected to Sign; Will It Matter?

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed bipartisan legislation that would allow consumers to “unlock” their cellphones when switching providers. This companion Bill to that which already passed in the U.S. Senate is expected to be signed by President Obama and is generally acknowledged as affording Americans the freedom to choose the carrier of their choice for the cellphones they purchase, but it may only be significant in that it actually represents bipartisan unity in the 113th Congress, a legislative body sure to go down in history as one of the most partisan and deadlocked in its ability to govern. The current Congress has approved less than 20%, on average, of the amount of legislation of its immediate predecessors...and abysmal record and far more noteworthy than the legislation I'm commenting on.

What American's want to know and, undoubtedly, will make some assumptions about how this bill affects their ability to do so, is how will this legislation free them to buy the cell phone of their choice and then purchase mobile network services to enable it? While I think most thoughtful consumers recognize that the significantly reduced price they are paying for their expensive smartphones (equivalent to room full of computing power in their parents' generation, reduced to (less than) the size of a pack of cards is enabled by the subsidies provided by the mobile carries (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, et al) but, in return, they are obliged to sign up for a two year contract with the carrier, the fat margins on that contract more than covering the up front subsidy on the phone. But my own discussions with people suggests that folks' recollection of this fact is dim, at best, when making purchase decisions.

While the new legislation requires carriers to "unlock" the phones allowing them to be attached to a competitor's network, it doesn't force them to do so before the phone subsidy has been paid for. Currently, most contract phones are locked to the cellular provider that sells them, and consumers must obtain permission to unlock phones – even after the phones are paid off and contracts have expired. Consequently, consumers often need to buy a new phone if they want to switch to a different carrier. Now, once a phone is paid off (or a contract for service as expired, the carrier will be required to unlock the phone allowing it to be connected to a competitor's network.

But, let's be clear: it is the deals that phone providers (Apple, Samsung, etc) strike with the carriers to subsidize the phones that make them affordable (typically ~$100 rather than $500-$600), and the carriers require you to sign up for a two-year service contract to cover the cost of their subsidy, and this bill does NOTHING to change that practice. If Samsung initiates a contract with Verizon to be the sole provider of their next great Galaxy phone and Verizon requires you to sign away your first born to purchase that whiz-bang gadget for three dried beans, so be it: this legislation does nothing to prevent that. It merely requires Verizon to unlock that phone at the end of the contract (that you signed and agreed to to get the phone for something you could afford). No doubt, by then, Verizon will be the sole provider of Samsung's new Galaxy phone with the holographic display that projects a naked image of Miley Cyrus singing her new pop hit - the one you SIMPLY MUST HAVE!

So, caveat emptor. The 113th Congress, and the President, would like you to believe that they've worked together in a bi-partisan fashion (funny how blustering to their constituents is primary, unifying force) to advance the laws and governance of business to keep pace with technology and your lust to consume it. And, indeed, there is utility in this bill - it does force the unlocking of phones...but, practically speaking, this will largely be older phones... ones that are paid for by you. This is legislation that would have been far more useful five years ago than today, you know when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was still and newly powerful in its terrorization of the general populace . Oh, and it will likely present some obstacles to the phone providers and the carriers in the short term, which could cause the price of phones to rise (unlikely, I think), but it will do little to increase the options for those of you with gadget lust. It will most likely benefit those who are willing to use an iPhone 3 or Galaxy 2, today, with the carrier of their choice. Oh yeah, and it doesn't include devices like tablets with cellular connectivity, merely directing the Librarian of Congress to consider whether other electronic devices could be unlocked legally.

You can read more about it here and here.


Japanese Burger Crocs

This post is dedicated to my newphew, Paul Kohlbry, a PhD student in Baltimore who likes to make fun of my Crocs (I like the ones with the built-in socks as a cozy, winter-borne sandal for California), telling me I look like an old man at the Israeli beach...

The folks who make Crocs have introduced a new model in Japan, inspired by the hamburger:

Australia: Home to "Real Men"

You gotta love our favorite British penal colony, turned sovereign nation (a sobriquet not inaccurate in describing my own country).  Here's a snippet of the captains of two Australian Rules Football (Rugby) teams connecting mid-field: