Weekly output: Sprint + T-Mobile, WhatsApp vs. NSO Group

This week put me in the unusual position of unwinding travel arrangements that I’d made months ago–then figuring out what to do with the time I would not be spending at the now-canceled MWC trade show. At least I’m getting out of that debacle with almost no money lost (United offered to waive the change fee I’d otherwise owe when applying the credit from my scratched booking), unlike some people I know.

Speaking of trade shows, subscribers at Patreon got to read yesterday about the thought process I put into deciding which company or companies to put on my badge for an event. The answer isn’t always obvious; sometimes, I prefer to go with a more obscure affiliation.

2/12/2020: The Sprint/T-Mobile merger has some real upsides—and plenty of unknowns, Fast Company

Here’s an example of where reporting has led me to change my mind. Several years ago, I didn’t see much upside in combining the networks of those two wireless carriers. But as I’ve spent more time immersing myself in the finer points of 5G, I’ve come around to the idea that lighting up Sprint’s 5G spectrum across T-Mo’s 5G coverage will yield a serious improvement. Other potential upsides of this merger, however, remain less clear to me.

2/13/2020: WhatsApp vs. NSO Group, Al Jazeera

I was on the Arabic-language news network (overdubbed live into Arabic, as usual) to talk about WhatsApp’s lawsuit against the Israeli cybersecurity surveillance firm NSO Group for allegedly hacking into the encrypted communications of journalists and activists using the Facebook-owned messaging application.

MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

Weekly output: a fixed Hue vulnerability, techno-optimism, mobile apps versus mobile sites

I’m watching the Oscars as I type this, and a look at this year’s nominees shows I’m even more out of touch with pop culture than usual, having seen only two of the pictures nominated. I’m sure none of you are surprised to learn that I watched one–American Factory–on an airplane.

Speaking of that, if my travel posts here have you interested in hearing more on that subject, I’ll be discussing the finer points of business travel at Frequent Traveler University Washington DC on Sunday, March, 8. Twice: once that morning with travel blogger Tess Zhao (you’ll need a pass to the Travel and Adventure Show happening around FTU DC, $11 in advance for the day), and then an advanced version that afternoon for FTU DC pass holders ($129). For more on this event, I’ll point you to FTU DC speakers Tiffany Funk of One Mile At a Time and Matthew Klint of Live and Let’s Fly.

2/5/2020: Yet another joy of the smart home: Light bulbs at risk from hackers, Fast Company

I got an advance on Check Point’s documentation of an already-fixed vulnerability in the hardware bridge used by many Hue connected light bulbs–as did many other reporters who wrote up this story.  I hope that my critiquing the hopelessly-vague release notes for the patch that closed this “vuln” added some distinct value.

2/7/2020: New Industries & Opportunities: The Case for Techno-optimism, Greater Good Gathering

I headed up to New York Thursday to moderate this panel Friday morning, in which Microsoft Research director Eric Horvitz, Ownable president and CEO Brian Selander, CoverUS co-founder Peter Shanley, and Columbia University engineering professor Vijay Modi spoke about reasons to feel some optimism about where technology is taking us.

Yes, this was another manel for me. Until a week ago, I was supposed to moderate a different panel at this conference at Columbia that would have had some gender balance, but then the organizers had to reshuffle a few speaking slots.

2/9/2020: No, there doesn’t have to be an app for that, USA Today

About that Iowa app: Couldn’t the work of transmitting caucus results have been done much more simply via a mobile-friendly site? Mobile sites have other advantages over mobile apps for users–if not necessarily developers–and I outlined them in this USAT column.

MWC 2020 brings a novel conference concern

I haven’t finished putting together my schedule for MWC Barcelona later this month, but my calendar for that trade show is already getting culled.

Three major tech firms–Ericsson, LG and Nvidia–have pulled out of the wireless industry’s global gathering, citing fears of the novel coronavirus. Nvidia is no key player in the industry, but LG remains significant to smartphones. And Ericsson not only has a major 5G-infrastructure business, its MWC exhibit has been a reliable source of a free lunch.

The rest of the show appears set to go on as usual, although with unusual precautions. ZTE announced last week that it will have senior executives attending the show quarantine themselves in Europe for two weeks beforehand and require all Barcelona-bound employees to have been symptom-free for 14 days prior. GSMA, the organization that runs MWC, said two weeks ago it will disinfect public areas frequently and advise everybody at the show to stick to a no-handshake rule and wash their hands frequently.

My calendar still has MWC on it, and that remains the case with other tech journalists I know–and whose judgment I trust. The show is still on and news and networking will still happen there, while the actual risk appears quite low in the context of MWC’s distance from China and the health screenings now imposed on the dwindling number of passengers from there.

But the risk is not zero, not with that many Chinese companies set to exhibit at MWC. I would like to think that they will all exercise the same care as ZTE. But I suppose prudence may require me to avoid an entire country’s exhibits… which, considering that China’s smartphone industry is already walled off from the West thanks to Google being a non-participant there, was already part of my MWC coverage plans.

And I will, of course, wash my hands frequently and not shake anybody else’s. I’m thinking that bowing slightly to strangers and exchanging fist-bumps with friends will be reasonable alternatives.

Weekly output: talking tech to non-techies, Off-Facebook Activity, Starlink, Bezos hacking

After spending the last three weeks at home, I’m off to New York Thursday morning to speak at a conference. I’m glad that the Greater Good Gathering saw fit to invite me for a second year, and I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days around my dad’s college neighborhood.

1/29/2020: How to deliver a technical presentation to a non-technical audience, Functionize

My friend Wayne Rash interviewed me for this piece about conveying technical points to a non-technical audience; in my answers, I leaned heavily on my experience talking about information security to a user group in November.

1/30/2020: Off Facebook Activity, Al Jazeera

I explained Facebook’s overdue introduction of a tool that lets you check its tracking of you across other sites and apps.

1/31/2020: SpaceX’s fast broadband satellite just got a little closer to reality, Fast Company

I’m always happy to have an excuse to write about space. This time around, the subject was SpaceX’s constellation of Starliink satellites, each of which might bring always-on broadband to far more places than today. Emphasis on “might”: SpaceX has yet to talk about the cost of this service or even if it will require living with data caps.

1/31/2020: Bezos iPhone hack, Al Jazeera

For the second week in a row, I talked about reports of Saudi Arabia hacking the phones of people that government doesn’t like, in particular the iPhone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Here’s how much Facebook was tracking me around the rest of the Web

Facebook finally fulfilled one of Mark Zuckerberg’s campaign promises this week–a promise dating back to May of 2018.

That’s when Facebook’s CEO said the company would roll out a “Clear History” feature that would let its users erase Facebook records of their activity at other sites and apps as gathered by the social network’s Like and Share buttons and other plug-ins.

(If it took you a long time to realize the extent of that tracking, I can’t blame you. Instead, I can blame me: The post I did for the Washington Post when my old shop integrated a batch of Facebook components to its site didn’t spell out this risk.)

Twenty months after Zuck’s announcement, this feature, renamed “Off Facebook Activity”, finally arrived for U.S. users on Tuesday. I promptly set aside that day’s tasks to check it out firsthand.

The good news, such as it was: Only 74 apps and sites had been providing Facebook info about my activity there. And most of them (disclosure: including such current and past clients as USA Today, Fast Company, The Points Guy and the Columbia Journalism Review) had only coughed up isolated data points.

The bad news: The Yelp, Eventbrite, AnyDo, and Duolingo apps had all coughed up more than 20 records of my interactions there, as had the sites of Home Depot and Safeway owner Albertson’s.

To judge from the responses I got from readers of my Facebook when I asked them how many sites and apps showed up in their own Off-Facebook Activity listings, I’m practically living a cloistered life. Most comments cited three-digit numbers, two close to four digits: 232, 356, 395, 862, and 974. One thing most of these users seemed to have in common: using Google’s Chrome as a default browser instead of Apple’s Safari or Mozilla Firefox, both of which automatically block tracking by social networks on other pages. The former is the default on my desktop, while the latter has that place on my laptop.

I’ve now cleared my history and turned off future Off-Facebook Activity–at the possible cost of no longer having WordPress.com publish new posts automatically to my Facebook page. I can probably live with that.

Weekly output: CES recap (x2), Bezos iPhone hack, Intuit’s stewardship of Mint, VentureFuel CES panel, encrypting smartphone backups

This week has me attending two conferences in D.C. The tech-policy gathering State of the Net has been a fixture of my winters since 2006, while my introduction to the hacker convention ShmooCon did not come until last January.

1/21/2020: Industry Insights: CES Speaker Series Part 2, eMarketer

This research firm interviewed me over e-mail about this year’s CES. The last exchange in this short piece:

Q: If you could pick one thing that should stay in Vegas, forever, what would it be?

A: CES traffic. Who else would want it?

1/21/2020: Techdirt Podcast Episode 235: The CES 2020 Post-Mortem, Techdirt

I spent 44 minutes talking to Techdirt founder Mike Masnick about my impressions of the show–including my less-than-successful ride in a self-driving car and an eerily-personalized dinner hosted by HBO.

1/22/2020: Bezos iPhone hack, Al Jazeera

I talked about the deeply-strange report that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his iPhone hacked by a malware-loaded WhatsApp message sent by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. As I said on the air: Who will ever again open a message from that guy?

1/23/2020: What the hell happened to Mint?, Fast Company

I have been meaning to write a piece unpacking Intuit’s apathetic stewardship of Mint for years–as the occasional rant here and on Twitter about that personal-finance app should have suggested. A mid-January ragetweet elicited an apologetic reply from one of Mint’s original developers, which led me to think I should dust off the pitch another client had rejected last year and add the promise of quotes from ex-Mint types. That got a quick thumbs-up from FC, and then I had a great half-hour conversation with Mint founder Aaron Patzer, with whom I’d last spoken when I was still at the Washington Post, not long after Intuit had bought his startup.

The post promptly blew up, getting an outsized reaction across Twitter and sparking some involved discussions at Reddit and Hacker News about possible alternatives to Mint; I’m the “robpegoraro” answering questions in each thread.

1/23/2020: The Future: From the Writers Who Cover Innovation, VentureFuel

Fred Schonenberg, founder and CEO of the consultancy that had me on a panel at CES two and a half weeks ago, wrote up the conversation I had with fellow journalists Eric Savitz and Rick Limpert. I appreciated Fred giving some prominent play to one thing I said back then: Data isn’t the new oil, it’s the new nuclear waste.

1/26/2020: Whether Apple or Google: Is there a back door into your phone’s online backups?, USA Today

A Reuters report that Apple had dropped plans to offer end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups of iPhones and iPads led to this explainer of the different levels of encryption possible with backups. Short version of the column: If you want to encrypt your phone’s data without any other party having a backup key, you’ll either have to stick to local backup of your iPhone or use an Android phone running either of the two most recent releases of Google’s mobile operating system.