Weekly output: Nokia Lumia 520, Pierre Omidyar and news, Demo (x2), MyTechHelp, @MicrosoftHelps and user groups

In an alternate universe, the two posts I filed from the Demo conference in Santa Clara would have been replaced by one or more from the Online News Association’s annual conference in Atlanta. If only the two events had not been scheduled right on top of each other

Nokia Lumia 520 review10/16/2013: Nokia Lumia 520 (AT&T), PCMag.com

I first checked out this phone at Mobile World Congress in February and thought the world could use more budget-priced smartphones. The $99.99 price does entail some compromises–like no front camera, and no flash on the back camera–but as a starter smartphone it seems fine.

10/17/2013: So Nice To See People With Money Regard Journalism As Not Doomed, Disruptive Competition Project

I wrote a quick reaction to the news that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar plans to invest $250 million in a full-spectrum news startup, which I see as something materially different from the splashy funding rounds that a few more specialized news sites have  racked up lately.

10/18/2013: Heads-Up Helmet, Rolling Camera Are an Eyeful, Discovery News

My first report from the Demo conference focused on the more interesting, sci-fi-esque gadgets and apps introduced there. The post has received about 1,400 Facebook likes so far–and I don’t know why, since it didn’t pick up any at my Facebook page and didn’t get a mention at Discovery’s.

10/18/2013: DEMO Debuts Plumb Privacy Frontiers, Disruptive Competition Project

Here, I looked at the privacy propositions of several apps and services launched at Demo, most of which will probably get labeled by some, fairly or not, as “creepy.” Look for an update to this post correcting a mistake I made: contrary to what People+’s demo suggested, this Google Glass app does not do facial recognition.

10/20/2013: Tip: Be cautious when calling ‘tech support’, USA Today

I got an e-mail from a longtime Post reader reporting a horrible tech-support experience at a company that had led him to believe he’d been talking to Apple. That sounded odd, but the story quickly checked out.

On Sulia, I posted several reports from Demo (for instance, Bounce Imaging’s Imperial interrogation droid camera- and sensor-stuffed ball, EmoVu’s emotion-detecting webcam system, HueTunes’ synesthetic software, and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s onstage interview), reviewed my initial, glitchy experience with United’s inflight WiFi; correctly predicted that coverage of Facebook’s new privacy policy for teens would focus on its option of public posting instead of its increase in teens’ default privacy; and reported on my introduction to Windows 8.1 on my ThinkPad.

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Weekly output: digital privacy, smart-home privacy, NetNames piracy study, mobile privacy, privacy lessons, wireless broadband, broadband map

PORTLAND–I’ve wrapped up three educational, inspirational and sometimes deeply moving days at the XOXO conference here. I’ll have more to write about that later on.

9/17/2013: Digital Privacy, IDG Enterprise

This week’s Twitter chat focused on workplace privacy, which got us into some fundamental trust issues between employers and their employees.

PII 2013 home page

9/17/2013: Home Smart Home: Living with Connected Devices, Privacy Identity Innovation

I moderated a panel at this conference in Seattle about the privacy risks of webcams, connected appliances, and home-automation systems with SmartThings co-founder Jeff Hagins, Forbes writer Kashmir Hill, Life360 Chris Hulls, and Gartner research director Angela McIntyre. Despite the dreaded post-lunch time slot, I didn’t observe anybody in the audience nodding off. I’ll add a link to video of this if/when it’s available. 10/19/2013: Watch our discussion on PII’s site.

9/18/2013: NetNames Piracy Study Yields Same Lesson As Old: Legal Options Shrink Infringement’s Share, Disruptive Competition Project

I unpacked a study financed by NBC Universal that reported a growing problem with copyright infringement online–except the actual numbers in the full report did not quite make that case. This post may remind longtime readers of something I wrote for the Post two years ago.

9/18/2013: Developing Better Mobile Privacy Notices, Privacy Identity Innovation

My second PII panel featured Mark Blafkin, executive director of the Innovators Network; Justin Brookman, who directs the Center for Democracy and Technology’s consumer-privacy project; and Dona Fraser, vice president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board’s Privacy Certified program. There is a certain art to managing an onstage discussion; this time, it seemed to go really well. I’m not quite sure how I was that “on,” but it felt great. 10/31/2013: Video is up, so I’ve changed the link accordingly.

9/20/2013: Ways to Pivot Privacy From Pain to Something That Might Pay, Disruptive Competition Project

I wrote up this recap of PII’s discussions and how they caused me to look at some issues I’ve covered many times before–for instance, privacy policies–from a slightly different perspective. The opportunity to learn continues to be a pleasure of this line of work.

9/22/2013: Cut the cord for home broadband? Not so fast, USA Today

A reader’s query about broadband options in Naples, Fla., gave me the chance to make some broader observations about the state of broadband access and competition in the United States–and to share a tip about a database and map of Internet-access options maintained by the Federal Communications Commission.

On Sulia, I shared my first impressions of iOS 7 after several frustrating hours of unsuccessful download attempts, was once again somewhat puzzled by Apple’s choice of which news outlets got early access to new iPhones, and posted a round of updates from XOXO: why Marco Arment is bullish on podcasts, a site that makes it rewarding for fans to support artists they like, Chris Anderson’s sales pitch for agricultural drones and more.

Update, 9/29: Added a link to the Twitter chat I forgot to include in my haste to get this written before I missed too much of XOXO’s closing party.

Weekly output: Web radio, Facebook privacy, Windows 7, Windows 8 backup

The good thing about driving home from Thanksgiving on a Monday is skipping the Sunday traffic. The bad thing about that strategy is giving yourself a four-day week when five days is the legal minimum to catch up on everything that got shoved aside in the previous week. And then I had to burn half a day on a solid-state-drive upgrade for a laptop that remains unfinished… but I’ll save the ugly details for later.

IRFA post11/26/2012: The Internet Radio Fairness Act, And Two Things I Hate About Copyfights, Disruptive Competition Project

It had been a few years since my last rant about the illogical and unfair royalties charged to Web radio outlets (as compared to satellite and, especially, FM and AM), so I was already due. Then a few weeks of seeing Pandora demonized in ads and Congressional testimony further set me off, resulting in this essay about the inanity of intellectual-property absolutism. Fortunately, I’m not the only one thinking such subversive thoughts.

11/28/2012: Facebook Privacy Changes Not as Bad as You Think, Discovery News

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, something else irked me: Yet another round of uninformed panic over a proposed change in Facebook’s terms of service, this time featuring Facebook users sharing copied-and-pasted gibberish asserting their rights under the nonexistent “Berner Convention.” I hope this post didn’t make me sound like an apologist for a company I don’t trust completely.

12/2/2012: Tip: You can still buy a Windows 7 PC, USA Today

A reader wrote in to ask about putting Windows XP on a Windows 8 computer, which my editor and I thought a bit out there. (Seriously, about XP: Let it die already.) But we did see sufficient interest in a piece about getting a new computer with Windows 7. The column wraps up with an item about Windows 8′s backup options, which are sufficiently complicated that I may have to revisit them at greater length later on.

Weekly output: RapidShare, tech policy, e-mail privacy, Windows 8

There’s a new client in my list this week: a blog called the Disruptive Competition Project, set up this summer by the Computer & Communications Industry Association. (Back then, GigaOM and Techdirt separately noted its launch in the context of other attempts to connect the tech industry to Washington.) I’m going to be writing a couple of posts a week there about various aspects of tech policy through at least the end of the year.

11/13/2012: In Conversation: Daniel Raimer of RapidShare, Future of Music Summit

I’ve been going to and occasionally speaking at the Future of Music Coalition’s annual summits since their debut in 2001. This year, I got a chance to interview the chief legal officer of the Swiss data-locker service RapidShare–a company that has gotten a lot of heat for enabling copyright infringement but says it’s working to stop people from employing it for that purpose. I had to condense my questions after Raimer took too long with his PowerPoint, but I did hit the points I wanted in the time I had left (beginning at about 13:50 in the clip below).

11/13/2012: Patents, Broadband, Privacy: Now That The Election’s Over, Can We Talk About Tech Policy?, Disruptive Competition Project

Back in 2008, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain put together lengthy, detailed descriptions of their tech-policy goals; this year, Obama and Mitt Romney barely mentioned the subject. This has been bothering me all year (earlier this fall, I unsuccessfully pitched an article along these lines to a couple of sites); in this post, I tried to outline where the absence of a campaign conversation on tech policy leaves us in three key areas.

11/16/2012: How Your Secret E-Mail Can Give You Up, Discovery News

I wrote this in part because e-mail security has been catapulted into the headlines, courtesy of the Petraeus/Broadwell scandal, but also because I thought it was a good idea to remind people that no technology measure can stop the recipient of your message from doing whatever he or she wants with it, while also summing up other risks to your privacy in e-mail. But I should have spelled out how encrypting your e-mail won’t close most of these vulnerabilities (even if most people can’t be bothered to try that).

11/17/2012: How to add a Start menu to Windows 8, USA Today

This is the first Windows-centric piece I’ve written for USAT in a while. It leads off with advice about ways Windows 8 users can either replicate the program-launching functions of the Start menu or outright restore that feature (for what it’s worth, I will see if I can get by with filling out the taskbar with shortcuts to programs), then wraps up with a tip about Win 8′s helpful system-refresh and reset tools.

Weekly output: Safari reloading, screenshots and privacy, Windows 8, SXSW and smartphones (x2), syncing, Android keyboards

I wrote the first three stories on this list using an external keyboard hooked up to my ThinkPad. That move came courtesy of the busted keyboard that stopped responding to certain keystrokes–including Enter, Backspace, 8 and h–sometime between my going to bed the night before SXSW and my getting on the first flight to Austin. That did not add to the business-travel experience.

3/11/2012: Tip: Avoid hiccups in Safari browsing, USA Today

I’m glad this column’s format doesn’t require using a specific reader’s name, because this problem comes from my own experience with Apple’s browser. (The day after this posted, Apple issued a 5.1.4 update to Safari that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do much to solve the problem.) In the rest of the column, I offer a reminder that I too often leave out of pieces on privacy: If something online is sufficiently interesting, people will take a screengrab of it and share that image, regardless of whatever privacy settings once protected that item.

3/12/2012: Windows 8: The Shock Of The New, And The Old, Discovery News

I wanted to like Microsoft’s upcoming replacement for Windows 7. I still do. But blowing up a smartphone interface, Metro, to laptop-screen dimensions seems like a fundamental mistake. So does making touchscreen gestures critical to so many routine actions. Yes, many of my peers in tech journalism–see, for instance, ZDNet’s Ed Bott–have been far more positive about Windows 8. But most of those reviews were done on touchscreen tablets loaned by Microsoft , while I installed the Consumer Preview release alongside Win 7 on a non-touchscreen laptop.

3/13/2012: Smartphone Battery Life Goes South By Southwest, CEA Digital Dialogue

Forgive me for writing yet another rant about lame smartphone battery life–but my experience at the conference set a new low. And I wasn’t alone in this dilemma. The night after I wrote this, I found myself at a bar next to a spare power outlet. I plugged in my travel power strip and soon had people coming up to me with dead or dying phones, offering to trade a drink ticket for one of the remaining outlets on the strip.

3/16/2012: Which Apps Might Outlive SXSW, Discovery News

In retrospect, I could not have picked a much worse time for this post to go up–on the morning that Apple’s new iPad arrived, and only hours before the news of Mike Daisey’s duplicity would break. What was I thinking? Anyway, I do like how this piece turned out, so please read it when you get bored of reading about tablet computing and journalist standards–if not sooner.

3/18/2012: Tip: A cautionary tale about syncing, USA Today

I wasn’t sure this reader’s question about unexpected BlackBerry contacts syncing would be relevant enough until Andy Baio wrote a great piece for Wired.com about the perils of giving too many third-party apps access to your Web services. That inspired me to pivot from one person’s glitch to the larger issue of being too generous with access to our data. The balance of the column, a reminder to check for alternate software keyboards on an Android device, came about because commenters on my Boing Boing review of the Samsung Galaxy Note asked why I didn’t tell readers to switch from Samsung’s obnoxious keyboard.

Since I’ve now posted this summary on a Sunday two weeks in a row, I’m going to continue with that schedule. I trust that you all are okay with that. Also: If you don’t want to wait until the end of the week to see where I’ve been writing and/or find my Twitter feed too noisy, I’ve set up a tumblr blog under my LLC’s name, Prose Hacking, where I link to each story I’ve written more or less in real time. This is probably a misuse of tumblr, but–hey, I needed to develop a minimal level of competence with that platform, and I needed to do something with the domain name I registered for my company.

Weekly output: Timeline, connected TVs, podcast, passworth myths

Today’s realization: It’s a mistake to wait to write this post until after getting back from a bike ride, when I’d rather take a nap than string together any sentences. Can somebody remind me about that next week?

1/29/2012: Timeline your chance for a Facebook do-over, USA Today

This was an update of the advice about Timeline grooming that I gave in a December post for Discovery News–written with the benefit of a month of seeing how friends have adopted Facebook’s new profile interface. The Q&A part of the piece offered some context on why Adobe Reader will sometimes ask you to restart after installing an update–and, it seems, confused readers unfamiliar with the column’s two-part structure.

1/31/2012: What belongs on your next TV’s app menu?, CEA Digital Dialogue

A critique of the  selection of Internet apps on “connected TVs” was one of the first topics I suggested to the people at CEA; it just took me a few months to get around to writing it. As you can see from the comments thread on Google+, the piece may need to be corrected if it turns out that Vizio–contrary to the info on its site–does include a YouTube app on its connected sets. (I’m waiting to hear back from the company’s PR rep.)

2/1/2012: Rob’s January Podcast: The Successful SOPA Fight and Post-CES Recap, CEA Digital Dialogue

I chatted for a good half an hour with veteran telecom analyst Gary Arlen about the past, present and future of CES and a few trends afoot in the electronics business. Gary’s been going to the show for some 30 years (conveniently enough, his birthday often overlaps it) and has quite a few stories to tell; until we talked, I had forgotten that Apple introduced the Newton at CES. Maybe that’s why the company wants nothing to do with it these days.

2/2/2012: You Didn’t Need To Change Your Password Yesterday, Discovery News

I hope you enjoy the gruesome collage of log-in interfaces I put together to illustrate this post, which critiques three common and incorrect suggestions about creating and maintaining passwords. As you might guess, I’m not a fan of password-expiration policies, especially when coupled with irritating “minimum complexity” rules. But I’m embarrassed to admit how many of my passwords feature the number and symbol substitutions for letters that password-cracking tools already factor in.

The privacy-scare story arc

Please don’t stop me, but you have read this before: A widely-used tech product is found to have a privacy flaw, spurring consternation among users and calls for action in Congress–as well as panicked “we need something on this” story-assignment e-mails from editors. And then we learn that the situation isn’t as horrific as first portrayed.

The latest version of this tech trope involves the discovery that Apple’s iPhones and 3G-equipped iPads regularly save your location, as determined from nearby wireless transmitters, in a hidden but easily-accessed “consolidated.db” file, and do so without your notice or consent. O’Reilly and Associates researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden summarized their “discovery” yesterday and posted an iPhoneTracker application that lets you see these records on a map.

That quickly led to numerous blog posts illustrated with iPhoneTracker-generated maps portraying their authors’ wanderings in fascinating detail. (That was not the case when I ran this app: Since it only shows data from the most-recently-synced iOS device, its map correctly indicated that the iPad 2 loaned by Apple PR had not left my house.) Congress and the FCC quickly began demanding explanations, while Apple engaged in its characteristic routine of not answering anybody’s questions. (FYI to Apple PR: That’s a good way to make your company look guilty.)

The massive Web traffic typically generated by pieces about Apple and the iPhone could not have hurt this story’s popularity among editors.

But… there’s no evidence that Apple is collecting this data from its users’ computers, an iPhone needs to save its location to help location-based apps function, iOS has always done this and people have known about the log in consolidated.db for months, as computing-forensics research Alex Levinson blogged today. Also, wireless carriers already track your location.

There are still serious issues: Why store this information in perpetuity instead of keeping only recent data? How does this conduct square with Apple’s insistence that third-party apps get your permission before tracking you? The answer to that first and most important question likely boils down to a programming oversight, perhaps fostered by the ever-lower price of flash memory–why bother automatically trimming a log file if you’ve got plenty of room for it?

That’s not nearly as outrageous as a headline like “Apple tracks your location” might suggest. Too bad.

I saw this kind of story arc play out repeatedly in my time at the Post. After two different Facebook privacy scares–each involving the Web’s standard “referrer” feature–turned out to be far less frightening on closer inspection, I wrote a column critiquing over-caffeinated coverage of data breaches.

The next time you see a story along these lines, remember two things. One, software development is rarely tidy. Two, companies exist to make money, preferably with less effort rather than more. Before you freak out over an alleged privacy issue, consider which factor provides a more plausible explanation for the problem.

4/22, 11:40 a.m. The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-Devries provide much more context in a story today. They write that both Apple and Google automatically collect data on nearby WiFi hotspots to build out databases that iPhones and Android phones can use to determine their locations faster than GPS would allow. But this doesn’t seem to be much of a secret: As I recall, the setup screens in Android clearly note that Google collects location information to improve its services, and Apple explained its conduct in a letter provided to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) last summer and posted on his site.