Category: Operating Systems

Keeping hackers away from your Webcam and microphone

Article

Creative Labs LiveCam Connect HD Webcam

Software now exists so you can gain better control over your Webcam

How To Stop Hackers From Spying With Your Webcam | Gizmodo

My Comments

A privacy issue that is being raised regarding the use of cameras and microphones connected to your computer is the fact that malware could be written to turn your computer in to a covert listening device.

Those of us who use a traditional “three-piece” desktop computer and have a physically-separate external Webcam may find this an easier issue because you cam simply disconnect the camera from your computer. But the issue of your Webcam or your computer’s microphone being hacked to spy on you would be of concern for those of us who have the camera or microphone integrated in the computer as with portable or all-in-one equipment, or the monitor which is something that could be offered as a product differentiator by display manufacturers.

The simplest technique that has been advocated to deal with this risk is to attach an opaque sticker or opaque sticky tape over the camera’s lens. Some computer and monitor manufacturers have approached this problem using a panel that slides over the Webcam as a privacy shield. But you wouldn’t be able to control the use of your computer’s integrated microphone unless it had a hardware on-off switch.

Most of the mobile computing platforms require that newly-installed software that wants to use the camera, microphone, GPS device or other phone sensors have to ask permission from the phone’s owner before the software can be installed or use these devices. The Apple iOS App Store even vets software to make sure it is doing the right thing before it is made available through that storefront and this is also becoming so for software sold through the Google Play Android storefront and the Microsoft Store Windows storefront.

Lately there have been some software solutions written for the Windows and Macintosh platforms that allow you to take back control of the camera and microphone due to the fact that these regular-computer platforms have historically made it easier for users to install software from anywhere. But I would also suggest that you scan the computer for malware and make sure that all of the software on the computer, including the operating system, is up-to-date and patched properly.

One of these solutions is Oversight which has been written for the Macintosh platforms and can detect if software is gaining access to your Mac’s Webcam or microphone. It also can detect of two or more programs are gaining access to the Webcam which is a new tactic for Webcam-based spyware because it can take advantage of people using the Webcam for business and personal videocalls and record these conversations. The user has the ability to allow or block a program’s access to the Webcam or microphone.

For the Windows platform, a similar program called “Who Stalks My Cam” detects events relating to your computer’s Webcam such as software wanting to acquire material from it.  This has the abilities for you to stop a program that is using the Webcam running or to shut down the Webcam process. But there is also the ability to track processes that are running while the computer system is idle because some spyware processes can be set up to come alive when the system isn’t being actively used. The program even allows you to “whitelist” programs that you trust like over-the-top communications programs or video-recording software so that it doesn’t get in their way.

The ability to track usage of attached / connected cameras and microphones or similar hardware like GPS units by software running on your computer will end up becoming part of a typical desktop/endpoint security program’s feature set as people become concerned about the use of these devices by spyware. This is in conjunction with operating systems also hardening access to devices that can be used to spy on their users by implementing software certification, sandboxing, privileged access and similar techniques.

It is definitely another threat vector that we are being concerned about when it comes to data security and personal privacy.

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Android Auto now for every car independent of the head unit

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Android main interactive lock screen

Your Android phone could become its own driver-friendly interaction screen for Android Auto

Google

Android Auto Available In Every Car (Blog Post)

My Comments

Android Auto provides a driving-friendly “extension” for your Android-based smartphone on your car’s dashboard. This yields a simplified user interface for audio, navigation, communications and allied apps so you can use them at the wheel.

Increasingly most of the vehicle builders are offering Android Auto compatible infotainment setups for most of the models with a few car-audio manufacturers running with aftermarket head units that have this functionality. But not everyone can benefit from this technology at the moment, perhaps due to a vehicle builder like Toyota not providing support or you maintaining an existing car that doesn’t have this functionality.

Google has answered this problem with version 2 of Android Auto which has the ability to use your Android phone’s screen as an Audroid Auto user interface. This is being rolled out during the current major update cycle for the Android Auto app.

Cassette adaptor in use with a smartphone

An Android phone running Android Auto 2.0 can bring this cassette-adaptor-based setup for classic car stereos to current expectations

Here, you would install your phone on an in-vehicle mounting kit such as the kind that uses a suction cup to anchor to your vehicle’s windscreen. This will allow for your phone to be operated in a stable and road-legal manner while you are driving.

But you can have the sound come through your car’s speakers via a hands-free kit or car stereo that has Bluetooth communications-level or multimedia-level audio compatibility. Or you can use a 3.5mm auxiliary cable or cassette adaptor connected to your smartphone to have its sound through your car stereo. For those of us who have the Bluetooth-based setup, you can set the app to start automatically when your phone connects to the Bluetooth in-car audio device.

This update is infact taking advantage of the Android phablets and smartphones that have the larger display, making it viable for us to use them as a control surface for Android Auto setups. As well, some accessory builders are even taking advantage of this ability by offering Bluetooth-capable mounting kits that provide automatic enablement for Android Auto setups.

I also can see this benefiting the “two-wheeled” community once appropriate mounting kits become available for installation on to bikes and motorcycles. Here, they could use a Bluetooth headset or helmet and benefit from the reduced-interaction abilities that Android Auto offers so their hands are effectively on the handlebars and their eyes on the road all the time.

A good question to raise would be whether Android 2.0 could support a dual-device setup where an Android tablet could serve as a Android Auto display/control device, which could please those of us who want to integrate a 7”-8” tablet to bring Android Auto to our vehicles. Similarly, implementing Android Auto over a MirrorLink setup could open up paths for increased compatibility with infotainment setups.

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More malware being discovered for the Macintosh platform

Article

Apple MacBook Pro running MacOS X Mavericks - press picture courtesy of Apple

Even Apple Macintosh users need to keep secure computing habits

Mac Malware Opens OS X Backdoor to Attackers | Tom’s Guide

My Comments

A lot of Apple Macintosh users have jumped to this platform based on an initial fact that there was very little malware written for it. But now, as more people are using Macs, they are becoming a target for malware including some “backdoor” software which weakens the MacOS’s defences against other malware.

This time, what was being called out was a Trojan-horse program that pretends to be a file-conversion program, the kind of program that is easily downloaded in a hurry.

Keep your Mac’s operating system and software patched and updated

A good practice regarding keeping your Mac secure, as with other computing platforms, is to make sure that the MacOS operating system is up-to-date with all the patches that Apple releases. This is because Apple may have released bug-fixes or remedied exploits that have been discovered in your version of the MacOS operating system.

Preferably, I would recommend you have this set up to work automatically so that when you are connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, your Mac is kept updated and patched.

You can set this up to be performed automatically by going to [Apple] – [System Preferences]. Then you go to the App Store panel if you have one of the newer versions of MacOS (Yosemite onwards) then check the boxes for “Automatically check for updates” and “Download newly available updates in the background”. This will then make the “Install OS X Updates” option available which you should check.

For Macs that run prior versions, you would still go via [Apple]-[Software Update] and set the appropriate options to automatically patch your version of MacOS X.

You can manually update and patch your Mac by visiting the App Store if you are in Yosemite or newer versions and tick off all of the software that needs updating in the Updates panel. For prior operating systems, you would need to visit the [Apple]-[Software Update] menu and click the option to download and install the latest patches for your Mac.

You can still visit the Updates panel in the App Store and go through all the apps that need updating so you can be sure they are up-to-date. If you have software that isn’t delivered via the App Store, use its interface or the software developer’s Website to keep it up-to-date. This is also important because older versions of application and other software can carry bugs or exploits.

This is something you should do when you switch your Mac on if you haven’t used your Mac or haven’t connected it to the Internet for a significant amount of time, such as with a secondary-use MacBook or a Mac that you use as part of multi-platform computing.

Upgrade your Mac’s operating system if you can

It may be worth upgrading your Mac’s operating system to a newer version if your computer can handle it. In most cases, you can update the system for either pennies’ worth or for free. Here, you could check the App Store or Apple’s website regarding newer operating systems for your Mac.

The main advantages that these new operating systems offer encompass system-wide hardening including the availability of the Mac App Store where the software is verified before it is made available.

Make sure you download software from reputable sources

For all computing platforms, one requirement for safe and secure computing is to obtain computer software from known reputable sources.

In the case of the Macintosh, either download new software from the Mac App Store where the software is verified or from the website of a trusted and known developer. Even when you obtain software from the Mac App Store, check the quality of the software by looking through the reviews that are posted about it and checking the reviews also for other software offered by the same developer. I have written an article about obtaining software from app stores because there has been a risk of them turning in to the equivalent of bulletin boards and download sites that host poor-quality software.

When it comes to software delivered in a packaged form, avoid the temptation to install from anything unless you have bought it yourself from a reputable dealer.

Consider desktop-security software for the Mac

This may sound foreign to Apple Macintosh users but you may also find that it may be worth considering the installation of a desktop-security / endpoint-security program on your Mac. It is more so if you or others who use your Mac are not astute when it comes to downloading software or handling the Internet.

Most of the developers who have written these kind of programs for the Windows-based computers have now written versions of these programs for the Macintosh platform because of the rise of threats against this platform. Like with Windows, the better desktop-security programs also offer protection against Internet-borne threats such as site-reputation checking, content filtering, and spam filtering. Similarly, better-quality software runs in a manner that doesn’t impinge on your Mac’s performance.

Conclusion

Like other computer platforms like DOS / Windows, the Apple Macintosh needs its users to be careful about keeping their computer and data secure. This includes keeping the operating system up-to-date along with being sure about what software you have on your computer.

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Google to bring Chrome and Android as a third major computing-platform force

Article

Dell Chromebook 13 press image courtesy of Dell Inc.

Could these Chromebooks be the third force in personal computing

Here Are the Security Implications of Android Apps Coming to Chromebooks | Supersite For Windows

My Comments

Could the Google operating systems be the third mainstream computing force?

Google’s Chrome OS operating system has initially been pitched as a low-cost Web-browsing cloud-computing platform with not much in the way of applications or games written for that platform. Typically this ended up with the platform ending up in the cost-conscious K-12 education market, most likely computers used in the classroom and in a similar vein to how Acorn had various computer systems pitched towards the UK’s education market.

Sports scoreboard app

.. like these Android phones

But lately there have been some efforts to have Android apps and games run on the Android mobile-computing platform work with the Chrome OS platform so that the game I play, the Evernote front-end I use or the sports scoreboard app I keep tabs on that football match with on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 could be easily be run on a Chromebook. Here, Google is encouraging the development of apps that implement responsive layouts and the ability to work with a traditional keyboard and pointing device which may not require much effort for most app types.

One of the core issues that has always concerned computer use has been data security including proper program behaviour. Here, Google will implement the same kind of sandboxing that was used on Android apps sold through the Google Play app store also for Chrome OS. This will be more so as Android apps will be able to run on Chromebooks in a “just-works” manner, something that will appear initially on the Chromebook Flip but is to appear on a subsequent version of the Chrome OS.

Google will also follow Microsoft’s and Apple’s lead towards a monthly software-update cycle for both Android and Chrome. This will include them taking over the software maintenance process so that OEMs and mobile carriers can’t control the process to push through their bloatware and branding. The OEMs and mobile carriers are wanting to still cry out for their launchers and apps but it may have to be about separately delivering them such as running them as Play Store apps so that an operating-system update isn’t contingent on the update working properly with their apps.

They will also be efforts to “clean up” the Play Store to get rid of dangerous apps and have it in a similar standard to the Microsoft Store and iTunes App Store – a “rubbish-free” app store. Corporate and educational IT admins will rejoice about the ability not to have the Google Play Store appear in their Chromebook or Android deployments or restrict their deployments to a whitelist of approved apps.

This is very similar to desktop computing in the late 1980s where there were three main forces for popular desktop-computing platforms i.e. the IBM platform running MS-DOS offered by many different manufacturers, the Apple Macintosh platform. and the Commodore Amiga platform. The different platforms coexisted for a while then because of their particular attributes and specialities such as graphics and multimedia.

The big question to raise for Chrome OS is whether it will be brought up to the same level of performance and flexibility as Windows or MacOS or will this platform be kept as an entry-level baseline computing platform?

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Your Chromebook can now work with your SMB-capable NAS

Article

WD MyCloud EX2 dual-disk NAS

These NAS units can now work with your Chromebook thanks to a Google SMB/CIFS file-system hook

Chromebooks can now seamlessly access Windows network file shares | PC World

Download link (Chrome OS)

My Comments

An issue you may find with the newer Chrome OS is that you could become stranded when it comes to gaining access to files. This may place limitations on your Chromebook’s utility value and you may find it serving as a glorified tablet.

Now you can download a Google-created app which serves primarily as a “hook” between Chrome OS and the SMB/CIFS network file exchange protocol implemented in just about all of the desktop operating systems for file sharing and in every network-attached storage device on the market.

This app takes advantage of an API made available for the Chrome OS platform that allows people to create software that links this platform with various file-storage systems and has been published as an open-source program, due to it being based on the Samba SMB/CIFS software used in every NAS. This could open up paths for creating various “hooks” for operating systems and computing platforms that make them work with these NAS units.

The article raised the issue of Dropbox and Microsoft writing native “hooks” for their cloud storage systems rather than users of these systems using flaky software to have their Chromebook work with Dropbox or OneDrive.

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You can still claim the Windows 10 free upgrade after July

Article

Making Sure You Are Eligible For The Windows 10 Free Upgrade Before It Expires | Supersite For Windows

My Comments

Windows 10 Free Upgrade screen

This is where you will reserve your copy of Windows 10

Microsoft is terminating the free Windows 10 upgrade offer for Windows 7 and 8.1 users in July but you may be able to reserve that upgrade and “make hay while the sun shines”. This can be achieved by you clicking on the Windows 10 icon in the Notification tray and going through the processes as if to upgrade to effectively reserve that upgrade for your current hardware.

But if you want to stay with your current operating system, you would have to roll back the update so that you and your current computer are effectively registered with Microsoft as if you have taken advantage of the free upgrade. You can also supply the Windows Product Key for your existing operating system in order to reserve your copy of Windows 10.

Some of you who are in the market for a new Windows-based computer may want to skip this process and focus on benefiting from Windows 10 whenever you have your new computer. But if you are “spinning out” your older computer as, perhaps, a secondary computer existing on your home network while you are buying the newer unit it would be worth proceeding with the upgrade. On the other hand, you can download and apply Convenience Rollup Updates from Microsoft to effectively keep the older computer to a similar security standard as the newer equipment.

Similarly, you could download the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool from Microsoft which allows you to create an optical disc or a USB stick as an installation / upgrade media source, then use this tool to deploy the Windows 10 update on to your computer. You could do this as part of registering your computer with Microsoft to reserve the free upgrade.

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Windows 10 Tiles not functioning? You may have to restart Explorer

Article

Windows 10 Start Menu

If you are seeing blank tiles in this view, you may have to restart Windows Explorer

Windows 10 Tip: Fixing Live Tile Counts and Blank Tiles | Supersite For Windows

My Comments

If you are running Windows 10 and are enamoured by the “tiled interface” that is part of its Start Menu or Tablet Mode view, there are times where you may find it not working “up to scratch”.

With this interface, you may find that the Live Tiles that are regularly updated simply go blank or are stagnant. The normal response to this situation would be to restart your computer, which would then fix the problem.

Task Manager with Windows Explorer called out

The Windows Explorer process in Task Manager

On the other hand, you may only need to restart the Explorer process to fix this problem without the need to reboot your computer. This can also apply to other user-interface abnormalities.

Here, you run Task Manager by either right-clicking the Taskbar or holding your finger on the Taskbar in the case of a tablet or 2-in-1, then clicking Task Manager, or pressing Ctrl-Shift-ESC together on the keyboard. Then you find Windows Explorer in the list of processes. Right-click this item and click Restart and it won’t take long for it to come good.

Task Manager - Context menu with Restart called out

Click the Restart option on the context menu to restart Windows Explorer

At this point, the Windows Explorer process will recover and update the tiles including reloading the data that populates the tiles from its source rather than working of corrupted data.

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iTunes and QuickTime not updating? What to do

Apple Software Update

If this fails to update iTunes or QuickTime, you may have to download these programs from Apple’s download site

You may find that when you update iTunes, QuickTime or other Apple software via the Apple Software Update app, the software may show error messages or simply hang/ This would then cause the ASU app to mark these updates as pending and the behaviour may continue to repeat itself.

But what can you do about this?

You can apply the QuickTime, iTunes and other updates by visiting the Apple downloads Website and downloading the respective software using the installers that exist on that site for your platform. This is similar to a new install rather than an update and can be used if you are dealing with a PC or Mac running older versions of iTunes or QuickTime. It can also be caused by corrupted configuration data that QuickTime and iTunes are working from.

Subsequently, the Apple Software Update app will behave properly, only needing to detect and install the necessary updates.  The update and install experience will be responsive and take a shorter amount of time to complete.

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Apple is starting to see reality with the iPad

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

Apple is now seeing the reality with how the iPad is being used

Apple have released iOS 9.3 which has as part of its Education feature package the ability to allow multiple users to use the same iPad.

This is a feature that the iPad is sorely missing because of a common reality that I have noticed with this tablet where many household members are using the same device. It happens more so with the 10” standard iPad rather than the iPad Mini which is used more as a “personal” device. For example, I have seen one iPad being passed around four different household members in our household for email, video-content viewing, gaming as in Plants vs Zombies, and information lookup. Another iPad that I have seen in action is one that became the common Internet (or should I say at times Facebook) terminal in a “family house“. Similarly, businesses have used the iPad as a mobile computing device ranging from a communal image-viewing device through a POS terminal to a kiosk device.

It is in contrast to Steve Jobs vision for this device where he sees it as a personal companion device i.e. as a large-screen companion to the iPhone that each of us use. This is why Apple refused to integrate multiple-user support in to the iPad variants of the iOS platform. It is in contrast to how Google integrated multi-user functionality in to Android Honeycomb to benefit tablet users and Microsoft carried through the multi-user abilities of the Windows regular-computer operating system to tablets that ran that operating system.

iPad users had to be very scrupulous that they log out of email, Facebook and similar services if the tablet was being used as a communal device and they wanted to keep their data private and unadulterated. There wasn’t the ability to have a distinct operating environment for individual users like a different wallpaper or exclusive access to personal email and other accounts. Businesses would even have to run extra third-party apps to achieve a multi-user login setup which became very important through the lifespan of the tablet.

But Apple woke up by offering multi-user abilities for iOS 9.3, but only as part of an “Education” feature set which is an extension of Apple’s strong efforts for courting the education market since the Apple II era. This was because schools, especially primary schools (elementary schools in North America), would buy fewer iPads and pass them around a class, yet they want to be able to track progress through various courseware apps that are written for this platform.

When iOS users and the computer press heard about this, they thought that Apple would answer these needs “across the board” but at the moment, it is only being targeted to the education market. There is a hope being expressed that when Apple issues a subsequent major iOS update like iOS 10, they will provide proper multi-user support for this platform. But it may require a rewrite of the iOS operating system in order to make sure that the extra functionality doesn’t weigh the iPad’s performance down.

Some users may find that the login user interface may not cater to the multiple-user scenario but it may have to be about supporting a user list similar to the way Windows works and supporting different user PINs and fingerprints as login credentials. Similarly, Apple may have to realise that there can be multiple Apple IDs associated with the one iPad and factor that in with account management / password vault features and iTunes purchases. This could lead to the ability to provide Windows-8-style cross-device portability where apps, settings and libraries can be carried across multiple devices.

What may have to be looked at is to integrate a full multi-user ability in to the iOS distribution packaged for the iPads, perhaps implementing some of the techniques used in Windows or Android.

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The Nickname field is now of use for mobile assistant platforms

Article

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone

Android and iOS can support contacts’ nicknames with Google Now and Siri

Use Nicknames With Siri And Google Now To Reach Contacts Faster | Gizmodo

My Comments

Most smartphone operating systems have in their contact list a field called “Nickname”. This is typically of use when you have a personal nickname, relative-shortcut name like “Mum” or similar name for a contact. But in most cases, this field isn’t shown up on call logs or contact lists.

Now Siri and Google Now make use of the Nickname field to interpret instructions to call particular people. Google Now does provide inherent support for relationship-shortcut names but you can use the Nickname field for manually determining a contact’s nickname. Both voice assistants can query which person a nickname pertains to which can come in handy if you are calling one of many siblings or someone with an obscure nickname or a nickname that is spelt a certain way but pronounced another way.

How could this be improved upon?

Nicknames appearing in the contact-display context

At the moment, the nickname functionality only works in the contact-search context but I would like to see it also work in the contact-display context especailly when a call or text comes in from the contact or you browse through your contact list or recent / missed call logs. This could be facilitated through the use of a “Display As” field which shows a user-chosen field or combination of concatenated fields for a particular contact.

Support for a phonetic representation of a nickname

These systems could support the ability to store a phonetic representation of a nickname which can come in handy when you say that nickname one way but have it written another way. The phonetic representation would be used for voice-based search and voice-based call announcements.

Security issues with nicknames

Nicknames may expose security issues when they fall in to the wrong hands. It is because people use these nicknames as a “password” or “word of trust” within their community.  But confidence tricksters using familiar nicknames as a way to “get in to someone’s mind” and have them acquiesce to their inappropriate scheme. In some cases, a nickname that is a symbol of endearment may be used as a weapon against one or both of the participants.

Having nicknames as a “secure” field which is only shown to trusted users is important to preserve this kind of security. For example, if a phone shows a list of missed calls or text messages on the notification screen, it could show a standard “first-name last-name” or “company-name” while locked but show the nickname while unlocked. Similarly, voice-level biometrics can be used to authenticate a user who is “searching by nickname” using a voice-based personal assistant.

Further improvements needed for phone contact lists

Handling of common phone numbers

Another area where a lot of contact list programs miss out on is handling phone calls or other communication that comes in from pbone numbers, emails or other contact addresses common to two or more contacts.

The most common example is a landline phone number that serves as a “catch-all” number for a household, workgroup or business. In this case, you may instruct the voice assistant to call a person on that landline by saying “person-name Home” or “person-name Work” or something similar. This will place the call to that landline. The same thing will happen if you contact someone else who lives or works behind that common phone number.

The problem rears its ugly head when a call comes in from that phone number or you review your call logs and you see the first alphabetically-listed contact related to that “catch-all” number even though other contacts in your contact list are behind that number. Here you don’t know whom it was who called you or whom you placed that call to.

This could be facilitated using a dynamically-concatenated display field for phone numbers with something like [<company-name>(caller-name-1. caller-name-2, or caller-name-n] for callers with a populated company-name field; or [caller-name-1, caller-name-2 or caller-name-n] for callers missing a company-name field i.e. households. Or you may create a dedicated contact entry for the “catch-all” phone number such as a distinct “name-address-number” entry for a company or household. Then you add “common fields” like work number, home number or company name to the entries associated with the people with that same “roof” in common. The name associated with the dedicated contact entry shows up in the call log when you call that number or on your phone’s screen when they ring you from that “catch-all” telephone.

Conclusion

At least something is being done to make sure that the contact management software and voice-activated personal assistant software  is tied in to how we view our contacts so we see our contacts our way.

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