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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Tax time plus tech equals easier scams, so don’t get fooled

It’s tax time for many Australians, with some of us dreading debts while others plan for what they’ll do with a refund. Before you reach that stage, however, you’ve got to file your actual tax return, and this is where many of us can come unstuck.

I’m not speaking here of the complexity of tax law, but instead the rising tide of scams designed to fool you into handing over your personal details and funds.

Technology has absolutely changed the way we file our taxes in Australia, and in many ways for the better. You can always employ the services of a qualified accountant to jump through the many obscure parts of tax law, but you’re also able to do so from the comfort of your own home online.

That’s a far cry from the days of having to file within business hours and on printed forms that did little to ease your confusion.

However, it’s also made it easier for unscrupulous types to try to panic taxpayers into handing over their personal details or money.

The ATO notes that it’s seen a recent surge in scam attempts using the WhatsApp platform, with those who receive a message being threatened with huge fines or even arrest if they don’t pay up immediately.

Quick tip here: The ATO isn’t on WhatsApp. Not even a teensy tiny bit.

I’ve not seen that one myself, but over the years I’ve certainly seen my fair share of dodgy scam attempts, from bogus NBN installer emails to tax “refund” messages via SMS.

There are a couple of very nasty ways these scams can sting you. Getting you to pay a “fine” that doesn’t exist is the most obvious, but even your personal details have plenty of value to scammers. They can use that detail to try to crack other accounts you may have, potentially obtain fraudulent identification documents, or simply sell onto other criminal types for that purpose.

So what should you look out for if you’re concerned?

Threats: Dealing with the ATO isn’t usually high on anyone’s list of favourite pastimes, but it’s simply a government department doing its job. That job typically doesn’t involve immediate threats of arrest or direct fines in most cases. It’s a very simply psychological trick designed to get you to panic, not think about what you’re doing and inadvertently reveal your valuable personal information.

Not knowing your details: The ATO has you on file as a taxpayer. Yes, if you contact them yourself, they’ll ask for identity verification to ensure that they’re talking to the right taxpayer. But if they call, text or email you, they should know exactly who they’re talking to. Don’t be fooled into providing scans of valuable documents, or even personal details like dates of birth. If you’re concerned that contact could be genuine, take notes and contact the ATO directly via its website. Never use the phone number or website provided in a contact email or call — grab it yourself to ensure it’s genuine.

Dodgy payment methods: The ATO is part of the Federal Goverment, which means it prefers payment in actual cash. Yes, that can be via an Internet transfer in this day and age, but never in any kind of cryptocurrency, or for that matter iTunes Gift Cards or similar. What exactly is the ATO meant to do with all that iTunes credit anyway? The reason that crooks like those kinds of payments is that they’re either tough to trace or easily onsold for actual money. Either way, you’re out of pocket.


Your “waterproof” phone isn’t really waterproof.

The ACCC is engaging in court action against South Korean technology giant Samsung.

The ACCC alleges that Samsung has made false representation around its popular Galaxy smartphones. Specifically a feature of the higher end models, typically the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones that offer water resistance.

The ACCC’s claims that Samsung’s advertising shows Galaxy phones being used in or around swimming pools or in ocean environments.

All very suitable for the Australian marketplace, you might think. That’s exactly where we tend to like to spend our summer days, and even some of our winter ones too.

There’s one problem here. While Samsung, and many of its competitors in the premium smartphone space offer IP-rated water resistance as a phone feature, that’s not the same thing as “waterproof”. It’s not even close.

What an IP rating provides is a level of what’s called Ingress Protection, specifically against dust and water.

The first number in an IP rating relates to its ability to resist dust (or other fine particles) entering the delicate components within a phone. The second number relates to its ability to resist water entering the phone. Water is an issue not only for components but also the electrical flow through your phone’s circuitry.

Most of Samsung’s recent phones have been IP68 rated. That second number suggests that it should survive being immersed in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of up to 1.5 metres.

Isn’t that basically saying it’s “waterproof”? Surely a quick swim or an underwater snap of your grandkids should fine, right?

It might sound like it, but there’s a big caveat here. IP testing is done in lab conditions to maintain consistency, but that means it’s using fresh lab water only.

Not salt water as you’d find in the sea, or for that matter chlorinated water as you’d find in many pools. The effect of those additional chemical elements can be extremely hazardous to your phone’s overall life expectancy, especially if they build up over time.

They can corrode away the precise seals that offer water resistance, or bridge gaps in electrical circuitry, causing phones to fail.

Most smartphones have water sensors in them so that even if you do take them in for a supposed warranty repair, it’ll quickly become evident that they’ve been effectively drowned.

It is important to note that the ACCC isn’t alleging that Samsung got its science wrong. Simply that the advertising around its phones suggested scenarios where the phone might have survived that weren’t in fact realistically feasible.

It’s also worth noting that plenty of other manufacturers offer “water resistance” as a headline feature but don’t back it up with warranty support. Apple’s premium iPhone lines have IP68 ratings, but there’s a specific line in Apple’s Australian warranties that states it won’t cover water ingress events if your iPhone stops working either.

What’s the practical takeaway here? If you have a phone with a level of water resistance, getting it wet in regular rain should be no hassle at all, and even a small dunk in other water may be survivable. But it’s hardly assured. I can’t say whether or not the ACCC will prevail against Samsung, which has said it’ll fight the court battle. But in the meantime, I’m generally keeping my phone dry anyway.


Being tracked online is annoying, but it’s not hard to limit

The modern Internet runs on advertising, whether it’s those annoying pop-up or obscuring ads that get in the way of the content you really want to read, or pre-roll ads on video streaming sites.

What’s less well understood by many everyday consumers is how all of these ads essentially play “together” to build a profile of your interests and then target you around ads you’re more likely to click on.

Spend a lot of time on, say a forum dedicated to bushwalking? You’re probably going to see a lot of ads for hiking boots, maybe tents or new UV-rated hats to keep sunburn at bay.

Go searching for a deal on a new mattress for your bed on Google? The odds are very good you’ll be hit with sponsored content inserts in your Facebook feed for the next month.

It’s a complex web of cookie tracking, “invisible” pixels that load when you look at a page and technologies that slowly build up a picture of your interests.

Advertisers — most notably Google — argue that it means you’re served ads that are much more likely to be of interest to you.

At the same time they can feel very invasive. That’s especially true given the use of machine learning to widen those profiles, which can sometimes verge on seeming like it’s spying on you.

To take the example above, if you spent a lot of time researching bushwalking but also spent time researching the movies of Humphrey Bogart, an AI-led search approach might assume you’re an older Internet user.

Alongside your hiking boot ads, you might get served a bunch of ads for arthritis cures. Why? Because those two seemingly unrelated details might match together well for an older bushwalker with sore joints.

There’s genuine concern here around general privacy, but there are steps you can take minimise the impact this kind of tracking has on you.

The folks behind the Firefox browser recently created a rather cheeky site at https://trackthis.link/ that mass spams your browser with 100 different sites to fool trackers into thinking your interests are wildly different than reality. You don’t have to be using Firefox to use the site, although it’s clearly also a way to promote an alternative browser option.

You click on a link, it opens the 100 tabs according to the profile you chose. It’s wise to make sure your Internet connection and computer are up for that kind of processing abuse first! From that, any tracker would add those “interests” to your profile, making it less useful in that tracked advertising sense.

It’s a stunt in many ways, and a brute force one at that. There are simpler ways to limit the quantity of tracking that happens online. Logging into a Google or Facebook account can be super-handy for automatically filling in passwords and remembering search history, but it’s also the prime way you’re tracked across multiple web sites — not just Google or Facebook.

There are web browser plugins such as Ghostery or AdBlock that can limit the number of ads you ultimately see, although I’d suggest exercising caution with those.

They can work, but plenty of sites with entirely decent content rely on those ads to keep the lights on. For sites that abuse ad content to a ridiculous extreme, go nuts, but don’t forget to allow ads — usually called “whitelisting” — on the sites you treasure. Visit them too often with no ad revenue, and they might not be there much longer.


As the NBN nears completion, it’s smart to plan ahead

We’re nearing the end of the build phase of the National Broadband Network, which is due to be “completed” by 2020.

I don’t want to touch on the politics of it to speak of. Many Australians are already on the NBN by now. If you’re not, you’re probably within the typical 18-month window for switchover from legacy broadband services to it. A smaller quantity will be waiting for the build to be completed.

That 18 month window is important. Optus has recently fallen afoul of the ACCC for pressuring customers to switch faster. Still, the 18 month period isn’t a free pass to ignore your switchover.

If you’re on a fixed line NBN connection, your internet and phone services will switch entirely to NBN alternatives. For those on fixed wireless or satellite you can retain a standard copper phone line for now alongside your NBN broadband connection.

Keen and geeky types (like myself) are likely to make the jump sooner rather than later, but what’s the “ideal” period in which to decide to switch over?

Unless you are that keen, it’s not going to be as soon as it’s available, but you shouldn’t leave it until the last minute either.

The last part of that 18 month cycle is a key “peak” period in any area for demand for an NBN installation. That means that wait times can be lengthy.

Leave it too late, you run the risk of losing telecommunication services entirely.

Then there’s the question of how much you want to spend. NBN Co, the company that is building the network is keen to get consumers to sign up to higher speed plans.

As long as your NBN technology supports it those are often a good match for families, or anyone who streams a lot of TV or needs the bandwidth.

Within the typical NBN 50 or NBN 100 speed brackets, you can expect to pay between $60-$100 per month for access. Those prices should get you unlimited data, and may score you a “free” phone line depending on your provider.

If your usage needs are more modest, you can consider the slower 25 or 12Mbps plans, although the former are rather thin on the ground right now.

Incentives from NBN Co mean that an NBN 25 plan costs an ISP about as much as an NBN 50 plan. As a result many have dropped them off the radar entirely.

NBN 12 plans are only suitable for folks who dip online intermittently for matters such as email or light web browsing.

Above all, what you should do when choosing an NBN plan is compare your options.

One of the key planks of building the NBN was to increase consumer choice. There’s no segment of the network where you don’t have a significant choice of providers.

Staying with your existing ISP is always an option, but when they’re all selling the same thing — access to the NBN — it really pays to properly compare. ACCC guidelines mean that most providers now detail their typical evening speeds as part of their plan advertising.

These are lower than the top speed of a plan, because they represent how well each ISP typically services plans at the busiest time of the day. They’re a great way to compare beyond the simple monthly plan cost, because they’ll give you a more solid idea of the speeds you can expect to see.

While the formal “build” part of the NBN process may be nearing completion, it’s a network that will need to be upgraded over time.

What that means is that it’s well worth revisiting your NBN plan every 12 months or so. That’s both to check if you’re on the right speed for your needs, as well ensuring that you’re not paying too much.


Apple’s MacBook Pro recall highlights the laptop battery problem

Do you own a MacBook Pro? A lot of people do – in recent years while many manufacturers have struggled to expand their market share, Apple’s ridden a wave of iPhone popularity to sell folks on its MacBook line of laptop computers. They’re sold on the basis of Apple’s premium brand, and its general reputation for quality.

If you own a MacBook Pro built in 2015, however, Apple recently had some bad news for you. A select batch of MacBook Pro models built in 2015 have a an issue where they “may overheat and pose a safety risk”.

That’s Apple’s polite (and probably legally accurate without admitting as much) way of saying that they could catch fire. Most laptops, including all MacBook models ship with sealed lithium ion batteries, so it’s not a simple matter of popping out a battery the way you might do in a flashlight or TV remote control.

If you want to check your own MacBook Pro – and you absolutely should, because laptop fires are nothing to mess around with, it’s easy to determine.

Click on the Apple logo at the top left of your display, and then “About This Mac”. This will pop up a screen that first tells you your current macOS version, and then a line that details the date of your particular MacBook. In the case of the model I’m typing this on, for example, it’s a MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016).

The affected models are all identified as “MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2015)”. If that’s what you’ve got, take note of its serial number on the same screen you got the model number from, and head to Apple’s recall page at apple.com/support/15-inch-macbook-pro-battery-recall

Enter your serial number there, and it’ll determine if you’ve got one of the affected machines. It seems that not every MacBook Pro of that era is affected. I’ve got a Mid 2015 MacBook Pro, but its serial number reports back just fine. If you do have an affected machine, Apple will replace the battery free of charge. That removes any potential risk, and you also get what should be a fresh battery that will have better battery life than any battery on a four year old laptop would.

Apple hasn’t said what the core cause is here. It could be the battery itself, and we’ve certainly seen more than a few recalls of this type over the years. The reality of lithium ion batteries in laptops is that the chemistry that underlies their power does degrade over time. Typically that’s expressed in lower overall battery life, and that will happen even if you don’t use them very much at all. In some cases, however, it can get more volatile than that, which is clearly the problem Apple’s facing.

An older laptop – it doesn’t have to be a MacBook and could be any Windows laptop too – will have less battery life than when you purchased it, and that’s to be expected. However, if you notice other unusual battery characteristics, like really excessive heat on a unit that’s otherwise been running cool, or especially if the base of a laptop bulges in any way, that’s a sure-fire sign of more serious battery trouble. Back up your data – which you should be doing on a regular basis anyway – and check your warranty status and repair options pronto. A battery repair or replacement, or even a new laptop as a prospect is a whole lot cheaper than burning your home down or suffering injury as a result.


Apple kills iTunes and 32-bit apps in macOS Catalina

At its WorldWide Developer Conference recently, Apple laid out its software vision for the next version of macOS. That’s the software that runs its Mac line of computers.

If you’ve got an iMac, MacBook or a Mac Pro, the next version of macOS will functionally be macOS 10.15. You won’t see that version number too heavily in usage, however. Like the most recent macOS upgrades, it’s been given a suffix that relates to a California landmark. For macOS 10.15, that means it’s macOS Catalina.

There are a number of smaller tweaks in macOS Catalina aimed at improving the user experience. I’ll focus here on two key considerations before you upgrade.

The first is the “feature” that drew quite a few headlines before WWDC itself. That’s the news that for macOS Catalina, Apple will kill off iTunes.

Well… sort of.

What it’s actually killing is the iTunes application on MacOS.

Before you panic about your purchases, what it’s doing here is splitting out iTunes into separate Music, Podcasts and Apple TV apps for respective content types.

It’s exactly what it already does for iOS devices, in fact. If you manage a backup of your iPhone or iPad from iTunes currently, you’ll be able to do so directly from the macOS Finder under macOS Catalina.

Any and all existing purchase rights will still exist, and iTunes as a brand will be accessible if you do want to buy music, TV shows or movies. You’ll just do so through either the Music or Apple TV apps — and no doubt, Apple will try to sell you on a few Apple Music subscriptions along the way.

I’d argue pretty strongly that it’s a mercy killing. As an application, iTunes started life as a simple music management tool, and back when all we had were iPods, that was fine. As Apple’s smartphone and tablet strategy emerged, it suddenly became the home for video, podcasts, music subscriptions, app purchases and even Apple’s stillborn social media network, Ping.

If you’re a PC owner who currently uses iTunes, it appears that there will be no change in how you use Apple devices. That indicates that Apple intends to keep developing iTunes as a Windows application for the foreseeable future in any case.

The other change that’s coming in macOS Catalina is one that you may already be aware of if you’re running its predecessor, macOS Mojave. Currently if you launch an application that uses 32-bit code on macOS Mojave, you get a warning that it may not be supported under future versions of macOS.

The macOS version it’s talking about is macOS Catalina. It’s 64-bit only from here for macOS applications. That’s a step that Apple took some time ago on iOS devices, with older apps losing compatibility unless they were upgraded to 64-bit.

What that does mean is that if you’ve got apps that currently display that message on launch, it’s well worth checking if there’s an update available. There may already be a 64-bit version of that app you could be running. If there isn’t, it’s worth checking with the developers to see what their 64-bit plans are, or searching out suitable replacement applications that can manage the same kinds of tasks.

We won’t see macOS Catalina actually appear as a direct download option for some months, although Apple will offer up a public beta of the operating environment if you’re particularly keen. Backing up all your data in that case is an absolute must, and it’s not wise to do on your everyday machine.

Apple provides OS upgrades for free, and for a range of machines that steps back quite some time. Here’s the full compatibility list of Macs that can take the macOS Catalina upgrade:

  • MacBook Pro (mid 2012 and newer)
  • MacBook Air (mid 2012 and newer)
  • MacBook (early 2015 and later)
  • iMac (late 2012 or newer)
  • iMac Pro (2017 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (late 2013 or newer)
  • Mac Mini (late 2012 or newer)

If you’re left wondering just how old your Mac actually is, click on the Apple logo in the top left hand corner and then choose “About this Mac” in the dropdown list that appears. It will tell you the current version of macOS you’re running, and below that the specifics of your Mac’s make and model. For the most part, it’s basically any Mac you could have purchased from 2012 or newer; the iMac Pro only came into being in 2017 which is why it stands out in that list.


AMD and Intel go to war at Computex, but it’s a war where consumers win.

At the heart of every computer lies a processor of some kind, whether you’re talking the cheapest student laptop or the highest-end video rendering desktop. In the computing market there are two primary competing companies with serious investments in providing the processor that will run your next computer: Intel and AMD.

Of the two, Intel is the better known, if only because it’s spent serious money convincing hardware makers to include its jingle in their advertising for new computers. That Intel jingle isn’t there because the manufacturers are showing off; money changed hands to make it happen.

It’s been an interesting race to follow watching AMD and Intel fight it out for processor supremacy. For the past decade, more or less, Intel has dominated, not only in sales figures but in raw performance. That’s left most AMD systems being sold as budget models, rather than true performance powerhouses.

That could all be about to change the next time you update your laptop or desktop. At the recent Computex trade show in Taiwan, AMD came out swinging with the third generation of its “Ryzen” line of processors. In keeping with AMD’s lineage, there are definitively “cheap” 3rd generation Ryzen processors, but there’s also some seriously grunty engines to be had. The top tier of the Ryzen family is the Ryzen 9 3900X is expected to sell by itself for around $US499 when it goes on sale in early July.

Unless you’re playing at the bleeding edge of PC building, you probably won’t see them in more regular commercial machines for some time, but what’s really interesting here is how AMD’s taken on Intel in the efficiency for price space — and appears to be winning. The AMD Ryzen 9 3900X has a 3.8 GHz base clock speed, 4.6 GHz boost and a hefty 70MB of cache. That adds up to some serious performance potential.

Intel wasn’t just at Computex to show off some marketing jingles, launching its own 10th Generation core processors, built on a 10 nanometre process. It’s something of a simplification, but the smaller you can build silicon processors, the more (roughly) efficient you can make them, and 10nm manufacturing is something that Intel’s struggled to scale upwards with in the past few years.

By way of contrast, the new AMD Ryzen chips are built on a 7nm process. It’s not unheard of for AMD to leap ahead of Intel so decisively — but it is rare.

Intel’s new processors are powerful, but they’re also more power-hungry, which means they need more cooling. Intel charges a premium for them, too, compared to their AMD equivalents. I’ve not been able to test them myself as yet, but early benchmarks have suggested that this round of the processor wars pretty cleanly falls AMD’s way.

Intel’s pitching the new 10nm chips primarily to ultraportable laptops at first, which was why so many manufacturers opted to show off some truly weird and wonderful designs for multi-display laptops with unique designs. AMD is pitching more towards the desktop crowd at first — the kinds of folks who build their own, or buy high-end PCs for gaming or high-end video work.

So what’s the takeaway here? The reality for most everyday computer users is that the middle ground is really where the value is. There’s still some value in buying as close to the top of the technology tree as you can, because your investment will stay current and compatible that bit longer. The problem there is that for most of us, simply browsing the web or a few documents, even a mid-range PC has plenty of power.

Where these new processors make things interesting is by redefining that cutting edge. This year’s premium processors mean that last year’s flagships are now shifted towards that middle ground, and the mid-market models shift down towards more budget lines. By raising the game for the high end, even the computers we all buy in larger numbers get better.


Huawei’s US ban could have serious effects in Australia

The US government recently listed Huawei as a company that posed a national security risk. As a result, barred US companies from dealing with the Chinese telecommunications giant.

There’s considerable argument on both sides as to whether Huawei does present a risk. That’s a matter of security, international geopolitics and trade negotiations between China and the USA.

For your purposes, it’s more interesting to note what the US ban means if you’ve already got a Huawei device, or indeed if you were thinking of buying one.

In Australia, Huawei’s not part of the 5G rollout that’s happening right now. It does have a considerable business selling mobile phones and laptops. At a technology level it’s doing some remarkable things. The Huawei P30 Pro is its current flagship handset. On every significant metric I can test a smartphone for, it outranks the best phones you can buy from makers such as Apple or Samsung.

However, the US ban creates a big problem for Huawei. One of the first companies to respond to the ban was Google, makers of the Android operating system that phones such as the P30 Pro run on. To keep compliance with US law, Google isn’t allowed to export to Huawei — and that includes software. Since Google’s announced it can’t deal with Huawei, we’ve seen companies such as Qualcomm and Intel join in the block. That doesn’t only affect Huawei’s Android phones, but also its Matebook laptop computers.

But what does that mean for existing owners of Huawei phones and laptops?

Well, in the immediate term, not that much at all. The US authorities extended a 90-day window to Huawei in order to allow network building in other parts of the world to continue, as well as provide software updates for Huawei devices.

What that means is that the essential Android security updates should flow through to your Huawei phone. Google’s also said that its current interpretation of the block means that it doesn’t have to cut access to Google services such as Gmail, YouTube or Google Maps on existing Huawei devices. Basically speaking, if you’ve got a Huawei Android phone, it should continue to operate as normal.

What you may not see, however, is the upgrade later in the year to the next full version of Android. Android Q, as it’s currently known, will be released outside the 90-day window, and Google wouldn’t be allowed to supply it to existing Huawei handsets.

Where the gears do grind to a halt for Huawei is for future device ambitions. If the block remains in place, it won’t be able to produce Android handsets with essential Google services on board. That means no Gmail, YouTube or Google Maps apps pre-installed, and what’s more, no access to the Google Play store so you could load them on.

This isn’t entirely new territory for Huawei. In its home Chinese market, those exact same Google services are explicitly blocked by the Chinese government, so the “Android” phones it sells there skips out on those services. Google can’t actually stop Huawei from grabbing the core parts of Android, because it’s made available under an open source licence. But that’s not a prospect that’s likely to be appealing to an Australian market where we’re very much used to being in either the Android/Google or iOS/Apple camps for our smartphone purchases.

What about laptops? Huawei’s share of the local notebook market isn’t huge, and we’ve already seen the existing Huawei Matebooks pulled from some local retailers. That’s almost certainly down to concerns around how any future warranty repairs might be handled.

If Huawei can’t source replacement motherboards, processors or other needed parts, this could be a genuine concern. If you do already have a Huawei Matebook, though, the warranty should still stand, and Microsoft’s licence should be with you for the copy of Windows on it. As such, the vital security and version updates should continue on those devices.

If you were considering a Huawei phone or laptop, it’s certainly a matter that should give you pause for thought. Now, it’s entirely possible that the politics of the matter will be resolved, and it’s feasible Huawei may continue selling technology in Australia for some time. However, if the ban is enforced over a longer timeframe, it’s feasible that Huawei — already banned from being part of Australia’s 5G rollout – could leave the local market entirely.


Two factor authentication isn’t perfect — but it’s desirable

These days we’re expected to have passwords for just about everything. Our social media accounts need a password. So do our email accounts, our online banking and much more.

I’ve written in the past how it’s a very bad idea to use the same password for multiple services. The easy solution there is to use a password management app. This lets you keep track of many passwords with ease.

A good password is a bit like a simple lock. It’ll keep most simple thieves out, but not everyone.

A good password won’t help if the service you have the password with has a large-scale security breach.

It’s like having the keys you use to keep your home or goods secure with copied many times. What’s worse, if the service you’re using doesn’t tell you there’s been a breach, you may not know that your password is no longer secure.

There’s even a secondary problem here. There’s an entire (and entirely illegal) business model in sending threatening emails that appear to contain your passwords and scaring folks into paying blackmail money via cryptocurrencies.

They’re essentially a bluff. Your password may have fallen out of a public leak of databases, but they’re rarely tied to any account. Threats of taking over your webcam and recording you aren’t particularly credible if you’ve got an otherwise well-secured PC with up-to-date security patches and anti-virus software running.

The general solution that many services propose is the use of multi-factor authentication.

This switches from using only a password to a password and some other form of authentication system.

This could be a one-time SMS messages, apps such as Google Authenticator or fob or USB key that generates a secure code when used.

The idea here is that even if your username and password are compromised – whether it’s your fault or not – there’s a second layer of protection in play. To go back to the lock analogy, you’re adding a second lock to your front door to ensure that only you can gain access.

Now, it’s important to note that multi-factor authentication isn’t 100% secure.

If somebody’s determined enough to target you – and if they’re ready to spend time and money doing it – the risks are higher.

That’s more of a concern for folks with more of a risk profile – so, for example, celebrities, those involved in politics or more lucrative businesses or journalists – than it is for the mass population.

You’re far more likely to hit with a mass attack, run by a software bot than a targeted attack.

Still, you might be wondering how secure that kind of extra authentication actually is.

Google recently ran a study into the level of security you get adding one additional factor of authentication is to an account.

In its study, using relatively simple 2-factor authentication (so password+one other locking mechanism), using an SMS code blocked 100% of bot-based attacks, 96% of bulk phishing attacks and 76% of targeted attacks.

SMS codes can be intercepted and tweaked, so Google’s recommendation there is to use an on-device prompt instead. This goes only to a pre-arranged phone device, so only you as the holder of that phone can access it. By switching to that, 100% of bots, 99% of bulk attacks and even 90% of targeted attacks were blocked in Google’s study.

Quite which type of authentication factor you can add to an online account will vary depending on what each provider supports.

It’s worth talking to your bank, email provider and others about adding at least one extra factor of authentication for those accounts that you really want to keep secure.

Yes, it’s a little more work to undertake, but it’s also smart work that can save you significant heartache and avoid potential financial loss down the track. A few seconds more to log in and really make sure that you are who you say you are is a pretty small price to pay in return.


Google’s search is going visual in a big way

Google has just held its annual I/O developer’s conference, where it lets the folks who do the hard programming work into making apps and services built on Google frameworks get together to learn what’s new.

At IO 2019, Google released new hardware such as the much more affordable Google Pixel 3a, which is available in Australia now. It also launched a new Nest-branded Home Hub with embedded camera that we won’t see for a few months.

Hardware isn’t really Google’s game, though, there’s little doubt that if Google lost search supremacy to Microsoft’s Bing or the DuckDuckGo engine, its business model would take a serious hit.

Text-based search may feel like a “solved problem” for Google. It’s actually something it constantly refines. This is at least to keep ahead of folks who try to “game” Google’s algorithm to ensure higher search visibility.

The business of ranking is only half the problem, however. There’s also how you present that information to a worldwide audience. At its I/O conference, Google announced smart new ways you’ll soon be able to see and experience search results.

The headline feature for search is the inclusion of Augmented Reality (AR) into search results. Google showed this off on stage with an Android phone searching for Great White Sharks.

You could go surfing off the coastline of Australia to try to get up close and personal with a Great White. That’s a risky proposition without a supply of oxygen, a shark cage and, frankly, nerves of steel.

The way Google’s AR search would have it, you’d end up with a virtual Great White projected via your phone’s display instead.
A good way to get a visual appreciation of a shark, with none of the risk. Google’s rolling out the new AR search over the coming months. If you’re on a compatible device, you should start to see AR results as an option — depending, of course, on whether anyone’s built an AR model of what you want.

Google is also making some significant visual changes to its Google Lens search system.

Google Lens uses your phone’s camera and some pretty smart machine learning to give you contextual information about whatever it’s looking at.

Point it at the Sydney Opera House and it can tell you plenty about this iconic Australian landmark. Point it at the MCG, and you might just get the cricket scores.

Google’s enhancing Lens by adding features like restaurant menu scans, so you can see images of popular dishes on a menu that Google recognises.

That works when (and if) people have saved photos of those dishes to Google’s drive service, because it can then link the geographic data (and in some cases the text that accompanies it) to the location you’re in. Doing so in real time is rather neat.

With an eye to the developing world, Google’s also bringing its Google Lens product to low-cost Android Go phones. Here in Australia we’re not developing, but you can pick up a number of Google Android Go handsets at low prices, and pretty soon you’ll be able to use Lens in the same way as a full Android phone. What’s more, Google Lens will be able to read text in signs out loud.

That’s quite a useful feature in countries where literacy rates are low, but one that could also be handy for folks here in Australia, whether it’s those learning English, or for when you’re faced with a sign in another language and you’re simply curious.


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