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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Apple makes expected iPhone 13 upgrades, but also a surprise iPad Mini upgrade

Apple recently announced a slew of new hardware to tempt consumers with at a “virtual” streamed launch event it called “California Streaming”.

The headline act was without doubt a very much expected upgrade to its iPhone lines, bringing the iPhone 13 family to market. Every year, roughly around September or October, you can expect a “new” iPhone with faster processor, improved cameras and a few new hardware tricks up its sleeve.

That’s precisely what Apple’s delivered with the iPhone 13. As it was in 2020, there’s not just one iPhone 13, but four of them. For those who like smaller phones, there’s the 5.4 inch iPhone 13 Mini, then the 6.1 inch iPhone 13. For those who hanker for camera features specifically, there’s the 6.1 inch iPhone 13 Pro and the 6.7 inch iPhone 13 Pro Max.

As expected, there’s a new processor – the Apple A15 Bionic – and the promise of better battery life. The Pro model phones also get variable refresh rate screens up to 120Hz, a feature Apple markets as “ProMotion” display. Higher refresh rate screens have been a feature of Android phones for some time now, but it’s certainly a welcome addition on the iOS side of the smartphone fence for sure.

I’m waiting to more formally test out the new iPhone 13 range at the time of writing, but my basic advice any year when it comes to iPhones remains the same. You should aim to keep a premium smartphone for at least 3 years, preferably longer given their premium price points. That timespan will give you a much bigger performance jump relative to your old phone when you do trade up to a new model. You’re also then avoiding any issues with battery life on older batteries, whereas if you switch out each year, you’re paying a premium simply for having the “newest” phone.

What wasn’t quite as expected was that Apple would also refresh its iPad lines. There’s a new basic 10.2 inch iPad, upgraded to the Apple A13 Bionic chip. In many ways, it’s an iPhone 11 without the calling features. There’s some solid value in Apple’s entry level iPad, but the surprise launch at the California Streaming event was instead Apple’s smallest iPad, the iPad Mini.

The iPad Mini has long been an option for those who wanted a smaller tablet device, but it was almost always an afterthought in the Apple line-up, with lesser processors and battery life. Battery life is somewhat a function of its size of course, but the new iPad Mini definitely shows some differentiated thinking around what people might use a smaller tablet for.

Where the new iPad has an Apple A13 Bionic, the iPad Mini gets the A15 Bionic, putting in a performance discussion more with the iPhone 13. It’s also shifting away from Apple’s Lightning connector standard to USB C, meaning a wider range of peripherals will work with it. Apple will also sell it with 5G capability as an option.

The downside here is that the tablet that used to be Apple’s smallest was also its cheapest, and that’s just not true any more. If you want the new iPad Mini, it’ll set you back $250 more than the base model new iPad at $749 for a Wi-Fi only model. As with any iPad there’s no way to expand storage, and if you do want that 5G capability you’ll need to buy the appropriate “Wi-Fi+Cellular” model, again at an additional cost.

Again, I do need to put the new iPads through their paces, but it’s pretty clear that Apple’s differentiating them broadly on use cases. If you use a tablet mostly for reading web pages, watching Netflix or the odd game of Candy Crush, then the base model iPad is just fine for your needs. If you want or need a more mobile solution with a bit more power for, say, business needs, the iPad Mini could be a good match. It’s cheaper than the Apple M1 processor based iPad Pro models, but that A15 Bionic under its hood should give you plenty of scope for more intensive application use.


Apple and Epic Games lawsuit could change your app payment options

A recent US court ruling could lead to some significant changes in the way that you pay for apps and subscriptions on mobile devices, tablets, and computers in the future.

Epic Games, makers of the popular (and highly lucrative) video game Fortnite offered that game on Apple devices including its iPhone and iPad lines, but the company wasn’t happy with Apple taking a 30% cut of any money users spent in the game on in-app purchases.

Epic very briefly pointed its users to alternate ways to buy in-game currency, but Apple promptly blocked Epic’s developer account, stating that it was in breach of its developer contract. Basically speaking, Apple didn’t allow developers to offer payment systems outside of Apple’s own, and outside of that 30% cut.

This is why some apps simply offer access, but not ways to subscribe or change payment options; as an example, if you’ve got the Amazon Kindle app or Netflix, you’re guided to access those services on the web, not through their respective apps. It’s not that either company couldn’t build payment systems into their apps – they just don’t want to pay Apple’s developer charge to do so.

When Apple cut Epic Games’ access to iPhone and iPad users off, it launched a flurry of legal cases, with Epic Games charging that Apple was engaging in anti-trust practices that were unfair to consumers. In many ways this was a case of big money firms having a big money fight.

In the US recently in a court in California, Epic Games lost its anti-trust case, and with it much in the way of hopes of getting back onto Apple’s app store.

However, its loss could still have effects on consumers, because the same judge also issued an injunction that would force Apple to make it possible for developers to offer payment systems outside of Apple itself.

The judge noted that “Apple Inc. and its officers, agents, servants, employees, and any person in active concert or participation with them (“Apple”), are hereby permanently restrained and enjoined from prohibiting developers from (i) including in their apps and their metadata buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms, in addition to In-App Purchasing and (ii) communicating with customers through points of contact obtained voluntarily from customers through account registration within the app.

Which is a long-winded (but no doubt legally correct and binding in that way that legal language always is) way of saying that Apple has to open up the ability for app developers to make alternative payment options available. Apple is obliged to make that change within a 90 day framework, which means that it should take effect before the end of the year.

While it’s likely to still wend its way through the courts, with Epic Games reportedly looking to appeal the parts of the case it lost, that change to payment systems could still have significant effects for both developers and consumers.

Apple’s argument here is that its payment system is understood and secure – and there’s some merit in that – but at the same time, it could make it easier to offer cheaper in-app purchases and subscriptions without that 30% overhead.

Competition within that space, as long as developers can offer secure ways to pay that aren’t also compromised by criminals, could make those subscriptions and services cheaper in the long run. So even though this was in many ways that typical big company money fight, it’s one that could affect your hip pocket nerve in years to come.

In app purchases are big business, and we’ve only got to look at the damages Epic Games has to pay to Apple to be aware of that. The losing part of its case compels the company to pay Apple the 30% of payments it “owed” under the existing agreement for the period where it made direct payments possible. That’s 30% of the more than $US12,000,000 it took in – which is hardly small change. Apple isn’t obliged to let Epic Games back onto the app store despite that payment, and it seems nearly impossible to suggest it would be, although stranger things have happened in the technology world.


Microsoft sets October 5th Windows 11 release date (but don’t get too excited yet)

It was no secret that Microsoft was going to release the next version of Windows later this year.

I’ve already written up my early impressions of Windows 11.

That was based on the beta version while I waited for Microsoft to press the big red “go” button for actual consumer availability.

Microsoft recently announced when that will be… sort of.

Windows 11 will start shipping on new PCs, and become available as an upgrade for compatible PCs from the 5th of October 2021.

Even if you are a die-hard Windows fan keen to test out the final, releasable form of Windows 11, it’s rather less likely that you’ll actually be able to get hold of it on the 5th to speak of.

For a start, there’s the whole pesky international dateline. Microsoft is a US-based company, so it’s likely that we wouldn’t see Windows 11 until the 6th anyway due to timezone differences.

It’s even more complex than that for two primary reasons. Firstly, Microsoft has announced that it’ll offer Windows 11 to eligible PCs on a rolling basis from the 5th of October 2021. That doesn’t mean that everyone who wants to upgrade will be able to. Instead, Microsoft will inform you when your PC is eligible via Windows Update.

There are a lot of Windows 10 PCs out there, and Microsoft’s own estimates suggests that it sees this as a rather long-term rollout. It doesn’t plan on having offered to every eligible PC until around mid-2022, so there may be something of a wait.

This is similar to what Microsoft did with Windows 10. That too had an official consumer launch date, but then a wait for many to upgrade. It’s not yet clear if Microsoft will pester users to upgrade the way it did with Windows 10.

However, it has said that the upgrade will be free for all Windows 10 users with no specific set “end date” for upgrade eligibility. Microsoft could always change its mind there. Still, it’s quite a different approach to the one-year-free upgrade offer it made around Windows 10 six years ago.

Upgrading to Windows 11 will also be dependent on your PC meeting the minimum requirements as well.

Microsoft publishes a list of those which you can read here.

Microsoft is promising an upgrade tool for you to quickly check your compatibility ahead of upgrades, but it’s been promising it for a while now. Hopefully it’ll bring it online before Windows 11 launches.

The one key feature that Windows 11 requires that may trip up some systems isn’t in the areas of processor, RAM or storage. They’re pretty moderate by modern PC terms. It’s in the insistence on a PC having a TPM 2.0 Trusted Platform Module onboard.

The TPM chip in your PC handles on-device encryption and decryption, which allows it to keep your data safer in the Internet age.

If you have an older PC with a prior TPM revision, or indeed one without a TPM chip, you won’t have as smooth a ride.

Microsoft has stated to some online media outlets that users may be able to run a full fresh install on a non-TPM system once Windows 11 is available. The lack of TPM may mean that they then couldn’t update those systems. That’s less than ideal, and a sign that buying a new PC might be a smarter route to take.

Picking up a new PC is one way you could queue jump and get Windows 11 considerably quicker. Plenty of PC manufacturers have already committed to updates for their existing systems while also lining up fresh new computers with Windows 11 as the default pre-install.

While some Windows 10 PCs will no doubt sit on store shelves for a while, the way PC inventory works, it won’t be long until Windows 11 is all you can buy in the Windows world.


Is a smart doorbell a smart buy?

The humble doorbell has come a long way. Oddly enough my next door neighbours do indeed still have an actual bell that you can ring, but for many of us the use of a metal chime gave way to an electric buzzer some years back.

In 2021, however, you’re not limited to just a simple buzzing sound, or indeed, a doorbell that you only realise has been pressed if you’re at home and within listening range of its digital chime. There’s a wide range of smart, internet-connected doorbells that can act as simple security cameras, notification machines even if you’re out and about and, of course, as actual bells when you have visitors.

But which one should you pick? There’s actually no one brand I’d say was absolutely better than the others, because it does depend on some of the other technology in your home, especially your choice of smart speaker system. If you don’t have smart speakers installed, while a smart doorbell will still work, you’ll get a less useful system as a result.

The other factor you need to take into consideration is your internet speed. This isn’t so much a story of download speed, but upload speeds. For reasonable quality video streaming, at least 2Mbps up is essential. Entry level NBN plans (sometimes called 12/1 plans) will struggle here, because that second digit is a 1, where it needs to be a 2. Most other plans will hit at least that, given the next generally available speed tier offers 25/2, just hitting over the line. Obviously the more you have the better it can get, bearing in mind your upstream speeds can vary anyway, and any other usage such as videoconferencing or sending large files to the Internet can seriously affect that speed.

Here’s a quick rundown of the major brands and their pros and cons.

Amazon Ring Doorbells

Pros:
Ring is wholly owned by Amazon, and it’s best suited if you’ve already got its Alexa-powered Echo speakers and smart displays in your home. One strength of the Ring ecosystem is that there’s a lot of doorbell options at a variety of price points, from simpler battery-powered options that can be stuck in place, making them good for renters, to fully installed, wired-only options that provide higher quality video.

Cons:
Obviously, if your smart speaker of choice comes via Google, it’s not going to work so well. Ring also charges a monthly or annual fee if you want to store video of folks who come to your door over time. You can still get alerts to your phone or smart devices without extra cost, but if you want archived video, you’ve got to pay.

Google Nest Doorbell (Battery)

Pros:
Google’s only got a single video doorbell available in Australia, the premium priced and oddly titled Nest Doorbell (Battery). Integration with Google speakers is very good, and it’s AI is excellent at detecting the difference between a visitor, and a visitor with a package, or a car or pet. You can even optionally train it to recognise faces, so that it knows when a family member is home, for example. Google also gives you a 3 hour rolling bank of video storage online, recording just the motion it detects.

Cons:
Installation of the Nest Doorbell is a little more fiddly than most of the Ring devices. If you do want face detection and recognition, that comes as part of a paid Nest Aware subscription only. In my own tests the Google Nest Doorbell is a little slower at sending alerts to connected devices; often where a Ring doorbell would see a delivery person coming and alert me before they hit the bell, the Nest Doorbell only ever managed to do so once they were already there. There’s only the one choice of a $329 doorbell at the moment as well.

Arlo Video Doorbells

Pros:
While it’s a separate company – at one time it was part of networking giant Netgear, but now it’s a distinct entity – Arlo’s Video Doorbells work with Google Assistant speakers or Amazon Alexa devices, giving them nice flexibility. There’s not quite the same range as Ring, but there are wired and wireless options to pick from.

Cons:
Like Ring, if you want stored video, you’ll have to pay for a subscription to access it. If you want intelligent AI-led detection of any kind, that’s also locked behind the subscription layer. The wired Arlo system rather unusually contains no chime of its own; the idea is that you’d retrofit it to an existing wired doorbell to keep your current chime active.


Microsoft increases Office 365 and Microsoft 365 pricing

There was a time when Microsoft sold software. Indeed, the company made itself into the mega-entity it is by grabbing the licensing agreement for MS-DOS on the very first IBM PCs. That was in an era where personal computing was still emerging.

Cut to today, and Microsoft doesn’t really sell software.

It sells a lot of other products, such as Xbox consoles, keyboards and mice. In the software space, you rarely, if ever, end up with software that’s been “sold” to you. Instead, Microsoft pivoted some years ago to licensing software that you effectively rent.

You don’t have to look any further than its traditional Office cash cow.

Office switched from a predominantly annual “version” update each year or so some time back to Office 365.

Office 365 is a subscription package typically paid annually that gives you the Office apps, cloud storage and upgrades as long as you remain a subscriber.

Cancel your subscription, and while you can still view Office documents in their respective applications, you can no longer edit them.

Microsoft recently announced that it’s going to change its prices.

From the 1st of March 2022, prices paid by businesses for Office 365 and Microsoft 365 will increase.

Microsoft’s pitch is that it’s the first “substantive” price upgrade in a decade for the service.

Microsoft has said that the new pricing will kick in globally, but only for those using the business versions of Microsoft 365 and Office 365.

At that time, Microsoft 365 Business Basic will jump from $US5 to $US 6 per user, Microsoft 365 Business Premium will go up from $US 20 to $US 22, Office 365 E1 will jump from $US 8 to $US 10), Office 365 E3 goes up from $US 20 to $US 23, Office 365 E5 increases from $US 35 to $US 38, and finally Microsoft 365 E3 goes up from $US 32 to $US 36.

If you’re currently running the business versions of those apps and platforms, you’ll need to adjust your budgets to accommodate them. Either that or investigate other options that may work for your business.

If you’re on the consumer level of those packages, your pricing won’t change at that time.

The same is true for the educational users of Microsoft’s packages. For most students their experience of Office 365 is more likely through getting it “free” through their school or educational institution. Microsoft’s well aware of the benefits of grabbing the mindsets of younger users to ensure they stay on the platform, after all.

That lack of an increase in pricing doesn’t mean that Microsoft might not put up consumer pricing down the track, of course. The services it offers on the business tiers are a little different to the consumer variants when it comes to collaborative working and storage allocations, amongst other features. But one of the big benefits for Microsoft with subscription packages is that it remains very much in control.

So what can you do if you don’t like a price rise?

There are alternative office suites out there to explore. On the web, you have services such as Google Docs. If you’re a Mac users, there’s the iWork suite. Across platforms, there are free alternatives such as LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice.

As always, it depends on your needs. If all you’re doing is very basic word processing, just about any suite will do, but if you’re working with more advanced collaborative features – or the heavier programmatic side of applications such as Excel – it’s hard for anyone else to compete.


Samsung’s new foldable phones: More robust and less expensive, but can they become the next big thing?

Australians love a smartphone, with research from Telsyte suggesting that there’s something like 21.6 million smartphones in use across Australia. Given our population is around 26 million, that’s a pretty compelling argument that they’re part of most of our lives.

The reality for smartphones, however, is that while that 21.6 million figure is impressive, up from about 4.4 million back in 2010, if you looked at a 2010 smartphone and then most 2021 models, you’d not immediately see a lot of differences.

Yes, modern smartphones are considerably faster, and they have much better camera capabilities, but still, the basic design of a rectangular slab hasn’t really changed all that much at all.

The one area where there’s significant change, albeit on a small scale, is in foldable phones. Samsung recently announced its next generation of foldable devices, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 at a virtual “Galaxy Unpacked” event. Samsung’s betting big that foldables will be the next big thing in smartphones – and it may just have a point.

As that 3 suffix might suggest to you, these are the third generation of Samsung’s foldable family of devices. The Galaxy Z Fold3 is the flagship foldable, with a 7.6 inch internal tablet style display that folds sideways into a more regular 6.2 inch cover display that works more like a regular smartphone.

The Galaxy Fold3 avoids many of the issues of the earlier models, especially around durability and the use of its internal screen. The first gen Galaxy Fold had to be embarrassingly pulled from the market because its protective internal screen peeled away easily, breaking the entire phone.

The Galaxy Z Fold3 has a more durable internal protector and an IPX8 rated level of water resistance. This is a foldable that (technically speaking) you should be able to retrieve if it falls into clean water without issue.

It’s also the effective replacement for the Galaxy Note series. Samsung’s seemingly not releasing a new Note in 2021, instead opting for S-Pen compatibility for the earlier released Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, and now the Galaxy Z Fold3.

In fact, it’s compatible with two different models; a smaller, Fold Edition S-Pen, or the new Galaxy S Pen Pro that will work with other S-Pen compatible devices. Neither S-Pen is bundled with the phone however, and you’ll need some way of carrying it with you if that kind of stylus work appeals.

The Galaxy Z Fold3 is less expensive than the Galaxy Z Fold2 it replaces, but with pricing starting at $2,499, it’s still a seriously expensive device for the premium market.

Where Samsung’s been much more aggressive is with the smaller and more affordable (relatively speaking) Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3. Where the Fold opens like a book, the Flip more folds down like a makeup compact – or if you’re the geeky type, a Star Trek communicator.

The key folding idea here isn’t extra screen space, but instead a more compact device in your pocket, with a small external display that shows notifications but not much more.

Like the Z Fold3, the Z Flip3 is IPX8 rated so it’s capable of surviving if it gets accidentally wet. Where it differs beyond size, folding out only into a 6.7 inch phone is in its pricing, starting at $1,499. That’s still well within the premium space, but it’s comparable to a lot of existing flagship phones from the likes of Apple, Oppo and even Samsung itself.

That’s where Samsung may well see a bigger market for folding devices. The Z Fold3 – which I’m still waiting to go hands-on with at the time of writing – is the aspirational supercar of the bunch for those that can afford it.

The Z Flip3 is still pricey, and I’m currently testing one out to see if it can live up to that price, but there’s no longer a huge price premium attached to that folding mechanism. Even if it’s not for you, the likely reality is that in a year or two those prices will drop even further, bringing the new world of foldable phones to even more Australian consumers.


Payphones aren’t payphones any more

With so much of our phone use coming from smartphones (and to a lesser extent feature phones) that are by design mobile, it’s rather tempting to think of the payphone as something of a relic of a previous telco age.

I’m certainly old enough to recall payphones being a rather critical part of my communications, especially as a much younger man.

However, it’s fair to say it’s been quite a while since I last needed a payphone. These days when I do notice them, it’s more because they’ve become less common than they used to be. Like so many other Australians, my primary calling device is a smartphone; it’s estimated that there are around 20.6 million smartphone users in the country, so they’re clearly the primary calling device for most of us.

So, what then of the humble payphone? According to Telstra, it still operates 15,076 payphones across the country, down from a peak of 36,000. That peak came a lot later than you might think as well, with the payphone network last expanding to that number back in 2001.

While you’ll typically only find a single payphone in a location where once there may have been a bank of several, there are online resources that can make locating them easier. This site allows you to search for nearby payphones online prior to making a call.

Over time payphones added new features such as the ability to more easily take incoming calls, but the biggest news recently in terms of their technology is that it’s strictly speaking, inaccurate to call them “payphones” anymore.

Telstra made the surprise announcement recently that it was shifting to making its payphones into free phones for regular calls to standard Australian landline and mobile numbers.

No more scrabbling around for change or a phonecard if you needed it, and the numbers there are somewhat surprising as well. Telstra’s claim here is that in the past year, Australians made more than 11 million calls from payphones over the last year, talking for some 36.7 million minutes. That’s a lot of calls to make!

The practical side here is that for some segments of the community, or under certain circumstances payphones form a critical (and quite literal) lifeline for communications. If you’re in an area without mobile coverage, or where it’s down due to environmental disasters, the sight of a payphone can be an entirely welcome one.

At a more individual level, if your smartphone’s gone flat, it’s not much use to you – although you will need to remember the number you need to call, another skill that’s fallen by the wayside since we’ve adopted smartphones. It’s much easier for a smartphone to remember all of our contacts for us than to recall dozens of long phone numbers, after all.

While Telstra has offered selected “free” periods for payphones in the past, typically around the December holiday period, the plan here is that payphones will remain free for as long as there are payphones. But how long will that be?

The reality here is that Telstra’s actually paid under the universal service obligation (USO) to keep payphones operational.

The current USO deal runs through to 2032, and the mix of goodwill that Telstra can generate – and the smaller savings from not having to collect currency or maintain payment systems – should see payphones as part of the landscape for at least a decade to come.

So, while I will generally still be reaching for the smartphone in my pocket rather than walking to the payphone on a nearby street corner, the reality is that it’s become easier to do so if I need to any time in the near future at least.


Having your own backups is essential, because even experts can get it wrong

This week, Apple released an update to its macOS operating system to macOS Big Sur 11.5.1. Unusually for Apple, it detailed exactly what kind of security issue it relates to. Specifically, it patches a hole that would allow attackers to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges.

If that sounds like so much techno-mumbo-jumbo to you, the long and short of it is that it would allow hackers to run anything they liked on your system. That could be snooping on your activities, compromising your passwords, encrypting your system or anything else.

Bad people could do bad things as though they were sitting right at your keyboard, in other words.

These kinds of security updates are very important. I wasted little time in downloading it to my primary working computer. It then wanted to reboot to install the patch, so I closed my apps and let it do so.

Only one problem in my case, and that was the fact that my Mac shut down… but then it didn’t come back on at all.

I gave it some time before pressing the power button. It started up to a screen that informed me that it couldn’t authenticate my copy of MacOS, and that it would have to be reinstalled.

That’s not good, and it’s certainly not what’s meant to happen with this kind of security update.

I was thankful in that instant that I’d been diligent with backing up my computer with its important files. There was the very real possibility that I’d have to do a full format and reinstall, losing everything on the laptop in the process.

Sure, copying it back from a Time Machine drive would take time, but we’re talking many years of articles, invoices, and personal files here. I’d never have the time nor the ability to recreate them from scratch!

It’s a very common story that so many of us don’t actually think about backing up until it’s too late, and in my case the story had a happier ending.

I did have to run through Apple’s MacOS recovery tool, but after an hour of downloading and installing, my Mac sprang back to its login screen with just about everything intact.

The only extra step I’ve had to undertake was to reauthenticate subscription services such as Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud.

In this case I got hit by a glitch. I’m not suggesting people skip out on important security updates.

They’re offered for a reason. You don’t want hackers and malware writers snooping around in or remote controlling your computer in any way at all.

However, I do know what I’m doing. I was still able to end up a situation where my computer tripped over its own virtual feet.

In those instances, sometimes all you can do is dust yourself off, set up your computer as new and start again.

Having a good backup – whether it’s to a local drive or cloud solution, or preferably both – can save you a lot of heartache when and if that happens.


Be wary of tech scams – they’re more likely than you think

I’ve not had a standard landline in my home for quite some time now. Partly that was because I very much did switch over to using my smartphone a great deal more over time. Mostly, however, it was because getting rid of it was one of the simplest ways to cut off those interminable “support scam” phone calls that at one time easily made up more than 80% of the calls I was getting on my landline.

You’re probably aware of the type of call I’m talking about, where a “representative” of a big tech company – the likes of Microsoft, Telstra, sometimes the ATO are frequently cited – calls you up with dire news of a problem with your computer, billing or accounts in some way.

Those quote marks are there because (again, just in case it wasn’t clear) it’s a scam. They’re after either money, personal information or a way to compromise your computer to either lock it down (and demand money) or use its capabilities as part of a bot network. Nasty stuff any way you look at it.

However, the reason I bring up my phone line is that I got rid of it some time ago, and there’s some expectation that “everyone” knows about these kinds of scams, and why you have to be wary in phone and online interactions as a result. But just how wary are we?

New research from Microsoft suggests that, sadly, these kinds of scams are still proliferating on a global scale.

Here in Australia, for example, Microsoft’s research suggests that 68% of Australians have encountered a tech support scam over the past 12 months. That’s actually higher than the global average of 59%, which suggests that Australians are seen as easier targets than most. Either way it’s not good.

Microsoft’s research suggests that men are more likely to continue with a scammer in some way with 61% of respondents indicating that they’d done more than just hang up or delete a suspicious email or social media message, compared to 39% of women.

There’s also something of a perception that these are scams that largely target and work best on the elderly, but Microsoft’s research suggests that it goes wider than that, especially in terms of success. What grabbed my interest was that Microsoft’s research suggests that more millennials and Gen X users were likely to continue interacting with scammers, with 31% of millennials and 30% of Gen X Microsoft users reporting that way. Realistically, it’s a cross-generational problem, and one that can cost you dearly.

Not everyone continuing to engage with a scammer will automatically lose money, but it’s not a risk worth taking in any case. Scamwatch reports that this kind of tech support/remote access scam has cost Australians more than $8,000,000 in 2021 so far, with phone by far the most prevalent way scammers engage with us, followed distantly by direct Internet connections.

So what should you do if you’re concerned about this kind of contact? Be aware that the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Telstra or any other big tech company is virtually never going to contact you over the phone. You should never install an application that someone over the phone (or via a banner ad, or email) asks you to. They’re also never going to be asking to be paid via gift cards or cryptocurrency.

Microsoft has some good guidelines specific to its products that you can check here in terms of this scam, while Scamwatch has a good rundown of how remote access scams work here.


How careful are you about what you post on social media?

Social media can be a huge force for change, and in these times where many of us are bouncing in and out of lockdowns, also a vital lifeline for communication on everything from important matters to the wildly trivial. We’re all allowed our personal obsessions, after all.

However, many of us don’t think about the wider picture of what we post to social media, and what it says about us not only to those we specifically want to converse with, but the wider world as well.

There’s absolute value in our social data and what it says about us, and while we’re (mostly) happy with the trade-off of, say, using a Facebook or a Twitter this way, what about when others use that same data for potentially nefarious means.

This isn’t just a theoretical exercise, either. As the BBC reports, recently a database was put up for sale that claims to have specific details on some 700 million users of the professional social network LinkedIn.

This wasn’t the result of a hacking type attack (strictly speaking). The individual selling the records claims that they used gathered up public-facing information, a process usually referred to as “scraping”, into their massive database of information. Patiently, they had used LinkedIn’s own systems for displaying that data to pull it out into a separate database, collating individual user profiles as they went.

The asking price for all that data? $US5,000 (roughly $6,800 or so in Australian dollars).

That might not seem like much – and it does show how an individual record itself might not be viewed as all that valuable if you calculate it out – but the reality here is that personal data does have a concrete, real-world value.

Anyone buying that data potentially has names, dates of birth, possibly phone numbers and addresses – a real hacker’s paradise for potentially fooling a bank into resetting passwords, or a government authority to issuing identity documents, and so on.

What’s key here is that this is data that has been handed over willingly by each person in turn. For its part LinkedIn claims no private data was actually unveiled, but then it might not need to be if that information was able to be seen in a public way.

All of which highlights a key issue with using these platforms, and it’s that we all need to think about what data we reveal about ourselves or others when we post, and how “public” it might be.

Congratulating that old friend on their birthday, even though they’ve not put their real date of birth into Facebook? That confirms when it is, and it’s a standard security question.

Posting photos of the cute grandkids playing in the street so that others in the family can see them? Innocent intent for sure, but also possibly a pic with geo-location data in it as well.

Even those “fun” quizzes that ask you to discover your Star Wars name (or others) by matching up birth months or pet names or whatever aren’t so innocent – because again, those are pretty standard security questions.

By themselves they seem simple, but if you combine that data with other details, you can start to build a very high-level profile of just about anyone who posts to social media this way.

Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use social media at all. It just means that, like the fact that it’s sensible to put on a car seat belt when you go driving, when you’re on social media, think not only about what you’re saying but also who might see it – and what it might reveal about you to the wider world.

The phishers might not care about your opinion of the daily news or the weather, but there’s more to your data than that.


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