The Amazon Alexa of the future could be listening to you all the time – and building up a detailed picture of what you want to buy.
That’s the suggestion of a patent filed by the company that details the idea of ‘voice-sniffing’ technology. Such software would allow the device to eavesdrop on conversations and analyse them, feeding that into a database for ads.
At the moment, Amazon’s Echo products are hardwired so they will only listen to users when they say the “Alexa” wake word. Amazon has denied that it uses voice recordings for advertising at the moment, and said that the patent might never actually come to the market.
Alexa’s voice capabilities are currently used for playing music, controlling smart home devices and ordering things on Amazon, though only if the user asks for it. The recordings of people’s voices are stored on Amazon’s servers, but they can listen to those files and delete them.
However, the patent gets to a widespread fear about not only Amazon’s voice assistant but other technology too. A range of conspiracy theories – particularly about Facebook – suggest that companies are using their kit to secretly listen in on their customers, and then using that to show ads.
The patent suggests that the Alexa of the future could listen out for specific words such as “love” or “hate”. The device could then listen to what people like or don’t like – and suggest they buy things, presumably through Amazon, on that basis.
If someone mentions they want to go on a journey to Paris, for instance, an ad might pop up suggesting the travel site they could book it from. If they say that they are looking to go to a particular restaurant on a particular day, it might ‘whisper’ that there is a table available.
Amazon could even do the same for friends or relatives of the customer, the patent suggests. So, for instance, if someone says their parents are interested in a certain topic, it could associate that information with the person and use it to build up advertising data.
The company made clear that it does and is not able to collect such data at the moment, and might never use the technology described in the patent.
“We take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into our Echo devices,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “We do not use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising. Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.
Amazon Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to detect the wake word. When these devices detect the wake word, they stream audio to the Cloud. You can review voice interactions with Alexa by visiting History in Settings in the Alexa App.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on May 25, will govern the storage and processing of data rather than its collection. It also includes some very important consumer rights. The most important are the right to be informed, the right of access, the right to correct errors, the right to erase data, the right to restrict processing, and the right take it elsewhere (data portability). How useful these will be in practice remains to be seen.
Emails are like plain text postcards because they can, in theory, be read at any of the many servers through which they pass, or by someone tapping a line. Of course, “read by” is unlikely to mean “read by a human being.” However, software can look for things like passwords and credit card numbers.
A more likely problem is sending emails to the wrong address, either because users have got their own email addresses wrong (this happens surprisingly often), or through human error. Pick the wrong address from a list of auto-complete suggestions and you could send personal data to the wrong recipient. This would be a data breach that might have to be reported.
It would obviously be good thing if all emails were encrypted by default so that only the intended recipient could read them. Three decades of history says this isn’t going to happen soon, if at all. Public key encryption is too hard for people who just want to send normal emails.
Some large organisations do have encrypted email services, such as the NHS, but that doesn’t help the rest of us.
Some people do choose secure email services, such as ProtonMail in Switzerland and Tutanota in Germany. However, you also have to send external recipients a password – for example, in an SMS text message – to decrypt the email.
Tutanota users get an email that says “you have an encrypted email” and you click a link to read it, and reply to it, in a browser. You have to export the email if you want to keep a copy.
There are also plug-ins for Gmail and the Microsoft Outlook email program that provide secure email services. If one of your employers is using a secure system, they might let you join in.
If there’s no other alternative, you should encrypt and password-protect your images and documents before sending them as email attachments. Again, you must send the password separately, either via a different messaging service or in the post.
Online storage locations
It’s a good idea to upload attachments and then send people a link. However, bear in mind that you are uploading documents to the company that probably runs the biggest surveillance operation on the planet. Encrypt your documents before you upload them.
Encryption protects data if an online storage service is compromised – it has happened – or if your email is hacked.
Unfortunately, using Google Drive brings up an extra complication. If you are using Gmail, then you can assume that your data is being held in, or passing through, or accessible from the USA.
GDPR does not oblige users to store data on servers inside the EU. However, there are extra requirements if servers are outside the EU. First, you need to have a legitimate reason for transferring personal data outside the EU. Second, you must have the consent of the person whose data is being exported. Third, you must give that person the option to opt out.
In another post, the aforementioned Liz Henderson explains how to create a GDPR Privacy Notice, and you could adapt her sample to cover Gmail storage outside the EU.
You could switch to using an email service that operates wholly within the EU (see above), if only for any people who opt out, or you could upgrade to Google’s paid-for service.
True internet privacy could finally become possible thanks to a new tool that can—for instance—let you prove you’re over 18 without revealing your date of birth, or prove you have enough money in the bank for a financial transaction without revealing your balance or other details. That limits the risk of a privacy breach or identity theft.
The tool is an emerging cryptographic protocol called a zero-knowledge proof. Though researchers have worked on it for decades, interest has exploded in the past year, thanks in part to the growing obsession with cryptocurrencies, most of which aren’t private.
Zero Knowledge Protocol (or Zero Knowledge Password Proof, ZKP) is a way of doing authentication where no passwords are exchanged, which means they cannot be stolen. This is cool because it makes your communication so secure and protected that nobody else can find out what you’re communicating about or what files you are sharing with each other.
ZKP allows you proving that you know some secret (or many secrets) to somebody at the other “end” of communication without actually revealing it. The very term “zero knowledge” originates from the fact that no (“zero”) information about the secret is revealed, but the second party (called “Verifier”) is (rightfully) convinced that the first party (called “Prover”) knows the secret in question. Why would you need to prove you know the secret without telling it? When you don’t trust the other person, but still need to persuade them that you know it.
Much of the credit for a practical zero-knowledge proof goes to Zcash, a digital currency that launched in late 2016. Zcash’s developers used a method called a zk-SNARK (for “zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge”) to give users the power to transact anonymously.
That’s not normally possible in Bitcoin and most other public blockchain systems, in which transactions are visible to everyone. Though these transactions are theoretically anonymous, they can be combined with other data to track and even identify users. Vitalik Buterin, creator of Ethereum, the world’s second-most-popular blockchain network, has described zk-SNARKs as an “absolutely game-changing technology.”
For banks, this could be a way to use blockchains in payment systems without sacrificing their clients’ privacy. Last year, JPMorgan Chase added zk-SNARKs to its own blockchain-based payment system.
For all their promise, though, zk-SNARKs are computation-heavy and slow. They also require a so-called “trusted setup,” creating a cryptographic key that could compromise the whole system if it fell into the wrong hands. But researchers are looking at alternatives that deploy zero-knowledge proofs more efficiently and don’t require such a key.
Large chunks of the planet are still of out of reach of mobile phone signals – billions are still without access to digital communications. But this could change thanks to shrinking satellite sizes and costs.
Lower-cost, space-based mobile phone services will soon be a reality thanks to one firm’s fleet of nano-satellites that will bounce your voice or text signal from one spacecraft to the next and finally down to the person you’re calling.
“People were thinking of using nano-satellites for Earth imagery but nobody had thought of using them for voice or text communications,” says Israeli former fighter pilot Meir Moalem, the chief executive of Sky and Space Global (SAS).
“We were the first.”
His firm is aiming to offer customers mobile phone connections via a constellation of 200 shoebox-sized satellites weighing just 10kg (22lb) each.
The fleet is set to be operational by 2020 and will provide text, voice and data transfer services to the Earth’s equatorial regions – including much of Latin America and Africa – to a market of up to three billion people.
“Affordable mobile services are critical for the economic and social development of many developing countries,” says Mr Moalem, who believes SAS’s nano-satellites will shake up the space-based communications market.
“Our total constellation costs just $150m (£108m). That’s less than the cost of a single standard communications satellite. This is what we mean when we talk of a disruptive technology.”
But SAS is just one of a number of companies with big plans for space right now.
Perhaps the most ambitious is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is aiming to build a huge 4,400-satellite constellation offering global internet coverage. It will be using its own Falcon-9 rockets to launch its fleet and plans to have the network operating by 2024.
With all these satellites, low-Earth orbit – an altitude of 2,000km (1,200 miles) or less above the planet – is becoming an increasingly crowded space. This could make future launches potentially difficult and dangerous with space debris.
Then there is the issue of finance. Not every planned constellation is going to find the investors with deep enough pockets to back it, though David Fraser, research director at APP Securities, says SAS could be “an attractive alternative option” given its low capital costs. Vincent Chan, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, believes that satellite miniaturisation and cheaper launch vehicles mean that the “nano-sat is ready to serve the public”.
Such lower-cost infrastructure could bring much-needed mobile communications to the world’s poorer regions, he says, helping to reduce the digital divide.
But, he adds, SAS’s focus on voice and text services rather than broadband internet, suggests that “the digital divide will be narrower but not disappear”.
Virgin’s modified Boeing 747-400 will fly up to 35,000ft (10,000m), then LauncherOne, a two-stage liquid oxygen-powered expendable rocket, will blast the payload into orbit.
It’s one of a number of air-launch-to-orbit systems under development.
The advantage of launching from an aircraft is that the rocket can be launched in exactly the direction to suit the satellite’s planned orbit. Virgin is planning its first launch later this year, while SAS’s craft will be launched in 2019.
Launch costs will typically be about $12m, much less than a traditional launch, says Virgin. It is “all about helping the small satellite community get into orbit,” says Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s president and chief executive.
Such lower-cost launch services will open up space to “a whole host of communications [and] remote sensing applications,” he says.
SAS has already proved that its communications systems works with three pilot satellites, and is now signing deals with partners in Africa and Latin America – including one of the biggest satellite-communications providers in the Americas, Globalsat Group.
Globalsat’s chief executive, Alberto Palacios, says his firm’s current customers – in the mining, energy, defence banking, and government sectors – can afford the costs of traditional satellite phone calls.
But he believes nano-satellites are a game-changer.
“Some customers invest several hundreds of dollars in the hardware for a satellite phone terminal and will pay $50 a month for the service. But if you can offer a solution for half of that – then the price can be compared to conventional mobile phones,” he explains.
SAS says it is going for the gap in the market between existing satellite communications operators, such as Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar, and land-based mobile networks such as Vodafone, Telefonica, Airtel and Safaricom.
It is targeting customers earning less than $8 a day.
In Ghana, the company has just signed a five-year deal with telecoms provider Universal Cyberlinks to help government agricultural projects and public services, including monitoring cocoa production across 5,000 buying centres and checkpoints.
“When you travel outside of a city in Africa, often you lose your phone signal because it is not cost-effective to put up phone masts everywhere. That’s where we come in,” says Mr Moalem.
“In the West, we tend to forget that in many parts of the world people are not concerned about high-speed internet, they want to make simple phone calls, texting or money transfers. It’s a basic need.”
Africa is certainly becoming a key market for mobile services. There were 420 million mobile subscribers in 2016 and by 2020 there will be more than 500 million, around half the population, says industry body GSMA.
If wearing a Fitbit on your wrist is too difficult, maybe you should consider a fitness tracker on your face. Eye insurance provider VSP Global is launching a pair of smart glasses today called Level that keep track of a wearer’s movement. They pair over Bluetooth to a companion iOS / Android app. A frame costs $270, which doesn’t include lenses.
The inside of the glasses is relatively simple and what you’d expect. There’s an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer that work together to track steps, distance, calories burned, and total activity time. It charges over a magnetic connector and should last about five days on a single charge. There are three different frame styles available in four different colors: black, tortoise, slate, and grey tortoise.
VSP has also added gamified the experience: if wearers reach daily step goals, they earn points that translate to care for people who need help affording vision care. So 50 points provides an eye exam and eyewear to someone in need, which is nice! But strangely, users can qualify their donations so that they only go to one specific group, including veterans, children, the elderly, or people who are homeless.
As far as the product goes, activity-tracking glasses seem useful. Most spectacle wearers wear their glasses every day. However the challenge may come when keeping them charged, charging will have to happen at night when wearers are sleeping. If that’s forgotten then the lenses won’t be ready to track fitness as wearers will need to wear them during the day not charge them!
Last night Microcomms had the pleasure in attending the newly realaunched ‘Cornwall Lecture’ at Hall for Cornwall. The very first lecture happened in 1997 with the key speaker Sir Nicholas Grimshaw discussing the future of environmentalism, buildings and global responsibility. Last night the keynote was delivered by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, space scientist and co-presenter of ‘The Sky at Night’. The focus was “Innovation – the big picture” focusing on the space and technology sectors.
We heard Dr Aderin-Pocock’s life story, how her ‘desire to aspire’ pushed her through child-hood barriers such as dyslexia, 13 schools and growing up in a world where space scientists were still very much thought of as nerdy boffins with massive brains. It was an inspiring story and very much spoke to the heart of the blossoming space sector here in Cornwall. Our country is known for it’s beautiful natural landscapes, surfing and tourism – it’s not often spoken of as a tech hub – even though through Superfast, we are one of the best connected places in Europe. We also have a long history of space innovation at Goonhilly – scientists there received the first messages from the Telestar programme. Cornwall gets overlooked and left in the ‘remedial class’ as Dr Aderin-Pocock put it, because our underlying potential is hidden by what people see on the surface.
At the Q&A session after the lecture, a very pertinent question was asked “If Cornwall wins the Spaceport bid, what will that mean for local businesses? What jobs will it create?”. This was answered by Toby Parkins of Headforwards, who said that if we are successful in the bid, it will be time for local companies to start thinking laterally – what transferable skills do we have to move into this sector? How can we take the knowledge and expertise that already exist in Cornwall and translate them into commercial space ventures? We may not think we have anything to offer – but many companies do.
This is a really exciting opportunity. Here at Microcomms, we are going to be putting our heads together as a whole team to look at our collective skills and knowledge and look at where we are best placed to work within the market. There are many complex challenges faced by space progress and it will be a mixture of skills and disciplines that work together to overcome them.
We know that a poor workplace can have a significant impact on people’s health and well-being. We want to keep our staff happy and healthy which is why in 2018 we’ve introduced some significant changes within the company:
Following the passion our MD Simon Murley has for Crossfit training, we decided to engage James Jeffery owner at CrossFit Belerion to deliver lunchtime sessions at our Wheal Jane offices. Open to all, the take-up has been great across the company. It’s havng an impact too – Gary Holmes an IT engineer within Microcomms support team says “Before Crossfit I was smoking 6-10 cigarettes just travelling in to work, more throughout the day and eating junk. Now, I’ve really cut down my smoking – I probably only have about 6 cigarettes over the course of the whole day and I am thinking about quitting full stop. Training together really helps team morale and makes us feel we have goals to work towards physically. The feeling of being a ‘ supportive team’ during training definitely crosses over into work too.”
Fruit and Healthy Snacks
Wheal Jane is in a rural location and the temptation can be to buy unhealthy snacks from the Sandwich Van when it makes its once-a-day round. However, we’re trying to encourage staff to make good food choices with a free fruit and healthy snack bowl. Anyone can dip in when they get the urge to munch!
Water on Demand
As well as encouraging better eating, we also have a cooled water dispensing system which means no one has an excuse for not staying hydrated.
Our Board Room has a Conference Table which also doubles up as a Table Tennis table – with regular tournaments and leagues, it’s both competitive and fun. Also when you need to release some work stress – it’s great to whack a ball past your opponent!
As well as physical health, we’ve taken steps to address employee mental health too:
Regular Congratulations and Awards
In 2017 we invested in a new HR system PeopleHR which enables us to send ‘Thank you’s’ and ‘Well Done’ rewards to members of staff. This ensures that great work is recognised across the company. We also have an ‘Employee of the Month’ reward system – team members nominate each other and winners are voted in to the top spot with a prize to recognize their achievements – going above and beyond.
Our Digital Signage messaging system in the office also highlights great work we’ve achieved and details individual and team achievements.
Investing in our People
Regular appraisals – both informal and formal mean staff members have a clear success pathway and can formulate with their manager next steps within the business. This helps to keep staff motivated and ensures morale stays high. Training plans are put in place and staff are sent on courses to help improve their knowledge base and ensure everyone keeps up to date with new advancements. Recently we had a Belbin session with Oxford Innovations – this was great and really highlighted our strengths and areas we can improve upon!
John Darling, AV Director said of the Belbin session, “It was really interesting. My role means I work both in and out of the office all the time and it’s great to see the overall structure of the team. We don’t have skill gaps and it’s helped me see that when I’m putting a project together who to pull in to meetings and at what stage. Some of the team are great at innovative ideas, whereas some strengths lie more in the end stages – ensuring i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Everyone felt their key strengths were recognised, from the loudest to the quietest members of the business.”
Microcomms – it’s a great place to work and a great company to work with.
Russian cyberwarfare is the new threat to the nation, according to Nick Carter, the head of the British army, which means that the new frontline is, well, you. So it’s now more than just simple self-care to be smart about your online security – it’s your patriotic duty.
Update your devices – and upgrade the ones you can’t
Some of the most damaging cyber-attacks in recent years haven’t come through elite hackers crafting one-of-a-kind viruses to break into secure government devices, but from exploiting the old and out-of-date hardware that normal people use every day.
Take the Mirai botnet: a swarm of millions of hacked devices, it was used to overload servers by bombarding them with traffic requests. But the basic elements of the botnet were simple, cheap, “internet of things” devices such as security cameras or smart lightbulbs, which had glaring security flaws that no one ever bothered to fix.
Don’t be a John Podesta
“Fancy Bear” is the organisation behind the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. He fell prey to a phishing campaign, well-executed but simplistic, that allowed the attackers to download – and leak – every email he had sent or received.
At its heart, the hack used a fake warning from Google, asking Podesta to click a link and log in to respond to a security alert. After an aide mistakenly told him the link looked legitimate (he meant to type “illegitimate”), he did – but the link didn’t go to Google, and so he ended up sharing his username and password with the attackers.
The easy-to-say, hard-to-do advice is “always make sure links are from who they say they are”. A more useful recommendation may be to join the 10% who have “two-factor authentication” turned on their email.
Avoid paying the ransom
The WannaCry ransomware attack has been credibly linked to North Korea, which has apparently been stepping up its use of cybercrime as a method of fundraising – a technological improvement from recent history, when the nation was one of the largest forgers of US currency.
Keeping a backup of your critical data is a good idea anyway (who knows when a stray cup of coffee will fry your treasured photos?), but it is twice as useful if you can avoid paying a bitcoin ransom to a pariah state.
Think twice before retweeting and sharing
According to new figures from Twitter, more than 50,000 accounts on the site were created for the express purpose of spreading Russian misinformation during the US election. Of course, the point of the misinformation accounts was to blend in with conventional US political activists, so … maybe just log off altogether?
Thanks to Alex Hern at The Guardian for this article.
Samsung has announced a giant 146in (396cm) TV called The Wall at the CES tech show in Las Vegas.
The TV features a micro-LED display, which is pitched as a superior alternative to OLED because it offers both deep blacks and bright highlights.
Samsung also says its modular technology will allow for TVs of customised sizes to be ordered.
This is because the display is actually composed of many smaller modules that can be arranged to form unusual dimensions – one example that was squat and super-wide was briefly shown at the presentation.
‘Millions’ of LEDs
The micro-LED display, thanks to its self-emitting LEDs, should allow for a bright picture without the need for a backlight.
Backlights normally make it hard to produce deep blacks on screen because their illumination spills beyond the pixels they are targeted at.
Sony tried to produce TVs made from the same basic technology back in 2012 but they proved too expensive to make en masse.
Samsung’s decision to bet on micro-LED puts it in direct competition with rivals that have opted to go with OLED displays. Micro-LED screens are difficult to manufacture because the LEDs need to be individually placed onto a layer by machines, explained analyst Paul Gray at IHS Technology. “You have millions for a single display,” he said.”But maybe Samsung has made some breakthroughs on multiple placement [at once].”
Mr Gray added that, although Samsung was pitching the technology as a “consumer” product, it would likely only appear in very expensive devices.
Samsung has not yet revealed details on pricing itself.
Other options for giant TV displays have been shown off at CES this year.
Hisense unveiled a 150in 4K TV projector system that can beam a picture onto its owner’s wall.
The firm did not announce a price for the product, though a 100in version costs $10,000 (£7,300).
And there were TVs with improved brains, too.
Samsung promised that its next generation of smart TVs would be more intelligent than ever before, thanks to the inclusion of the firm’s voice-activated assistant Bixby.
Users can even ask Bixby to display the inside of their fridge on screen – if they have a compatible Samsung smart fridge with internal camera.
AI assistants have cropped up several smart TV’s at CES this year, including Philips’ 7703 Series 24in Android TV, which comes perched on a Bluetooth speaker and is designed for kitchen worktops.
Intelligent Services will not only learn to talk with us, but also to recognise emotion so they can truly engage with our lives.
For years we have interacted with machines by touch – using a keyboard, screen or mouse. But this is not the natural way for humans to communicate. As humans, we prefer voice. In 2018, we’ll see more machines communicate the way humans do, with the potential for technology to become more ingrained into our lives than ever.
We’re at the beginning of a voice-fuelled technology transformation where new types of devices and services, such as the Echo and Alexa, allow us to communicate more naturally. They are being embedded into everything from cars to home automation services to the factory floor.
Ford, for example, has integrated Alexa into its vehicles, allowing its customers to engage in a more intuitive way with its cars. Drivers can speak to their car and ask it to play their favourite audiobooks. They can do their shopping and get directions. They can connect to all sorts of services outside of the vehicle, being able to manipulate lights and doors in their smart home. From home, customers can communicate with their car by remote starting, locking or unlocking doors and obtaining vehicle information.
At AstraZeneca, Alexa is being used by manufacturing teams to ask about standard operating procedures and to find out what to do next. At Nasa, rather than rearranging a conference room for different mission meetings, they speak to Alexa and the building does the rest. For many, voice computing is already here, and the potential is limitless.
The International Rice Research Institute, just outside Manila in the Philippines, has built a digital system to help farmers find the right amount of fertiliser to apply to their land at a particular time. To increase engagement, they opted for a natural interface for the farmers, building it as a voice-based system in the cloud. Farmers simply take the village phone, call the service, select from a variety of dialects and describe the patch of land. The service, using machine learning, provides advice on the amount of fertiliser they need to use and when they should plant their crops.
UK-based Inhealthcare is another voice example. One of its core tools is using automated telephony as a communication channel to deploy digital health services at scale. For many older people, the telephone is a piece of technology they are comfortable and confident using, and nearly everyone can access it, even if they don’t have access to the internet or a smartphone. Using Amazon Polly, Inhealthcare can deliver medication reminders, health advice and help with treatment. A phone call could last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes depending on the complexity of its nature, but with the low latency they can achieve, patients can have a natural conversation, meaning they feel comfortable with the advice they receive and don’t hang up.
Are you integrating voice in to your digital strategy and the way you work?