Will I Be Left in the Tech Dust If I Don’t Own A Smartphone?

I’ve been using computers since 1971.  Mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers – labels that have long since disappeared.  I got my first personal computer in 1979.  I used FTP, Usenet, Gopher, email, years before the web, and remember being blown away when Mosaic came out in 1993.  I spent a lot of money on computer and gadgets over the years, but for some reason I don’t want to buy a smartphone.  Oh, I’d love to have a smartphone – I just don’t want the monthly bill.  And since nearly everyone else is becoming a smartphone user, will this leave me in the tech dust?

I have a poor man’s smartphone, the iPod touch and a pay-as-you-go dumbphone.  It essentially does most of what a smartphone does, and I only spend $50 every six months for 500 minutes.  I also have an iPad 2 and a Nexus 5.  I’m not totally out of it, but when I read Engadget I feel like I’m at a black tie party wearing a sports jacket and jeans, and even those are getting threadbare and moth eaten.

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Now I’m reading about smart watches.  Pass.  Google glasses.  Pass.  Have I gotten too old to compute?

I am cheap, but then I’m retired.  I now spend about 99% of my time at home, so mobile devices just don’t have a compelling sell to me.  Yet, all the tech glamor is now in mobile devices.  I do use mobile apps on my Nexus 7, but I’d much prefer using most of them on my 23” monitor.

Is the bleeding edge of tech savvy now limited to on-the-go computing?  Am I joining the ranks of the cyber-Amish by not owning a smartphone.  Am I less of a geek for not wanting the latest smartphone every year?

Getting old is getting old, so I must accept that young people are going to do and know things I don’t.  BFD.  I’m not whining, but since I’ve retired I realized, more and more, I’m cutting myself off from the mainstream of people.  I’ve always done this.  Being a gluten-free vegetarian atheist has a way of isolating me from normal life.  Being a computer geek is something I’ve always identified with, so is choosing not to follow the cutting edge of tech another way to isolate myself?  (I can hear my friend Annie growling at me, “Hell yes, you moron.”) 

This reminds me of a friend who died about twenty years ago.  He had become so negative about life that he only like two things, Duane Allman’s guitar playing, and Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing.  Luckily I still love hundreds of things, but I’m starting to realize that list is shrinking.  Is that another way of defining aging – that you list of likes shrinks?

There another way of looking at though.  One I feel is more positive!  As we get older we juggle more balls, or spin more plates.  Remember those guys on Ed Sullivan that would keep plates spinning on sticks?  Back then, we called life “the 9 to 5 rat race.”  As we grew up we learned to spin more plates.  At some point in your life you realize that keeping all those plates spinning is a lot of damn work.  Then you go all Zen dog and start spinning fewer plates.  Retiring is moving into those years when you spin fewer and fewer plates.  And the positive spin I mentioned?  Well, you enjoy life more because you just keep the things you love most in motion.

JWH – 2/25/14

Understanding Identity Theft-And the Scary Implications of Stopping It

With the recent Target hacking scare, identity theft has almost become a panic.  My goal here is to explain identity theft to myself and my readers so we can avoid it, but also to reveal a surprise side-effect of stopping identity theft.  One news commentator pointed out that Europe uses Smart Cards which are more secure against identity theft, and I wondered why we don’t use them in the U.S.?  This got me to thinking about the nature of identity theft.  To simplify, here are the basics:

  • Person
  • Proof of Identity
  • Financial institution
  • Transaction system
  • Business
  • Thief
  • Fake Identity

Because we now have electronic transfer of spending instead of money, the goal of a thief is to initiate a financial transaction with a stolen information about your identity.  When you deposit money in a bank or get a line of credit from a credit company, those institutions create an identity profile of you.  To spend money requires proving your identity at a transaction location.

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Our old fashioned credit cards are rather simple.  The POS (point of sale) validates the card to see if it’s active.  The cashier must accept proof of identity from the person using the card.  If you are standing at the Target checkout counter, they will ask for an ID, or if you are buying from Amazon, they will ask for a password.  Both are easy to fake.  There’s a reason why many credit card thieves first go to gas stations – they don’t require any proof of identity. 

Even though the Target hackers stole over a hundred million card numbers and pins, they still have to find businesses that will process  transactions without a proof of identity, or create fake credit cards and fake identities.  Because they also stole names, addresses, and personal information, PINs, this is a scary possibility.

Proof of Identity

Every person has dozens of identities.  Your school or work has a system to identity you.  Your bank, credit card companies, insurance companies, health insurer, stock broker, library, utility company, phone company, etc., all have ways to identify you.  Even if you stood right in front of each of them, they wouldn’t know you personally.  They know you by your proof of identity.  Normally this is name, address, phone number, social security number, credit card number, library card number, customer number, etc.  Often this is in the form of ID card.  All of this information is easily stolen, and easily used by thieves.  In the old days, a fake driver’s license and stolen checks or credit cards was all it took to spend someone else’s money.  Now it’s just a name, debit card number and pin.

How To Stop Identity Theft

The current methods of protecting identity theft are far from perfect, but they are:

  • Keep your personal information as secret as possible
  • Use strong passwords and encourage the use of secondary pass phrases
  • Use credit cards from companies that have strong security monitoring
  • Monitor credit rating services
  • Hire a monitoring service

These efforts fall into two phases.  First, keep your information away from identity thieves, and second, stop thieves as quickly as possible when they do steal your identity.  What we really want is to stop thieves altogether. 

The best way to stop identity theft is absolute proof of identity.  This means creating a validation system to prove you are you in any financial transaction, whether in person or online.  I don’t believe Smart Cards are the solution.  Smart Cards are just credit cards with a computer chip – they make it harder for thieves but not impossible.  What we really want is biometric authentication.   This is technology that connects authentication to our biological selves – thumb print, voice pattern, retinal scan, face pattern, DNA, and so on.  Of course this means revamping our entire financial transactional system.  How does Amazon take your thumbprint?

There is new technology that might allow this transformation quicker than we thought – the smart phone.  But first some digression.

Let’s say a thumb print and voice pattern becomes the standard of identification.  How are they taken, and how are they validated?  There are a number of ways.  Smart Cards could store your voice and thumb print on a chip, and a POS terminal could take your prints and validate them against the card.  That would make things much more secure, but theoretically thieves could print fake Smart Cards with their prints recorded in them with your financial identity.  What we want is your credit card company to store a copy of your voice and thumb print, and the have the POS terminal authenticate your prints when you make a transaction.  Then we won’t need credit cards at all.  Identity will be bodily proof.

The trouble is our current infrastructure isn’t set up for this, so what would be the fastest way to transform our society into one secure from identity thieves?  Like I said, smart phones might be the answer.

There are many unique qualities about a smart phone.  The phone number, the IP address, the SIM card, the hardware address for the Wi-Fi card, etc.  All that’s needed is a way to tie your physical body to the smart phone.  Ultimately, in some science fictional future, I believe we’ll have a identity chip implanted in our bodies at birth and all our network connections will recognize us that way.  But until that future arrives, I believe smart phones are the answer.

Some smart phones can already do thumb prints, and voice prints can be done in software.  Newer phones could be designed to make biometric validation even easier.  Think of a smart phone as a genius level Smart Card.  To make a financial transaction you’d need your phone and your body.  That’s very hard for thieves to steal.  Not impossible.  A thief holding a gun to your head could make you buy things, give you money at ATMs.  But stress detectors might be added to smart phones to tell if a user is under duress.  We’re getting very close to foolproof.

Good Side Effects

If such a smart phone authentication system was developed it could have many positive side effects.  We’d have one of the best electronic voting systems possible.  It would allow for easy political referendums, or extensive public opinion polls.  This would change the nature of record keeping for school system, health insurance, all the way down to library cards.  Used in schools it would allow for instant testing and grading.  The spin-offs are endless.

Of course it would reduce identity theft.

Bad Side Effects

Identity theft is an easy way for thieves to steal from people without meeting them.  If we take this away, thieves will have to go back to being more personal about taking our stuff.  Switching to a smart phone authentication might increase robberies, muggings and burglaries.

However, the real scary thing about smart phone identity authentication is it creates a global identity card that’s extremely easy to track.  Americans have always been against a national ID card, and this system would be that to the nth degree.  Since we know the NSA is already tracking our phones, it’s not hard to imagine a whole host of governmental agencies, as well as businesses tracking our every move, communication and transaction.

It would make living off the grid almost impossible.  Anyone without a smart phone would have a very difficult time establishing any kind of identity with businesses, hospitals, insurers, libraries, credit agencies, etc.  If every policeman had a smart phone that could talk to your smart phone think of the Big Brother angle of that.

Other Solutions

Life on Earth is always evolving, and so does technology.  If we wanted, we could invent anonymous electronic spending.  Money is slowly disappearing, and with it privacy.  You can buy pre-paid credit cards and anonymous dumb phones to maintain your privacy, but that might not last for long.  If money disappears how do you buy pre-paid cards?  With direct deposit paychecks its now impossible to live without a bank account, and that requires a networkable identity, and thus a way to authenticate that identity.

People might not know it, but we’re on a path to no privacy.  For some people that might not matter, for others it matters a great deal.

JWH – 2/11/14

Repairing Broken iPhones

Everyone loves their iPhones, and until they drop their iPhone and smash the glass screen, they won’t know just how much they really love their iPhone and how much they can hate Apple and AT&T.  The iPhone isn’t engineered to be repaired, and its especially not designed for the average user to repair.  It could have been.  Until people get addicted to smart phones, and learn how easy it is to break them, and how expensive they are to replace, they’ll never ask why they can’t be repaired.  They should be easy to repair, but they aren’t.  Our throw-away society doesn’t promote that.  It’s a shame, because these elegant devices could have been easily engineered to allow owners to replace a broken screen, or a broken screen/LCD combo.  Actually, the glass touch screen and LCD should be one unit that could be quickly replaced with only a small screwdriver, for about $30-40, or at a repair shop for $60-70.

I’m a computer guy at work, so people tend to bring me their smart phones to configure for the Exchange server or ask for help and advice even though it’s not part of my job.  And some people have a knack for breaking their smart phones repeatedly.  The other day a young woman brought me her shattered iPhone and a repair kit she had bought online.  I told her I had no experience at repairing iPhones, couldn’t guarantee my work and iPhones weren’t designed to be opened by users.  She had seen several films on Youtube and urged me to try.  So I did – and we almost succeeded. 

It’s an extremely tedious process to replace the glass touch screen on an iPhone, and we succeeded, but unfortunately, in the process we damaged the LCD.  One online repair site kept telling us to use a hair dryer to soften the glue that holds the glass screen to the frame.  They should have warned us not to use the hair dryer before we had gotten the frame off the phone.  Here’s the best Youtube video we found.  It runs 5 parts.  Watch all 5 parts before thinking about doing this repair.  This video does cover the missing steps that other videos and web sites don’t cover, which is how to carefully remove the broken screen from the thin frame, and then how to remove all the old adhesive.  Even if you don’t need to repair an iPhone, these videos are an education in how smart phones are put together.

The iPhone I was working on was the third one this lady had dropped, and understandably AT&T wasn’t going to replace it.  They wanted $199 and two more years.  But since this woman is a poor graduate student, she couldn’t afford the price of replacement.  She started looking around the net and found various repair kits and videos.  Don’t be fooled, these are not easy and cheap solutions.  You can also shop around and find repair services that run $60-250 to repair an iPhone, including at your Apple Store for $199.  I would really advise using one of these services before going to the do-it-yourself route unless you are very patient, have great skills dealing with small parts, and are willing to risk failure.  We got everything back together and working but the LCD was blurry because of heat damage, so she had to order a replacement LCD. 

The young woman I was helping is buying a second touch screen now because the first one got a tiny crack in our first repair that got much larger in the second LCD repair, which she had found a Mac repair guy to help her with, and then got completely damaged in her day-to-day use.  I’m not sure these glass touch screen replacements are as sturdy as the original Apple screens.  She wants me to help her with the third repair, but I’m mentioning this because they teach another lesson.  If you start fixing iPhones, you’ll probably have to keep fixing them.  I’m urging the young woman to hone these skills herself if she remains poor and keeps breaking her phone. 

Another warning, it takes a lot of careful pressure to disassemble an iPhone and reassemble it, and you’re working with two very delicate parts:  the touch screen and the LCD.  If you break your iPhone regularly, developing the skills to replace the touch screen or LCD might be worth pursuing, otherwise, I’d recommend paying a service company to do the job and hopefully get a repair warranty.

Also the repairs are iffy at best because they require taking glued together parts apart, and then reassembling them with bits of two-side adhesive, and the results aren’t as solid as the original glued assembly.  They phones really were NOT meant to be repaired, but sadly they are easily broken.

The iPhone is a beautiful device on the outside, but on the inside its just a bunch of ordinary parts.  It’s a shame that it wasn’t designed in a modular fashion so replacing the screen/LCD only involved a few screws.  Ditto for the battery and memory.  If we’re going to save mother nature we need to build machines that last and are repairable.  The current design of the iPhone is obviously meant to sell more iPhones, and keep users tied to contracts.

What’s needed is a smart phone that’s completely modular in design so it can be easily repaired and upgraded, and one that isn’t tied to any phone service.  Phone and broadband data service is expensive because the cost of the phones are subsidized in the contracts.  We need to separate the phone from the service.  Remember when AT&T owned your household phones?**  Remember how cheap phones got once we got to own our own phones?  There’s no reason why smart phones should cost as much as they do other than that’s what the industry wants.  Cell phones are a commodity sold in the millions, so they should be cheap to make.  I’m hoping Android phones will bring down the price of the smart phone and the monthly cost of broadband service. 

I hope we can get phone makers to go green by making their phones repairable.  The iPhone I worked on should have had the touch screen and LCD as one solid piece that snaps onto the phone body, held in place by four tiny screws.  If the user breaks their phone, just buy that piece and replace it.  That way the phone could last years, making it a much greener device.

JWH – 2/6/10

**Kids, a long time ago phones were rented from Ma Bell, the affectionate name we gave AT&T, and when you cancelled your phone service you had to give back the phone.  This was before cell phones.  Most homes had only one phone, and it was tied to the wall with a stout wire.  Kids and parents would fight over sharing the phone.  Oh, and it came in one color, black.