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Pondering the universe

Science & technology


Sometimes, the lack of reality about technology and science has to be called out.

Phone hackingβ–³

The numbers of people losing their savings due to criminal gangs porting their mobile numbers is rapidly increasing, but there is a simple way to stop the money loss.

The reason that people are losing such amounts is that they are letting their phones automatically log in to their banking apps rather than remembering those critical passwords. The principle here is to remember the login details to where your money is stored or accounts that can spend a lot of money quickly, and never let the phone save them. Thieves cannot access those accounts if the phone doesn't know about them. Always login from scratch into such accounts, including for apps, and refuse to let a phone or desktop browser save the credentials.

A password manager is not a friend here if the phone automatically logs into it, as then thieves may get access to every account.

It may be a short daily inconvenience to manually log in, but it pales in comparison to losing ten of thousands of dollars that can only be replaced by spending weeks or years working to earn it again, if that opportunity even exists for many. Even if such amounts are not at stake, loss of control of such critical accounts can take hours or days of time to get back control, which will still be far more than the insignificant accumulated extra time logging in.

A contributing factor to this is that most phones cannot operate without an active login to their operating system account, which usually has a synching facility, or at least their browser has, so that login credentials stored on a desktop are also available on the phone. The synching has the advantage that the browser favourites are updated on all devices sharing the same account, but the downside is that accounts that may only be used from the safety of the home are also on the phone.

The solution to this is to use multiple browsers, with one for entertainment accounts, which are not really of interest to hackers, and so are not a problem if synched. Another browser could be used for shopping accounts, and only at home on a desktop or Wi-Fi tablet if available. This will keep the phone free of high-risk accounts that could give access to money or be used to purchase high-value goods that can be disposed of quickly.

For making low-value purchases on a mobile, perhaps get a low-limit debit card for it, so that it cannot have access to funds that not been explicitly put there. Keep it at a minimum balance for incidental use, and only transfer enough for larger purchases just beforehand. Just don't automatically log in the account, and only enable things like tapping just before use. It may not be the most convenient, but any losses due to hijacking will be minimal. At worst, the account can just be closed and another created.

Check accounts at least every few days, as the frequent slackness about credit card purchases by shops can allow substantial purchases over the phone that they then pick up. They will do this several times in a row. Even with banks getting smarter about scammers' techniques, thieves will do successive purchases with ever-greater amounts until the bank's software twigs to it. Automated processes like this in rapid succession over lots of accounts can net thieves a lot of money, even if the amounts per hit are small.

Most social media sites now allow account owners to download all their account data. Doing this will periodically will mitigate against the loss of photos that are wanted. Avoid posting private details, especially about children, that might give away location or other information that can put personal safety at risk. There are a lot of malicious people looking for ways to create suffering and fear anonymously. Don't give them such opportunities.

Phones and saved passwords are a convenience that is no longer advantageous when left to their own devices. Time to take back control and be smart about what phones are allowed to do.

Microsoft News – WTF!β–³

The app keeps getting changed but it keeps getting worse.

The latest PC version is the worst version so far. While keeping the multiple duplicate news items issue, it now shuffles the news items when returning to the home page instead of maintaining the same list of items in the same order, which at least allowed for some sort of orderly perusing of the news. It is now even worse than YouTube for algorithmic juggling.

On top of the juggling, it now shows items differently, seemingly at random. In one mode, items can be filtered out as an option in the upper right of the item's picture, but their headings cannot be hovered over to view them in full. The other mode has no filtering but does allow hovering. What would be good is having both filtering and hovering.

Unfortunately, filtering out sources for static items is ignored for videos, which do not allow filtering at all, and sources cannot be explicitly added to the block list in settings. The videos show even if not selected in settings. The row with videos can be hidden when normal items can be hovered over, but only allows all to be shown when normal items can be filtered. This is news mode two-up!

Particularly egregious is that the ad spot in the upper right often goes to pages that imitate legitimate new sites, like ABC News (Australia) but are just ads, down to having the logo, menu bar and general layout, as if the real site is doing an infotainment puff piece (which the ABC is not allowed to do). Other times, the target has nothing to do with what the picture and text in the ad. The ads in that prominent spot are deliberately misleading and so obviously and consistently that it can only be part of MS policy to allow it.

An anomaly that sometimes appears is a raft of Powered by Bing items that read like supplier writeups in trade magazines. Really, that are some real problems in the design and implementation of the MS News app, most of which should have been eliminated many versions ago.

Incorporating some worthwhile new features, the news app should include:

  1. a.Default chronological order that is maintained between reading items.
  2. b.Elimination of duplicate items.
  3. c.Filtering of sources at each item, always.
  4. d.Video item sources obey filtering for static items.
  5. e.No deceptive ads.

Weakening encryptionβ–³

Many law enforcement agencies are lobbying their governments to pass laws to allow access to encrypted communications between users of social media. This will not work out as they intend.

At one time, the then Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, arrogantly stated that Australian laws take precedence over the laws of mathematics. Well, legislated laws are not true laws, being dependent upon the power of their creators to enforce them, whereas the laws of mathematics are absolute and inviolate.

And it is the inviolate nature of the laws of mathematics that will enable criminals to circumvent any attempt to legally prevent them using strong encryption. This is because weakening the encryption regime of social media companies will just give rise to alternative channels that will use strong encryption.

These will attract those who want to protect their privacy, and many will not be engaging in illegal activities. This is the usage pattern that welcomed PGP encryption in 1991. It is these non-criminal users that will make it difficult to identify criminals by their metadata, just because of their numbers.

However, social media users will have their communication open to the potential of government surveillance. The law enforcement agencies must know that criminals will find alternatives, so the laws are just a means to get to the data of everyday users.

Overall, this push just shows that the politicians are either too ignorant and thus easily led, or they are disingenuous and disrespectful of their voters, either of which give legitimate reasons not to trust them. Hopefully, there are some politicians who will stand up to this misguided attempt at invasions of people's privacy.

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