Always On Microphones are Always On

Reader Steve T. sent me a link to story confirming my decision to not own smart speakers. A woman going by the name on TikTok (I guess this is the new hip surveillance social media network) sent a request to Amazon for all of the data the company had on her. The result? Exactly what you would expect (I sanitize the TikTok link embedded in the source so I’ll apologize here if it doesn’t work):

TikToker explained: “I requested all the data Amazon has on me and here’s what I found.”

She revealed that she has three Amazon smart speakers.

Two are Amazon Dot speakers and one is an Echo device.

Her home also contains smart bulbs.

She said: “When I downloaded the ZIP file these are all the folders it came with.”

The TikToker then clicked on the audio file and revealed thousands of short voice clips that she claims Amazon has collected from her smart speakers.

Smart speakers like the ones provided by Amazon have an always on microphone to listen for voice commands. The problem isn’t necessarily the always on microphone but the fact that most smart speakers don’t perform on-site audio analysis (or only perform very limited on-site analysis). Instead they record audio and send it to an off-site server for processing. Why is the audio moved off-site? Ostensibly it’s because an embedded device like a smart speaker doesn’t have the same processing power as a data center full of computers. Though I suspect that gaining access to valuable information like household conversations has more to do with the data being moved off-site than the accuracy of the audio analysis.

The next question one might ask is, why is the data being stored? This is why I suspect moving the data off-site has more to do with gaining access to valuable information. Once the audio has been analyzed and the commands to be executed transmitted back to the smart speaker, the audio recording could be deleted. discovered that the audio isn’t deleted or at least not all of the audio is deleted. But even if Amazon promised to delete all of the audio sent to its servers, there would be no way for you as an end user to verify whether the company actually followed through. Once the data leaves your network, you lose control over it.

The problem with Amazon’s smart speakers is exacerbated by their proprietary nature. While Amazon provides the source code necessary to comply with the licenses of the open source components it uses, much of the stack involved with its smart speakers is proprietary. This means you have no insight into what your Amazon smart speaker is actually doing. You have a black box and promises from Amazon that it isn’t doing any shady shit. That’s not much of a guarantee. Especially when dealing with a device that is designed to listen to everything you say.

Now Your Water Pitcher Can Be A Network Vulnerability


This Internet of Things will get out of control.

Everybody is rushing to either “cloud” enable their products or make it part of the Internet of things. There are countless examples of this nonsense. Now we even have water pitchers with fucking Wi-Fi capabilities:

Starting today, Brita will sell a sensor-filled, WiFi-connected Brita pitcher (yes, you read that correctly) that will work with Dash Replenishment Service.

The new pitcher, called the Brita Infinity pitcher, will be able to track how much water is flowing through the pitcher. When approximately 40 gallons of water have passed through the pitcher’s purification filter, the pitcher will then send a signal to the Dash Replenishment Service to reorder more filters.

Instead of having a watch pitcher you have to replace filters on whenever you water starts to taste funky you can have that and concerns about battery power, whether the pitcher is accurately measuring water usage and not shaving a bit off of the top to increase Brita’s profits, and network security too!

We’re at the point where we need to strongly consider separate wireless networks and VLANs for our Internet enabled devices. The utter lack of security concerns most Internet of Things manufacturers have shown so far makes these devices too dangerous to let onto our usual networks but the technology is becoming so pervasive that simply ignoring the technology will become increasingly more difficult.

Tools Of Your Subjugation

Some fools believe domestic surveillance is about fighting terrorists. Everybody else realizes it’s about subjugation. People are more easily kept in line when they believe they’re constantly being watched. Although much of the State’s surveillance capabilities are shrouded in secrecy The Intercept managed to get its hands on a rather interesting catalogue of government surveillance tools:

THE INTERCEPT HAS OBTAINED a secret, internal U.S. government catalogue of dozens of cellphone surveillance devices used by the military and by intelligence agencies. The document, thick with previously undisclosed information, also offers rare insight into the spying capabilities of federal law enforcement and local police inside the United States.

The catalogue includes details on the Stingray, a well-known brand of surveillance gear, as well as Boeing “dirt boxes” and dozens of more obscure devices that can be mounted on vehicles, drones, and piloted aircraft. Some are designed to be used at static locations, while others can be discreetly carried by an individual. They have names like Cyberhawk, Yellowstone, Blackfin, Maximus, Cyclone, and Spartacus. Within the catalogue, the NSA is listed as the vendor of one device, while another was developed for use by the CIA, and another was developed for a special forces requirement. Nearly a third of the entries focus on equipment that seems to have never been described in public before.


A few of the devices can house a “target list” of as many as 10,000 unique phone identifiers. Most can be used to geolocate people, but the documents indicate that some have more advanced capabilities, like eavesdropping on calls and spying on SMS messages. Two systems, apparently designed for use on captured phones, are touted as having the ability to extract media files, address books, and notes, and one can retrieve deleted text messages.

The catalogue is fully of very interesting gadgets. In fact it demonstrates the fact that technology in the hands of government is a bad thing. While the market has used cellular technology to bring us wonderful gadgets that improve our lives the State only sees cellular technology as another means to subjugate its people.

Initial Thoughts On The Apple Watch

Best Buy is selling the Apple Watch at $100.00 discount, which brings the price of the cheapest model down to $250.00. $250.00 happens to be the price range I think is fair for the Apple Watch so yesterday I decided to pick one up. I opted for the cheapest model, the 38mm (I have small wrists) Sports Edition in Space Gray.

Before I start with my initial thoughts lets me be up front and say that I’m a watch guy. By that I mean I’m a huge fan of watches, specifically the mechanical kind. They are to me what paintings are to other fans of art. Up front I will admit that it’s unlikely the Apple Watch will ever replace my mechanical watches for more than a few days at a time. So why did I want one? Because it makes a good fitness tracker that many of the apps I use, such as Cyclemeter, can interface with. In addition to having interfaces for a lot of my apps it also manages not to look completely like ass.

With that out of the way, let me give my initial thoughts. Having owned a Pebble (until the down button broke) and looked at most other popular smartwatches currently on the market I can say that the Apple Watch is probably the closest to being a watch. This is both good and bad. The bad is that the mentality is probably responsible for the high cost of the device. The good is that it is a very well designed product for a smartwatch. Everything from the packaging to the watch itself has a level of detail not found on any of the competing devices I’ve looked at. When you pick up and hold the watch it feels sturdy, the crappy rubber strap is less crappy than most other rubber straps (that is to say it’s softer and more flexible), and the controls feel very tight (as opposed to my Pebble, which had very mushy buttons).

Although the display is tiny it is nice. It’s a Retina display so it has a very high resolution and good color definition. Showing an attention to detail, and to get around the fact the battery in the watch is tiny, the display turns on automatically when you bring your wrist up to look at it. When you put your arm back down the display turns off. I have already developed a love-hate relationship with the touchscreen. On the upside it gives you a lot of options for controls. On the downside many of the buttons are very small. The home screen is a downright mess in my opinion and you really have to use the crown to zoom in quite a bit if you have any hopes of bringing up the app you want. With that said, controls are a problem on every smartwatch and will likely remain less than optimal until somebody thinks up a completely new way of doing things.

Speaking of controls, there are two dedicated hardware controls. One is a crown that can be rotated and pressed like a button and the other is a nearly useless button that serves only to bring up your contacts list (a feature I don’t need). I like the crown control for the most part. The only thing I run into trouble with is it doesn’t act like the back button on the Pebble. Pressing the crown returns you to the home screen, it doesn’t move you back a screen in an app. That’s probably something I just need to adjust to.

Most of the included apps don’t show the same attention to detail as the hardware. Overall I’m not really thrilled with the included apps. They all feel haphazardly put together and I have had a lot of issues with them crashing when they first open.

The battery life is shit. It’ll get you through the day, so long as you don’t use it too heavily, but that’s about it.

I still need time to use it before making any final conclusions. Right now I feel that it is a good buy at $250.00 but really does show a lot of problems, primarily on the software side, typical of a 1.0 release. It is a very nicely presented product and I think the next release will be much better. For what I want, a fitness tracker with some additional functionality, it appears to fit the bill. If you’re already tied in the Apple ecosystem it’s probably the best smartwatch available (although most models of the Pebble will give you actual battery life but at the cost of functionality).

When Tradition Watch Manufacturers Treat Smartwatches Like Traditional Watches

There has been some buzz (at least in horology circles) about Tag Heuer’s smartwatch. It is, after all, the first serious attempt by a traditional watch manufacturer to release a smartwatch. But things weren’t off to a good start when the initial price of $1,400 was announced and things only looked worse when Tag Heuer announced a price increase. While there are a few models of the Apple Watch that exceed that price range most smartwatches come in far under what Tag Heuer is asking.

Now the price is settled at $1,500. What does $1,500 get you? You’d think it would get you some of the most cutting edge technology a company could cram into a smartwatch. Instead if gets you the same internals you would get for $150:

There was always a question of how much technology you would get for this $1,500, and unfortunately, it seems that the device has mostly normal smartwatch guts. There’s a 1.5-inch, circular 360×360 (240 PPI) LCD, 1GB of RAM, 4GB of storage, Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi (802.11n) and a 410mAh battery. The one unique item is the processor: a 1.6Ghz dual-core Intel Atom Z34XX. It’s hard to not be disappointed by the LCD when the $350 Huawei Watch clocks in at a superior 286 PPI.

Here’s the problem I see with traditional watch manufacturers trying to enter the smartwatch market. Traditional watch manufacturers are used to selling a luxury product that can last a lifetime. $1,500 can get you a really nice mechanical watch that you will probably pass down to your children. Smartwatches aren’t mechanical watches. Whereas you still have a functional mechanical watch after five years a smartwatch after the same period of time is likely to be little more than a pile of outdated circuits connected to a dead battery. You may pass it down to your children but only because you don’t want to give them something valuable until they’re old enough not to break it by falling off of a jungle gym.

I think it’s going to be difficult for traditional watch manufacturers to enter the smartwatch market without changing up their business model a bit. Why would somebody want to fork out $1,500 to Tag Heuer instead of 1/10th of that to Motorola for basically the same thing? With the exception of people who have brand loyalty to Tag Heuer they’re not. That’s because they’re going to dump their smartwatch in a year or two for the newer model with more powerful and power efficient hardware.

There’s certainly room for a premium product but what qualifies something as a premium electronic device is different than a mechanical watch. When people pay a premium for an electronic device they tend to expect more power, features, and attention to details. Graphics cards are a great example of this. You can spend a lot of money on a graphics card but when you reach that premium top tier you’re getting some cutting edge hardware that you can reasonably expect to run the latest games at ridiculously high resolutions with all of the fancy features turned on. Apple products are an example where users will pay a premium for attention to detail. Making a laptop body out of a solid brick of aluminum, designing a professional workstation in the footprint of a cylinder, and releasing an all-in-one computer that’s almost thin enough to cut paper is appreciated by enough people to command a premium.

So what can a traditional watch manufacturer offer the smartwatch market? To start with their bread and butter: attention to detail. Let’s consider the watch face, which is arguably what most smartwatch users will be looking at throughout the day. Tag Heuer decided recreating watch faces from its mechanical lines was the way to go. But, in my opinion, it was done in a half-assed manner. The watch faces look like a Dashboard (because it’s all but forgotten, Dashboard is a layer in OS X where users can add small widgets) clock widget. For $1,500 Tag Heuer could have included motion sensors sensitive enough to know the wearer’s exact orientation. Combining that with location and time information obtained form the phone and you could add in realistic outdoor shadows under the watch hands and from the side of the case to create the illusion of depth. Assuming the user is inside the watch could use light sensors to detect where light is coming from and provide a similar illusion. Another idea would be to use a series of backlight LEDs instead of a single LED. Theoretically they could allow the watch to only turn on the LEDs behind the parts of the watch with lume to provide a similar night lighting to an actual watch. Of course all of this would look much better on a high resolution screen, which should be doable at that price point.

Traditional watch manufacturers can play in the smartwatch market but doing so seriously will require more than releasing the same product as everybody else with a different name attached to it.

Got $17,000 Burning a Hole In Your Pocket? Apple Can Help!

Yesterday Apple unveiled a new MacBook and released more details about the Apple Watch. The new MacBook certainly qualifies as a fantastic feat of personal electronics manufacturing. However having only a single port on the entire device makes it useless to me. One USB Type-C port that also doubles as the charging port means attaching accessories to the laptop will be impossible. I think Apple really missed the mark by not having the power adapter integrate a USB Type-C hub. None of this matters though since I’m not the intended audience for the laptop.

The Apple Watch appeared to be the star of the show even though I found it underwhelming when compared to the new MacBook. Apple announced that its watch would have a paltry 18 hour battery life based on estimations of average usage (but we have no idea what it estimates to be average usage so the measure is meaningless). However pricing was announced and if you have $17,000 burning a hole in your pocket Apple is here to help.

People have been comparing the luxury Watch Edition of the Apple Watch to high end watch manufacturers such as Rolex, Jaeger-Le Coultre, and Patek Phillipe. I feel that there’s a major difference that people making the comparison are leaving out. When you drop ten grand or more on, say, a Rolex you have a timepiece for life. Hell, you have a timepiece for the life of your children and their children. There is also resale value. Dropping ten grand or more on the Apple Watch will net you an electronic device that will be outdated next year and that will pretty much eliminate its resale value. I also have my doubts that the Apple Watch will be as serviceable as watches from well known watchmakers (there are skilled watchmakers that still service decades old Submariners, for example). Even if you do pass down an Apple Watch it’s unlikely getting a replacement battery in 30 years will be feasible. So I don’t think comparing the Apple Watch to established watchmakers is a terribly good idea.

In the end I don’t see the Apple Watch selling terribly well but few people have made money betting against Apple since Steve Jobs took the reigns back. That new MacBook will probably sell like hotcakes though. People want thin laptops and the new MacBook is certainly thin.

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun

With a double barrel pump action shotgun:

The DP-12 goes down a completely different, and decidedly unconventional, path. It has 2 7-round tube, but it also has 2 barrels! That’s right…a double barrel pump gun. Two rounds are chambered with each pump; the trigger is then pulled 2 times, the first to fire the right barrel, the second to fire the left barrel. Pump, and you’ve got 2 more rounds.

Every since I was mowing down Strogg with Quake 2’s super shotgun I’ve wanted a double barrel pump action shotgun. Now somebody is finally producing one and I’m afraid I may not be able to resist buying it when it’s released.

iOS 8 Adds Interesting Privacy Features

If nothing else came of Edward Snowden’s leaks at least it pushed companies to focus more on privacy and security features. Whether you acknowledge Snowden as a hero or a villain (in which case you’re wrong) you are benefitting from his actions. His actions destroyed the trust people had in both the government and major technology companies. Now companies are scrambling to rebuild that trust and they’re doing so by adding more security and privacy features to their products. Come fall iOS users will be benefitting from this attempted rebuilding of trust in an interesting way as their devices will become harder to track via Wi-Fi:

It wasn’t touted onstage, but a new iOS 8 feature is set to cause havoc for location trackers, and score a major win for privacy. As spotted by Frederic Jacobs, the changes have to do with the MAC address used to identify devices within networks. When iOS 8 devices look for a connection, they randomize that address, effectively disguising any trace of the real device until it decides to connect to a network.

Every network interface has a media access control (MAC) address. In the case of Wi-Fi interfaces this address is plainly visible to anybody watching. That makes tracking devices via Wi-Fi fairly trivial. If you see a MAC address picked up by a cafe at one end of the street and a library at the other end of the street you know where the user is and the direction he or she is traveling. With enough data you can get a pretty good idea of the places a person frequents.

Randomizing this address until a connection has been made to the access point makes tracking a device over time difficult as it doesn’t appear to be the same device every time it passes an access point.

I believe this is a good feature and cannot wait until other manufacturers add it to their products.

Pure Awesome on Your Wrist

The things watchmakers can do has always amazed me. Using tiny sprints, gears, jewels, and miscellaneous other parts watchmakers are able to make machines that keep accurate time. Most watches are fairly insignificant devices, displaying the time and date. Some watches, such as the Aeternitas Mega 4, are marvels of horology. The Mega 4 is a purely mechanical watch containing 1,483 moving parts, support for two timezones, and an impressive prepetual calendar mechanism:

The eternal calendar of the Franck Muller Watchland workshops is different from any traditional perpetual calendar in that it takes into account the rule governing the Gregorian calendar stating that all century years not divisible by 400 are common years and not leap years.

The eternal calendar follows a cycle of 1’000 years (renewable to infinity) thanks to two additional sets of wheels:

The first set of wheels, comprising a wheel of 10 years, a wheel of 100 years and a wheel of 1’000 years, allows for the display of a cycle of 1’000 years.

The second set of wheels was designed for the setting, through the use of cams, of the skipping of the leap years three times in a row every 100 years and its re-establishment the fourth time.

A feature set like this on an electronic quartz watch wouldn’t be very impressive but the fact this watch is mechanical demonstrates the sheer skill some horologists have.

My Dreams of a Write Mountable Dosimeter are In Sight

Earlier this year I blogged about a wristwatch that contains a built-in dosimeter. I’ve been trying to find one of these but so far every company that sells them requires you either make a bulk purchase or they only sell to scientific institutions.

Browsing through Marathon’s website I came across a familiar face, a rebranded PM1208M. Technically it looks to be an upgraded version (the one on Marathon’s website is called the GammaMaster II whereas the one I linked to earlier this year was merely the GammaMaster) but either way I threw myself on the notification list and hope to see a message in my inbox soon telling me the watch is available to order.

What am I going to do with it you ask? Hell if I know, it’ll basically be a conversation piece. The bottom line is I have a love of cramming gizmos into wristwatches and this device does that exceptionally well.