A long wait for an app notification

Twenty-one months ago, I installed the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app on my smartphone and urged everybody reading that post in Virginia to go and do likewise. Back in August of 2020, I expected that this app developed with the Apple-Google COVID-19 exposure notifications framework would soon be warning me that I’d been near somebody else who had tested positive and had then used this app or another built on that foundation to send a thoroughly anonymized warning.

But the notifications of possible exposures didn’t appear, even as the U.S. suffered repeated waves of novel-coronavirus variants and the positive-test rate in Northern Virginia shot up above 30 percent at the start of this year. And as I got my first vaccination, second vaccination and booster shot, the continued silence of this app bothered me less and less–to the point that I briefly forgot to activate it after moving from my Pixel 3a to my Pixel 5a.

That silence ended Thursday morning, when my smartphone greeted me with a notification of a probable exposure. “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the app told me. “COVIDWISE estimates that you were last exposed 5 days ago.”

The app further informed me that “Most people who are fully vaccinated and free of COVID-like symptoms do not need to quarantine or be tested after an exposure.” Fortunately, I had already self-tested negative on an antigen at-home kit Wednesday morning to verify my health before heading to the Hack the Capitol security conference.

Because this app and others built on the Apple/Google code don’t store location data, I can only wonder when this possible exposure happened. And since five days ago was Saturday, when I flew home from Latvia via Munich and then Boston, I’m looking at thousands of miles of possibility. A second notification from COVIDWISE referencing North Carolina’s SlowCOVIDNC app suggests that my possible exposure source lives there, but the privacy-preserving design of this system ensures I’ll never know for sure.

A five-day turnaround, however, now seems quick after seeing three people reply to my tweet about this notification to report that they didn’t get their own heads-up from one of these exposure-notification apps until 10 days after the possible exposure–a uselessly long lag. My conclusion from those data points: Get vaccinated and boosted, because that will do more than anything else you could possibly undertake to ensure that receiving one of these exposure alerts remains a drama-free experience.

E-mail like it’s 2012: revisiting my Gmail filters

Several months ago, I spent too many hours hacking away at the 18 years’ worth of messages piled up in my Gmail account–because while I could live with paying for extra storage for Google’s backups of my own photos, I’d be damned if I was going to pay to warehouse random companies’ marketing pitches that were eating up far more of my free storage.

Screenshot of Gmail's filter, showing a menu of options that

That experience evidently wasn’t enough fun for me, because over the last couple of weeks I’ve dived into a corner of the Gmail interface I hadn’t spent any sustained time in since… 2012? Fortunately for me, Gmail’s filter interface hasn’t sustained any notable changes in at least that long, judging from how rarely it’s earned a mention in Google’s Gmail blog over the last decade.

Much as in 2012, this dialog lets me choose a message by factors like sender, recipient, subject, content, size and the presence of an attachments. Its next pane allows me to amplify the message’s importance by starring it or marking it as important, apply a label or file it under a category tab, or forward it to to an outside address registered with your Gmail account using an even more fossilized interface.

Those are the basics of e-mail management, and they did suffice to help me craft updated message rules that make my Gmail inbox less chaotic and keep my more consequential correspondence filed away neatly. Less e-entropy is a good outcome.

But the limits of the filtering user experience loom large among Gmail’s missing features. The one I keep coming back to is an equivalent to the “sweep” function in the Microsoft’s Outlook.com that automatically whisks matching messages into the trash 10 days after they arrive. But it’s also crazy that the entire filter UX is imprisoned in Gmail’s Web app–you can neither create nor edit nor view filters in Gmail’s Android and iOS apps, as if the last 10 years of mobile-first computing never reached whatever Googleplex building houses the Gmail developers.

Compare that thin gruel to the thoughtful mail-management tools surfacing in apps that actually have to win customers–I’m thinking here of a new Gmail front end called Shortwave that a team of former Google developers just shipped, but also of the Hey mail service. It’s not hard to think that Google could do a lot more with Gmail if it put serious effort into that work. It’s also not hard to think that Google must feel as comfortable in the e-mail market as Microsoft and Yahoo did before Gmail showed up in 2004.

Google-induced mail migration malaise

A week ago, I learned that one of my longest-running online freebies would end this summer. The seven days since haven’t been enough time for me to decide how to replace the no-charge Google account that’s hosted my home e-mail since early 2010–but they have allowed me to find a reason to dislike each obvious alternative.

Yes, I should have seen this coming. The Google that launched “Google Apps for Your Domain” as a free service in 2006 was a much scrappier firm that could not assume potential customers’ attention. Even in 2010, when I moved my home e-mail to a Google Apps account under a custom domain and set up (just in case!) a work e-mail address under a different custom domain at another Google Apps account, Google hadn’t risen to become an obvious choice for business collaboration.

The Gmail logo under an "Apps" banner, taken from a 2008 Google presentation.

Google did end signups for this free option in December of 2012, but it let existing Apps customers keep their free accounts. That grandfathered, privileged status continued as Google Apps became G Suite in 2016 and then Google Workspace in 2020.

The Google of 2022, however, is a different entity that’s been unplugging other free services. So I was not too surprised to learn that starting July 1, I’d have to pay to keep these two mail accounts hosted–just annoyed to read about this at the 9to5Google blog instead of in an e-mail from Google to me.

I’m fine with paying Google for my work account–make that, paying more on top of what I’ve been spending for extra storage since 2016. A Google Workspace Business Starter account will cost another $6 a month, which is reasonable considering how many other Google services I have tied to this account and how $72 a year would still rank among my cheaper business expenses.

But my home account is just an e-mail account. I don’t use it with Google’s other “workspace” tools; because I keep a separate, standard Gmail account for shopping, banking and other non-work stuff, my home account barely gets used as an e-mail service. Paying $72 a year makes a lot less sense, much less spending that much on addresses I’ve set up for family members who use them even less.

But the options I’ve evaluated first have their own issues:

iCloud+: Since my wife is already paying for extra storage on Apple’s cloud service, I could set up a custom domain there for free. But by associating my home e-mail address with iCloud, I would revive the problem of iPhone-using friends who think they’re using the Messages app to text me on my phone and instead have Apple’s iMessage system silently divert that to the Messages app on my iPad.

Microsoft 365: I already pay for Microsoft’s cloud storage to back up my Windows laptop, and adding multiple e-mail accounts by upgrading to Microsoft 365 Family would add only $30 to my yearly cost. Except Microsoft, for some inane reason that probably looked sharp on a marketing PowerPoint, limits this option to domains hosted with GoDaddy, and that’s not the registar I’ve been content with using for this domain. (One thing I don’t like about this registrar: Their own mail hosting only covers 1 gigabyte of storage per address, which is why they don’t make this list.)

Fastmail: This mail-first service isn’t tied to any larger cloud platform, a simplicity of mission that I appreciate. I also like how I could use this with 1Password to generate “masked,” disposable e-mail addresses for individual services. But with pricing for a custom domain starting at $50 a year per user for 30 GB of storage, this, too, feels like overkill for my own little use case.

Meanwhile, Google may have realized the foolishness of treating every user as one type of business customer. Wednesday afternoon, Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo flagged an addition to Google’s support note inviting input from people who don’t use legacy Google Apps accounts for work.

Will Google offer a cheaper tier for personal use, and how long will we have to wait to find out? The May 1 deadline Google set for ex-Apps users to choose between upgrading to Workspace or moving their mail elsewhere leaves plenty of time for the indecision-making process to grind on at this company. And among perplexed customers like me.

Android 12 early impressions: improvement via imprecision

Two weeks after I installed Android 12 on my aging, yet well-maintaned Pixel 3a smartphone, the biggest selling point of this release is not the self-tinting interface colors that Google talked up this summer. Instead, I’m appreciating a new option to leave apps a little fuzzier about my whereabouts.

In adding the ability to deny an app access to your precise location, Android 12 returns to the earliest days of Google’s mobile operating system, when an app could ask for either “fine” or “coarse” location. But it also reflects what we’ve learned since then about how location-data brokers will embed location-tracking code in other apps, often without disclosure, and then exploit that harvested info to build vast databases.

Photo shows the Android 12 Settings app open to a page denying the Today Weather access to my precise location; in the background, the print edition of the Nov. 12, 2021 Washington Post reveals a bit of the weather forecast.

So my first move after my phone rebooted into Android 12 was to take the GPS keys away from some apps. I started with one I already paid for, Today Weather. Why bother depriving a paid-for and therefore ad-free app of my exact location? Because the forecast shouldn’t change that much between here and a mile away–but keeping my precise coordinates from a third party means they can’t get exposed if that firm suffers a data breach later on.

My second move was much less exciting, in that I swapped out some of the default screen widgets: I like scallops and I like having a large display of the time on my home screen, but I don’t like the scallop-shaped clock widget that comes standard in Android 12.

My first software-update-induced moment of confusion, meanwhile, came a day after I installed this update when I mashed down the power button to invove the Google Pay shortcut to choose a different stored credit card for a purchase–and nothing happened. That’s because Android 12 moved that from the power-button menu to the Quick Settings menu. Broken muscle memory aside, I get that relocating this setting from a non-obvious spot to a menu that people use all the time should make it more discoverable.

Finally, one Android 12 detail that’s gotten less attention than the others in press coverage just might save me from waking up with a phone at 10% of a charge: When you plug a phone into a charger, a wave of sparkles washes up the screen to confirm that current is flowing to the device. Considering my own record of inattentive device charging, that’s a feature I could have used 10 years ago.

Not cool: freezing my credit after yet another data breach

The text message I was especially uninterested in receiving hit my phone Sunday morning. “T-Mobile has determined that unauthorized access to some business and/ or personal information related to your T-Mobile business account has occurred,” it read. “This may include SSN, names, addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth.”

T-Mobile’s texted non-apology for a data breach affecting tens of millions of subscribers went on to note that “we have NO information that indicates your business or personal financial/ payment information were accessed,” as if those data points were the ones I couldn’t reset with a phone call or three.

Instead, I got to spend part of an evening at the sites of the three major credit bureaus to freeze my credit, just in case any recipient of the stolen T-Mobile data was going to try to go to town on my data. In the exceedingly-likely event that you, too, will have to clean up after a corporation’s carelessness with your data, here’s how that went down.

At Experian, at least I didn’t have to clutter my password manager with another saved login. After providing my name, address, complete Social Security Number, birth date and e-mail, the site asked me to verify my identity by answering a personal-data pop quiz (for example, picking previous cities of residence or a cost range for my monthly mortgage payment). After passing that test and starting the credit freeze, Experian generated a 10-digit PIN I could use for subsequent access.

Things were not quite as easy at TransUnion. I had to create an account and provide almost as much personal information as Experian demanded, except that TransUnion only required the last four digits of my SSN. On the other hand, the sign-up workflow included a tacky invitation to sign up for marketing spam: “Please send me helpful tips & news about my service, including special offers from TransUnion and trusted partners!” The site asked me to pick a security question from a preset menu, none of which would have been too difficult for a stranger to research had I answered them truthfully, and then verify my identity in another personal-data quiz.

The company that had itself lost my data before, Equifax, offered the easiest on-ramp. After coughing up another mouthful of personal data–including my full SSN as well as a mobile number–I was able to create an account and, after clicking through a link sent in an account-confirmation e-mail, put a freeze in place. I did not have vouch for my identity by picking a ballpark figure for my mortgage payment or identifying a phone number I’d used before… and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I do know it’s not a good thing that T-Mobile kept information like Social Security Numbers that it could not have needed after checking my credit–a failure its apologies have yet to acknowledge. Firing them for that data hoarding, compounded by weak security, might offer a certain emotional closure. But I have no reason to think that switching to AT&T or Verizon and then handing over the same personal data wouldn’t open me to the same risk, because I’m struggling to see anybody at the giant telcos who gives a shit about data minimization.

Lessons from transatlantic travel during the never-ending pandemic

Returning to Europe for the first time in close to two years reminded me of some aspects of EU life that had faded from my mind, like the endless series of GDPR-mandated privacy dialogs marring familiar news sites.

But my visit to Estonia on a sponsored press trip this week also exposed a newer difference between life here and on the other side of the Atlantic: how people are responding to the pandemic that’s now nearing its third year.

While I did not have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result to board my flight (I took a PCR test two days prior to departure anyway and got a negative result the evening prior), I didn’t take too many steps after landing in Frankfurt before being asked for those documents to get into a Lufthansa lounge.

In Estonia–where the positive-test rate is lower than here in Virginia, while the vaccination rate is also lower but rising rapidly–I had to present my vaccination card once again to check into the hotel in Tallinn.

I faced more documentation requests to get into restaurants, a museum and a government office building. I’d call it a papers-please ritual except the Europeans among me could display EU-spec digital certificates on their phones that could be verified with a scan of a QR code, while I was left showing my paper card or a photo of it. This left me feeling like a health-tech hick, especially when one official looked at that image and said something like “I’ll have to trust you.”

(I’m told there’s an effort to build out a digital-vaccination-certificate standard across U.S. states, with California already supporting it; yes, consider the story assignment received.)

Mask compliance, however, did not seem great in the few mostly-empty restaurants and bars I ducked into; I did not linger in any crowded indoor spaces unmasked because I felt like I was pushing my luck enough already.

(For the same reason, I bought a BinaxNow antigen test at a CVS this morning and got yet another negative result.)

I had to present a negative test to board my flight home Thursday morning. That itself got checked twice, once before I could get a boarding pass and again before the gate for my flight back to the States from Munich.

And then after a long day of travel, I returned to a United States in which most people never have to produce any sort of confirmation of vaccination or a recent negative test–and some people seem violently opposed to any such mandate, even if that rugged individualism in the face of a pandemic just might put them in the grave.

My next in-person tech conference will have to wait a little longer

Next week was going to feature a conference badge and triple-digit temperatures, and now the only way I’ll get any of those things is if the forecast for D.C. turns out to be completely off.

Barely a month after I’d booked flights and a (refundable) hotel room for the Black Hat security conference, convinced that this security gathering in Las Vegas would represent my first in-person conference since February of 2020, I cancelled those bookings this week. Instead of flying to Nevada to take notes in the middle of a physical audience and then network in person at a series of receptions, I’ll follow the briefings online and then connect with nobody new as I have dinner at home.

It wasn’t any one thing about this conference happening in the middle of a not-yet-over pandemic that led me to bag this trip, even though I’ve been fully vaccinated since late May; it was all the things.

First, while I would expect most information-security professionals to evaluate their risks intelligently and therefore have gotten vaccinated long ago, there’s always going to be the exceptions.

Second, Black Hat is like everything else in Vegas in August in that it must exist in a series of air-conditioned bubbles. And while I wouldn’t have a problem wearing a mask while watching briefings, staying masked-up is a lot harder at a conference reception.

Third, Vegas has a giant tourist demographic that self-selects for poor risk management, raising the odds of me sharing an elevator or check-in line with some hard-partying idiot who has made pandemic denial part of his personal political brand.

Fourth, the city itself has a depressingly low vaccination rate, with only 41% of Clark County residents fully vaccinated. Seeing that many people spend that many months declining to use the best tool we have against the pandemic does not make me want to go to their city and spend my money.

The odds remain pretty low, as I understand them, that I would pick up the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus over those two days and change in Vegas. But when one of the people I’d see afterwards would be my not-yet-vaccine-eligible 11-year-old daughter, I can’t justify the risk posed by what strikes me as an especially bad scenario compared to any of the events I’m contemplating for later this year.

So even while I have resumed some business travel, it’s going to be a little while longer before I come home with a new conference badge to add to the collection that’s now been collecting dust for a year and a half.

Two ways your mailing list could be less terrible

Monday’s USA Today column on cleaning out an overloaded Gmail inbox required me to spend an unpleasant amount of time scouring my own inbox to find the most prolific senders. The experience left me mostly convinced of the grotesque selfishness of many e-mail marketing types, but it also yielded some grounds for optimism.

Photo shows a series of bulk-mail stamps

As in, the user experience with some of these companies’ mailing lists let me at least think that they recognized concepts like cognitive load, limited attention span and finite storage space. Here are two practices in particular that I liked:

  • Don’t send promotional e-mails from the same address as order confirmations. This makes it so much easier to find and bulk-delete the sales pitches that no longer carry any relevance–or, if you use Microsoft’s Outlook.com, to set up a “sweep” filter that automatically deletes those messages after a set period of time. Ecco, Macy’s and Staples all seemed to follow this polite, filter-friendly custom.
  • Let me choose how often to get emails–a message a day is often just clingy, but one a week could be less obnoxious–and let me specify what kind of pitches might interest me. Best Buy (“Receive no more than one General Marketing email per week”) and Macy’s (“Let’s Take It Down A Notch—Send Me Fewer Emails, Please”) get the frequency thing right, while L.L. Bean not only lets people choose between weekly, monthly or twice-monthly frequencies but invites them to request only messages about departments like Men’s, Home, or Fishing.

I’d like to close by writing something like “see, it doesn’t have to be this hard”–but a look at my Gmail inbox shows that some of my visits to the mail-preference pages of some retailers hasn’t led to them putting a smaller dent in my inbox. I guess they’d prefer I click their unsubscribe link–or use Gmail’s “block” command.

Secondary thoughts on working yet another primary election

Tuesday had a lot in common with the four days I spent last year working as an election officer for Arlington County. Just as in March, June, July and then November, I staggered through a sleep-deprived day that started with a 5 a.m. arrival at the polling place and didn’t end until around 8:30 p.m. As in all of those elections except last March’s Democratic presidential primary, the day left me with a fair amount of downtime to fill with reading a book and chatting with my fellow poll workers. And once again, it felt deeply fulfilling to help my fellow citizens do their part to hire candidates for temporary, taxpayer-funded jobs.

Lillies bloom in the foreground, while the background shows election signs in front of a community center in Arlington, Va.

But since November 3, the subject of election security–a topic I’ve been covering on and off for most of the last two decades–has fallen prey to fever-dream conspiracy theories among Donald Trump followers who refuse to believe that the former president was fired by the largest electorate in American history.

I am tempted to give this post over to yet another rant denouncing those advocates of Trump’s Big Lie–as well as the sedition sympathizers in Congress who kept pandering to those dead-enders after the deadly riot at the Capitol January 6.

But instead, I will talk about my workday Tuesday. Here are some things you should know about how we did our part in Virginia’s primary elections, which I hope map with how elections are run wherever you may read this:

• Trust paper. Arlington uses hand-marked paper ballots that each voter feeds into a scanner that will read the ballot if it’s upside-down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (We also have ballot-marking devices for voters with disabilities.) That paper trail then becomes part of the risk-limiting audit that Virginia now conducts after each election; the audit run after November’s election (but not reported out until March) confirmed that the votes as scanned accurately recorded how people marked their ballots. If your state is among the minority to still use “direct-recording” machines that leave no paper trail (hello, Texas), direct your ire at the elected officials who haven’t fixed that problem.

• Don’t confuse voter identification with TSA Pre. I checked in one voter who did not have a Virginia driver’s license but did appear in our poll-book app as a registered voter, and I saw other voters show up with the same scenario. That was understandable, as the Virginia DMV is struggling to catch up with a pandemic-inflicted backlog. It would be unconscionable to kick those people out of polling places when one government bureaucracy can’t issue ID cards fast enough while another has already confirmed their eligibility. I should note here that this voter brought their voter registration card; should you get stuck in this situation, bringing that other piece of paper will save a tired poll worker a little time.

• Expect software to fail; design for resilience. The most reassuring paper product I saw Tuesday was the printout of the entire pollbook for our precinct, which meant that we did not have to rely on our pollbook app to stay up all day. Fortunately, that software did work, by which I mean it functioned aside from the feature that was supposed to scan the bar code on the back of a Virginia driver’s license but instead failed at least nine out of 10 times in my experience.

• Check everything at least twice. My day started with opening packs of ballots and counting them, 10 at a time. Each shrink-wrapped pack should have held 100 ballots and did, but we checked that anyway–so that there would be no discrepancy between the number of ballots handed out and the number of voters checked in. We also verified each total at the end of every hour; each time, there was no surplus of voters or ballots. And then we made one last check after polls closed to confirm that we had handed out exactly one ballot per voter.

If the above sounds inefficient, you read this right. Election administration has to suffer some inefficiency to accommodate the conflicting demands of allowing voters secret ballots and yielding an auditable paper record. Deal with it.

Google’s useless-to-the-self-employed “External” label: another tiny bit of freelancer erasure

The Gmail app on my phone and in my browser looks a lot more yellow when I switch to my work account, and it’s all Google’s fault. Sometime in the last week or so, Google began slapping an “External” label in a shade of deep yellow on every message sent from somebody not in my organization.

Which, since I am self-employed, constitutes the rest of the population of Earth, plus every bot and script capable of sending me e-mail. Google describes the security measure it began enforcing in late April for Google Workspace accounts–the business accounts it once gave away for free as Google Apps, then turned into a paid service in 2012, then renamed to G Suite in 2016, and then renamed once again in 2020 to Workspace–as its way to help employees “avoid unintentionally sharing confidential information with recipients outside of their organization.”

Photo shows a spam message purporting to be from Comcast with Gmail's yellow "External" label, as seen on a Pixel 3a phone in front of graph paper.

But for solo practitioners who have no employees, it’s useless. It cannot teach me anything except that even when self-employed, I can still fall victim to IT department control-freakery–and that freelancers remain invisible to many business app and service developers.

(Fun fact about the obvious phishing message in the image here: Gmail’s spam filter did not catch it.)

A support note from Google indicates that Workspace users can turn off this warning. It does not explain why I don’t see that in my own admin console. But in a Reddit thread–once again, that site proved to be an underrated source of tech supportanother Workspace user said legacy free accounts don’t get that opt-out. A frequent Twitter correspondent with a grandfathered free account has since confirmed that he doesn’t have this setting either.

I suppose Google would like me to upgrade to a paid account, but I’m already paying: $19.99 a year for 100 GB of storage. The cheapest Workspace plan would only give me 30 GB and cost almost four times as much. Since Google apparently can’t be bothered to document this new limit to free accounts, the answer there is a hard nope.

All the time I’ve sunk into investigating this problem has not, however, been without benefits. Thanks to some hints from my fave avgeek blogger Seth Miller, I figured out how to disable the also-useless default warning about replying to external e-mails. To do that, sign into your admin console’s apps list page, click Calendar, click its “Sharing Settings” heading, click the pencil icon that will appear to the right of “External Invitations,” click to clear that checkbox, and click “Save.”

Although Calendar is clearly not Gmail, this settings change seems to apply in the mail app too. At some point while I was futzing around with Workspace settings, I also found an off switch for the comparable warning about sharing Google Docs with outsiders–but now I can’t find it, so maybe that opt-out is now yet another feature reserved for paying users but not documented accordingly.