Saturday, January 27, 2018 - February 2, 2018
How to keep your smartened-up home safe from hackers
people get voice-activated speakers and online security cameras for
convenience and peace of mind, are they also giving hackers a key to
their homes? Many devices from reputable manufacturers have safeguards
built in, but safeguards aren’t the same as guarantees. (AP Photo/Elaine
New York (AP) -
More people are getting voice-activated speakers and other smart devices
for convenience and security. But doing so could also be giving hackers
a key to their homes.
Many devices from
reputable manufacturers have safeguards built in, but those can’t
guarantee against hacks. Gadgets from startups and no-name brands may
offer little or no protection.
Before buying one,
here are some risks to assess.
built-in microphones are increasingly popular. Devices such as Amazon’s
Echo and Google Home let people check the weather or their personal
calendar with simple voice commands. Beyond that, many smart TVs and TV
streaming devices now have voice-activated functions, often for playback
controls and video search. Many newer toys also come with microphones so
kids can talk to them and get canned responses.
Many of these
devices are constantly listening for your commands; when they receive
them, they connect to corporate servers to carry them out. What if
you’re having private conversations at home? Are they getting sent over
the internet, too?
In some cases,
sound recordings will only leave home when you trigger the device. You
might have to speak a command phrase like “OK Google” or press a button
to get the device’s attention. Check before buying to make sure a
product includes such safeguards.
Some gadgets go
further. Smart speakers, for instance, typically have a mute button to
disable the microphone completely. Amazon says its mute function
involves disconnecting the circuit, so that hackers cannot override the
But there’s no easy
way for consumers to verify manufacturer promises, such as Amazon’s
assertion that the Echo never transmits recordings to the cloud unless
it’s been activated. That’s where it helps to stick with reputable
brands, as their reputations are at stake if they’re caught in a lie.
Bigger companies can also quickly fix security holes that crop up.
Missteps are still
possible, even with reputable brands. One of the WikiLeaks disclosures
alleged that the CIA commandeered some Samsung smart TVs as listening
devices even when the TV appeared to be off. And beware of
internet-connected toys, as manufacturers frequently rush their products
to market, sometimes skimping on privacy features in the process. (You
can check online to see if other parents or consumer groups have
One more catch:
Voice commands sent over the internet are typically stored indefinitely
to help manufacturers personalize their services (and, potentially,
advertisements). These voice snippets may include music or conversations
in the background. They can be sought in lawsuits and investigations.
Reputable brands let you review and delete your voice history; be sure
to do so regularly.
cameras such as the Cam IQ, from Google sibling company Nest, let you
check in on your pets or kids when you’re not home. They also typically
store video online, so you can see whether your housekeeper actually
cleaned the kitchen last week. Some services routinely send video to
online storage; others do so only when triggered by a sound or motion.
brands are likely to take security seriously, but no system is perfect.
If you want to be
very careful, you might want to turn the camera to face the wall when
you’re home. You might also want to turn off the microphone, since it
could capture background conversations. Or just unplug the camera
altogether ... though you’ll also have to remember to reconnect it when
lines, consider covering up the front-facing camera on your laptop with
opaque tape unless you need it regularly for video chats. Laptops aren’t
supposed to send video unless you activate an app that needs it, but
malware has been known to activate the camera remotely.
Smart locks let you
unlock doors with an app, so you can let in guests even when you’re not
home. Burglars might try to hack the system, though it’s often easier
for them to just break a window.
properties are also turning to smart locks to control access. When you
move out, the landlord can automatically disable your digital key. But
these systems also let landlords track your whereabouts and those of
your guests. If you create a guest key that’s used daily, for instance,
the landlord might suspect you have an unauthorized occupant.
Even if you own the
home, these keys can leave a digital trail. In a child-custody dispute,
for instance, your ex might subpoena the records to learn that you’ve
been staying out late on school nights.
Saturday, January 20, 2018 - January 26, 2018
Fear not the alphabet soup of TV features unveiled at CES
In this Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, file photo,
attendees stand in front of a QLED TV at the Samsung booth during CES
International in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Las Vegas (AP) -
New TVs are coming with an alphabet soup of features designed to get you
to spend more.
There’s OLED and
4K, with a dash of HDR. How about QLED and QDEF? Samsung, LG and other
TV manufacturers are showcasing new models at the CES gadget show in Las
Vegas this week - all with acronyms to set their sets apart.
Fear not. Here’s
how to translate the tangle of great-sounding upgrades into plain
HD, 4K, 8K
definition has 1,920 pixels across and 1,080 vertically. UltraHD, or 4K,
has twice as many in both directions - 3,840 across and 2,160
vertically, which gives you four times as many pixels. 8K, primarily
promoted by Sharp, offers 7,680 pixels across and 4,320 down.
8K sets are mostly
for show for now - with video limited to the occasional experimental
The choice between
4K and HD is still a real debate. It all depends on how far away you’ll
sit from your TV and how big it is, which we explain with this handy
acronym: Organic light-emitting diodes.
are circuit elements that can emit light under certain conditions; OLEDs
do so using a layer of material based on carbon, which in a technical
sense makes them organic. Sets using OLEDs, primarily made by LG, tend
to be pricey because these screens are difficult to produce.
individual points that form an image, are self-illuminating and can thus
be shut off individually. That means images can have truly black areas -
rather than just very dark. Sets also cut down on light spillage in
scenes where bright and dark colors are side by side; you see sharper
contrast. OLED sets also have a wider viewing angle than regular sets.
But OLEDs aren’t as
bright as other displays and can suffer “burn-in” if a static image is
left on screen for too long.
acronym: Micro light-emitting diodes.
as with OLEDs, sets with MicroLEDs have self-illuminating pixels, but
the material used is slightly different and isn’t organic. Samsung says
MicroLEDs are brighter than OLEDs and offer the same benefits of high
contrast and deep blacks, without burn-in.
unveiling a 146-inch MicroLED set this year. Questions surround their
ease of manufacturing and ultimately, their price. Don’t expect to see
mass-market availability of this kind of set any time soon.
acronym: Liquid crystal displays.
Translation: In an
LCD screen, the most common form of display, a thin panel of
electrically controlled liquid crystals selectively blocks light or lets
it through. The light that makes it through passes through red, blue or
green filters to form a full spectrum of colors.
The knock on LCDs
is that they must be “backlit” by a light source. Don’t be fooled by
what are labeled “LED” TVs. These are still LCDs, backlit by LEDs.
Because there aren’t as many LED sources behind the pixels as there are
pixels, there is still some wash of brightness where bright and dark
meet and less than complete darkness in dark shots. Still, many
manufacturers tout “local dimming” or special control of the backlights
to reduce light spillage.
HDR and HDR10
acronym: High dynamic range using 10 “bits” to represent color
Everyone who’s ever used a camera has seen what happens when you under-
or over-expose a photo. Either the bright parts wash out the dark parts
or everything is too dark. HDR aims to include both the brightest bright
parts and the darkest dark parts without letting either dominate the
An industry group
calls for HDR TVs to display about 1 billion variations of color and
brightest brights that are 20,000 times brighter than the darkest parts
of the screen image.
Video needs to be
streamed in HDR format for you to see the improvements. Some online
services are offering new Hollywood hits and their own TV series in HDR,
but a lot of video hasn’t been adapted yet.
Dolby Vision and HDR10+
pushes the color envelope further using 12 bits of color depth to offer
69 billion color variations. Video also comes with hidden instructions
for compatible TV sets to calibrate HDR frame by frame. By contrast,
standard HDR and HDR10 offer one setting for the entire video, which may
not reflect what’s best for each scene.
There’s no TV set
yet able to handle the 12-bit range, just some that use a 10-bit version
of Dolby Vision. Sets that incorporate Dolby Vision pay a royalty to
Dolby for the technology. Not wanting to go there, Samsung developed
something called HDR10+ that offers frame-by-frame HDR but sticks to 10
bits. It’s an open standard, one supported by such major brands as
Amazon, Panasonic and 20th Century Fox.
Quantum dots, QLED, QDEF and Q-whatever
acronym: It’s complicated.
Quantum dots are tiny particles that emit sharp colors based on their
particular size. Because the size can be finely tuned, the colors can be
very accurate. Also, because they give off color, there’s no more need
for filters - at least that’s the promise. Today’s quantum dot sets
still do use filters, though because of fine-tuning, they represent reds
and greens better than other sets and reduce the amount of power wasted
when light gets filtered out.
Beware of the stuff
that comes after the Q. While Samsung calls its version QLED, it doesn’t
mean it uses OLED screens. Rather, Samsung’s QLED sets are backlit by
standard LEDs and have the same problems with light spillage that other
LEDs have. QDEF is Hisense’s version, also with light spillage. Quantum
dots that actually function like OLEDs, eliminating the need for
backlighting, is still a ways off. We’ll get filter-less quantum dot
technology before then.
Update January 13, 2018 - January 19, 2018
Facebook launches parent-controlled Messenger app for kids
photo provided by Facebook demonstrates parental controls on Facebook’s
new Messenger app for kids. The free app is aimed at kids under 13, who
can’t yet have their own accounts under Facebook’s rules, though they
often do. (Courtesy of Facebook via AP)
New York (AP) -
Facebook is coming for your kids.
The social media
giant is launching a messaging app for children to chat with their
parents and with friends approved by their parents.
The free app is
aimed at kids under 13, who can’t yet have their own accounts under
Facebook’s rules, though they often do.
comes with a slew of controls for parents. The service won’t let
children add their own friends or delete messages - only parents can do
that. Kids don’t get a separate Facebook or Messenger account; rather,
it’s an extension of a parent’s account. Messenger Kids came out Monday
in the U.S. as an app for Apple devices - the iPhone, iPad and iPod
Touch. Versions for Android and Amazon’s tablets are coming later.
A kids-focused experience
While children do
use messaging and social media apps designed for teenagers and adults,
those services aren’t built for them, said Kristelle Lavallee, a
children’s psychology expert who advised Facebook on designing the
“The risk of
exposure to things they were not developmentally prepared for is huge,”
meanwhile, “is a result of seeing what kids like,” which is images,
emoji and the like. Face filters and playful masks can be distracting
for adults, Lavallee said, but for kids who are just learning how to
form relationships and stay in touch with parents digitally, they are
ways to express themselves.
Lavallee, who is
content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston
Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, called Messenger Kids a
“useful tool” that “makes parents the gatekeepers.” But she said that
while Facebook made the app “with the best of intentions,” it’s not yet
known how people will actually use it.
As with other tools
Facebook has released in the past, intentions and real-world use do not
always match up. Facebook’s live video streaming feature, for example,
has been used for plenty of innocuous and useful things, but also to
stream crimes and suicides.
Hooked on Facebook
Is Messenger Kids
simply a way for Facebook to rope in the young ones?
Stephen Balkam, CEO
of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, said “that train has
left the station.”
prohibits internet companies from collecting personal information on
kids under 13 without their parents’ permission and imposes restrictions
on advertising to them. This is why Facebook and many other social media
companies prohibit younger kids from joining. Even so, Balkam said
millions of kids under 13 are already on Facebook, with or without their
He said Facebook is
trying to deal with the situation pragmatically by steering young
Facebook users to a service designed for them.
Messenger Kids won’t show ads or collect data for marketing, though it
will collect some data it says are necessary to run the service.
Facebook also said it won’t automatically move users to the regular
Messenger or Facebook when they get old enough, though the company might
give them the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line.
James Steyer, CEO
of the kids-focused non-profit group Common Sense, said that while he
liked the idea of a messaging app that requires parental sign-ups, many
questions remain. Among them: Will it always remain ad-free, and will
parents get ads based on the service?
“Why should parents
simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?”
Steyer said in a statement. “We encourage Facebook to clarify their
policies from the start so that it is perfectly clear what parents are
signing up for.”
Update Saturday, Jan. 6 - Jan. 12, 2018
Here are your options if YouTube vanishes from Amazon gizmos
photo shows an Amazon Fire TV streaming device with its remote control. On
Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, Google announced plans to pull its popular YouTube
video service from Amazon’s Fire TV and Echo Show devices in an escalating
feud that has caught consumers in the crossfire. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson,
New York (AP) - Attention Fire
TV owners: YouTube might soon disappear from your Amazon streaming device.
But you’ll still have options.
Google is threatening to pull YouTube
from Fire TV by Jan. 1, the latest round in a fierce battle between the two
tech heavyweights. If that happens, Fire TV owners can still watch on a
phone, tablet or personal computer. That includes an Amazon Fire tablet, as
Google hasn’t threatened to block that yet.
For those willing to abandon Fire TV,
just about any other device will play YouTube. Not all of them will play
video from Amazon, although Apple TV just got Amazon’s app Wednesday.
Here are some reasons you might want to
stick with Fire TV - and some you might not.
The case for
YouTube was never the centerpiece of
Fire TV to begin with. It’s not even a full-fledged app on Fire TV - just a
link to a YouTube website designed for mobile devices.
Fire TV itself is best seen as a
companion to Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime loyalty program. Although Amazon has
gotten better about promoting rival services, video available through Prime
The device has Amazon’s Alexa voice
assistant built-in. In addition to weather, sports scores and stock quotes,
it offers playback controls for some selected apps. That lets you ask Alexa
to forward 30 seconds, for instance.
Amazon’s $40 Fire TV Stick is good for
regular, high-definition TV sets. If you have a higher-resolution 4K TV,
you’ll want the regular Fire TV for $70. There isn’t a lot of 4K video yet,
but the price difference is small compared with what 4K TVs cost.
The regular Fire TV also offers
high-dynamic range, which has better contrast and produces brighter whites
and darker blacks. Again, HDR video is slowly coming.
On the downside, Fire TV doesn’t offer
iTunes or Google Play video - and YouTube may soon join the list. Fire TV’s
remote also lacks volume controls, something that’s becoming standard on
The current feud centers on Amazon’s
refusal to sell some Google devices that compete with Amazon products. That
includes Google’s Chromecast, a streaming device that’s cheap but slightly
tricky to use, since you have to start video on your iPhone or Android phone
and then switch the stream to the TV.
Plenty of video services work with
Chromecast - but Amazon doesn’t let its video service work with the Google
Google offers other manufacturers its
own software for streaming devices called Android TV. On those devices,
Google’s YouTube and Play services often get prominent billing in search
results, but at least you can get Amazon video. Again, no iTunes.
One of those gadgets is the Shield from
Nvidia. It’s pricey, starting at $179, but comes with 4K and HDR. You get
voice searches through Google’s Assistant - playback controls with some
apps, weather info and some data you might never think to ask a TV, such as
Shield is powerful and designed with
gamers in mind; one feature allows screen sharing of game play. A package
that includes a game controller costs $20 more. The controller gives you a
headphone jack for private listening and hands-free queries with Google
Roku has one of the most complete
channel libraries - more than 5,000, many of which you’ve never heard of.
You can get YouTube, Google Play and Amazon video, but not iTunes.
Roku’s Express sells for just $30. The
$50 Streaming Stick gets you a remote with volume buttons and voice search -
though we’re talking basic queries related to shows and apps, not playback
controls or information such as weather. The $70 Streaming Stick Plus adds
4K and HDR. Bells and whistles in the $100 Ultra include a remote that will
emit a sound to help you find it under your couch cushions.
The Ultra’s remote has a headphone
jack, so you can watch TV without waking up roommates. For cheaper models,
you can get that through Roku’s smartphone app. (With Fire TV and Apple TV,
you can pair wireless headphones.)
Apple TV is the only device to support
iTunes. It also has YouTube, but not Google Play. Amazon joined Apple TV on
Though an iPhone isn’t required, Apple
TV will be most useful with one. The basic device is $149; a version with 4K
and HDR costs $30 more. You’re paying for the experience - in particular,
integration and syncing with other Apple gadgets. For instance, you can type
passwords on an iPhone instead of navigating a keyboard on the TV.
Siri offers similar playback controls
and information queries as Alexa and Google Assistant. The touchpad on the
remote offers faster forwarding and rewinding than rivals.
And while all streaming devices offer
more than just video, Apple TV goes much further in offering an iPhone-like
experience on a big screen. You can browse Ikea’s catalog or order food from
Grubhub, for instance.