Managing Assistants

Alexa, Google Home, Siri and Cortana are online assistants who can help you get information and even order products without you ever having to tap a screen or look at one. They are a convenience, but they also raise privacy and security issues.

Siri (Apple) and Cortana (Microsoft) are associated with devices, such as phones, tablets and computers. In that type of user environment, you need to activate them with the device in your hand or on your desk, and they’re typically used for getting information, such as the weather, restaurant info or the answer to which person played for both the New York Rangers and Brooklyn Dodgers.

Alexa and Google Home may present other issues. In addition to answering questions, Alexa is tied to Amazon and its online shopping capabilities. We hear that Google Home may tie in with Walmart. With shopping available, you have another layer of concern. Somewhere, they have access to your credit-card information, and it may be possible for any voice to make a purchase.

We’ll be going to CES, the huge annual trade show for consumer electronics, in Las Vegas this month, and we plan to talk to all the manufacturers about their security and privacy protection measures. Until we have more information, here are some things you should know and can do to minimize your risk of a privacy breach or unwanted purchase – especially with Alexa, whom I call Alex when I don’t want to wake her.

Alexa and her fellow assistants remain asleep until they hear their “wake” word, but their microphones are always on. Being on is how they stay ready for your commands, but they should not be active until you wake them. So, here are some ways to help you protect from someone turning them on without your knowledge:

  • Change your “wake” word. Like most things in the IoT world, these assistants come with a default “wake” word. Go into the setup menu on the app, which you can get for your cell phone, and change it.
  • Use the mute button. Yes, it’s a pain to physically walk over to Alexa and push a button (some of you will cringe at memories of getting up to change a television channel), but it is effective – and easier than trying to run through 80-something over-the-air TV channels.
  • Use a PIN to make purchases or disable the function to make purchases by voice commands. Again, it’s an inconvenience, but we’ve discussed the tradeoff between security and convenience many times before.
  • Keep them away from windows so that any activity outside doesn’t activate them.
  • Use your app to see what’s been recorded through your assistant and delete any or all of those recordings. You can also your app to configure and toggle sound notifications, even for multiple units in one home (or office).

You can also follow the IoT cybersecurity steps we’ve published over the past year or so:

  • Change default usernames and passwords immediately. Make your new passwords strong and unique.
  • Install upgrades and updates from your IoT manufacturers. They usually contain security patches and bug fixes.
  • Make sure your Wi-Fi systems and firewalls are secure. That’s your first line of defense. Install upgrades and updates for your gateways and anti-virus and anti-malware apps.
  • Only use secure Wi-Fi networks.

We can audit your Wi-Fi security and help you fine tune the settings for your virtual assistant. Just call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for an appointment, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for reports from CES.

iPhone X is a 10

Naturally, we have our iPhone X, and it’s everything we hoped it would be. Getting it was almost as much fun as using it because the Apple hype machine adds so much more intrigue. I was one of 25 people who showed up at the UPS terminal in Parsippany to get our phones when the counter opened at 7:30 in the morning on a Friday, two weeks ago. The guy at the counter grumbled a bit, but they knew what to expect. We had all been waiting for our phones from the minute we placed our order.

That’s when the fun started. I was able to track my phone before Apple and UPS sent us any kind of information. Working the web, I learned when my phone left the factory in China, when it left Hong Kong for the US, and when it arrived in Anchorage – before going to Louisville and Newark and then on to Parsippany.

In reality, I can’t blame UPS and Apple for being so spare with information. A truck was robbed near San Francisco, and a number of phones were stolen. New iPhones are hot commodities in more ways than one.

So, was it worth all the excitement? Yes.

The iPhone X’s facial recognition is top notch, and I love all the features and the speed. To a geek like me, this is one step closer to heaven. The only difficulty I’ve had is getting used to the absence of a Home button, which has been an iPhone hallmark. I’m still getting used to all the gestures and swipes, and switching back and forth with Danit’s older iPhone makes it harder to settle into a routine. But, hey, I’m not complaining.

If you’re in the market for the iPhone X, the waiting time to get one is three to four weeks. If you’re trying to decide whether to buy it at an Apple store or through your cellular carrier, I’d recommend the Apple store. One big reason is that you can buy the Apple Care insurance program that’s cheaper and better than what the carriers offer.

The coverage is recommended – along with the purchase of a good case for your new phone – because the units have glass fronts and backs and are extremely fragile. They can break very easily, and a replacement screen is $579.

The iPhone X has a lot of outstanding features, and most people will find a learning curve – while getting used to the gestures and no Home button. If you have any questions about the new phone or need any help in getting it set up and integrated into your life, we’re available to help. Just call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us.

iPhone 7 and New Product Evolution

I have my new iPhone 7 – without the headphone jack. You know what? I have computers without built-in CD/ROM drives, and automotive entertainment systems don’t have CD players either. Get used to more with less because device makers are under constant pressure to provide more features and capabilities in the smallest possible package.

By removing the jack, Apple has freed up more room for other bells and whistles, such as the better camera system. If you’re one of those people who takes a lot of photos or video with your iPhone, that’s likely to be more important to you than the headphone jack.

Removing the jack, by the way, doesn’t mean Apple has eliminated headphones. You’ll just have to go wireless, which more and more of us are doing anyway. Just about everyone has a Bluetooth connection in their cars, for example, or a Bluetooth headset. For those who still plug in headphones or headsets, it’s just a change you’ll need to get used to.

We can look at a couple of developments to put technological evolution into context. Apple was the first computer maker to eliminate internal CD/ROM drives from its units. That allowed them to make their computers lighter and smaller. If you carry the development forward, across a number of platforms, you can easily see why tablets are replacing laptops for many people.

Tablets don’t have to hold built-in hard drives. By using either cellular or Wi-Fi networks, they connect to the Cloud, where users can access application programs and data. Continually evolving software development gives users a great deal of computing capability for mobile platforms, and you generally have the choice of using a lightweight, portable keyboard or using an onscreen keyboard and swipes to do your work or find the information you seek. In some cases, voice technology is making the keyboard obsolete.

In more technologically advanced cars, you don’t find CD players – which, by the way, replaced cassette tape players many years ago. Who needs either one of them? With Bluetooth technology, you can connect your playlist from your phone or tablet to the car’s sound system. And when you get out of the car, just switch to your Bluetooth headset and never a miss a beat.

Technology is changing the way we do business, too. For example, a kitchen designer can give a couple virtual reality goggles and let them view a potential kitchen as though they are standing in the room. From a computer, the designer can change configurations or colors of cabinets and countertops.

For some, change is intimidating and confusing. We can help you be more comfortable with selecting new technology and learning how to use the features you need or want. Just call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to set up a time.

Is Your Phone Prepared for a Weather Emergency?

September is National Preparedness Month, and storms along the East Coast can be extremely dangerous as air temperatures drop faster than water temperatures. We all remember Sandy, too, which wreaked havoc in our entire region in October 2012. Now might be a good time to think about apps for smart phones to give you adequate warnings.

Look first to your city, township or county. Morris County, for example, has a web page where you can register for alerts that you can receive as a text message or phone call on your cell phone. The service will also call you on a landline. It’s not a personal call. Rather it’s one generated as a mass robo call to phone numbers registered for specific locations, such as your home or office. Some communities also use social media channels to notify “friends and followers” about weather emergencies.

The federal government makes weather emergency information available to cell phones through Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).  The system allows customers who own certain wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. The technology ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services. Governments can target specific areas through cell towers in cooperation with wireless carriers.

Alerts are broadcast only from cell towers whose coverage areas best match the zone of an emergency. That means that if your phone is WEA-enabled, you can receive a warning from a tower in the alert zone if your carrier is participating in the program in that area.

With more of us traveling and reifying on our smart phones for driving directions, Google Public Alerts is a good option. It’s Google’s platform for disseminating emergency messages such as evacuation notices for hurricanes, and everyday alerts such as storm warnings. It’s worldwide through Google Search, Google Maps, and when you activate Google Now on your Android device. Google publishes information in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, India, New Zealand, and Brazil. While Google can’t guarantee that you’ll see every alert, they’re using feedback mechanisms to increase its capabilities. You can learn more from their FAQ page.

If you’re a Twitter user, you can sign up for Twitter Alerts and then manage your alerts.

Your App Store or Google Play has way too many apps available. Some are free, including those from our metro area TV stations, and some require a purchase. We are more than happy to talk to you about the best app for your needs, and we can help you configure apps for your families and employees so that they can all be safe when severe weather strikes. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us with any questions you may have.


Travel: To Disconnect or Not Disconnect?

A trip is a great time to disconnect from the connected world and all of its stressful situations. However, there may be times when being disconnected can be extremely stressful. Fortunately, you can customize technology to fit your level of need and comfort.

Although I consider myself a very connected person, there are times when I like to disconnect, such as when I’m on an airplane or traveling in a country with a huge time difference from New Jersey. And, let’s face it, we all need to really take time off from everyday life – and that’s the purpose of getting away.

However, there are times when being connected can keep your travels on schedule and give you peace of mind. Using a Wi-Fi connection on an airplane, for example, can help you make, change or cancel reservations for hotels, rental cars or ground transportation if you run into unexpected delays, especially if you have a flight that makes stops – and requires plane changes – before you reach your destination.

A phone or tablet with Wi-Fi capability makes it really easy to stay connected, and VOIP – voice over internet protocol – which we all use if we have internet telephone service. You can talk through a variety of applications, such as Skype and Viber, to name two, and Facetime on iPhones. Using voice and video through a Wi-Fi network requires a fast internet connection, so make sure you have one before you try. There are many remote locations (we were in one of them on our last trip) that just have slow internet, and their cellular networks may not be all that strong, either.

If you want to be reached by telephone and don’t want to maintain a cellular connection, a Google phone number can give you a variety of options. You can give the number to people who may need to reach you or with whom you want to maintain contact. You can link that number to your cell phone number, but if you are traveling abroad, you’ll need to have a Wi-Fi connection to pick up voicemail or answer a call. If you have a cellular connection abroad, you can be reached directly. Because a Google number is a US number, people calling you will not have to pay international calling rates.

You can keep a cellular connection in a number of ways while abroad:

  • Arrange with your carrier to provide cellular service without roaming charges in the countries you plan to visit. These plans can be costly, and they can have severely limited numbers of phone calls and text messages available as well as highly restricted data use. If you are going to be in several countries on your trip and don’t need to use data-intensive applications such as Waze or Google Maps for driving and walking directions, this may be good for you. The phone can be really good for making or confirming reservations.
  • Get a SIM card for your phone when you arrive in the country you are visiting. As long as your phone is “unlocked,” as most are today, you can turn your phone into a local phone that will give you either an unlimited or large number of phone calls and text messages – including international calls (such as to the US) – and enough data to get directions to a hotel, restaurant or tourist attraction and use Waze or Google Maps to get there. The major carriers in each country usually have kiosks at the airport, and their agents can install and test the SIM card before you go on your merry way. In most cases, the card is good for 30 days. If you are in a major city, you can find stores for most carriers, just as you do in the US, and the carrier store may be better if you need something other than a standard arrangement. When you get home, you can reinstall your US carrier’s SIM card.
  • Rent a local phone. This is really simple, and it doesn’t require any changes to your existing phone. The cost and your allowances for phone calls, texts and data may vary, but you should have all the capabilities you’ll need.

Having cellular service abroad gives you all the conveniences and peace of mind you take for granted at home. If you are not part of a tour, you can make reservations or ask questions on the fly for hotels, restaurants, attractions and other needs. If you are going to be delayed in getting to a destination, you can call ahead. Even with the best navigation applications, you sometimes need someone to “talk you in” to a hotel or restaurant. All you need to do is call – and you can access the internet to get the phone number.

Even if you are on a guided tour, the tour operators sometimes strongly recommend you have a cell phone with local capability. If you become separated from your group at an attraction, for example, you can call and agree on a meeting place, or they can call you to make sure you get to where you’re supposed to be.

And, of course, there’s the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing you can reach somebody. On our last trip, we were part of an English-speaking group on a bus headed to the airport to leave our location. Nobody spoke the local language, and the driver did not speak English. We were caught in horrendous traffic, and we feared not making our flight. In our case, we had to catch a flight that operates once a week, and we were not in a place where we wanted to spend a whole week.

Nobody had a cell phone for the country, so there was no way to call the airline and let them know of our problem. While it had been very relaxing to be disconnected from the rest of the world, we were a busload of stressed people while on our re-entry path. We made our flight, so now it’s just another travel story to tell.

Traveling always has its surprises, but you shouldn’t feel unduly stressed or unsafe. If you are planning to travel abroad, we can help you determine the technology you’ll need to maintain your desired or required level of connection. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to talk about it.

The BYOD Hangover

Some businesses got drunk on BYOD – Bring Your Own Device. They bought heavily into the idea that they could cut costs and get more work out of employees by letting them use their own mobile devices and computers. Now we’re starting to see more problems for businesses, individuals and everyone they touch electronically.

Ten years ago, the benefits were clearly present for businesses and their owners/partners and employees. As the first generation of smartphones, mostly Blackberry, took hold, busy people and small businesses found they could untether themselves from office systems. Tablets, starting with iPad, increased their freedom because their bigger screens and keyboards made it easier to read spreadsheets, written documents and email and update files or respond to email.

  • Salespeople could access pricing lists, customer records and just about any critical information they needed to provide better service.
  • Everyone with a smartphone – and soon after, a tablet – could respond with increasing capabilities.
  • Busy parents could stay in touch with the office, giving them more flexibility to manage their lives.

In our business, IT professionals could respond to client or corporate information management needs from anyplace that had cellular service.

As Wi-Fi and all forms of communications networks grew and more smartphones and tablets came to the market, along with various carriers, the ways to stay connected lost all technical limits. And because everyone wanted to have their own personal technology – smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer – to use on their own time, businesses of all sizes met the demand. Employees no longer needed to have specific products. IT managers were able to incorporate everyone’s devices, and employers were happy to give everyone 24/7/365 work capability.

It was intoxicating for everybody. Now, it’s intoxicating for hackers and cybercriminals; everyone else is having a big, bad hangover. The problem is security.

Here are some sobering concerns:

  • While we can help our business and professional services clients secure their networks and access to the data on their corporate servers, we need to educate employees about programs to control security. A business really needs to depend on its employees to keep their individual devices and computers secure. One hole can be an entry point to sensitive data anywhere.
  • Mobile phones and tablets are becoming more vulnerable to security problems. Why? That’s where the money is. With people conveniently accessing critical data over cellular and Wi-Fi networks all the time, hackers are finding more ways to penetrate security measures. Everyone needs to make sure they know that anybody in the world can take a peek at their business on any unsecured public network – like one in a coffee shop, hotel lobby or airport.
  • Even if you take every available security step in your corporate and personal systems – strong passwords, strong firewalls, up-to-date and active anti-virus and malware software – anyone with access to your system who doesn’t follow the same precautions puts you at risk.
  • The convenience of publicly accessible storage sites, such as Dropbox, can lead to the loss of privacy of your data. When you give someone the ability to download files from a storage site onto their own computers or tablets, you effectively give them ownership of that data. That means an employee can “own” client lists, financial information, etc.

With the horses already out of the barn and out on the open range, you can’t corral them and bring them back. But there a number of steps you can take:

  • Educate everyone in your organization about the need for security and what they need to do:
    • Have strong passwords and change them often
    • Be aware of when they are on unsecured public networks
    • Keep their own personal technology protected with up-to-date, activated anti-virus and malware programs
    • Understand that any holes in their own security systems can open holes for hackers to get into your business’s system and the systems of anyone or any organization they’ve ever contacted over the Internet – and that it can go viral from there
  • Require strong passwords (combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters) to access your data files wherever they are
  • Require frequent password changes
  • Determine which files need to stay on a secure server that you control
  • Backup data securely and often
  • Monitor your backup

We can help you with all of these steps:

  • Lunch ‘n’ Learn programs about security
  • Audits of your system’s security
  • Monitored backup services

Contact us by phone – 973-433-6676 – or email to keep your data clean and your systems sober in the BYOD environment.

iPad Pro and the Tech Transformation

Our new iPad Pro is a great device. We love it for what it does – and maybe for the technology transformation that it and other tablets are ushering in.

We can see the iPad Pro and other large tablets edging closer to replacing laptop and notebook computers for some people. If your primary use is to surf the web and take care of email, simply hook up a keyboard, and you’re up and running. If you want to watch videos, the screen on the iPad Pro is amazing for its clarity and speed.

Yes there are some downsides. For one thing, as much as I love it, the tablet is not a full computer. It’s a mobile device, and Apple gives every indication it will not merge its iOS (mobile) and OSX (computer) operating systems. However, with Apple and Microsoft fighting for market share, don’t bet against a tablet replacing your computer. You can get Microsoft Office for tablets – and mobile phones – and as more people get comfortable with storing documents in the cloud, they’re likely to demand more computing capability.

As far as tablets go, iPad Pro is bigger and heavier than previous generations of tablets, but I personally don’t find that to be a problem. In 2005, screens on cell phones started to get bigger, and as we advanced to smart phones with Internet capability, it was only a matter of time that users would demand even bigger screens to watch videos.

By 2010, recalling a once-every-five-years family reunion, the iPad was new to the market, and many family members wondered about the need for it. Well, the iPad and other tablets are here to stay, even though sales have slumped lately. They have a variety of sizes and uses professionally, ranging from healthcare professionals in offices and hospitals who need to maintain patient records as they move through an office or hospital – to IT specialists and sales reps who can do a lot of work without being tethered to a computer.

So, don’t sell tablets short. If the history of mobile devices holds true, enough users will try to push the technology a little farther than its capabilities so that Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and others will notice. Their teams will respond to market demand, and the cycle will start again.

iPad Pro, I love you – until the next better device hits the market.

Have questions about tablets? Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us and tell us what you’re looking for and how much you’d like to spend. There’s a tablet that’s right for you today – and maybe for the next 18 months.

iOS 8 Family Affair

With iOS 8, Apple made great strides in helping families manage iCloud accounts and Family Share. Now, you can have separate accounts for up to six family members with parents able to control what their children buy and download.

Sharing music, apps, photos, movies and other iTunes purchases was a pain in the neck before Apple got all of its bugs out of iOS 8. We always found the biggest problems involved tracking what individuals bought in the iTunes store and then keeping adults’ and kids’ content separate. This had little to do with what’s appropriate; it was more a matter of neither wanting the other’s content.

Now, all you need to do is get iOS 8 on all devices – iPhones, iPads – and the Yosemite operating system on Apple computers. You can go to Settings on each device and enable Family Sharing and then go to iCloud settings. The set-up can be a little complicated. One person, designated as the Family Organizer, needs to go to Settings > iCloud > Set up Family Sharing… and follow the instructions, which include entering an iTunes ID and agreeing to paying for anything downloaded by the family members.

Here’s where it can get a little tricky – and there are some things we are still testing out as a family. While I am our Family Organizer, my wife and I have Approval Rights for any purchases made by our children. However, we also have it set up so that if someone – like a doting grandparent – gives them Apple gift cards, any charges for their downloaded material is drawn from their accounts before their parents pay.

We have helped a number of clients set up Apple Family Sharing, and we can help customize your set-up for your family’s needs. Just give us a call – 973-433-6676 – or send us an email for an appointment. And remember, we are available without any holiday surcharges to help you set up any electronics during this festive time of the year.

iOS Upgrade and No Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

Apple just released its iOS 7.06 upgrade, and in a recent comment, someone complained about losing your ability to “jail break” your device. Well, you can unlock just about any device, but is it worth it? You could be sacrificing data security.

The more we learn about data breaches at large companies and financial institutions, the more we start to realize how vulnerable we are and how much more we need to protect our information.

Technically, unlocking phones is illegal. When you have a contract with a carrier, they essentially have offered you a discount on device, usually a smartphone, in return for using their network. Unlocking your phone or device from their network to use other carriers breaks the contract.

We don’t offer legal advice. We offer technical advice and services that we hope will make you smarter users of your devices. So, let’s look at the security aspects.

The process of unlocking your smartphone, also known as jail breaking, decrypts all the data on your phone. It also removes all of the manufacturer’s restrictions and allows a phone to be used on any network. That’s the benefit you hoped to gain, especially when traveling abroad, where different cellular protocols can be used.

However, these unlocked phones carry a higher security risk than standard phones due to the changes to the operating system needed to make this occur. Once you use that phone to access the Internet, you and your phone are open to malware, spyware and just about any other tool you can think of that hackers can use to get personal data.

If that doesn’t stop you from thinking about jail-breaking your phone and/or device, consider this: You don’t know what security laws may apply when your data are breached in another country. Even though redress through a legal system may be possible, it will be after the fact. Damage can be done, and nobody can tell you what your liabilities may be and what any redresses can cover.

If you are traveling abroad, check with your carrier about capabilities. In many cases, your phone or device will work on Wi-Fi networks – though they may be public networks just like those from your local coffee shop. Wi-Fi Internet can allow you to talk to people over through services such as Facetime, Skype or Viber, and to access your email, bank and charge accounts and business files. Of course, you should make sure ahead of time that your device will be secured, and security can be enhanced through two-factor authentication systems.

In some cases, such as traveling to China, you may be better off leaving your phone or device home or having it shut off completely. Many business and government travelers to China and some other countries simply buy or rent a phone – with none of the information on their current phones and devices – for one-time use in those countries. Vacationers should follow their lead.

Contact us – phone: 973-433-6676 email: [email protected] – with any questions you have about securing your phones and devices while traveling.

This article was published in Technology Update, the monthly newsletter from Sterling Rose LLC.