Shares of technology companies were battered in today’s trading as fears of an increasing trade war between the U.S. and China and rising interest rates convinced worried investors to sell. The Nasdaq Composite Index, which is where many of the country’s largest technology companies trade their shares, was down 219.4 points, or 3 percent, to 7,028.48. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 395.8 points, or 1.6 percent, to 25,017.44. Facebook, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Apple, Netflix and Amazon all fell into bear trading territory, which means that the value of these stocks have slid more than 20 percent. CNBC has a handy chart illustrating just how bad things have been for the largest tech companies in the U.S. Some of the woes from tech stocks aren’t necessarily trade-war related. Facebook shares have been hammered on the back of a blockbuster New York Times report detailing the missteps and misdirection involved in the company’s response to Russian interference in the U.S. elections. Investors are likely concerned that the company’s margins will shrink as it spends more on content moderation. And Apple saw its shares decline on reports that sales of its new iPhones may not be as rosy as the company predicted — although the holiday season should boost those numbers. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Apple has cut the targets for all of its new phones amid uncertainties around sales. The Journal reported that in recent weeks, Apple had cut its production orders for all of the iPhone models it unveiled in September, which has carried through the supply chain. Specifically, targets for the new iPhone XR were cut by one-third from the 70 million units the company had asked suppliers to produce, according to WSJ sources. Those sales numbers had a ripple effect throughout Apple’s supply chain, hitting the stock prices for a number of suppliers and competitors. But the U.S. government’s escalating trade war with China is definitely a concern for most of the technology industry as tariffs are likely to affect supply chains and drive prices higher. According to a research note from Chris Zaccarelli, the chief investment officer at Independent Advisor Alliance, quoted in MarketWatch, interest rates and slowing global growth are adding to trade war pressures to drive tech stock prices down. “Tech continues to be caught in the crosshairs of the triple threat of rising interest rates, global growth fears and trade tensions with China,” Zaccarelli wrote. “Trade war concerns with China weigh on the global supply chain for large technology companies while global growth fears worry many that future earnings will be lower,” he said.
Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth. When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features. Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass. Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants. Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens. Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”. “It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible. Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba “We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.” Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims. Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through. At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps. But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback. “Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process. There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out. One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.) Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores. Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact. “The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.
The first 5G phones are set to start arriving next year. Motorola plans to bring next-gen connectivity via a Mod for the Z3, and companies like LG and OnePlus have promised to deliver the tech baked into handsets at some point in 2019. iPhone users, on the other hand, may have to wait a bit longer. The technology is, of course, an inevitability for Apple (along with everyone else, really), so it’s just a question of when. A new report from Fast Company (via the Verge) puts the timing around a year and half out. The “source with knowledge of Apple’s plans” put the 5G iPhone’s arrival at some point in 2020, with Intel supplying the tech this time out. Apparently Apple and Intel are going through a bit of a rough patch of late, courtesy of heat/battery issues with the 8060 5G modem. Of course, things aren’t rough enough for the company to hit up Qualcomm again. Given the on-going battle between the two companies, that’s probably a bridge too far. Instead, Apple’s holding out for Intel’s 8161 chip. 5G presents a solid opportunity for Intel to regain some of the substantial ground it ceded to Qualcomm in the mobile market the last time out.
Alongside today’s announcements of new iPads and Mac, Apple also rolled out an updated version of its Siri Shortcuts app. The app, first introduced at WWDC, arrived with iOS 12 as a way to unlock Siri’s potential by allowing users to create their own custom voice commands and workflows. Now, it can do a few new things, too – including setting alarms and timers, getting the latest weather, and more. The weather actions should be especially useful for those who have created custom morning routines with Siri Shortcuts, as you’ll now be able to use the latest weather in your shortcuts with the new “Get Current Weather” and “Get Weather Forecast” actions. Being able to ask for this sort of information is already among the top use cases for voice assistants, like Alexa and Google Assistant, so it makes sense to offer these sorts of commands to Siri Shortcuts users, as well. With these options, you can now ask for current conditions, forecasts (hourly, daily or 10 days out), or for any specific condition – like the humidity, chance of rain, air quality, and more. Also helpful are the new “Create Alarm,” “Toggle Alarm,” and “Start Timer” actions, which addressed another notable hole in the Shortcuts app at launch. Many people were confused about how to use alarms within the app because these actions weren’t available, and the request often came up on Apple’s own support site, too. The new release, Siri Shortcuts 2.1, addresses this problem. Other new actions include the ability to convert between a variety of units from the “Measurement” and “Convert Measurement” actions; the ability to get the most recent set of imported photos from the Photos app using the “Get Last Import” action; and the ability to star recording video immediately in the “Take Video” action. Interestingly, Apple didn’t call that last one out in the App Store update text – maybe because all the news attention a user-created shortcut called “Police” recently received. “Police” lets you speak a verbal command that performs a series of actions, including messaging a friend, turning down the phone’s brightness, and pausing the sounds on your phone. It then gives you a button to press to start to recording. Now, it seems you can tweak the “Police” shortcut to just begin recording right away. The updated app also fixes a problem with using Siri Shortcuts with HomePod. It will now automatically play back media from the HomePod over AirPlay, when you run the shortcut from HomePod via Siri – which just makes more sense. Siri Shortcuts version 2.1 is the first major update following the app’s release with iOS 12. However, the app today still largely appeals to iOS power users – those who were already comfortable using its predecessor, Workflow, and who understand how to build routines. More mainstream users are likely being exposed to Siri’s expanded powers through their favorite apps. With iOS 12, a number of top developers updated their apps with “Add to Siri” buttons that point out special tasks their apps can perform by way of voice. Early adopters on this front included Pandora, The Weather Channel, Sky Guide, Citymapper, Google News, TripIt, Trello, Monster, and others. The updated version of Siri Shortcuts is available for download from the App Store.
The new iPhones have some great new photography features, but the XR lacks a couple, for instance portrait mode for non-people subjects, owing to its sadly having only the one camera. So last year! Fortunately third party camera app Halide is here to help you get that professional-looking bokeh in your doggo shots. There’s more to this than simply the lack of a second camera. As you know, since you read my article, the future of photography is code — and the present too, really. What’s great about this is that features that might otherwise rely on specific hardware, a chip or sensor, can often be added in software. Not always, but sometimes. The future of photography is code In the case of the iPhone XR, the lack of a second camera means depth data is very limited, meaning the slack has to be taken up with code. The problem was that Apple’s machine learning systems on there are only trained to recognize and create high quality depth maps of people. Not dogs, cats, plants, or toy robots. People would be frustrated if the artificial background blur inexplicably got way worse when it was pointed at something that wasn’t a person, so the effect just doesn’t trigger unless someone’s in the shot. The Halide team, not bound by Apple’s qualms, added the capability back in by essentially taking the raw depth data produced by the XR’s “focus pixels,” and applying their own processing and blur effect to make sure it doesn’t do weird things. It works on anything that can realistically be separated from the background — pets, toy robots, etc — because it isn’t a system specific to human faces. As they write in a blog post explaining some of this at length, the effect isn’t perfect and because of how depth data is sent from the camera to the OS, you can’t preview the function. But it’s better than nothing at all, and maybe people on Instagram will think you shelled out for the XS instead of the XR (though you probably made the right choice). The update (1.11) is awaiting Apple approval and should be available soon. If you don’t already own Halide, it costs $6. Small price to pay for a velvety background blur in your chinchilla pics.
A China foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed yesterday’s damning report about spying on Trump’s unsecured iPhone, calling it, “fake news,” according to The South China Morning Post. She had a few other choice words for the president, suggesting he switch to a Huawei handset, or, failing that, just stop communicating. The shade amounts to a pretty solid bit of trolling from the spokesperson, who added, “Seeing this report, I feel there are those in America who are working all-out to win the Oscar for best screenplay.” The so-called experts on Trump over at the New York Times wrote a long and boring article on my cellphone usage that is so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it. I only use Government Phones, and have only one seldom used government cell phone. Story is soooo wrong! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2018 Yesterday’s New York Times report noted that, “American spy agencies, the officials said, had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.” Trump shot back on Twitter this morning, attempting to correct the record, while stating that he didn’t have time to do so, adding that it was “soooo wrong.” The president also insisted, contrary to the report, that he only uses “government phones.” Hua’s statement takes things a few steps further, while wading into various on-going U.S. bans against Huawei handsets and networking equipment over government spying concerns.
President Trump has three iPhones — two of them are “secure” and his third is a regular personal device. But whenever the commander-in-chief takes a call, his adversaries are said to be listening. That’s according to a new report by The New York Times, which put a spotlight on the president’s array of devices — and how he uses them. Trump reluctantly gave up his old and outdated Android-powered Samsung Galaxy phone when he took office in 2016 and was transitioned to Apple devices. iPhones have historically been seen as more secure than their Android counterparts. Although one of his devices is a regular iPhone that he can use to store his contacts, the two other iPhones for official business have been modified and locked down by the National Security Agency to prevent eavesdropping. Except — even when you’re in the White House, you can’t escape the aging, ailing and insecure cell network that blankets the capital and the vast majority of the U.S. A crucial cell network system that helps broker and pass information between networks — known as Signaling System No. 7 (or just SS7) — have made it easier in recent years for hackers to intercept phone calls and text messages. SS7 is the protocol that cell networks use to establish and route calls and texts, but SS7 so broken that codes used for two-factor authentication have been intercepted and used to break into and drain bank accounts. Those largely unfixed flaws make it far easier for governments — and anyone else — to tap into calls as they’re being made. That includes China, Russia — and any reasonably knowledgable attacker with the resources to pull off a successful intercept. Trump’s reliance on three iPhones may seem cumbersome, but it’s a step up from what his predecessor got. President Obama once likened his government-issued iPhone — given to him during his second term — to a “play phone [that] your 3-year-old has.” It was modified so that it could receive email but couldn’t make calls, and didn’t have a camera or microphone that foreign adversaries could use to glean any knowledge that the president was working on. He wasn’t even allowed to text — not necessarily for technical reasons, but to comply with the Presidential Records Act, which requires high-ranking government officials to store their official communications. As much as Trump has been given more leniency than Obama, the president is still supposed to receive new, clean devices every month to cut off any hidden persistent malware that could be lurking within. But that policy isn’t enforced as closely as it should be, the report says, because of the inconvenience of having to manually port over the old data to the new phone without accidentally transferring any lingering malware — if any. Although flaws in SS7 remain an issue for the average person, they’re apparently no match for the president’s own terrible “opsec” — or operational security, an awareness of the threats that he faces and the effort to mitigate them. Even if the Chinese or the Russians aren’t listening to his calls, they could always try their luck by hanging around one of his golf courses — where the president sent staff into a scramble after losing one of his phones in a golf cart. And this is someone we trust with the nuclear codes. Trump’s new cyber strategy eases rules on use of government cyberweapons
For weeks, a small team of security researchers and developers have been putting the finishing touches on a new privacy app, which its founder says can nix some of the hidden threats that mobile users face — often without realizing. Phones track your location, apps siphon off our data, and aggressive ads try to grab your attention. Your phone has long been a beacon of data, broadcasting to ad networks and data trackers, trying to build up profiles on you wherever you go to sell you things you’ll never want. Will Strafach knows that all too well. A security researcher and former iPhone jailbreaker, Strafach has shifted his time digging into apps for insecure, suspicious and unethical behavior. Last year, he found AccuWeather was secretly sending precise location data without a user’s permission. And just a few months ago, he revealed a list of dozens of apps that were sneakily siphoning off their users’ tracking data to data monetization firms without their users’ explicit consent. Now his team — including co-founder Joshua Hill and chief operating officer Chirayu Patel — will soon bake those findings into its new “smart firewall” app, which he says will filter and block traffic that invades a user’s privacy. “We’re in a ‘wild west’ of data collection,” he said, “where data is flying out from your phone under the radar — not because people don’t care but there’s no real visibility and people don’t know it’s happening,” he told me in a call last week. At its heart, the Guardian Mobile Firewall — currently in a closed beta — funnels all of an iPhone or iPad’s internet traffic through an encrypted virtual private network (VPN) tunnel to Guardian’s servers, outsourcing all of the filtering and enforcement to the cloud to help reduce performance issues on the device’s battery. It means the Guardian app can near-instantly spot if another app is secretly sending a device’s tracking data to a tracking firm, warning the user or giving the option to stop it in its tracks. The aim isn’t to prevent a potentially dodgy app from working properly, but to give users’ awareness and choice over what data leaves their device. Strafach described the app as “like a junk email filter for your web traffic,” and you can see from of the app’s dedicated tabs what data gets blocked and why. A future version plans to allow users to modify or block their precise geolocation from being sent to certain servers. Strafach said the app will later tell a user how many times an app accesses device data, like their contact lists. But unlike other ad and tracker blockers, the app doesn’t use overkill third-party lists that prevent apps from working properly. Instead, taking a tried-and-tested approach from the team’s own research. The team periodically scans a range of apps in the App Store to help identify problematic and privacy-invasive issues that are fed to the app to help improve over time. If an app is known to have security issues, the Guardian app can alert a user to the threat. The team plans to continue building machine learning models that help to identify new threats — including so-called “aggressive ads” — that hijack your mobile browser and redirect you to dodgy pages or apps. Screenshots of the Guardian app, set to be released in December (Image: supplied) Strafach said that the app will “err on the side of usability” by warning users first — with the option of blocking it. A planned future option will allow users to go into a higher, more restrictive privacy level — “Lockdown mode” — which will deny bad traffic by default until the user intervenes. What sets the Guardian app from its distant competitors is its anti-data collection. Whenever you use a VPN — to evade censorship, site blocks or surveillance — you have to put more trust in the VPN server to keep all of your internet traffic safe than your internet provider or cell carrier. Strafach said that neither he nor the team wants to know who uses the app. The less data they have, the less they know, and the safer and more private its users are. “We don’t want to collect data that we don’t need,” said Strafach. “We consider data a liability. Our rule is to collect as little as possible. We don’t even use Google Analytics or any kind of tracking in the app — or even on our site, out of principle.” The app works by generating a random set of VPN credentials to connect to the cloud. The connection uses IPSec (IKEv2) with a strong cipher suite, he said. In other words, the Guardian app isn’t a creepy VPN app like Facebook’s Onavo, which Apple pulled from the App Store for collecting data it shouldn’t have been. “On the server side, we’ll only see a random device identifier, because we don’t have accounts so you can’t be attributable to your traffic,” he said. “We don’t even want to say ‘you can trust us not to do anything,’ because we don’t want to be in a position that we have to be trusted,” he said. “We really just want to run our business the old fashioned way. We want people to pay for our product and we provide them service, and we don’t want their data or send them marketing.” “It’s a very hard line,” he said. “We would shut down before we even have to face that kind of decision. It would go against our core principles.” I’ve been using the app for the past week. It’s surprisingly easy to use. For a semi-advanced user, it can feel unnatural to flip a virtual switch on the app’s main screen and allow it to run its course. Anyone who cares about their security and privacy are often always aware of their “opsec” — one wrong move and it can blow your anonymity shield wide open. Overall, the app works well. It’s non-intrusive, it doesn’t interfere, but with the “VPN” icon lit up at the top of the screen, there’s a constant reminder that the app is working in the background. It’s impressive how much the team has kept privacy and anonymity so front of mind throughout the app’s design process — even down to allowing users to pay by Apple Pay and through in-app purchases so that no billing information is ever exchanged. The app doesn’t appear to slow down the connection when browsing the web or scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, on neither LTE or a Wi-Fi network. Even streaming a medium-quality live video stream didn’t cause any issues. But it’s still early days, and even though the closed beta has a few hundred users — myself included — as with any bandwidth-intensive cloud service, the quality could fluctuate over time. Strafach said that the backend infrastructure is scalable and can plug-and-play with almost any cloud service in the case of outages. In its pre-launch state, the company is financially healthy, scoring a round of initial seed funding to support getting the team together, the app’s launch, and maintaining its cloud infrastructure. Steve Russell, an experienced investor and board member, said he was “impressed” with the team’s vision and technology. “Quality solutions for mobile security and privacy are desperately needed, and Guardian distinguishes itself both in its uniqueness and its effectiveness,” said Russell in an email. He added that the team is “world class,” and has built a product that’s “sorely needed.” Strafach said the team is running financially conservatively ahead of its public reveal, but that the startup is looking to raise a Series A to support its anticipated growth — but also the team’s research that feeds the app with new data. “There’s a lot we want to look into and we want to put out more reports on quite a few different topics,” he said. As the team continue to find new threats, the better the app will become. The app’s early adopter program is open, including its premium options. The app is expected to launch fully in December.
There are some gadgets that are nice to have – iPhones, sous vide wands – and some gadgets that you must have. Proxxi fits in the latter camp. Proxxi is an always-on sensor that buzzes when it gets too close to high voltage electricity. Its worn by mechanics and electricians and warns them when they get too close to something dangerous. The Vancouver-based company just sold out of its initial commercial evaluation units and they’re building a huge business supplying these clever little bracelets to GE, Con Edison, Exelon, Baker Hughes, Schneider Electric and ABB. The bracelet connects to an app that lets workers silence warnings if they’re working on something that is energized and it also tracks the number of potentially harmful interactions wirelessly. This lets management know exactly where the trouble spots are before they happen. If, for example, it senses many close brushes with highly charged gear it lets management investigate and take care of the problem. Founded by Richard Sim and Campbell Macdonald, the company has orders for thousands of units, a testament to the must-have nature of their product. They raised $700,000 in angel funding. “All of this is critical to enterprises looking to mitigate risk from catastrophic injuries: operational disruption, PR nightmare, stock analyst markdowns and insurance premiums,” said Macdonald. “This represents a whole new class of hardware protection for industrial workers who are used to protection being process driven or protective gear like gloves and masks.” The company began when British Columbia Hydro tasked Sim to research a product that would protect workers from electricity. Macdonald, whose background is in hardware and programming, instead built a prototype and showed it around. “We initially found that all utilities and electricians wanted this,” he said. “The most exciting thing we have discovered in the last year is that the opportunity is much larger covering manufacturing, oil and gas, and construction.” “It’s a $40 billion problem,” he said. The goal is to create something that can be used all day. Unlike other sensors that are used only in dangerous situations, Proxxi is designed to be put on in the morning and taken off at night, after work. “There are other induction sensors out there, but they are focused on high risk scenarios, ie, people use them when they think they are at risk. The trouble is you can’t tell when you are at risk. You can’t sense that you have made a mistake in the safety process,” said Macdonald. The goal, he said, is to prevent human error and, ultimately, death. Not bad for a wearable.