A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ tag

If You’re Good at Something, Never Do It for Free

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A minor controversy has developed in the macOS world. Linuz Henze, a security researcher, has discovered a vulnerability in Keychain for macOS that allows an attacker to access stored passwords. However, Henze isn’t providing the details to Apple because Apple’s bug bounty program, for some stupid reason, doesn’t cover macOS vulnerabilities:

Security researcher Linuz Henze has shared a video demonstration of what is claimed to be a macOS Mojave exploit to access passwords stored in the Keychain. However, he has said he is not sharing his findings with Apple out of protest.

Henze has publicly shared legitimate iOS vulnerabilities in the past, so he has a track record of credibility.

However, Henze is frustrated that Apple’s bug bounty program only applies to iOS, not macOS, and has decided not to release more information about his latest Keychain invasion.

Some people aren’t happy with Henze’s decision because his refusal to provide the exploit to Apple will make it harder for the company to fix the vulnerability. What these people are forgetting is that Henze isn’t refusing to provide the exploit to Apple, he’s refusing to provide it for free. In other words, he wants to be paid for his work. I don’t know many people who would willingly work for free. I certainly wouldn’t. Unless you would, you really should put the blame for this on Apple for refusing to pay for macOS exploits.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 7th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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Disable FaceTime

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If for some inexplicable reason you own an Apple device and haven’t already disabled FaceTime, you should do so now:

Users have discovered a bug in Apple’s FaceTime video-calling application that allows you to hear audio from a person you’re calling before they accept the call—a critical bug that could potentially be used as a tool by malicious users to invade the privacy of others.

You don’t want a caller to hear you bitching them out for being inconsiderate by calling you instead of having the decency to send a text message.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 29th, 2019 at 10:30 am

Posted in Technology

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Don’t Forget to Put Your Shoes on the Charger

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Nobody could credibly accuse me of being a Luddite but there are a lot of products that cause me to tilt my head and say what the fuck. Nike released a video of basketball players adjusting a pair of self-lacing shoes with a smartphone app. The shoes themselves are blurred out like genitals in a Japanese porno but the point is made clearly enough: Nike has self-lacing shoes that interface with smartphone.

My initial reaction was to assume that this product was the epitome of laziness. But then I thought about it and decided that digging out my smartphone, unlocking it, opening an app, and tapping a button actually requires more work than manually tying shoes. So I’m left to assume that these shoes are aimed at people who a) want to add the risk of being unable to lace up their shoes in the morning because they forgot to put them on the charger the night before and b) want the thrill of adding more hazardous materials to landfills when they toss out their battery equipped shoes.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 15th, 2019 at 10:30 am

Corporate Euphemisms

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Apple’s quest to make its products thinner at any cost is once again making some customers unhappy. There have been reports of iPad Pros arriving bent out of the box. I would be unhappy even if a $100 table arrived bent out of the box so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d be unhappy if an $800+ tablet arrived bent out of the box. But now that Apple is positioning itself as a luxury products company, it’s striving to provide the same level of customer satisfaction as, say, Patek Philippe, right? After all, if you purchased a new Patek Philippe watch and it had any defect whatsoever, the company would likely bend over backwards to remedy the situation since it knows that, as a luxury products company, it lives an dies by its reputation for customer satisfaction. If you believed that, you would be incorrect.

Instead of addressing the issue of bent iPad Pros, Apple has taken the route of using corporate euphemisms to explain why bent iPad Pros are something with which customers will just have to live:

These precision manufacturing techniques and a rigorous inspection process ensure that these new iPad Pro models meet an even tighter specification for flatness than previous generations. This flatness specification allows for no more than 400 microns of deviation across the length of any side — less than the thickness of four sheets of paper. The new straight edges and the presence of the antenna splits may make subtle deviations in flatness more visible only from certain viewing angles that are imperceptible during normal use. These small variances do not affect the strength of the enclosure or the function of the product and will not change over time through normal use.

That’s a lot of words to say your brand new $800+ iPad Pro may arrive at your doorstep bent.

This issue reminds me a lot of the issue with the iPhone 4 where holding it in your left hand could cause cellular signal degradation (and thus drop your call). Instead of addressing the issue right away, Steve Jobs tried to argue that the solution was to hold the phone “correctly.” Eventually Apple opted for the half-assed solution of providing a free case, which was at least better than publishing an official page that used a lot of words to try to hand wave the problem away.

Between this and the high failure rate of the MacBook butterfly switch keyboards, Apple is having a rough start to its transition from a consumer electronics company into a luxury products company.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 8th, 2019 at 10:00 am

You’re Unboxing It Wrong

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Apple has spent the last couple of years transitioning itself from a consumer electronics company to a luxury products company. For the most part it has been doing a good job of this. The company’s attention to detail on its products is easy to see. However, when you’re a luxury products company, expectations go up. Somebody who buys a Seiko 5 isn’t likely to throw a fit because the second hand doesn’t sweep smoothly. Somebody who spends the big bucks on a Rolex is probably going to be unhappy if their second hand isn’t gliding smoothly over the watch face. Likewise, somebody who buys an Amazon Fire table is probably willing to tolerate a number of limitations and defects. Somebody who spends no less than $799 on an iPad Pro is probably going to be unhappy if their brand new tablet is bent out of the box:

Apple has confirmed to The Verge that some of its 2018 iPad Pros are shipping with a very slight bend in the aluminum chassis. But according to the company, this is a side effect of the device’s manufacturing process and shouldn’t worsen over time or negatively affect the flagship iPad’s performance in any practical way. Apple does not consider it to be a defect.

The thing about being a luxury products company is that you need to make your customers feel special. Telling them that they have to live with a defect on a brand new product isn’t going to fly, especially when your cheaper competitors are apt to replace new products that have any kind of defect whatsoever (if you received a slightly bent Fire table, Amazon would probably get a replacement heading your away immediately).

Apple’s response on this matter is reminiscent of Steve Jobs’s response to people complaining about the iPhone 4 dropping calls when they held it in their left hand (for those who don’t know, he told them that they were holding it wrong). That might have flown when the iPhone was a reasonably priced option on the market but I have my doubts that such a cavalier attitude is going to fly now that Apple’s products are priced as high as they are.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2018 at 11:00 am

The Unseen Threat of Advertising Companies

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Most people have a very poor understanding about how advertising companies work. Everybody who uses Facebook and doesn’t use an ad blocker sees ads. They may even consciously recognize that those ads are how Facebook makes money. What they often don’t understand though is that Facebook isn’t just displaying ads, it’s also selling their personal information to third-parties. Even when people do understand that their personal information is being sold to third-parties, they often don’t understand what exactly is being sold. They assume it’s the content they upload like photos and decide it’s not a big issue because they lead a “boring” life. But then they discuss intimate and sometimes embarrassing medical issues with family members through Facebook’s messaging service:

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The unseen threat of advertising companies is that all of the data they collect is potentially for sale and you have no idea to whom they’re selling.

A lot of people probably don’t care if Netflix or Microsoft have access to their “private” messages. But technology companies aren’t the only kids on the block with big bucks. Do you really want your health insurance company having access to your “private” messages? That medical issue that grandma messaged you about may be hereditary and the fact that you might face it at some point may convince your health insurance company to up your premium. Would Facebook provide access to your “private” messages to health insurance companies? You have no way of knowing.

And even if Facebook guaranteed that they wouldn’t sell your “private” messages to health insurance companies, they could change their policy down the road (Facebook is, after all, notorious for making changes to privacy policies without notice). Or another party to whom Facebook is selling your “private” messages may sell them to health insurance companies. Once the data exists on Facebook’s servers you lose all control over it.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Tim May Has Passed

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Yesterday I learned that Tim May, the man who established the concept of crypto-anarchy, passed away:

Tim May, co-founder of the influential Cypherpunks mailing list and a significant influence on both bitcoin and WikiLeaks, passed away last week at his home in Corralitos, California. The news was announced Saturday on a Facebook post written by his friend Lucky Green.

In his influential 1988 essay, “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto,” May predicted that advances in computer technology would eventually allow “individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other” anonymously and without government intrusion. “These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation [and] the ability to tax and control economic interactions,” he wrote.

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto influenced me greatly. It was an important document when it was released and its importance has only grown since then. Today surveillance technology is pervasive, which has caused many people to feel hopeless but, as The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto pointed out, technological advances would also give people the power to communicate away from the gaze of Big Brother.

May’s predictions did pan out. Consider the Silk Road and it’s various offspring. Crypto-currencies enable people to avoid one of the government’s largest sources of control, monetary exchanges. Tor provides a protocol that allows people to view and host sites anonymously. When these two technologies were combined, the prohibition enforcers had a hell of a time taking it down and only managed to do so because the suspected creator made a post on a clear web forum with an e-mail address associated with an account on Silk Road. Today there are dozens of online drug markets veiled by Tor and crypto-currencies that the prohibition enforcers have so far been unable to take down.

There are numerous technologies available to allow us to communicate with each other secretly. Signal is probably the best example as it is both easy to use and its protocol has remains unbroken. Even clear web traffic has become more difficult to surveil. When Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) pervasive domestic surveillance program, a lot of online traffic was transmitted in the clear. Today more and more traffic is transmitted in an encrypted manner, partially thanks to the efforts of Let’s Encrypt, which allows server administrators to setup trusted Transport Layer Security (TLS) connections for free.

Tim May and the ideas he helped establish deserve a lot of credit for influencing all of this. Fortunately, even though he is no longer with us, his ideas are established and will remain with us.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 18th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Apple’s Diminishing Quality

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Yesterday I was asked to recommend an Apple laptop (the laptop was going to somebody with a learning disability so the hurdle of transitioning them to a non-Apple platform was great and not a realistic option). As I was making my recommendation it really struck me just how far Apple’s laptops have fallen in the last few years.

In the past when somebody asked me if they should get AppleCare, I usually recommended against doing so. Apple’s laptops were pretty reliable and when they did fail, they could usually be repaired.

Apple’s current lineup has a significant problem. The new slim butterfly keyboards are notoriously fragile. A mere piece of debris getting under a key cap is enough to disable that key. This wouldn’t be a problem with a normal laptop keyboard because there is enough clearance to easily remove most debris that gets caught under a keycap. Moreover, even if the debris cannot be easily remove, the keycap usually can, which allows you to remove the offending debris. Getting a keycap off of a butterfly keyboard without wrecking the fragile butterfly mechanism isn’t easy. And if you do damage the mechanism, you’re stuck replacing the entire keyboard and that requires breaking a bunch of rivets that hold the keyboard to the top of the casing. This is why Apple replaces the entire top case when the keyboard needs to be replaced.

So you have a keyboard that cannot be serviced and has a high probability of failing. Strike one.

Strike two is the solid state drive (SSD). Apple no longer utilizes modular SSDs. Instead their SSDs are soldered to the mainboard. With SSDs failure is a matter of when, not if. This is because flash memory cells can only handle so many erase operations. SSD manufacturers attempt to prolong the life of their product with wear leveling but that only means that the time between failures is extended, it’s not eliminated. This isn’t a big deal with modular SSDs. If an SSD is modular and croaks, you replace the dead SSD with a new one. When an SSD that is soldered to the mainboard croaks, you end up having to replace the entire mainboard. Since the mainboard also has the processor and graphics card soldered to it, you necessary end up replacing those pricey components as well. What used to be a relatively cheap unavoidable repair has become an extremely expensive unavoidable repair.

Recommending an Apple laptop has become an exercise in presenting the least bad option. An expensive repair is a matter of when, not if. The keyboard is likely to suffer a premature death because of its design and lack of repairability. If the keyboard survives, the SSD will eventually die, necessitating replacing the entire mainboard (and thus the processor and graphics card). Instead of recommending a computer that I know will likely leave the buyer happy for years to come, recommending an Apple laptop involves tagging on a great number of caveats and warnings so that when the buyer is looking at an absurd repair bill, they aren’t doing so unexpectedly.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 18th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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The FCC’s Wealth Redistribution Plan

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The Fascist Communications Commission (FCC) has revealed its latest plan for wealth redistribution. The agency wants to tax successful online businesses so it can give that money to Internet Service Providers (ISP):

A Federal Communications Commission advisory committee has proposed a new tax on Netflix, Google, Facebook, and many other businesses that require Internet access to operate.

If adopted by states, the recommended tax would apply to subscription-based retail services that require Internet access, such as Netflix, and to advertising-supported services that use the Internet, such as Google and Facebook. The tax would also apply to any small- or medium-sized business that charges subscription fees for online services or uses online advertising. The tax would also apply to any provider of broadband access, such as cable or wireless operators.

The collected money would go into state rural broadband deployment funds that would help bring faster Internet access to sparsely populated areas. Similar universal service fees are already assessed on landline phone service and mobile phone service nationwide. Those phone fees contribute to federal programs such as the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which pays AT&T and other carriers to deploy broadband in rural areas.

As somebody who grew up in a rural area and still has family in a rural area I can say with some certainty that ISPs aren’t using the money they’re getting from these taxes to provide rural communities with broadband Internet. Fortunately, there are methods for rural communities to get broadband Internet and, best of all, it doesn’t require any wealth redistribution.

The claim that the taxes will be used for rural broadband initiatives is just another euphemism to avoid calling the tax what it is, plundering the pockets of plebs to line the pockets of ISPs with good government connections.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 14th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Tax Them to Death

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The government here in the frozen tundra of Minnesota likes to tax us plebs hard. However, as bad as we get bled it’s nothing compared to California. It’s clear that the government of California doesn’t see the denizens cursed to live in its state as people but as cattle. Every time you turn around the government is enacting or proposing a new tax. Yesterday it was reported that a new proposal is to tax text messages. But a proposal of a new tax in California isn’t anymore newsworthy than pointing out that the name of the day today ends in “y.” What is amusing though is the number of euphemisms that are used to make the new proposal sound like something other than theft:

As mobile phone users have shifted their usage patterns away from voice calls, voice call revenues for PPP have dropped by about a third, while the budget for subsidizing poorer users has risen by almost half. So California’s PUC is exploring its options and, as texts share infrastructure with voice calls — even if the medium is different — it estimates it could raise $44.5 million a year with the change. Applied retroactively it could amount to a bill of more than $220 million for California consumers.

You see? It’s for the poor! If you complain about this proposed tax, you’re obviously a rich baron who hates poor people! Oh, and this proposed tax isn’t actually stealing money from you. You see, “revenues” are down because you stupid plebs don’t call your mother enough so this is really just reclaiming cash that has been lost because of you assholes!

As the article points out though, text messaging is declining as chat applications take their place. This proposed tax will be irrelevant in short order, which means the Public Utilities Commission will be looking for a new way to bleed Californians in a few years. This is the vicious cycle of taxation. A tax is placed on a popular consumer activity, that activity is eventually replaced by a different activity, a new tax is placed on the new popular consumer activity, and so on.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 13th, 2018 at 11:00 am