Author: simonmackay

A call to attention now exists regarding videoconferencing platform security

Article

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

A call to action is now taking place regarding the data security and user privacy of video conferencing platforms

Privacy watchdogs urge videoconferencing services to boost privacy protections | We Live Security

From the horse’s mouth

Officer Of The Privacy Commissioner Of Canada

Joint statement on global privacy expectations of Video Teleconferencing companies (English / Français)

Press Release (English, Français)

Office Of The Australian Information Commissioner

Global privacy expectations of video teleconference providers – with open letter

Federal Data Protection And Information Commissioner (Switzerland)

Audio And Video Conferencing Systems – Privacy Resource factsheet (English, Français, Deutsch, Italiano)

Open Letter (PDF)

Information Commissioner’s Office (United Kingdom)

Global privacy expectations of video teleconference providers

Open Letter (PDF)

My Comments

Thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague, we are making increased use of various videoconferencing platforms for our work, education, healthcare, religious and social reasons.

This has been facilitated through the use of applications like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and HouseParty. It also includes “over-the-top” text-chat and Internet-telephony apps like Apple’s Facetime, Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber for this kind of communication, thanks to them opening up or having established multi-party audio/video conferencing or “party-line” communications facilities.

Security issues have been raised by various experts in the field about these platforms with some finding that there are platforms that aren’t fit for purpose in today’s use cases thanks to gaping holes in the platform’s security and privacy setup. In some cases, the software hasn’t been maintained in a manner as to prevent security risks taking place.

As well, there have been some high-profile “Zoombombing” attacks on video conferences in recent times. This is where inappropriate, usually pornographic, images have been thrown up in to these video conferences to embarrass the participants with one of these occurring during a court hearing and one disrupting an Australian open forum about reenergising tourism.

This has led to the public data-protection and privacy authorities in Australia, Canada, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Switzerland and the United Kingdom writing an open letter to Microsoft, Cisco, Zoom, HouseParty and Google addressing these issues. I also see this relevant to any company who is running a text-based “chat” or similar service that offers group-chatting or party-line functionality or adapts their IP-based one-to-one audio/video telephony platform for multi-party calls.

Some of these issues are very similar to what has been raised over the last 10 years thanks to an increase in our use of online services and cloud computing in our daily lives.This included data security under a highly-mobile computing environment with a heterogeny of computing devices and online services; along with the issue of data sovereignty in a globalised business world.

One of the key issues is data security. This is about having proper data-security safeguards in place such as end-to-end encryption for communications traffic; improved access control like strong passwords, two-factor authentication or modern device-based authentication approaches like device PINs and biometrics.

There will also be the requirement to factor in handling of sensitive data like telehealth appointments between medical/allied-health specialists and their patients. Similarly data security in the context of videoconferencing will also encompass the management of a platform’s abilities to share files, Weblinks, secondary screens and other media beyond the video-audio feed.

As well, a “secure by design and default” approach should prohibit the ability to share resources including screenviews unless the person managing the videoconference gives the go-ahead for the person offering the resource. If there is a resource-preview mechanism, the previews should only be available to the person in charge of the video conference.

Another key issue is user privacy including business confidentiality. There will be a requirement for a videoconferencing platform to have “privacy by design and default”. It is similar to the core data-security operating principle of least privilege. It encompasses strong default access controls along with features like announcing new participants when they join a multi-party video conference; use of waiting rooms, muting the microphone and camera when you join a video conference with you having to deliberately enable them to have your voice and video part of the conference; an option to blur out backgrounds or use substitute backgrounds; use of substitute still images like account avatars in lieu of a video feed when the camera is muted; and the like.

There will also be a requirement to allow businesses to comply with user-privacy obligations like enabling them to seek users’ express consent before participating. It also includes a requirement for the platform to minimise the capture of data to what is necessary to provide the service. That may include things like limiting unnecessary synchronsing of contact lists for example.

Another issue is for the platforms to to “know their audience” or know what kind of users are using their platform. This is for them to properly provide these services in a privacy-focused way. It applies especially to use of the platform by children and vulnerable user groups; or where the platform is being used in a sensitive use setting like education, health or religion.

As well it encompasses where a videoconferencing platform is used or has its data handled within a jurisdiction that doesn’t respect fundamental human rights and civil liberties. This risk will increase more as countries succumb to populist rule and strongman politics and they forget the idea of these rights. In this case, participants face an increased exposure to various risks associated with these jurisdictions especially if the conversation is about a controversial topic or activity or they are a member of a people group targeted by the oppressive regime.

Another issue being raised is transparency and fairness. Here this is about what data is being collected by the platform, how it is being used, whom it is shared with including the jurisdictions they are based in along with why it is being collected. It doesn’t matter whether it is important or not. The transparency about data use within the platform also affects what happens whenever the platform is evolved and the kind of impact any change would have.

The last point is to provide each of the end-users effective control over their experience with the videoconferencing platforms. Here, an organisation or user group may determine that a particular videoconferencing platform like Zoom or Skype is the order of the day for their needs. But the users need to be able to know whether location data is being collected or whether the videoconference is tracking their engagement, or whether it is being recorded or transcribed.

I would add to this letter the issue of the platform’s user-friendliness from provisioning new users through all stages of establishing and managing a videoconference. This is of concern with videoconference platforms being used by young children or older-generation people who have had limited exposure to newer technologies. It also includes efforts to make the platform accessible to all abilities.

This is relevant to the security and user privacy of a videoconferencing platform due to simplifying the ability for the videoconference hosts and participants to maintain effective control of their experience. Here, if a platform’s user interface is difficult to use safely. videoconference hosts and participants will end up opting for insecure setups this making themselves vulnerable.

For example, consistent and less-confusing function icons or colours would be required for the software’s controls; along with proper standardised  “mapping” of controls on hardware devices to particular functions. Or there could be a user-interface option that always exposes the essential call-management controls at the bottom of the user’s screen during a videocall.

This issue has come to my mind due to regularly participating in a Skype videoconference session with my church’s Bible-study group. Most of the members of that group were of older generations who weren’t necessarily technology-literate. Here, I have had to explain what icons to click or tap on to enable the camera or microphone during the videoconference and even was starting it earlier to “walk” participants through using Skype. Here, it would be about calling out buttons on the screen that have particular icons for particular functions like enabling the camera or microphone or selecting the front or back camera on their device.

At least the public-service efforts have come about to raise the consistent security and privacy problems associated with the increased use of videoconferencing software.

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Why do I see Thunderbolt 3 and integrated graphics as a valid option set for laptops?

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

The Dell XPS 13 series of ultraportable computers uses a combination of Intel integrated graphics and Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports

Increasingly, laptop users want to make sure their computers earn their keep for computing activities that are performed away from their home or office. But they also want the ability to do some computer activities that demand more from these machines like playing advanced games or editing photos and videos.

What is this about?

Integrated graphics infrastructure like the Intel UHD and Iris Plus GPUs allows your laptop computers to run for a long time on their own batteries. It is thanks to the infrastructure using the system RAM to “paint” the images you see on the screen, along with being optimised for low-power mobile use. This is more so if the computer is equipped with a screen resolution of not more than the equivalent of Full HD (1080p) which also doesn’t put much strain on the computer’s battery capacity.

They may be seen as being suitable for day-to-day computing tasks like Web browsing, email or word-processing or lightweight multimedia and gaming activities while on the road. Even some games developers are working on capable playable video games that are optimised to run on integrated graphics infrastructure so you can play them on modest computer equipment or to while away a long journey.

There are some “everyday-use” laptop computers that are equipped with a discrete graphics processor along with the integrated graphics, with the host computer implementing automatic GPU-switching for energy efficiency. Typically the graphics processor doesn’t really offer much for performance-grade computing because it is a modest mobile-grade unit but may provide some “pep” for some games and multimedia tasks.

Thunderbolt 3 connection on a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

But if your laptop has at least one Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port along with the integrated graphics infrastructure, it will open up another option. Here, you could use an external graphics module, also known as an eGPU unit, to add high-performance dedicated graphics to your computer while you are at home or the office. As well, these devices provide charging power for your laptop which, in most cases, would relegate the laptop’s supplied AC adaptor as an “on-the-road” or secondary charging option.

A use case often cited for this kind of setup is a university student who is studying on campus and wants to use the laptop in the library to do their studies or take notes during classes. They then want to head home, whether it is at student accommodation like a dorm / residence hall on the campus, an apartment or house that is shared by a group of students, or their parents’ home where it is within a short affordable commute from the campus. The use case typifies the idea of the computer being able to support gaming as a rest-and-recreation activity at home after all of what they need to do is done.

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Core external graphics module with Razer Blade gaming laptop

Here, the idea is to use the external graphics module with the computer and a large-screen monitor have the graphics power come in to play during a video game. As well, if the external graphics module is portable enough, it may be about connecting the laptop to a large-screen TV installed in a common lounge area at their accommodation on an ad-hoc basis so they benefit from that large screen when playing a game or watching multimedia content.

The advantage in this use case would be to have the computer affordable enough for a student at their current point in life thanks to it not being kitted out with a dedicated graphics processor that may be seen as being hopeless. But the student can save towards an external graphics module of their choice and get that at a later time when they see fit. In some cases, it may be about using a “fit-for-purpose” graphics card like an NVIDIA Quadro with the eGPU if they maintain interest in that architecture or multimedia course.

It also extends to business users and multimedia producers who prefer to use a highly-portable laptop “on the road” but use an external graphics module “at base” for those activities that need extra graphics power. Examples of these include to render video projects or to play a more-demanding game as part of rest and relaxation.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module press picture courtesy of Sonnet Systems

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables

There are a few small external graphics modules that are provided with a soldered-in graphics processor chip. These units, like the Sonnet Breakaway Puck, are small enough to pack in your laptop bag, briefcase or backpack and can be seen as an opportunity to provide “improved graphics performance” when near AC power. There will be some limitations with these devices like a graphics processor that is modest by “desktop gaming rig” or “certified workstation” standards; or having reduced connectivity for extra peripherals. But they will put a bit of “pep” in to your laptop’s graphics performance at least.

Some of these small external graphics modules would have come about as a way to dodge the “crypto gold rush” where traditional desktop-grade graphics cards were very scarce and expensive. This was due to them being used as part of cryptocurrency mining rigs to facilitate the “mining” of Bitcoin or Ethereum during that “gold rush”. The idea behind these external graphics modules was to offer enhanced graphics performance for those of us who wanted to play games or engage in multimedia editing rather than mine Bitcoin.

Who is heading down this path?

At the moment, most computer manufacturers are configuring a significant number of Intel-powered ultraportable computers along these lines i.e. with Intel integrated graphics and at least one Thunderbolt 3 port. A good example of this are the recent iterations of the Dell XPS 13 (purchase here) and some of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 family like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Of course some of the computer manufacturers are also offering laptop configurations with modest-spec discrete graphics silicon along with the integrated-graphics silicon and a Thunderbolt 3 port. This is typically pitched towards premium 15” computers including some slimline systems but these graphics processors may not put up much when it comes to graphics performance. In this case, they are most likely to be equivalent in performance to a current-spec baseline desktop graphics card.

The Thunderbolt 3 port on these systems would be about using something like a “card-cage” external graphics module with a high-performance desktop-grade graphics card to get more out of your games or advanced applications.

Trends affecting this configuration

The upcoming USB4 specification is meant to be able to bring Thunderbolt 3 capability to non-Intel silicon thanks to Intel assigning the intellectual property associated with Thunderbolt 3 to the USB Implementers Forum.

As well, Intel has put forward the next iteration of the Thunderbolt specification in the form of Thunderbolt 4. It is more of an evolutionary revision in relationship to USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 and will be part of their next iteration of their Core silicon. But it is also intended to be backwards compatible with these prior standards and uses the USB-C connector.

What can be done to further legitimise Thunderbolt 3 / USB4 and integrated graphics as a valid laptop configuration?

What needs to happen is that the use case for external graphics modules needs to be demonstrated with USB4 and subsequent technology. As well, this kind of setup needs to appear on AMD-equipped computers as well as devices that use silicon based on ARM microarchitecture, along with Intel-based devices.

Personally, I would like to see the Thunderbolt 3 or USB4 technology being made available to more of the popularly-priced laptops made available to householders and small businesses. It would be with an ideal to allow the computer’s user to upgrade towards better graphics at a later date by purchasing an external graphics module.

This is in addition to a wide range of external graphics modules available for these computers with some capable units being offered at affordable price points. I would also like to see more of the likes of the Lenovo Legion BoostStation “card-cage” external graphics module that have the ability for users to install storage devices like hard disks or solid-state drives in addition to the graphics card. Here, these would please those of us who want extra “offload” storage or a “scratch disk” just for use at their workspace. They would also help people who are moving from the traditional desktop computer to a workspace centred around a laptop.

Conclusion

The validity of a laptop computer being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 or similar port and an integrated graphics chipset is to be recognised. This is more so where the viability of improving on one of these systems using an external graphics module that has a fit-for-purpose dedicated graphics chipset can be considered.

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Nearby Share to be coming very shortly to an Android device near you

Articles

Transfer data between two smartphones

Wirelessly transferring data between two devices in the same space – now for Android

Google Officially Launches Nearby Sharing | DroidLife

Android’s ‘Nearby Share’ file sharing feature is finally launching | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Instantly share files with people around you with Nearby Share (Blog Post)

Support Page

Video – Tap or click to play on YouTube

My Comments

Google has been doing work on its own across-the-room data-transfer technology, now known as Nearby Share. It is the Android platform’s answer to Apple’s AirDrop feature that many iOS users are using to “beam” photos to other users.

There have been previous attempts on the Android platform to offer this feature like Bluetooth Object Push Profile and NFC-based technologies like Android Beam.

But this will work in a true-wireless approach with support for Bluetooth, WebRTC and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi technologies. That means it isn’t dependent on a functioning Internet connection for it to run.

Your Android phone or tablet will need to have Android 6.0 or newer and the functionality will be delivered as part of the Google Play Services update. This means that it is updated independently of the operating system codebase, thus answering the problem associated with a lot of Android devices where manufacturers and carriers won’t support the device two years after it is launched.

This feature will have privacy-focused options like anonymous transfer and the ability for users to limit their discovery to only their contacts or only to selected contacts. As well, recipients don’t see the actual material about to be transferred so they don’t get shocked by someone pushing out unwanted material.

A good approach to handling AirDrop, Google Nearby Share and similar across-the-room data-transfer setups in a safe manner is to keep your devices undiscoverable to others. Then, when you have confirmed face-to-face that you are intending to use this function, then you make your device discoverable in order to receive the content.

It is available for ChromeOS but will be arriving as part of other platform primarily through software that Google develops for that platform. But there needs to be further work on having true federation for these across-the-room data-transfer protocols in a manner that doesn’t necessitate the installation of extra application software.

For Android users, Google Nearby Share is a step in the right direction to having across-the-room data transfer happening on that platform.

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AVM moves towards value-priced Wi-Fi 6 with the FritzBox 7530 AX

Article – German Language / Deutsche Sprache

AVM FritzBox 7530 press image courtesy of AVM GmBH

AVM to launch the Wi-Fi 6 version of the FritzBox 7530 modem router in Germany as the FritzBox 7530 AX – an affordable Wi-Fi 6 option

AVM Fritz!Box 7530 AX kann vorbestellt werden | Caschy’s Blog

Das ist die neue AVM Fritz!Box 7530 AX | Caschy’s Blog

My Comments

This year is being the year where some home-network hardware manufacturers are offering Wi-Fi routers equipped with Wi-Fi 6 to the mainstream user segment. This includes some of these devices being offered either at an affordable price or as carrier-supplied equipment when you sign up to Internet service. As well some of the devices being offered are infact modem routers that have an integrated modem for the broadband service.

Now AVM has joined the party by offering the FritzBox 7530 AX home Internet gateway router initially to the German market. This unit, which will retail there from 1 September for approximately EUR€169 is based on the FritzBox 7530 modem-router family.

But its Wi-Fi access point is compliant to Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax) wireless-networking standards and uses a 2-stream approach for each waveband. This means it will offer 1200Mb/s data transfer speed on the 5GHz waveband and 600Mb/s on the legacy 2.4GHz waveband. It has a VDSL modem along with the ability to have one of the four Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports as a WAN (Internet service) port for fibre-optic connectivity.

There is VoIP capability with a built-in analogue telephony adaptor for legacy handsets along with a DECT base station for DECT cordless handsets. It supports DECT-ULE-based home automation with a primary intention to work with AVM’s DECT-ULE home-automation devices, namely their smart plugs and thermostatic radiator valves.

Of course, there will be the secure reliable home-network expectations that AVM is know for. This includes keeping these devices automatically updated with the latest firmware, something that was considered out of the ordinary for this class of device.

What is being highlighted is the idea of more companies providing Wi-Fi 6 as part of a commodity-priced home-network router, which will lead to this wireless-network technology becoming more ubiquitous.

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Alfaview brings forth a German competitor to the world of videoconferencing

Article – German Language / Deutsche Sprache

Flag of Germany

Germany now yields its own videoconferencing platform

Alfaview: Sichere Videochat-Software aus Deutschland (Alfaview : Secure Videochat Software from Germany) | Computer Bild

From the horse’s mouth

Alfaview

Home Page (English / Deutsch)

My Comments

A German company has fielded a videoconferencing packaging which is Europe’s answer to what Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams is about. This is part of a variety of efforts by European governments and businesses to create credible mainstream IT service alternatives to what the USA and China are offering while respecting European values. One example is efforts by Germany to create a public data-processing cloud that is within that country’s borders as part of leading an effort towards a Europe-wide public cloud.

Alfaview screenshot press image of Alfaview

This is in the form of Alfaview which provides a Zoom-style experience

This company, Alfatraining Bildungszentrum GmbH which is based in Karlsruhe, Baden-Württenburg, Germany, has released the Alfaview video-conferencing platform. Here, this platform places privacy and European sovereignty first in the way it is engineered.

The Alfaview platform’s servers are based in Germany and the company heavily underscores the spirit of European values especially with the GDPR directive. Videoconferencing data is encrypted using TLS/AES256 protocols during conversations. But they can allow the use of non-German services as long as they are in the EU, again underscoring European values. There will also be the ability for people to join the platform from all over the world, thus avoiding a problem with European technologies and services where they have limited useability from areas beyond Europe.

As well, it answers the weaknesses that are associated with the videoconferencing establishment when it comes to offering this kind of service for consumers and small businesses. This encompasses Zoom not being all that secure, Microsoft not maintaining Skype and focusing the Teams videoconferencing package just for big business. As well, Facebook who has come on the bandwagon with Messenger Rooms is not all that respected when it comes to security and privacy.

Alfaview runs natively on Windows, MacOS, Linux (Debian package), iOS and will soon be ported for Android. But they could simply reuse the Linux package as a code base for reaching out to ChromeOS and Android platforms. As well, I am not sure if the iOS version is optimised for the iPads which is something I consider of importance for mobile platforms that have tablet devices because these devices have a strong appeal to multi-party video conferences.

There is a free package for individuals and families to use which provides for one room that has 50 participants. As well, Alfaview has a Free Plus package pitched towards the education and non-profit sector. Here, this one has most of the features that the corporate package has like 40 rooms per account with 50 participants. There is also the ability to run 10 concurrent breakout groups per room.

This is in conjunction to various paid plans for ordinary businesses to buy in to for their videoconferencing needs. Alfaview even provides the ability to offer the software in a “white-label” form for companies to brand themselves.

But what I see of the Alfaview approach is that the Europeans are offering a Zoom-style service respecting their values and competing with what the Silicon Valley establishment are offering.

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Why use headphones during that Zoom or Skype video conference?

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Headphones and earphones can improve the sound quality during that Zoom video call

Increasingly most of you are taking part in a multi-party videoconference using Zoom, Skype or similar platforms as part of working or learning from home or keeping in the loop with distant relatives and friends. This has been driven by necessity due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague and the requirement to stay home to limit the spread of this bug.

But you may find that your correspondents’ audio has that unnecessary echo or reverberation that can make the videocall sound fatiguing and awful. The excessive noise from the reverberation or echo may cause you also to speak louder as a means of dealing with a poor signal-to-noise ratio. As well it can also make a participant harder to understand especially if they have a strong accent that doesn’t cope well with poor signal quality.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

… no matter the kind of headset you use like this JBL Bluetooth headset

This is caused due to latency imposed by the different home-network and Internet connections each party uses and the fact that the sound and vision are being sent around as data packets. As well, most of the parties in the videoconference will typically be using a microphone and set of speakers integrated in or connected to the device for the sound.

Here, the reverberation or echo is heard due to your voice coming out of the participants’ devices’ speakers at a later time thanks to the videoconference setup with its limitations. It can also be magnified if someone is using a speaker setup that is very loud like most desktop speakers or a hi-fi system used as audio output for your computer.

By using headphones during that video conference if you are the only person calling in to the videoconference from your endpoint, you are effectively minimising the echo and reverberation. This is because when a person uses headphones for the videocall, the sound from the other parties is being “funneled” through the headphones exclusively to the device’s user, not likely to be picked up by their device’s microphone.

You will also find that you can hear your participants more easily when you use headphones. This is due to the headphone’s speakers located very close to your ear therefore leading to very minimal audio leakage that can cause further reverberation or echo. Those of you who use active-noise-cancelling headphones may also be at an advantage due to reducing fan or air-conditioning hum interfering with what your callers are saying, allowing you to concentrate better.

Here, any headphones or headset would do, whether they be in-ear, on-ear or over-ear types; or whether they are a wired or wireless setup. For example, if you are using a smartphone or tablet and you have its supplied in-ear wired headset, you can get by with it. Or a pair of good Bluetooth headphones may even do the job better.

This won’t be of use for a group situation where many people like a family or household are joining the videocall from the one device at the one location. It is because they want to talk to the rest of the videoconference as if they are one person. This situation would require the use of the device’s loudspeakers and microphone to be of value.

When you alone are participating in that multi-party videocall and you want to get the best out of it, your headphones may serve you better through that call.

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Do I see regular computing target i86 and ARM microarchitectures?

Lenovo Yoga 5G convertible notebook press image courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo Flex 5G / Yoga 5G convertible notebook which runs Windows on Qualcomm ARM silicon – the first laptop computer to have 5G mobile broadband on board

Increasingly, regular computers are moving towards the idea of having processor power based around either classic Intel (i86/i64) or ARM RISC microarchitectures. This is being driven by the idea of portable computers heading towards the latter microarchitecture as a power-efficiency measure with this concept driven by its success with smartphones and tablets.

It is undertaking a different approach to designing silicon, especially RISC-based silicon, where different entities are involved in design and manufacturing. Previously, Motorola was taking the same approach as Intel and other silicon vendors to designing and manufacturing their desktop-computing CPUs and graphics infrastructure. Now ARM have taken the approach of designing the microarchitecture themselves and other entities like Samsung and Qualcomm designing and fabricating the exact silicon for their devices.

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

Apple to move the Macintosh platform to their own ARM RISC silicon

A key driver of this is Microsoft with their Always Connected PC initiative which uses Qualcomm ARM silicon similar to what is used in a smartphone or tablet. This is to have the computer able to work on basic productivity tasks for a whole day without needing to be on AC power. Then Apple intended to pull away from Intel and use their own ARM-based silicon for their Macintosh regular computers, a symptom of them going back to the platform’s RISC roots but not in a monolithic manner.

As well, the Linux community have established Linux-based operating systems on ARM microarchitectore. This has led to Google running Android on ARM-based mobile and set-top devices and offering a Chromebook that uses ARM silicon; along with Apple implementing it in their operating systems. Not to mention the many NAS devices and other home-network hardware that implement ARM silicon.

Initially the RISC-based computing approach was about more sophisticated use cases like multimedia or “workstation-class” computing compared to basic word-processing and allied computing tasks. Think of the early Apple Macintosh computers, the Commodore Amiga with its many “demos” and games, or the RISC/UNIX workstations like the Sun SPARCStation that existed in the late 80s and early 90s. Now it is about power and thermal efficiency for a wide range of computing tasks, especially where portable or low-profile devices are concerned.

Software development

Already mobile and set-top devices use ARM silicon

I will see an expectation for computer operating systems and application software to be written and compiled for both classic Intel i86 and ARM RISC microarchitectures.  This will require software development tools to support compiling and debugging on both platforms and, perhaps, microarchitecture-agnostic application-programming approaches.  It is also driven by the use of ARM RISC microarchitecture on mobile and set-top/connected-TV computing environments with a desire to allow software developers to have software that is useable across all computing environments.

WD MyCloud EX4100 NAS press image courtesy of Western Digital

.. as do a significant number of NAS units like this WD MyCloud EX4100 NAS

Some software developers, usually small-time or bespoke-solution developers, will end up using “managed” software development environments like Microsoft’s .NET Framework or Java. These will allow the programmer to turn out a machine-executable file that is dependent on pre-installed run-time elements for it to run. These run-time elements will be installed in a manner that is specific to the host computer’s microarchitecture and make use of the host computer’s needs and capabilities. These environments may allow the software developer to “write once run anywhere” without knowing if the computer  the software is to run on uses an i86 or ARM microarchitecture.

There may also be an approach towards “one-machine two instruction-sets” software development environments to facilitate this kind of development where the goal is to simply turn out a fully-compiled executable file for both instruction sets.

It could be in an accepted form like run-time emulation or machine-code translation as what is used to allow MacOS or Windows to run extant software written for different microarchitectures. Or one may have to look at what went on with some early computer platforms like the Apple II where the use of a user-installable co-processor card with the required CPU would allow the computer to run software for another microarchitecture and platform.

Computer Hardware Vendors

For computer hardware vendors, there will be an expectation towards positioning ARM-based silicon towards high-performance power-efficient computing. This may be about highly-capable laptops that can do a wide range of computing tasks without running out of battery power too soon. Or “all-in-one” and low-profile desktop computers will gain increased legitimacy when it comes to high-performance computing while maintaining the svelte looks.

Personally, if ARM-based computing was to gain significant traction, it may have to be about Microsoft encouraging silicon vendors other than Qualcomm to offer ARM-based CPUs and graphics processors fit for “regular” computers. As well, Microsoft and the Linux community may have to look towards legitimising “performance-class” computing tasks like “core” gaming and workstation-class computing on that microarchitecture.

There may be the idea of using 64-bit i86 microarchitecture as a solution for focused high-performance work. This may be due to a large amount of high-performance software code written to run with the classic Intel and AMD silicon. It will most likely exist until a significant amount of high-performance software is written to run natively with ARM silicon.

Conclusion

Thanks to Apple and Microsoft heading towards ARM RISC microarchitecture, the computer hardware and software community will have to look at working with two different microarchitectures especially when it comes to regular computers.

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A digital watermark to identify the authenticity of news photos

Articles

ABC News 24 coronavirus coverage

The news services that appear on the “screen of respect” that is main TV screen like the ABC are often seen as being “of respect” and all the screen text is part of their identity

TNI steps up fight against disinformation  | Advanced Television

News outlets will digitally watermark content to limit misinformation | Engadget

News Organizations Will Start Using Digital Watermarks To Combat Fake News |Ubergizmo

My Comments

The Trusted New Initiative are a recently formed group of global news and tech organisations, mostly household names in these fields, who are working together to stop the spread of disinformation where it poses a risk of real-world harm. It also includes flagging misinformation that undermines trust the the TNI’s partner news providers like the BBC. Here, the online platforms can review the content that comes in, perhaps red-flagging questionable content, and newsrooms avoid blindly republishing it.

ABC News website

.. as well as their online presence – they will benefit from having their imagery authenticated by a TNI watermark

One of their efforts is to agree on and establish an early-warning system to combat the spread of fake news and disinformation. It is being established in the months leading up to the polling day for the US Presidential Election 2020 and is flagging disinformation were there is an immediate threat to life or election integrity.

It is based on efforts to tackle disinformation associated with the 2019 UK general election, the Taiwan 2020 general election, and the COVID-19 coronavirus plague.

Another tactic is Project Origin, which this article is primarily about.

An issue often associated with fake news and disinformation is the use of imagery and graphics to make the news look credible and from a trusted source.

Typically this involves altered or synthesised images and vision that is overlaid with the logos and other trade dress associated with BBC, CNN or another newsroom of respect. This conveys to people who view this online or on TV that the news is for real and is from a respected source.

Project Origin is about creating a watermark for imagery and vision that comes from a particular authentic content creator. This will degrade whenever the content is manipulated. It will be based around open standards overseen by TNI that relate to authenticating visual content thus avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to developing any software for this to work.

One question I would have is whether it is only readable by computer equipment or if there is a human-visible element like the so-called logo “bug” that appears in the corner of video content you see on TV. If this is machine-readable only, will there be the ability for a news publisher or broadcaster to overlay a graphic or message that states the authenticity at the point of publication. Similarly, would a Web browser or native client for an online service have extra logic to indicate the authenticity of an image or video footage.

I would also like to see the ability to indicate the date of the actual image or footage being part of the watermark. This is because some fake news tends to be corroborated with older lookalike imagery like crowd footage from a similar but prior event to convince the viewer. Some of us may also look at the idea of embedding the actual or approximate location of the image or footage in the watermark.

There is also the issue of newsrooms importing images and footage from other sources whose equipment they don’t have control over. For example, an increasing amount of amateur and videosurveillance imagery is used in the news usually because the amateur photographer or the videosurveillance setup has the “first images” of the news event. Then there is reliance on stock-image libraries and image archives for extra or historical footage; along with newsrooms and news / PR agencies sharing imagery with each other. Let’s not forget media companies who engage “stringers” (freelance photographers and videographers) who supply images and vision taken with their own equipment.

The question with all this, especially with amateur / videosurveillance / stringer footage taken with equipment that media organisations don’t have control over is how such imagery can be authenticated by a newsroom. This is more so where the image just came off a source like someone’s smartphone or the DVR equipment within a premises’ security room. There is also the factor that one source could tender the same imagery to multiple media outlets, whether through a media-relations team or simply offering it around.

At least Project Origin will be useful as a method to allow the audience to know the authenticity and provenance of imagery that is purported to corroborate a newsworthy event.

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Desktop or laptop computing in the COVID-19 era

Gaming rig

Whether to buy a desktop computer like these gaming rigs…

Thanks to the COVID-19 plague, we are being encouraged if not required by law to stay at home to limit the spread of this disease.

This has led to us using regular desktop and laptop computers that run Windows, MacOS or desktop Linux at home more frequently for work, education, communications and pleasure. Think of those many Zoom or Skype videoconferences you have been making very lately. This may even cause some of us to purchase a new desktop or laptop computer or upgrade an existing one that is long in the tooth.

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

or a low-profile NUC computer like this Intel Skull Canyon…

The question that will come about more frequently in this era is whether we should buy desktop computers or laptop computers. The desktop computers are appearing in newer and different form factors like “all-in-one” computers where the computing power is part of the display; or three-piece systems that now use a low-profile system unit like the Intel “NUC” boxes. This is while the highly-portable laptop computers appear in the traditional “clamshell” form or a 2-in-1 convertible that folds over to become a tablet.

Lenovo IdeaCentre 510 all-in-one press picture courtesy of Lenovo

or something like the Lenovo IdeaCentre 510 all-in-one or Apple iMac …

There is also the fact that high-performance computers like gaming rigs or workstations are appearing in low-profile or “all-in-one” desktop form, or in laptop form. This is so you can think of having higher performance computing in an aesthetically-pleasing or portable form factor.

As far as a regular computer’s durability and longevity is concerned, it is becoming more plausible for these systems to last for many years compared to a smartphone or mobile-platform tablet. This is furthered by some people gaining more mileage from these computers by doing things like “upsizing” their computer’s RAM memory or storage to suit newer expectations. Or they end up using external or portable USB hard disks and SSDs or network-attached storage systems as a data-offload solution.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

or a laptop like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming high-performance laptop …

But the question that can come about is whether a desktop or a laptop is a more relevant computer purchase at this time.

It is more so as we see schools of thought develop concerning the purchase of portable computing technology like laptop computers, smartphones and tablets. Here, some of these schools of thought may downplay the need to invest heavily in such technology because it is perceived as “something to impress others with” when out and about in a similar vein to cars, bikes or fashion. This is with us spending more time cocooned within our homes thanks to this virus therefore driving a preference for us to lead a simple contemplative homespun life.

Desktop Computers

A desktop computer may be seen as being more relevant in the short term due to us not moving around. It may be more real where there is the expectation to use only one particular workspace for your computing activities and may be augmented by the fact that you use other complementary devices like mobile-platform tablets or gaming consoles for different activities away from the workspace.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

.. or a 2-in-1 like this Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 convertible

Some users who chase high performance at all costs may simply state that a desktop computer, preferably the traditional “tower-style” unit, is the way to go. It is due to a desktop form-factor offering increased performance at a cheaper cost or being easily upgradeable or customisable. This would be preferred by the core gamers who value their custom-built gaming rigs. As well, those of us who are willing to throw down money on the latest CPU and graphics-infrastructure silicon as soon as Intel, AMD or NVIDIA release it would go for the traditional easy-to-upgrade desktop computer.

Laptop and Notebook Computers

Or a laptop or notebook computer, including a 2-in-1 convertible, can be about a long-term view of us coming out of the crisis and being able to get out and about. Here it may be about travelling again or working away from home whether that be your workplace’s office or a “secondary office” that is your favourite cafe.

In the short term, it can also be about the idea of using a highly-portable computer that can be taken around the house or stored away quickly when not in use. This can be driven by seasonal wishes like wanting to use your computer by the fire during winter or outside on the balcony or in the garden during summer.

Let’s not forget that a small home may be about not having a dedicated desk for your workspace and you have to use a dining table or coffee table for that purpose. Similarly you may use a desk types that can be closed up when not in use like a roll-top or slant-top desk or has significant storage space and you could store your laptop computer there.

Or you could take that laptop in to a lounge area to have that casual videoconference between family and friends using something like Zoom or Skype, perhaps hooking it up to the large TV for that purpose.

The transportability issue weighs more in the laptop’s favour because you carrywith the screen, keyboard and pointing device. one piece of equipment that is essentially your useable computer system

A recent trend that has affected laptop-computer use is to create a primary workspace that is equipped with a large display, a full-size keyboard and mouse along with other peripherals. These would be connected to your laptop whether directly or through a USB-connected dock (expansion module). You may follow this path when you want to work in a particular primary location but be flexible to move around for your regular-computing needs.

Conclusion

When it comes to choosing that next regular computer during this time, it is important to think of what form-factor really suits your needs both in the short term and the long term. This includes whether you see the possibility of frequently evolving your computer system to suit newer needs or whether you value portability or affordable performance.

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Lenovo to offer a ThinkPad laptop that directly competes with the Dell XPS 13

Article

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

Lenovo is tentatively fielding a computer that rivals the Dell XPS 13 ultraportable

Lenovo ThinkPad Nano leak reveals fascinating features — XPS 13 could be in trouble | Laptop Mag

My Comments

The Dell XPS 13 series of Intel-powered clamshell laptops has been seen by the computer press as what an ultraportable laptop should be about such as durability and value-for-money. I even gave some coverage about this unit on HomeNetworking01.info and reviewed some of these laptops including a 2-in-1 variant.

Now Lenovo is answering Dell by offering a similarly-sized ThinkPad laptop, known as the ThinkPad X1 Nano thanks to leaked information that surfaced on the Internet. Like other ThinkPad laptops, this is finished in the black conservative “IBM” look rather than the silver look associated with the Apple MacBook family and the Dell XPS 13.

  1. Here, this will come with at least 16Gb RAM and implement Intel’s newer Tiger Lake (11th generation) Core CPUs which I suspect will be the i5 or i7 types. It will have a 16:10 display with at least 2K resolution along with 5G mobile broadband and the newer Thunderbolt 4 over USB-C sockets offering compatibility with USB 4 and Thunderbolt 3. The expected battery runtime for its 48Wh battery is to be around 17 hours.

The question here is whether Lenovo will still focus the computer towards the “enterprise” segment of the market with a preference to supply all of the security and manageability requirements desired of by Corporate America’s IT teams. Or will there be a desire to make this equally available to personal and small business users who would like to see an alternative to the Dell XPS 13.

Will there also be a desire by Lenovo to rival Dell with the configurations offered at the different price points for both the ultraportables especially when pitching them at regular users? Will there also be a rivalry between those companies to use the latest silicon to design and offer the best value-priced ultraportable through subsequent model generations?

If this is for real, it could open up a strong rivalry when it comes to the market for 13” ultraportable laptop computers. But I hope that the competition is about innovation in this product class with a goal for value for money centred around good-quality equipment rather than a “race to the bottom” where customers are sold substandard products at a cheap price.

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