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May 24, 2019
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Bluetooth

Google recalls its Bluetooth Titan Security Keys because of a security bug

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Google today disclosed a security bug in its Bluetooth Titan Security Key that could allow an attacker in close physical proximity to circumvent the security the key is supposed to provide. The company says that the bug is due to a “misconfiguration in the Titan Security Keys’ Bluetooth pairing protocols” and that even the faulty keys still protect against phishing attacks. Still, the company is providing a free replacement key to all existing users.

The bug affects all Titan Bluetooth keys, which sell for $50 in a package that also includes a standard USB/NFC key, that have a “T1” or “T2” on the back.

To exploit the bug, an attacker would have to within Bluetooth range (about 30 feet) and act swiftly as you press the button on the key to activate it. The attackers can then use the misconfigured protocol to connect their own device to the key before your own device connects. With that — and assuming that they already have your username and password — they could sign into your account.

Google also notes that before you can use your key, it has to be paired to your device. An attacker could also potentially exploit this bug by using their own device and masquerading it as your security key to connect to your device when you press the button on the key. By doing this, the attackers can then change their device to look like a keyboard or mouse and remote control your laptop, for example.

All of this has to happen at the exact right time, though, and the attacker must already know your credentials. A persistent attacker could make that work, though.

Google argues that this issue doesn’t affect the Titan key’s main mission, which is to guard against phishing attacks, and argues that users should continue to use the keys until they get a replacement. “It is much safer to use the affected key instead of no key at all. Security keys are the strongest protection against phishing currently available,” the company writes in today’s announcement.

The company also offers a few tips for mitigating the potential security issues here.

Some of Google’s competitors in the security key space, including YubiCo, decided against using Bluetooth because of potential security issues and criticized Google for launching a Bluetooth key. “While Yubico previously initiated development of a BLE security key, and contributed to the BLE U2F standards work, we decided not to launch the product as it does not meet our standards for security, usability and durability,” YubiCo founder Stina Ehrensvard wrote when Google launched its Titan keys.

You can now take your Amazon returns to all Kohl’s stores

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It’s one thing to be able to get everything delivered to your doorstep, it’s another to then have to actually have to leave your home, brace the elements and return those things that just didn’t work out (or work at all). Typically, that means a run to your local FedEx or UPS store. For the last two years, Amazon and department store chain Kohl’s had a limited partnership that allowed you to bring your return to 100 Kohl’s stores across the country. Today, the two companies announced that they’d expand this program to all 1,150 Kohl’s locations in the U.S.

Only last month, Kohl’s and Amazon also announced that the store would start carrying Amazon products in about 200 of its stores. In a few stores, Kohl’s also features a special “Amazon Smart Home Experience.” If Amazon ever bought Kohl’s, nobody would be all that surprised, I guess.

One nice feature of this program is that the returns are free and that nobody will ask you why you returned an item. These regretful Amazon purchases also don’t have to be packaged. Kohl’s employees will handle all that for you.

What’s in it for Kohl’s? As people walk into Kohl’s to return the Bluetooth speaker they finally decided they really didn’t need, they’ll not only become familiar with the brand but maybe pick up a shirt or an Amazon Echo, too. Since it started taking Amazon returns, foot traffic to the stores that participated in its test is up and revenue in those stores increased as well (and well beyond what the company experienced in other stores), so this concept seems to be working out alright for Kohl’s.

The damage of defaults

in AirPods/algorithmic accountability/algorithmic bias/Apple/Apple earbuds/apple inc/Artificial Intelligence/Bluetooth/Delhi/Diversity/Gadgets/headphones/hearables/India/iphone accessories/mobile computing/Politics/siri/smartphone/TC by

Apple popped out a new pair of AirPods this week. The design looks exactly like the old pair of AirPods. Which means I’m never going to use them because Apple’s bulbous earbuds don’t fit my ears. Think square peg, round hole.

The only way I could rock AirPods would be to walk around with hands clamped to the sides of my head to stop them from falling out. Which might make a nice cut in a glossy Apple ad for the gizmo — suggesting a feeling of closeness to the music, such that you can’t help but cup; a suggestive visual metaphor for the aural intimacy Apple surely wants its technology to communicate.

But the reality of trying to use earbuds that don’t fit is not that at all. It’s just shit. They fall out at the slightest movement so you either sit and never turn your head or, yes, hold them in with your hands. Oh hai, hands-not-so-free-pods!

The obvious point here is that one size does not fit all — howsoever much Apple’s Jony Ive and his softly spoken design team believe they have devised a universal earbud that pops snugly in every ear and just works. Sorry, nope!

A proportion of iOS users — perhaps other petite women like me, or indeed men with less capacious ear holes — are simply being removed from Apple’s sales equation where earbuds are concerned. Apple is pretending we don’t exist.

Sure we can just buy another brand of more appropriately sized earbuds. The in-ear, noise-canceling kind are my preference. Apple does not make ‘InPods’. But that’s not a huge deal. Well, not yet.

It’s true, the consumer tech giant did also delete the headphone jack from iPhones. Thereby depreciating my existing pair of wired in-ear headphones (if I ever upgrade to a 3.5mm-jack-less iPhone). But I could just shell out for Bluetooth wireless in-ear buds that fit my shell-like ears and carry on as normal.

Universal in-ear headphones have existed for years, of course. A delightful design concept. You get a selection of different sized rubber caps shipped with the product and choose the size that best fits.

Unfortunately Apple isn’t in the ‘InPods’ business though. Possibly for aesthetic reasons. Most likely because — and there’s more than a little irony here — an in-ear design wouldn’t be naturally roomy enough to fit all the stuff Siri needs to, y’know, fake intelligence.

Which means people like me with small ears are being passed over in favor of Apple’s voice assistant. So that’s AI: 1, non-‘standard’-sized human: 0. Which also, unsurprisingly, feels like shit.

I say ‘yet’ because if voice computing does become the next major computing interaction paradigm, as some believe — given how Internet connectivity is set to get baked into everything (and sticking screens everywhere would be a visual and usability nightmare; albeit microphones everywhere is a privacy nightmare… ) — then the minority of humans with petite earholes will be at a disadvantage vs those who can just pop in their smart, sensor-packed earbud and get on with telling their Internet-enabled surroundings to do their bidding.

Will parents of future generations of designer babies select for adequately capacious earholes so their child can pop an AI in? Let’s hope not.

We’re also not at the voice computing singularity yet. Outside the usual tech bubbles it remains a bit of a novel gimmick. Amazon has drummed up some interest with in-home smart speakers housing its own voice AI Alexa (a brand choice that has, incidentally, caused a verbal headache for actual humans called Alexa). Though its Echo smart speakers appear to mostly get used as expensive weather checkers and egg timers. Or else for playing music — a function that a standard speaker or smartphone will happily perform.

Certainly a voice AI is not something you need with you 24/7 yet. Prodding at a touchscreen remains the standard way of tapping into the power and convenience of mobile computing for the majority of consumers in developed markets.

The thing is, though, it still grates to be ignored. To be told — even indirectly — by one of the world’s wealthiest consumer technology companies that it doesn’t believe your ears exist.

Or, well, that it’s weighed up the sales calculations and decided it’s okay to drop a petite-holed minority on the cutting room floor. So that’s ‘ear meet AirPod’. Not ‘AirPod meet ear’ then.

But the underlying issue is much bigger than Apple’s (in my case) oversized earbuds. Its latest shiny set of AirPods are just an ill-fitting reminder of how many technology defaults simply don’t ‘fit’ the world as claimed.

Because if cash-rich Apple’s okay with promoting a universal default (that isn’t), think of all the less well resourced technology firms chasing scale for other single-sized, ill-fitting solutions. And all the problems flowing from attempts to mash ill-mapped technology onto society at large.

When it comes to wrong-sized physical kit I’ve had similar issues with standard office computing equipment and furniture. Products that seems — surprise, surprise! — to have been default designed with a 6ft strapping guy in mind. Keyboards so long they end up gifting the smaller user RSI. Office chairs that deliver chronic back-pain as a service. Chunky mice that quickly wrack the hand with pain. (Apple is a historical offender there too I’m afraid.)

The fixes for such ergonomic design failures is simply not to use the kit. To find a better-sized (often DIY) alternative that does ‘fit’.

But a DIY fix may not be an option when discrepancy is embedded at the software level — and where a system is being applied to you, rather than you the human wanting to augment yourself with a bit of tech, such as a pair of smart earbuds.

With software, embedded flaws and system design failures may also be harder to spot because it’s not necessarily immediately obvious there’s a problem. Oftentimes algorithmic bias isn’t visible until damage has been done.

And there’s no shortage of stories already about how software defaults configured for a biased median have ended up causing real-world harm. (See for example: ProPublica’s analysis of the COMPAS recidividism tool — software it found incorrectly judging black defendants more likely to offend than white. So software amplifying existing racial prejudice.)

Of course AI makes this problem so much worse.

Which is why the emphasis must be on catching bias in the datasets — before there is a chance for prejudice or bias to be ‘systematized’ and get baked into algorithms that can do damage at scale.

The algorithms must also be explainable. And outcomes auditable. Transparency as disinfectant; not secret blackboxes stuffed with unknowable code.

Doing all this requires huge up-front thought and effort on system design, and an even bigger change of attitude. It also needs massive, massive attention to diversity. An industry-wide championing of humanity’s multifaceted and multi-sized reality — and to making sure that’s reflected in both data and design choices (and therefore the teams doing the design and dev work).

You could say what’s needed is a recognition there’s never, ever a one-sized-fits all plug.

Indeed, that all algorithmic ‘solutions’ are abstractions that make compromises on accuracy and utility. And that those trade-offs can become viciously cutting knives that exclude, deny, disadvantage, delete and damage people at scale.

Expensive earbuds that won’t stay put is just a handy visual metaphor.

And while discussion about the risks and challenges of algorithmic bias has stepped up in recent years, as AI technologies have proliferated — with mainstream tech conferences actively debating how to “democratize AI” and bake diversity and ethics into system design via a development focus on principles like transparency, explainability, accountability and fairness — the industry has not even begun to fix its diversity problem.

It’s barely moved the needle on diversity. And its products continue to reflect that fundamental flaw.

Many — if not most — of the tech industry’s problems can be traced back to the fact that inadequately diverse teams are chasing scale while lacking the perspective to realize their system design is repurposing human harm as a de facto performance measure. (Although ‘lack of perspective’ is the charitable interpretation in certain cases; moral vacuum may be closer to the mark.)

As WWW creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has pointed out, system design is now society design. That means engineers, coders, AI technologists are all working at the frontline of ethics. The design choices they make have the potential to impact, influence and shape the lives of millions and even billions of people.

And when you’re designing society a median mindset and limited perspective cannot ever be an acceptable foundation. It’s also a recipe for product failure down the line.

The current backlash against big tech shows that the stakes and the damage are very real when poorly designed technologies get dumped thoughtlessly on people.

Life is messy and complex. People won’t fit a platform that oversimplifies and overlooks. And if your excuse for scaling harm is ‘we just didn’t think of that’ you’ve failed at your job and should really be headed out the door.

Because the consequences for being excluded by flawed system design are also scaling and stepping up as platforms proliferate and more life-impacting decisions get automated. Harm is being squared. Even as the underlying industry drum hasn’t skipped a beat in its prediction that everything will be digitized.

Which means that horribly biased parole systems are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Think of healthcare, social welfare, law enforcement, education, recruitment, transportation, construction, urban environments, farming, the military, the list of what will be digitized — and of manual or human overseen processes that will get systematized and automated — goes on.

Software — runs the industry mantra — is eating the world. That means badly designed technology products will harm more and more people.

But responsibility for sociotechnical misfit can’t just be scaled away as so much ‘collateral damage’.

So while an ‘elite’ design team led by a famous white guy might be able to craft a pleasingly curved earbud, such an approach cannot and does not automagically translate into AirPods with perfect, universal fit.

It’s someone’s standard. It’s certainly not mine.

We can posit that a more diverse Apple design team might have been able to rethink the AirPod design so as not to exclude those with smaller ears. Or make a case to convince the powers that be in Cupertino to add another size choice. We can but speculate.

What’s clear is the future of technology design can’t be so stubborn.

It must be radically inclusive and incredibly sensitive. Human-centric. Not locked to damaging defaults in its haste to impose a limited set of ideas.

Above all, it needs a listening ear on the world.

Indifference to difference and a blindspot for diversity will find no future here.

Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids

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Eargo wants to become the ultimate consumer hearing brand.

The company’s small and virtually invisible direct-to-consumer hearing aids, which come in an AirPods-style chargeable case, are designed to help destigmatize hearing loss. One month after revealing its newest product — the Eargo Neo ($2,550), which can be customized remotely via the case’s Bluetooth connectivity — the startup has closed a $52 million Series D, bringing its total raised to date to $135 million.

The latest round of capital comes from new investor Future Fund (Australia’s sovereign wealth fund) and existing investors NEA, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Nan Fung Life Sciences and Maveron. 

Headquartered in San Jose, Eargo, which counts 20,000 users, will use the cash to continuing crafting and innovating new products targeting baby boomers. The newly-launched Eargo Neo is the business’s third line of high-tech hearing aids. The first, Eargo Plus ($1,450), was released in 2017 and the Eargo Max ($2,510) was launched the following year.

“We can see that the product is really making a difference for users,” Eargo chief executive officer Christian Gormsen told TechCrunch. “We have the opportunity to really create a leading brand in the consumer hearing health space.”

Roughly 48 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, suffer from hearing loss but, aside from some Medicare Advantage programs, insurance companies provide no reimbursement for hearing aids. Despite high price tags — this is expensive tech — Eargo’s priority is still to make its hearing aids as accessible as possible and to send a message that there’s nothing wrong with admitting to hearing loss.

“Getting a hearing aid feels like admitting a defeat like there’s something wrong with you but that’s not true, hearing loss is natural and happens,” Gormsen said. “The number one challenge for the entire industry is awareness. There is so little knowledge about hearing loss out there; it’s such a stigmatized category and how do you change that? The current channel doesn’t do anything to address it, the only way you can address it is through education and communication.”

“I think we’ve come far, but we are looking at 48 million Americans and we are still barely scratching the surface.”

 

Everything you need to know about GM’s new electric bikes

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General Motors announced last year it was getting into the electric bike business. But besides a crowdsourcing name competition and a few teasers, details were scant.

Now, GM has given this new brand a name — ARĪV — as well as names for its two electric bikes, and some information about its go-to-market plan. The name ARĪV was selected as part of a global crowdsourcing campaign announced in November 2018.

The bikes

GM is bringing two new electric “connected” bikes to market this year — one folding and one compact — as it makes a broader push into electrification and experiments with how to diversify its business of making and selling vehicles.

The compact electric bike is called Meld and the folding one is called Merge.

GM says it brought “automotive-grade capabilities” to its bikes. The company’s experience with EV motor software and controls greatly influenced the proprietary GM motor that was built for the electric bikes, GM said.

The motor enables speeds up to 25 kph with four levels of pedal-assisted power. The battery allows users to travel 64 km, about 40 miles, on a single charge. The battery charges in about 3.5 hours.

Both bikes, which were engineered and designed in GM facilities in Michigan and Oshawa, Ontario, come standard with safety components such as integrated, rechargeable front and rear LED safety lights and oversized brake rotors to increase stopping power.

Where to find and buy them

GM plans to launch first in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands because of “popularity of lithium-ion battery-powered ebikes in those markets.” GM has opened up a website www.BikeExchange.com where customers can pre-order.

The Meld will be cheaper than the Merge, and prices depend on the country.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, the ARĪV Meld is €2.800, or about $3,100, and the Merge is €3.400 ($3,800). In Germany, the ARĪV Meld is €2.750 and the Merge is €3.350.

ARĪV e-bikes are scheduled to begin shipping to customers in the second quarter of 2019.

The connected bits

GM calls these connected bikes and that can mean a lot of different things. In this case, it means the bikes can connect with an app via Bluetooth.

The app gives riders all kinds of metrics such as speed, distance, remaining battery level, motor assist level and distance traveled. The company plans to add more features, including a mode that will use a proprietary algorithm to help riders arrive at their destination sweat-free.

These bikes also come with what it calls a “Quad Lock mount,” a system to securely attach a smartphone to the bike. An integrated USB port allows riders to maintain their phone’s charge while on the go.

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