Category: IP-based telecommunications

Zoom even makes it easier to deal with Zoombombing incidents

Article

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to give more control to meeting hosts

How to stop a Zoombombing | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Zoom

3 New Ways We’re Combatting Meeting Disruptions (Blog Post)

My Comments

During the COVID-19 pandemic causing us to work or study from home, we have been seeing increased use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom.

It has led to the convergence of business and personal use of popular multiparty videoconferencing platforms; be it business platforms of the Zoom and Microsoft Teams ilk serving personal, social and community needs; or personal platforms like Skype and WhatsApp being used for business use. This is more so with small businesses, community organisations and the like who don’t have their own IT team to manage this software. The software developers even support this convergence through adding “personal and social” features to business users that also gain free social-user tiers or adding business features to personal platforms.

But this has brought along its fair share of miscreants. A key example of this is “Zoombombing” where these miscreants join a Zoom meeting in order to disrupt it. This manifests in disruptive comments being put in to the meeting or at worst all sorts of filth unfit for the office or family home appearing on our screens. Infact there have been a significant number of high-profile Zoom virtual events disrupted that way and a significant number of governments have encompassed this phenomenon as part of raising questions about videoconferencing platform security.

This has been facilitated by Zoom and similar business videoconferencing platforms allowing people to join a videoconference by clicking on a meeting-specific URL This is compared to Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and similar personal videoconferencing platforms operating on an in-platform invitation protocol when joining these meetings.

But these Weblinks bave been posted on the Social Web for every man and his dog to see. There have been some online forums that have been hurriedly set up for people to solicit others to disrupt online meetings.

Zoom recently took action by requiring the use of meeting passwords and waiting-room setups and operating with that by default. As well meeting hosts and participants have been encourage not to place meeting URLs and passwords on any part of the Web open to the public. Rather they are to send the link via email or instant messaging. As well, they are encouraged to send the password under separate cover.

They also have the ability to lock the meeting so no further attendees can come in, which is good if the meeting is based around known attendees. There is also the ability for the host to control resource-sharing and remote-control functionality that Zoom offers. Let’s not forget that they also added meeting-wide end-to-end encryption for increasingly-secure meetings.

But Zoom has taken further action by offering meeting hosts more tools to control their meeting, a feature available to all client software and to all user classes whether free or paid.

There is the ability for the Zoom meeting host to pause the meeting. Once this is invoked, no activity can take place during the meeting including in any breakout rooms that the meeting has spawned. They also have the ability to report the meeting to Zoom’s platform=wide security team and to selectively enable each meeting feature. They can also report users to Zoom’s platform security team, which allows them to file the report and give the disruptive user the royal order of the boot from that meeting.

Another feature that has been introduced thanks to the “join by URL” method that Zoom supports is for meeting hosts to be alerted if their meeting is at risk of disruption. Zoom facilitates this using a Webcrawler that hunts for meeting URLs on the public Web and alerts the meeting host if their meeting’s URL is posted there such as being on the Social Web. Here, they are given the opportunity to change the URL to deflect any potential Zoombomb attempts.

But this year has become a key year as far as multiparty videoconferencing is concerned due to our reliance on it. Here, it may be about seeing less differentiation between business-use and personal-use platforms or the definition of a basic feature set that these videoconferencing platforms are meant to have with secure private operation being part of that definition.

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Zoom to introduce end-to-end encryption

Articles

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to provide end-to-end encryption for those video conferences

Zoom end-to-end encryption is finally rolling out next week | Android Authority

Zoom to preview free end-to-end encryption for meetings | ITNews

Zoom Is Adding End-To-End Encryption to Your Endless Meetings | Gizmodo

Zoom finally rolls out end-to-end encryption, but you have to enable it | Mashable

From the horse’s mouth

Zoom

Zoom Rolling Out End-to-End Encryption Offering (Blog Post)

My Comments

Since the COVID-19 coronavirus plague had us housebound even for work or school, we have ended up using videoconferencing platforms more frequently for work, school and social life. The most popular of these platforms ended up being Zoom which effectively became a generic trademark for multiparty videoconferencing.

But the computer press and consumer-privacy regulators identified that most of these videoconferencing platforms had security and user-privacy / company-confidentiality weaknesses. One of these that has beset Zoom was the lack of end-to-end encryption for multiparty videocalls. This ended up being a key issue due to most of us ending using these platforms more frequently and the increased use of Zoom and similar platforms for medical and legal telexonsultations.

Now Zoom, as part of its recent Zoomtopia feature-launch multiparty videoconference, has launched a number of new features for their platform. These include virtual participant layouts similar to what Microsoft Teams is offering.

But the important one here is to facilitate end-to-end encryption during multiparty videoconferences. This will be available across all of Zoom’s user base, whether free or paid. For the first 30 days from next week, it will be a technical preview so they can know of any bugs in the system.

The end-to-end encryption is based around the meeting host rather than Zoom generating the keypairs for the encryption protocol, which would occur as a videoconference is started and as users come on board. It is a feature that Zoom end-users would need to enable at account level and also activate for each meeting they wish to keep secure. That is different from WhatsApp where end-to-end encryption occurs by default and in a hands-off manner.

At the moment, updated native Zoom clients will support the end-to-end encryption – you won’t have support for it on Zoom Web experiences or third-party devices and services that work with Zoom like the smart displays or Facebook’s Portal TV videophone. This situation will be revised as Zoom releases newer APIs and software that answers thsi need.

If a meeting is operating with end-to-end encryption, there will be a green shield with a lock symbol in the upper left corner to indicate that this is the case. They can click on the icon to bring up a verification code and have that confirmed by the meeting host reading it out loud.

Free users will be required to use SMS-based verification when they set up their account for end-to-end encryption. This is a similar user experience to what a lot of online services are doing where there is a mobile phone number as a second factor of authenticity.

At least Zoom is taking steps towards making its multiparty videoconference platform more safe and secure for everyone.

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Facebook Portal TV converts your TV in to a group Zoom videophone

Facebook Portal TV group videophone press picture courtesy of Facebook

Facebook Portal TV

Article

You can now watch Netflix on your Facebook Portal TV | CNet

Netflix Comes to Facebook’s Portal TV Video Device, Along With Zoom | Variety

From the horse’s mouth

Facebook

Bringing Netflix, Zoom, and More Features to Portal (Blog Post)

Bringing Netflix, Zoom and More Features to Portal (Press Release)

Portal TV (Product Page with opportunity to order)

My Comments

Facebook’s Portal TV is a set-top box with built-in Webcam that is part of Facebook’s Portal smart-display platform. The platform has shown an increase in takeup thanks to us staying home due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague.

This device is acquiring access to more of the video-on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV and Showtime. As well, newer Facebook Portal TV devices will come with remote controls that have one-touch access to the video-on-demand services. You may find that if you even bought a replacement remote control for your Portal TV device, it will come with these extra buttons. I see the Facebook Portal TV as an attempt for another of the Silicon Valley big names to have a set-top device based around their core online-services platform and offering the video content services that “every man and his dog” wants.

But the feature that has a strong appeal to me is the Facebook Portal TV turning your TV in to a large-screen group videophone. This initially works with Facebook’s messaging platforms – Messenger and WhatsApp and you have to bind it to your account on either of these services. You can bind the Portal TV to multiple Facebook / Messenger and WhatsApp accounts to make and take calls from these accounts. But it is being extended to Zoom along with some business-grade videoconferencing platforms, with a notable absence of Microsoft’s platforms i.e. Skype and Microsoft Teams which do have a significant user base.

Here, it will legitimise the idea of your household joining in to a long-distance videocall and being able to see the participants on the end of the line on the big screen without squinting. A classic example of this could be Thanksgiving or Christmas and you want to have your family chat with your relatives that are located a long distance away so the distant relatives can be in on the celebrations.

The Portal platform even has the camera and sound self-adjust to follow the action or to encompass more people coming in to view, This is very much a reality as more people crowd in to and join that long-distance videocall. As well, it could be seen as a direction to have video watch parties like what Sling TV is proposing come to your big-screen TV.

The Portal TV set-top box assures users of their privacy by having a hardware switch to enable and disable the camera and microphones. As well, there is a physical camera shutter so the user can mask the camera out. It is also compliant with HDMI-CEC operation thus allowing for one-touch call answering where the TV (and audio peripherals if connected) will come on and select the appropriate input when you answer a Portal videocall. For older people who would benefit from this device, this behaviour means that they only need to press one button on the Portal’s remote to answer that videocall.

What needs to happen is for Google, Amazon, Apple and others to work towards introducing group videophone devices that can work with a regular TV and use the common videoconferencing platforms. This can be through Wehcam accessories that work with existing set-top devices that they have designed and made available or newer set-top devices that have integrated Webcam functionality or support for such accessories. They would have to work with videoconferencing platforms that are popular at work and at home.

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Should videoconference platforms support multiple devices concurrently

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

The idea of a Zoome or similar platform user joining the same videoconferences frp, multiple devices could be considered in some cases

Increasing when we use a videoconferencing platform, we install the client software associated with it on all the computing devices we own. Then we log in to our account associated with that platform so we can join videoconferences from whatever device we have and suits our needs.

But most of these platforms allow a user to use one device at a time to participate in the same videoconference. Zoom extends on this by allowing concurrent use of devices of different types (smartphone, mobile-platform tablet or regular computer) by the same user account on the same conference.

But why support the concurrent use of multiple devices?

There are some use cases where multiple devices used concurrently may come in handy.

Increased user mobility

Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 - viewer arrangement at Rydges Melbourne (Locanda)

especially with tablet computers and 2-in-1s located elsewhere

One of these is to assure a high level of mobility while participating in a videoconference. This may be about moving between a smartphone that is in your hand and a tablet or laptop that is at a particular location like your office.

It can also be about joining the same videoconference from other devices that are bound to the same account. This could be about avoiding multiple people crowding around one computing device to participate in a videoconference from their location, which can lead to user discomfort or too many people appearing in one small screen in a “tile-up” view of a multiparty videoconference. Or it can be about some people participating in a videoconference from an appropriate room like a lounge area or den.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

like in a kitchen with this Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

Similarly, one or more users at the same location may want to simply participate in the videoconference in a passive way but not be in the presence of others who are actively participating in the same videoconference. This may simply be to monitor the call as it takes place without the others knowing. Or it could be to engage in another activity like preparing food in the kitchen while following the videocall.

As far as devices go, there may be the desire to use a combination of devices that have particular attributes to get the most out of the videocall. For example, it could be about spreading a large videoconference across multiple screens such as having a concurrent “tile-up” view, active speaker and supporting media across three screens.

Or a smartphone could be used for audio-only participation so you can have the comfort of a handheld device while you see the participants and are seen by them on a tablet or regular computer. As well, some users may operate two regular computers like a desktop or large laptop computer along with a secondary laptop or 2-in-1 computer.

Support for other device types by videoconferencing platforms

.. or a smart display like this Google-powered Lenovo smart display

Another key trend is for videoconferencing platforms to support devices that aren’t running desktop-platform or mobile-platform operating systems.

This is exemplified by Zoom providing support for popular smart-display platforms like Amazon Echo Show or Google Smart Display. It is although some of the voice-assistant platforms that offer smart displays do support videocall functionality on platforms own by the voice-assistant platform’s developer or one or more other companies they are partnering with.

Or Google providing streaming-vision support for a Google Meet videoconference to a large-screen TV via Chromecast. It is something that could reinvigorate videoconferencing on smart-TV / set-top box platforms, something I stand for so many people like a whole family or household can participate in a videoconference from one end. This is once factors like accessory Webcams, 10-foot “lean-back” user interfaces and the like are worked out.

It can also extend to the idea of voice-assistant platforms extending this to co-opting a smart speaker and a device equipped with a screen and camera to facilitate a videoconference.  This could be either with you hearing the videoconference via the smart speaker or the display device’s audio subsystem.

What can be done to make this secure for small accounts?

There can be security and privacy issues with this kind of setup with people away from the premises but operating the same account being able to join in a videoconference uninvited. Similarly, a lot of videoconferencing platforms who offer a service especially to consumers may prefer to offer this feature as part of their paid “business-class” service packages.

One way to make this kind of participation secure for a small account would be to use logical-network verification. This is to make sure that all devices are behind the same logical network (subnet) if there is a want for multiple devices to participate from the same account and in the same videoconference. It may not work well with devices having their own modem such as smartphones, tablets or laptops directly connected to mobile broadband or people plugging USB mobile-broadband modems in to their computers. Similarly, it may not work with public-access or guest-access networks that are properly configured to avoid devices discovering each other on the same network.

Similarly, device-level authentication, which could facilitate password-free login can also be used to authenticate the actual devices operated by an account. A business rule could exist to place a limit on the number of devices of any class but operated by the same consumer account able to concurrently join a videoconference at any one time. This could realistically be taken to five devices allowing for the fact that a couple or family may prefer to operate the same account across all the devices owned by the the members of that group, rather than have members maintain individual accounts just bound .

Conclusion

The idea of allowing concurrent multiple-device support for single accounts in a videoconference platform when it comes to videoconference participation is worth considering. This can be about increased mobility or user comfort or to cater towards the use of newer device types in the context of videoconferencing.

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Zoom now extends to popular smart-display platforms

Articles

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom video conferences will soon be able to take place on smart displays

Zoom Meetings Coming Soon to Smart Displays | Droid Life

Zoom video calls come to smart displays from Google, Amazon, and Facebook | Android Authority

Zoom expands to every major smart display as coronavirus keeps us home | CNet

From the borse’s mouth

Zoom

Zoom Expands to Smart Displays at Home (Blog Post)

My Comments

Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

.. like the Amazon Echo Show

The COVID-19 coronavirus plague is increasing our use of Zoom as a multiparty videoconferencing platform especially for social and community purposes. This is thanks to measures in place to encourage social distancing and reduce travel to curb the spread of this virus. Zoom’s trademark for this service even ended up as a generic trademark word for a any multiparty videoconference just like one often referred to a common ballpoint pen as a biro.

But Zoom is primarily offered on most regular-computer and mobile-device platforms like Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android. This is because these devices have integrated or accessory Webcams supported by their operating system and can take on software from third-party developers.

JBL Link VIew Press image courtesy of Harman International

… or Google-Assistant devices like this JBL Link View smart display

Recently Zoom tried out the idea of a dedicated videoconferencing appliance in the form of a 27” group videophone that can also be a display screen for a computer, TV set-top box or similar video peripheral. It is similar to previous efforts by smart-TV and video-peripheral vendors to provide Skype support if the device is equipped with an expensive accessory Webcam offered by the manufacturer.

But Zoom took a better step to partner with Google, Amazon and Facebook to integrate their platform in to the Amazon Echo Show smart displays, Facebook Portal smart display and smart displays running the Google Assistant (Home) platform. Here, these devices have the hardware that is needed to make or take videocalls i.e. a camera, microphone, screen and speakers. As well, the three vendors are more supportive of programming these devices to take on additional functionality.

These devices have some sort of videophone functionality built in to them through support for some other videoconference platforms: Skype and Amazon’s IP-telephony platform in the case of Amazon’s Echo Show devices; Google’s Duo and Meet in the case of Google-powered devices; and Facebook Messenger with its Rooms function as well as GoToMeeting, BlueJeans and WebEx in the case of the Facebook Portal. The addition of Zoom doesn’t displace the platform vendor’s own products or products the vendor has already licensed from other partners. As well, it recognises that different people and organisations tend to prefer working with particular videoconference platforms over others.

The Zoom software is engineered to take advantage of what the platforms offer including tying in with the platform’s native calendar function if you have linked your calendar to it, or joining a videoconference at your voice command. In the case of the Facebook device, you can tap the screen to join a meeting. All classes of Zoom account can be bound to these devices so you can use the account paid for by your work or school or a personal one you set up for free for social use.

This function will start to appear on most Facebook Portal devices in September then roll out across all the other smart-display platforms over October and November.

But why allow Zoom and similar videoconferences on a smart display or similar appliance? One reason is to have one device dedicated to the videoconference while you use another device to take notes or read supporting material for business, education or religion use cases. It may also be about the desire for an “appliance-simple” approach for making and taking videocalls, something that may be desired for older users who may find the process of creating or joining a multiparty videoconference daunting. As well, there is the encouragement to use an endpoint device that fits in with where it will be used such as the small smart displays that are typically installed in a kitchen or similar room.

What need to eventually happen is for Zoom and similar multiparty videoconferencing platforms to be part of connected-TV / set-top box platforms typically used for viewing Netflix or similar video-on-demand services on the big-screen TV. This is as long as the TV or set-top box can work with an accessory Webcam. As well, the device has to support multiple videoconferencing platforms, especially the common ones; while each platform has to offer a user interface suitable for 10-foot “lean-back” operation.

Here, such implementations, when done right, can be about the use of a big-screen TV as a group videophone for situations where the whole household participates in a videoconference like the many Zoom-based family or community video “catch-ups”.

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WhatsApp to allow users to search the Web regarding content in their messages

WhatsApp Search The Web infographic courtesy of WhatsApp

WhatsApp to allow you to search the Web for text related to viral messages posted on that instant messaging app

Article

WhatsApp Pilots ‘Search the Web’ Tool for Fact-Checking Forwarded Messages | Gizmodo Australia

From the horse’s mouth

WhatsApp

Search The Web (blog post)

My Comments

WhatsApp is taking action to highlight the fact that fake news and disinformation don’t just get passed through the Social Web. Here, they are highlighting the use of instant messaging and, to some extent, email as a vector for this kind of traffic which has been as old as the World Wide Web.

They have improved on their previous efforts regarding this kind of traffic initially by using a “double-arrow” icon on the left of messages that have been forwarded five or more times.

But now they are trialling an option to allow users to Google the contents of a forwarded message to check their veracity. One of the ways to check a news item’s veracity is whether one or more news publishers or broadcasters that you trust are covering this story and what kind of light they are shining on it.

Here, the function manifests as a magnifying-glass icon that conditionally appears near forwarded messages. If you click or tap on this icon, you start a browser session that shows the results of a pre-constructed Google-search Weblink created by WhatsApp. It avoids the need to copy then paste the contents of a forwarded message from WhatsApp to your favourite browser running your favourite search engine or to the Google app’s search box. This is something that can be very difficult with mobile devices.

But does this function break end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp implements for the conversations? No, because it works on the cleartext that you see on your screen and is simply creating the specially-crafted Google-search Weblink that is passed to whatever software handles Weblinks by default.

An initial pilot run is being made available in Italy, Brazil, Ireland (Eire), UK, Mexico, Spain and the USA. It will be part of the iOS and Android native clients and the messaging service’s Web client.

WhatsApp could evolve this function further by allowing the user to use different search engines like Bing or DuckDuckGo. But they would have to know of any platform-specific syntax requirements for each of these platforms and it may be a feature that would have to be rolled out in a piecemeal fashion.

They could offer the “search the Web” function as something that can be done for any message, rather than only for forwarded messages. I see it as being relevant for people who use the group-chatting functionality that WhatsApp offers because people can use a group chat as a place to post that rant that has a link to a Web resource of question. Or you may have a relative or friend who simply posts questionable information as part of their conversation with you.

At least WhatsApp are adding features to their chat platform’s client software to make it easer to put the brakes on disinformation spreading through it. This could he something that could be investigated by other instant-messaging platforms including SMS/MMS text clients.

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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 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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Make VPN, VLAN and VoIP applications easy to set up in your network

Draytek Vigor 2860N VDSL2 business VPN-endpoint router press image courtesy of Draytek UK

Routers like the Draytek Vigor 2600N which support VPN endpoint and IP-PBX functionality could benefit from simplified configuration processes for these functions

Increasingly, the virtual private network, virtual local-area network and IP-based voice and video telephony setups are becoming more common as part of ordinary computing.

The VPN is being seen as a tool to protect our personal privacy or to avoid content-blocking regimes imposed by nations or other entities. Some people even use this as a way to gain access to video content available in other territories that wouldn’t be normally available in their home territory. But VPNs are also seen by business users and advanced computer users as a way to achieve a tie-line between two or more networks.

The VLAN is becoming of interest to householders as they sign up to multiple-play Internet services with at least TV, telephony and Internet service. Some of the telcos and ISPs are using the VLAN as a way to assure end-users of high quality-of-service for voice or video-based calls and TV content made available through these services.

AVM FRITZ!Box 3490 - Press photo courtesy AVM

… as could the AVM Fritz!Box routers with DECT base station functionality

It may also have some appeal with some multiple-premises developments as a tool to provide the premises occupiers access to development-wide network resources through the occupiers’ own networks. It will also appeal to public-access-network applications which share the same physical infrastructure as private networks such as FON-type community networks including what Telstra and BT are running.

VoIP and similar IP-based telecommunications technologies will become very common for home and small-business applications. This is driven by incumbent and competing telecommunications providers moving towards IP-based setups thanks to factors like IP-driven infrastructure or a very low cost-of-entry. It also includes the desire to integrate entryphone systems that are part of multi-premises buildings in to IP-based telecommunications setups including the voice-driven home assistants or IP-PBX business-telephony setups.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

A device like the Amazon Echo could be made in to a VoIP telephone through an easy-to-configure Alexa Skill

In the same context, an operating-system or other software developer may want to design a “softphone” for IP-based telephony in order to have it run on a common computing platform.

What is frustrating these technologies?

One key point that makes these technologies awkward to implement is the configuration interface associated with the various devices that benefit from these technologies like VPN endpoint routers or IP-based telephony equipment. The same situation also applies if you intend to implement the setup with multiple devices especially where different platforms or user interfaces are involved.

This kind of configuration also increases the chance of user error taking place during the process which then leads to the setup failing with the user wasting time on troubleshooting procedures to get it to work. It also makes the setup process very daunting for people who don’t have much in the way of IT skills.

For example, you have to complete many steps to enrol the typical VPN endpoint router with a consumer-facing privacy-focused VPN in order to assure network-wide access to these VPNs. This involves transcribing configuration details for one of these VPNs to the router’s Web-based management interface. The same thing also applies if you want to create a VPN-based data tie-line between networks installed at two different premises.

Similarly, IP-based telephony is very difficult to configure with customers opting for pre-configured IP telephone equipment. Then it frustrates the idea of allowing a customer to purchase equipment or software from different resellers thanks to the difficult configuration process. Even small businesses face this same difficult whether it is to add, move or remove extensions, create inter-premises tie-lines or add extra trunk lines to increase call capacity or provide “local-number” access.

This limits various forms of innovation in this space such as integrating a building’s entryphone system into one’s own telephone setup or allowing Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Viber to permit a business to have a virtual telephone link to their IP-telephony platforms.

It also limits the wide availability to consumers and small businesses of “open” network hardware that can answer these functions. This is more so with VPN-endpoint routers or routers that have IP-based telecommunications functionality which would benefit from this kind of simplified configuration process.

What can be done?

A core requirement to enable simplified provisioning of these technologies is to make use of an XML-based standard configuration file that contains all of the necessary configuration information.

It can be transferred through a download from a known URL link or a file that is uploaded from your computing device’s local file system. The latter approach can also apply to using removable storage to transfer the file between devices if they have an SD-card slot or USB port.

Where security is important or the application depends on encryption for its operation, the necessary binary public-key files and certificates could be in a standard form with the ability to have them available through a URL link or local file transfer. It also extends to using technologies based around these public keys to protect and authenticate the configuration data in transit or apply a digital signature or watermark on the configuration files to assert their provenance.

I would also see as being important that this XML-based configuration file approach work with polished provisioning interfaces. These graphically-rich user interfaces, typically associated with consumer-facing service providers, implement subscription and provisioning through the one workflow and are designed to he user-friendly. It also applies to achieving a “plug-and-play” onboarding routine for new devices where there is a requirement for very little user interaction during the configuration and provisioning phase.

This can be facilitated through the use of device-discovery and management protocols like UPnP or WSD with the ability to facilitate the upload of configuration files to the correct devices. Or it could allow the creation and storage of the necessary XML files on the user’s computer’s local storage for the user to upload to the devices they want to configure.

Another factor is to identify how a device should react under certain situations like a VPN endpoint router being configured for two or more VPNs that are expected to run concurrently. It also includes allowing a device to support special functions, something common in the IP-based telecommunications space where it is desirable to map particular buttons, keypad shortcodes or voice commands to dial particular numbers or activate particular functions like door-release or emergency hotline access.

Similarly, the use of “friendly” naming as part of the setup process for VLANs, VPNs and devices or lines in an IP-telephony system could make the setup and configuration easier. This is important when it comes to revising a configuration to suit newer needs or simply understanding the setup you are implementing.

Conclusion

Using XML-based standard provisioning files and common data-transfer procedures for setup of VLAN, VPN and IP-based-telecommunications setups can allow for a simplified setup and onboarding experience. It can also allow users to easily maintain their setups such as to bring new equipment on board or factor in changes to their service.

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British users can benefit from Google Home Voice Calling

Article

Google Home voice calling now works in the UK

Google brings voice calling to Home speakers in the UK | Engadget

My Comments

Last August, Google launched in to the USA and Canada a VoIP-based voice calling feature for their Home smart-speaker platform. This service allowed you to use your voice to call landline and mobile telephones in the USA and Canada and speak to these callers through your Home smart speaker. A limitation that it had was that it was only for outgoing calls and your caller couldn’t identify you through the Caller-ID framework.

It was an attempt by Google to answer Amazon’s “in-network” calling and messaging service that they were delivering to the Alexa platform. Subsequently Amazon answered Google by providing a similar service with an analogue telephony adaptor that connects to your phone line to provide the full gamut of phone functionality through your Echo speakers.

UK FlagNow Google have taken this feature and launched it in the UK so that people who live there have the ability to call landline and mobile numbers based in that territory. How I see this is Google being the first off the mark to offer a VoIP telephony service based around their voice-driven home assistant within the UK.

There, the idea of a household landline telephone is still being kept alive thanks to most of the popular telcos and ISPs running desirable multiple-play TV/telephony/Internet packages at very attractive prices, a similar practice being offered in some European countries especially France. As w

They are also launching this feature in time for Mother’s Day (Mothering Sunday) which is celebrated in March in the UK. Here, they are running a spot special on their coral-coloured Google Home Mini speaker by dropping the price by GBP£10 to GBP£39 until March 12. This is with it being available through most of the UK’s main electrical-store chains like Currys PC World or John Lewis.

The UK as being the first country beyond the USA and Canada to head towards a VoIP platform based around a voice-driven home assistant could be the first “stage” in a race between Google and Amazon to push this feature across the world.

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