Monthly Archives: December 2013

Do you use Verizon? You may want to read this!

Verizon to publish reports on government requests for customer data.

Verizon said Thursday it will publish reports beginning early next year on the number of government requests it receives for customer data, setting a significant precedent for the telecommunications industry, which has kept that information private.

Verizon, the nation’s biggest wireless provider, has been under immense pressure from shareholders and privacy groups after revelations that the National Security Agency obtained mountains of private information from the company and other telecom firms, including AT&T. Those disclosures, in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have damaged the reputation of U.S. communications companies around the world.

Privacy advocates have long complained that the telecom industry is far more cooperative with government surveillance efforts than technology firms such as Google and Twitter.

The company will become the first in the telecom industry to provide details on government demands for data. Internet companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Apple already publish transparency reports that include how many federal, state and local demands for data they receive.

Such reports offer only broad ranges of government requests, including those from local police departments, the FBI and the NSA. The reports do not provide an agency-by-agency breakdown, though several companies have gone to court seeking the right to offer more detailed information.

Bound by court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, these companies have been prevented from detailing the number of requests by the NSA. But Verizon said it is in talks with government officials to do so.

“In the past year, there has been greater focus than ever on the use of legal demands by governments around the world to obtain customer data,” Randal S. Milch, Verizon’s general counsel, said in a blog post.

“Like others in the industry, the aim of our transparency report is to keep our customers informed about government requests for their data and how we respond to those requests. Verizon calls on governments around the world to provide more information on the types and amounts of data they collect and the legal processes that apply when they do so,” Milch said.

Verizon said its first report on 2013 data will be released early next year and updates will appear semiannually.

Shareholders of AT&T and Verizon have demanded that the companies disclose NSA data requests, saying the firms’ participation in an NSA surveillance program has hurt its reputation with customers.

Stockholders and privacy advocates applauded Verizon’s move and urged the rest of the telecom industry to follow suit.

“They are first telecom company to do this, which is significant, and we are gratified that at least initially Verizon seems to be taking the steps we put forward in our resolutions for Verizon and AT&T,” said Jonas Kron, a senior vice president for Trillium Asset Management. Trillium filed a shareholder resolution with Verizon’s board demanding transparency reports.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also has called for greater public disclosure of data requests by government.

Markey privately obtained the data through his own investigation of telecom companies.

“For the past two years, I have queried the major wireless carriers for this information, and the data they have provided to me has been eye-opening. We clearly need more sunlight in this area,” Markey said in a statement.

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Apple’s Mac Pro goes on sale; top-end model costs $9,600

The new workstation costs $3,000 for the basic but still powerful model, but upgrading the processor, storage, and graphics quickly raises the price.

The Mac Pro is a compact cylinder, but its design won't be so sleek after people plug in power cords, video capture hardware, external storage systems, Ethernet cables, or other devices.

The $3,000 entry-level configuration of Apple’s new Mac Pro is nothing to sneeze at — but if you want more horsepower, the price goes up rapidly as high as $9,600.

Apple’s distinctively glossy black and cylindrical Mac Pro just went on sale Thursday, with a ship date of December 30. Apple teased customers for more than a year about the new machine, which replaces a much bulkier and now quite elderly Mac Pro. Mac Pros are geared for people with demanding computing chores, with video editing at the top of the list: each step up in computing power means that editors can add new effects, experiment with more looks for a scene, or share rough cuts sooner.

The basic model of the distinctive workstation includes a 3.7 GHz quad-core Intel Xeon E5 processor with a 10MB memory cache, 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 error-correcting memory, dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics chips with 2GB of video memory each, and a 256GB SSD whose flash memory is connected via the PCI Express bus for faster performance than ordinary SATA-connected SSDs.

It’s also got four USB 3.0 ports, six Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI 1.4 port, two gigabit Ethernet ports, 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless networking, a headphone jack, a digital or analog audio output jack, and a built-in speaker.

If you have another $1,000 to spend and you don’t want a new MacBook Air, you can pick a higher-end Mac Pro configuration. It’s got a six-core Xeon E5 with 12MB of cache, 16GB of memory, and dual AMD Firepro D500 graphics chips.

If you want to go beyond the basics, the sticker shock really kicks in. Other upgrade options are as follows (or check the graphic at the bottom of this story):

Moving to a 512GB SSD costs an extra $300, and moving to 1GB costs $800, for example.

Processor upgrades give customers more processing cores — handy for rendering video or other processor-intensive chores — but lower clock speeds.

The entry-level model Xeon upgrades are as follows: 3.5GHz 6-core chip with 12MB of adds $500.00, a 3.0GHz 8-core chip with 25MB of cache adds $2,000, and a 2.7GHz 12-core chip with 30MB of cache adds $3,500.00.

The Mac Pro is built in the US.

For the higher-end Mac Pro, moving to the 3.0GHz 8-core chip with 25MB of cache adds $1,500.00, and the 2.7GHz 12-core chip with 30MB of cache adds $3,000.

Upgrading the basic configuration to 16GB of memory costs another $100, 32GB costs $500 more, and 64GB costs $1,300 more. Upgrading the higher-end model to 32GB costs $400 more, and to 64GB costs $1,200 more.

For graphics upgrades, the lower-end starter model offers two upgrades: dual AMD FirePro D500 graphics chips with 3GB video RAM for another $400, or dual D700 graphics chips with 6GB of VRAM for another $1,000. The higher-end Mac Pro offers only the latter upgrade, which costs another $600.

Adding Apple’s mouse or trackpad costs another $69, and adding the company’s wireless keyboard also costs $69.

The Mac Pro doesn’t have a monitor, of course, but you can add an Apple 27-inch Thunderbolt display for $1,000 or a 32-inch Sharp PN-K321 4K display for $3,595.

Shipping is free, though.

The upgrade options for the Mac Pro quickly push up the workstation's price from its base-model $1,000 configuration.


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TVs at CES 2014: Bye-bye 1080p plasma, hello 4K LED LCD

The Consumer Electronics Show is all about TVs, and this year we expect the usual slew of announcements and buzzwords, as well as one conspicuous absentee: Panasonic plasma.

lot of stuff happened in 2013, and it was an especially eventful year in the TV market.

For the first time mainstream TVs with 4K resolution, all of them LED LCDs, appeared–and then promptly fell in price. After years of fits and starts, the first OLED TVs went on sale — and stayed expensive. 3D TV basically died with the ESPN pullout, and Evolution Kitsinput lag andprojectors were all newcomers to CNET’s ever-evolving TV reviews process.

The biggest change happened on October 31, however, when Panasonic solemnly announcedthat it would no longer manufacture plasma TVs. For picture quality enthusiasts the world over, the question immediately became “What’s next?”

CES 2014 will have the immediate answers.

Filling plasma’s shoes with LED
First off, LG and Samsung will most likely introduce and sell new models of plasma TVs in 2014. Heck, the successor to the Samsung PNF8500 plasma, even if it’s exactly the same, is my odds-on favorite for best non-OLED TV of the year.

Speaking of OLED, I don’t expect those TVs to fall much in price in 2014. Yes, leading TV makers will likely introduce new versions, and some might even be larger than 55 inches and/oractually flat, but you still won’t be able to afford one. 2014 absolutely will not be the year OLED goes mainstream, and I don’t even expect to hear much about it at CES.

That leaves LED LCD to fill the void left by plasma. I’m pessimistic that any can reach the heights of bang/buck that the Panasonic S60 and ST60 achieved, but products like the Vizio E series — with its affordable, effective local dimming — might point the way.


Help me, local dimming Kenobi; you’re my only hope
If you’re not familiar with local dimming, it’s a technology that allows LED LCDs to overcome one of their biggest picture quality problems — grayish, washed-out renditions of black — by selectively dimming and brightening different parts of the screen. Done right, it works wonders. The best-performing LED LCD TVs of 2013, including the Samsung F8000/F9000, the SonyW900A and the Vizio E and M series were all local dimmers.


In 2014, I expect to see even more TV makers introduce local dimming, and migrate the capability down to less-expensive models. I’d also love to see the return of full-array local dimming, last seen on the Sony XBR-HX950, in high-end models.

That’s what myself and others focussed on picture quality would *like* to see. In reality, what we’re going to see from LED LCD makers is something closer to the monstrosities below.



4K and curved: Two unavoidable trends
The two TVs pictured above are 105-inch, curved, 4K resolution LED LCDs recently introduced by LG and Samsung. I wouldn’t be surprised if they cost $80,000 on account of their otherworldly size.


Back on Earth, I don’t expect too many more curved TVs introduced at CES, but the models above, in addition to the curved OLEDs and Sony’s KDL-65S990A, constitue a mini-trend. In the quest for the new and different, curved TVs and phones, now that they actually can be manufactured, are seemingly irresistible. Unlike the phones, the one curved TV I got to extensively test in person, Samsung’s OLED, didn’t benefit from its concavity. I found myself wishing it was flat.

As for 4K, or Ultra-high Definition, it’ll be as common at CES as hacking coughs and B.O. Every TV maker will introduce at least one line with 4K resolution, nearly all will have HDMI 2.0, and prices will continue falling. 4K TVs will take the place of 1080p TVs as the flagship models, so if you’re buying a high-end LED LCD TV in 2014 — for example, one with local dimming — chances are it’ll have 4K resolution whether you want it or not.


I am hoping for more concrete announcements about 4K content. At this point I’d be surprised if 4K Blu-ray was announced in time for the show, although there have been glimmers of hope. I don’t expect any major TV broadcast announcements, although there will be some chatter around the 2014 World Cup in 4K. Perhaps the most important piece of solid 4K content news comes from Netflix, which now says a specific 4K streaming app will be available on certain TVs introduced at the show.

Odds-n-ends: Smart, big, and China
No CES preview is complete without passing mention of Smart TV, so here it is: More TVs will be Smart than ever, and they’ll do more stuff like control your cable box, respond to voice commands and play your cell phone videos. LG has already said it will show 2014 models that run off its new Web OS platform, so there’s that.

Every TV maker has told me the “real growth” is in big screens, 55 inches and larger. The other side of that coin is that it’ll be more and more difficult to find premium, high-quality TVs in smaller sizes.


One thing no traditional TV maker wants to talk about is China. Chinese TV brands, led by Seiki, TCL and Hisense, made serious inroads in the US market this year, in part by grabbing headlines with inexpensive 4K models. If one or more decided to try “pulling a Vizio” — create a more trusted brand in the US while retaining ultra-aggressive prices — making waves at CES would be a good start.

Prepare yourself!
Plasma may be on life support, and OLED a distant beacon of faint and fading hope, but hundreds of TVs will still be introduced at CES 2014. We’ll be there to catalog the best and most interesting ones, no matter how curved or festooned with gimmickry, and let you know what (if anything) is really important about them. And if none of these newfangled TV trends tempts you,it’s not too late to buy one of the last Panasonic plasmas.

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Research shows how MacBook Webcams can spy on their users without warning

The woman was shocked when she received two nude photos of herself by e-mail. The photos had been taken over a period of several months — without her knowledge — by the built-in camera on her laptop.

Fortunately, the FBI was able to identify a suspect: her high school classmate, a man named Jared Abrahams. The FBI says it found software on Abrahams’s computer that allowed him to spy remotely on her and numerous other women.

Abrahams pleaded guilty to extortion in October. The woman, identified in court papers only as C.W., later identified herself on Twitter as Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf. While her case was instant fodder for celebrity gossip sites, it left a serious issue unresolved.

Most laptops with built-in cameras have an important privacy feature — a light that is supposed to turn on any time the camera is in use. But Wolf says she never saw the light on her laptop go on. As a result, she had no idea she was under surveillance.

That wasn’t supposed to be possible. While controlling a camera remotely has long been a source of concern to privacy advocates, conventional wisdom said there was at least no way to deactivate the warning light. New evidence indicates otherwise.

Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, said in a recent story in The Washington Post that the FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer’s camera — without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording — for several years.

Now research from Johns Hopkins University provides the first public confirmation that it’s possible to do just that, and demonstrates how. While the research focused on MacBook and iMac models released before 2008, the authors say similar techniques could work on more recent computers from a wide variety of vendors. In other words, if a laptop has a built-in camera, it’s possible someone — whether the federal government or a malicious 19 year old — could access it to spy on the user at any time.

One laptop, many chips

The built-in cameras on Apple computers were designed to prevent this, says Stephen Checkoway, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins and a co-author of the study. “Apple went to some amount of effort to make sure that the LED would turn on whenever the camera was taking images,” Checkoway says. The 2008-era Apple products they studied had a “hardware interlock” between the camera and the light to ensure that the camera couldn’t turn on without alerting its owner.

The cameras Brocker and Checkoway studied. (Matthew Brocker and Stephen Checkoway)

The cameras Brocker and Checkoway studied. (Matthew Brocker and Stephen Checkoway)

But Checkoway and his co-author, Johns Hopkins graduate student Matthew Brocker, were able to get around this security feature. That’s because a modern laptop is actually several different computers in one package. “There’s more than one chip on your computer,” says Charlie Miller, a security expert at Twitter. “There’s a chip in the battery, a chip in the keyboard, a chip in the camera.”

MacBooks are designed to prevent software running on the MacBook’s central processing unit (CPU) from activating its iSight camera without turning on the light. But researchers figured out how to reprogram the chip inside the camera, known as a micro-controller, to defeat this security feature. In a paper called “iSeeYou: Disabling the MacBook Webcam Indicator LED,” Brocker and Checkoway describe how to reprogram the iSight camera’s micro-controller to allow the camera and light to be activated independently. That allows the camera to be turned on while the light stays off. Their research is under consideration for an upcoming academic security conference.

The researchers also provided us with a copy of their proof-of-concept software. In the video below, we demonstrate how the camera can be activated without triggering the telltale warning light.

Attacks that exploit microcontrollers are becoming more common. “People are starting to think about what happens when you can reprogram each of those,” Miller says. For example, he demonstrated an attack last year on the software that controls Apple batteries, which causes the battery to discharge rapidly, potentially leading to a fire or explosion. Another researcher was able to convert the built-in Apple keyboardinto spyware using a similar method.

According to the researchers, the vulnerability they discovered affects “Apple internal iSight webcams found in earlier-generation Apple products, including the iMac G5 and early Intel-based iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBook Pros until roughly 2008.” While the attack outlined in the paper is limited to these devices, researchers like Charlie Miller suggest that the attack could be applicable to newer systems as well.

“There’s no reason you can’t do it — it’s just a lot of work and resources but it depends on how well [Apple] secured the hardware,” Miller says.

Apple did not reply to requests for comment. Brocker and Checkoway write in their report that they contacted the company on July 16. “Apple employees followed up several times but did not inform us of any possible mitigation plans,” the researchers write.

RATted out

The software used by Abrahams in the Wolf case is known as a Remote Administration Tool, or RAT. This software, which allows someone to control a computer from across the Internet, has legitimate purposes as well as nefarious ones. For example, it can make it easier for a school’s IT staff to administer a classroom full of computers.

Indeed, the devices the researchers studied were similar to MacBooks involved in a notorious case in Pennsylvania in 2008. In that incident, administrators at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia reportedly captured 56,000 images of students using the RAT installed on school-issued laptops. Students reported seeing a ‘creepy’ green flicker that indicated that the camera was in use. That helped to alert students to the issue, eventually leading to a lawsuit.

But more sophisticated remote monitoring tools may already have the capabilities to suppress the warning light, says Morgan Marquis-Boire, a security researcher at the University of Toronto. He says that cheap RATs like the one used in Merion High School may not have the ability to disable the hardware LEDs, but “you would probably expect more sophisticated surveillance offerings which cost hundreds of thousands of euros” to be stealthier.

He points to commercial surveillance products such as Hacking Team and FinFisherthat are marketed for use by governments. FinFisher is a suite of tools sold by a European firm called the Gamma Group. A company marketing document released by WikiLeaks indicated that Finfisher could be “covertly deployed on the Target Systems” and enable, among other things, “Live Surveillance through Webcam and Microphone.”

The Chinese government has also been accused of using RATs for surveillance purposes. A 2009 report from the University of Toronto described a surveillance program called Ghostnet that the Chinese government allegedly used to spy on prominent Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama. The authors reported that “web cameras are being silently triggered, and audio inputs surreptitiously activated,” though it’s not clear whether the Ghostnet software is capable of disabling camera warning lights.

Luckily, there’s an easy way for users to protect themselves. “The safest thing to do is to put a piece of tape on your camera,” Miller says.

Ashkan Soltani is an independent security researcher and consultant.

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Apple’s high-end Mac Pro goes on sale Thursday

Apple's Mac Pro, which goes on sale Thursday, is designed for high-end users and starts at $2,999.

  •  Apple’s Mac Pro, the high-end show horse of the company’s desktop line, goes on sale Thursday, restoring some luster to deskbound computers that have been overshadowed by the mobile revolution.

    In some ways the Mac Pro, which will be available for preorder on Apple’s website and Apple stores, is like the fancy haute couture dresses that get walked down the runways of Paris and New York.

    At more than $3,000, the sleek machine is more computer than most people need or can afford. But it serves as a showcase for what its creator can do.

    “Can’t innovate any more, my ass,” Apple Vice President Phil Schiller said when he unveiled the new Mac Pro in June. It was a response to some analysts who say rivals like Samsung and Google have been rolling out fresher ideas than Apple the past couple of years. 

    The Mac Pro certainly doesn’t look like anything else on the market. It’s a silver and black cylinder and stands just 10 inches tall.

    Packing a range of Intel Xeon processors, the new Mac Pro is more than twice as fast as its predecessor, released three years ago, Apple says.

    And, starting at $2,999 (with custom modifications that could push prices upward of $12,000), it’s for a select group of power users like graphic designers, photographers, videographers, animators and the like.

    The machine has six of Apple’s Thunderbolt 2 ports, enabling up to 36 external devices to be attached.

    Apple says the Mac Pro has been designed and manufactured in the United States.

    Pro users are a small part of Apple’s overall business. Only 19% of the company’s revenue in the first quarter of this year came from Macs. That’s just shy of the 21% it made selling iPads, and a far cry from the 49% Apple made on the iPhone.

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Apple’s future processors said to be made by Samsung, TSMC

Apple will divvy up chipmaking between Samsung and TSMC, according to an Asia-based report.

Apple A7 processor: Future iPhones will use chips -- such as the rumored A8 and A9 -- from both Samsung and TSMC reportedly.

Both Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) will make future Apple processors, according to a report from Taipei-based Digitimes.

Samsung, which has manufactured Apple A series processors to date — including the newest 64-bit A7 — will continue to make Apple chips through at least 2015, according to the report in Wednesday’s Digitimes.

Meanwhile, TSMC is slated to participate in production of Apple’s 2014 iPhone products and/or could take more future production, according to the report.

Separately, a source familiar with TSMC’s operations told CNET that TSMC is already making Apple A series processors — though it’s not clear if that’s at commercial volumes or smaller pilot production volumes.

TSMC’s future 16-nanometer process will use so-called FinFET, aka vertical transistors, roughly analogous to Intel’s 3D transistor tech.

That FinFET manufacturing tech would get Apple’s A series processors that much closer to processors from Intel, which is currently the world leader. Apple’s new A7 chip already boasts 64-bit processing — another metric where Apple is closing the gap with Intel.

Samsung is also expected to use a FinFET process for 14-nanometer production (PDF).

It should be noted that nailing down definitive information about which chipmaker is going to make which chip for which customer is always difficult as chip production details are fiercely guarded by both the manufacturer and the customer.

And chipmakers invariably run into production problems. For example, TSMC had been rumored to make Apple chips in the past but struggled with production problems. There were also rumors of disagreements with Apple.

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Why Apple’s 2014 won’t be like 2013

It’s not just about the next hit product. Apple is preparing for a future beyond phones, tablets, watches and TVs, in which it’s the premium brand for life in a fully digital age.

Hundreds of people await the iPhone 5S and 5C launch at Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan.

As 2013 draws to a close, Tim Cook is feeling good. The holiday quarter once again proved that Apple’s products and stores can draw a crowd. Pent-up demand for new iPhones and iPads was satisfied once again, and Apple’s reputation as a purveyor of objects of desire was reaffirmed. As a reward, Apple’ stock price hit a 52-week high this month.

Apple’s precision-engineered, meticulously designed, mass-produced objects of desire are not the most advanced or clever computing machines. Many Android devices are tricked out with more pixels and features. Nor is Apple the undisputed market share leader, which is not the company’s first priority.

After its initial breakthrough product and domination of the market, Apple cedes share to followers and carves out a highly profitable niche. Like BMW in the automotive industry, Apple is not trying to blanket the market. The Android platform now maintains the majority market share by far, especially outside the US, but for contestants other than Samsung the profits are slim or none. And, Apple’s mobile platform, iOS, accounts for more than 50 percent of mobile Internet usage, according to Net Market Share research.

In the coming year, Apple will continue its wash, rinse, repeat cycle, incrementally refreshing the iPads, iPhones, and Macs with more speed, less weight, longer battery life, additional sensors, and improved apps.

There are also hints that 2014 won’t be another year of just incremental improvements like 2013. Apple could reveal something more dramatic and groundbreaking than adding a fingerprint sensor to an iPad or delivering iPhones and iPads with bigger screens and better cameras, or finally shipping the powerful R2-D2- looking Mac Pro.


It’s been four years since the company’s last market-defining product, the iPad, was unveiled. Here’s what Steve Jobs said at the time: “iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price. iPad creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before.”

Apple is rumored to be working on several products that could be eventually pitched as the “most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.” According to reports, Apple has in excess of 100 people working on an “iWatch.” The company has trademarked the iWatch name around the world, and has filed 79 patents containing the word “wrist.”

Following its usual product strategy, Apple isn’t rushing to market to join the pack. Pebble, Samsung, Sony, ZTE, Martian Fitbit, Basis, Neptune, Metawatch, Qualcomm already have wrist wearables in the market, and LG, Google, and even Dell might be working on similar products. No one so far has a hit product. Apple hopes that an iWatch can follow the same pattern as the iPod, iPhone and iPad — not the first in its category, but the one that redefines a market and dominates it for the first phase of adoption.

That will be a far more difficult challenge than in the past with all the innovative startups chasing the dream. And, the bar is set much higher for Apple.

It may be that an iWatch will focus on a few apps, such as health and fitness, and serve as more of an accessory to the iPhone. You don’t have to take it out of your pocket to browse alerts and other information or talk to Siri. An iWatch with a beautifully curved, sapphire touch screen and sleek band would be more fashion statement than game-changing product.

In fact, Apple is on a mission to become more fashion forward. The company added two major fashion industry icons to its executive ranks. Former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve joined as a vice president to work on “special projects,” and Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts was tapped to lead retail operations, managing the online store and more than 520 brick-and-mortar outlets.

That enhanced fashion IQ could be applied to a range of entertainment products, another area that Apple wants to transform. The company could launch a stylish, large-screen 4K TV with Apple TV built-in or a set-top box this year, accompanied by apps that plug into iOS ecosystem and take the pain out of managing and controlling what’s on the screen or in the box.

Apple is also working with automobile companies to integrate features like Siri, Apple Maps, and iTunes into the built-in displays of cars.

And, don’t be surprised is you start hearing rumblings about eyewear from Apple. The company has many patents for head-mounted displays and other technologies relevant to augmenting-reality devices like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass. Apple will play the tortoise to Google’s hare, watching the landscape evolve and taking its time to create a more perfect device that will attract tens of millions of buyers.

What’s becoming clear is that Apple isn’t just focused on trying to create another hit product. The company has long been preparing for a future in which technology is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. It’s about creating an experience and brand that represents the best of the digital future.

iPhones, tablets, watches, glasses, TVs, sensors, robots, and cars are vehicles for enabling Apple’s software and services to flourish. It’s about becoming the premium brand for living in a fully digital age, in which billions of people and tens of billions of objects gathering and sending signals are connected.

What might be dubbed “Apple Everywhere” is a continuation of Steve Jobs’ goal to reshape how masses of humans use and interact with technology. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing. And nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices,” Jobs said during the unveiling of the iPad 2 in March 2011.

In a recent promo video, Apple described its product development ethos:

This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How will it make someone feel? Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist? We spend a lot of time on a few great things…until every idea we touch…enhances each life it touches. You may rarely look at it…but you’ll always feel it. This is our signature…and it means everything.

The words uttered in a sonorous voice are by far too contrived and precious, but of all the tech companies Apple invests the most in the overall product experience, creating an emotional connection between its brand and customers.

Jobs was also fond of a quote from hockey great Wayne Gretzky. “There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’ And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will,” he said at the Macworld Conference in January 2007.

Now the technology puck is rapidly careening toward deeply personalized and wearable computing. With its growing retail presence and the increasing population of always connected people, Apple is combining its roots in humanizing technology — making it more personal and invisible — with a more acute sense of fashion to lure the discriminating, less price-sensitive buyers and those who aspire to be part of the club.

In the future Apple world of iBeacons and ambient intelligence, your fashionable wearable wrist device, eyewear, phone, tablet, TV, car interface, and clothing could be used to control your thermostat, lights, DVR, car, heart monitor, payments, music, movies or anything that connects into the global network. You tell your iPhone, iPad, iWatch, iGlass3D or iLens, “Ok Siri, unlock my car door, drive me home, turn the thermostat down to 62, record the news, turn on the oven to 375 degrees and tell my mother I will call her back tomorrow.” Or you project a virtual control pad in front of you and use hand gestures to reset the thermostat or open your car the door as you approach it.

Apple isn’t the only company trying to become the operating system for 21st century. Google in particular, along with Microsoft and others hidden away in garages and research labs, are vying to become the computing platform that the runs the digital lives of others.

Competitors have so far failed to match the values associated with Apple’s brand, or its profit margins. Even Macintosh desktops and laptops generate the majority of profit among the players in the PC category, despite a 10 percent share of market.

However, the shift to mobile, wearable, augmented reality computing is just at its beginning. It’s a new world and Apple’s reign as a market maker and arbiter of good taste could be toppled. For that reason, the pressure is on Apple to make sure that 2014 has something more to keep its devoted fans in the fold than another cycle of upgrades.


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Wearable tech at CES 2014: expect the unexpected

The weird, wild world of wearables is bound for a lot of chaos in Las Vegas. What will it all add up to? That’s anyone’s guess.

Wearable tech often feels like either a wide-open horse race or the Star Wars cantina of consumer electronics, and at January’s CES in Las Vegas things should get a whole lot crazier. After a year in 2013 where tons of gadgets emerged but none dominated, expect a lot more players into a multifaceted landscape that’s still not all that well-defined.

What is wearable tech, for instance? We give it that name because these gadgets are generally small and body-worn: watches, wristbands, clip-on devices, or glasses. They have sensors and possibly screens. They connect with other devices, or phones, or Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth, or receive information from other smart gadgets. They might be health-related, or they might not.

This is what I expect based on what we’ve seen in 2013.


Fitness Tech Evolved 
FitbitNikeWithings, and Jawbone — to name just four — have been actively updating their software and wearable bands recently, adding Bluetooth 4.0 for longer battery life and continuous connectivity. There may be newer announcements from these companies, but I’d expect new players to enter the fold, too.

Expect fitness trackers everywhere at CES 2014: they’re cheap and easy to make, and might suddenly turn into the disposable MP3 player of this year. They may not all be good, but that’s never stopped a vendor at CES.

Fitness ecosystems may get smarter, more socially connected. Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike have done a good job at being social, but expect others to try to improve on the equation.

More connected devices and added sensor technology could expand the horizons of health tech. Wearable heart-rate monitors like the Mio-powered Adidas miCoach Smart Run and Basis Band are already out there, but other gadgets are bound to introduce sensors that go beyond mere pedometer-based tracking.

Avegant Virtual Retinal Display


Google Glass-alikes: the second wave 
Now that Google Glass has paved the way, smart glasses, visors and augmented-reality goggles should be in force throughout CES. Some technologies we’ve already seen, like Avegant’s Virtual Retinal Display goggles and the Vuzix M100 smart glasses, may emerge with new software, apps, or hardware surprises. The Oculus Rift, which is more of a VR headset than a true wearable mobile accessory, will be back, backed with new funding and promises of Android support.


Smart Watches 2.0 
The PebbleSamsung Galaxy GearQualcomm Toq and second Sony smartwatch arrived in 2013 to legitimize smart watches, but everything still feels half-baked. What comes next? Maybe 2014 is the magic year when Apple, Google and Microsoft define the territory further, and Samsung and Sony refine their watches one more time. But, Apple, Google and Microsoft won’t be at CES. Instead, expect a lot of wild-card watch makers promising better software, displays, or features. Expect start-ups, crowd-funded prototypes, and some entries from less expected big tech companies. Hopefully, someone will do a better job of building an all-around smarter watch that’s actually useful. Crazy all-in-one do-every Android watches like the Omate TrueSmart might be lurking around the show floor.


The Internet of Things Invades Wearables 
Call it “smart home,” or connected devices: the Internet of Things has lingered as a catchphrase for a while, promising a universe of little devices and appliances that communicate with each other and form a seamless network. Not many wearable gadgets have promised being able to connect to your home thermostat or your lighting system, but that type of use case could be pushed a lot harder at CES. A smartwatch could be a dashboard for information about everything in your home, not just notifications on your watch. The Jawbone Up app already taps into IFTTT to do some potential interconnected things. Will more wearables take this route?

The Wild Cards: expect odd surprises 
Wearable tech is an odd-duck world striving to be surprising. Fringe tech is bound to emerge that threatens to defy categories. Remember last year’s Hapifork smart fork? I expect at least a few products that make you scratch your head and wonder if someone’s playing a prank. Smart hat? Smart shoe? Smart cufflinks? I’m willing to place my bet on at least one of those coming true just as an opportunity to snag social traffic.

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By cracking cellphone code, NSA has capacity for decoding private conversations

The cellphone encryption technology used most widely across the world can be easily defeated by the National Security Agency, an internal document shows, giving the agency the means to decode most of the billions of calls and texts that travel over public airwaves every day.

While the military and law enforcement agencies long have been able to hack into individual cellphones, the NSA’s capability appears to be far more sweeping because of the agency’s global signals collection operation. The agency’s ability to crack encryption used by the majority of cellphones in the world offers it wide-ranging powers to listen in on private conversations.

U.S. law prohibits the NSA from collecting the content of conversations between Americans without a court order. But experts say that if the NSA has developed the capacity to easily decode encrypted cellphone conversations, then other nations likely can do the same through their own intelligence services, potentially to Americans’ calls, as well.

Encryption experts have complained for years that the most commonly used technology, known as A5/1, is vulnerable and have urged providers to upgrade to newer systems that are much harder to crack. Most companies worldwide have not done so, even as controversy has intensified in recent months over NSA collection of cellphone traffic, including of such world leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The extent of the NSA’s collection of cellphone signals and its use of tools to decode encryption are not clear from a top-secret document provided by former contractor Edward Snowden. But it states that the agency “can process encrypted A5/1” even when the agency has not acquired an encryption key, which unscrambles communications so that they are readable.

Experts say the agency may also be able to decode newer forms of encryption, but only with a much heavier investment in time and computing power, making mass surveillance of cellphone conversations less practical.

“At that point, you can still listen to any [individual person’s] phone call, but not everybody’s,” said Karsten Nohl, chief scientist at Security Research Labs in Berlin.

The vulnerability outlined in the NSA document concerns encryption developed in the 1980s but still used widely by cellphones that rely on technology called second-generation (2G) GSM. It is dominant in most of the world but less so in the wealthiest nations, including the United States, where newer networks such as 3G and 4G increasingly provide faster speeds and better encryption, industry officials say.

But even where such updated networks are available, they are not always used, because many phones often still rely on 2G networks to make or receive calls. More than 80 percent of cellphones worldwide use weak or no encryption for at least some of their calls, Nohl said. Hackers also can trick phones into using these less-secure networks, even when better ones are available. When a phone indicates a 3G or 4G network, a voice call might actually be carried over an older frequency and susceptible to decoding by the NSA.

The document does not make clear if the encryption in another major cellphone technology — called CDMA and used by Verizon, Sprint and a small number of foreign companies — has been broken by the NSA as well. The document also does not specify whether the NSA can decode data flows from cellular devices, which typically are encrypted using different technology.

The NSA has repeatedly stressed that its data collection efforts are aimed at overseas targets, whose legal protections are much lower than U.S. citizens’. When questioned for this story, the agency issued a statement, saying: “Throughout history nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today terrorists, cyber criminals, human traffickers and others also use technology to hide their activities. The Intelligence Community tries to counter that in order to understand the intent of foreign adversaries and prevent them from bringing harm to Americans and allies.”

German news magazine Der Spiegel reported in October that a listening station atop the U.S. Embassy in Berlin allowed the NSA to spy on Merkel’s cellphone calls. It also reported that the NSA’s Special Collection Service runs similar operations from 80 U.S. embassies and other government facilities worldwide. These revelations — and especially reports about eavesdropping on the calls of friendly foreign leaders — have caused serious diplomatic fallouts for the Obama administration.

Cellphone conversations long have been much easier to intercept than ones conducted on traditional telephones because the signals are broadcast through the air, making for easy collection. Police scanners and even some older televisions once were able to routinely pick up people talking on their cellphones, as a Florida couple did in 1996 when they recorded an overheard conversation involving then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Digital transmission and encryption have become almost universally available in the United States, and they are now standard throughout much of the world. Governments typically dictate what kind of encryption technology, if any, can be deployed by cellphone service providers. As a result, cellular communications in some nations, including China, feature weak encryption or none at all.

A5/1 has been repeatedly cracked by researchers in demonstration projects for more than a decade.

The encryption technology “was designed 30 years ago, and you wouldn’t expect a 30-year-old car to have the latest safety mechanisms,” said David Wagner, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Collecting cellphone signals has become such a common tactic for intelligence, military and law enforcement work worldwide that several companies market devices specifically for that purpose.

Some are capable of mimicking cell towers to trick individual phones into directing all communications to the interception devices in a way that automatically defeats encryption.USA Today reported Monday that at least 25 police departments in the United States own such devices, the most popular of which go by the brand name Harris StingRay. Experts say they are in widespread use by governments overseas, as well.

Even more common, however, are what experts call “passive” collection devices, in which cell signals are secretly gathered by antennas that do not mimic cellphone towers or connect directly with individual phones. These systems collect signals that are then decoded in order for the content of the calls or texts to be understood by analysts.

Matthew Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania cryptology expert, said the weakness of A5/1 encryption is “a pretty sweeping, large vulnerability” that helps the NSA listen to cellphone calls overseas and likely also allows foreign governments to listen to the calls of Americans.

“If the NSA knows how to do this, presumably other intelligence agencies, which may be more hostile to the United States, have discovered how to do this, too,” he said.

Journalists Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady reported in their 2013 book “Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry” that the FBI “has quietly removed from several Washington, D.C.- area cell phone towers, transmitters that fed all data to wire rooms at foreign embassies.”

The FBI declined to comment on that report.

Upgrading an entire network to better encryption provides substantially more privacy for users. Nohl, the German cryptographer, said that breaking a newer form of encryption, called A5/3, requires 100,000 times more computing power than breaking A5/1. But upgrading entire networks is an expensive, time-consuming undertaking that likely would cause interruptions in service for some customers as individual phones would be forced to switch to the new technology.

Amid the uproar over NSA’s eavesdropping on Merkel’s phone, two of the leading German cellphone service providers have announced that they are adopting the newer, stronger A5/3 encryption for their 2G networks.

They “are now doing it after not doing so for 10 years,” said Nohl, who long had urged such a move. “So, thank you, NSA.”

One of those companies, Deutsche Telekom, is the majority shareholder of T-Mobile. T-Mobile said in a statement this week that it was “continuously implementing advanced security technologies in accordance with worldwide recognized and trusted standards” but declined to say whether it uses A5/3 technology or plans to do so for its 2G networks in the United States.

AT&T, the largest provider of GSM cellphone services in the country, said it was deploying A5/3 encryption for parts of its network. “AT&T always protects its customers with the best encryption possible in line with what their device will support,” it said in a statement.

The company already deploys stronger encryption on its 3G and 4G networks, but customers may still wind up using 2G networks in congested areas or places where fewer cell towers are available.

Even with strong encryption, the protection exists only from a phone to the cell tower, after which point the communications are decrypted for transmission on a company’s internal data network. Interception is possible on those internal links, as The Washington Post reported last week. Leading technology companies, including Google and Microsoft, have announced plans in recent months to encrypt the links between their data centers to better protect their users from government surveillance and criminal hackers.


Soltani is an independent security researcher and consultant.

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