Tag Archives: guard

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Still Sneaky After All These Years

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I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:

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This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)

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Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:

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No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:

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as does eFax, the online faxing service:

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These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

Phear Of Phishing Doesn’t Just Hit The Bankers

Beware The Fear. The blizzard of coverage about phishing (usually involving some awful pun) has done a lot to raise awareness about the problem, but is it enough?

A survey by Insight Express for Symantec of 300 people (no URL available yet, sorry) shows that while three quarters of folk are aware of spyware only a quarter of them have heard of phishing. This cloud of ignorance creates confusion and fear: 44.2 percent of respondents thought they had visited a fraudulent Web site but were not sure. 19.3 percent said they had definitely visited a fraudulent Web site. A little over half are somewhat concerned about online fraud, while 42 percent are ‘very concerned’. In other words, nearly everyone is worried.

This fear is already having an impact. Three quarters of folk will now only purchase purchase products through secure sites. That’s encouraging — and not bad for business — but the following figures are: nearly half will not now provide confidential data over the Internet while nearly a third won’t use the Internet for online banking. About 15% said they don’t trust the Internet.

This fear and distrust is not going to go away. More than half of respondents felt they knew how to protect themselves from online fraud and/or online identity theft, while a bit under half didn’t think they knew how to protect themselves. Taken with my own unscientific dabbling and MailFrontier’s recent survey which found that 28% of American adults “inaccurately identify phishing emails”, I’d say we have a problem. Or in fact several.

First off, many of those people who think they know how to protect themselves are easy prey. They are going to continue to be duped as phishing attacks grow more sophisticated. That’s going to keep the problem going, in part because of weak or misleading ‘solutions’ such as browser tools and software that supposedly ‘identifies’ fraudulent emails or links. These tools only raise people’s comfort levels and lower their guard.

The broader problem is this: As the number of victims rises, the number of people not giving confidential data over the Internet, not using Internet banking, and ‘not trusting the Internet’, is going to rise. This is already hurting retailers who have found major cost savings by shifting business over to the Internet. A piece yesterday by The Register’s John Leyden quotes a recent survey by LogicaCMG as saying that one in five British users would ”hesitate about booking trips online because of mistrust of the ability of travel companies to keep their financial and personal details secure”. Given it costs a travel agent 40 times more to take a booking by phone than online, this is hitting their bottom line hard. This will only get worse as more victims succumb, and phishing attacks are no longer one of the bad things that happen to other people.

Then there’s the banks. It’s been suggested to me that banks don’t really care about whether people use Internet banking, since if people start going back to their branches to do their business banks will make their money anyway. But, while appealing, that conspiracy theory fails to take into account the link between online commerce and online banking. If people don’t trust the Internet to do banking, it’s very unlikely they’ll buy something online. That will hit credit card business hard, a mainstay of retail banks. Like it or not, the fate of banks is inextricably tied to the fate of online retailing. So banks don’t have much choice.

Bottom line: The future of online commerce is not just about whether it’s viable for retailers to do some of their business online. For many retailers it is their business, or at least it’s the difference between being profitable or not. Phishing is not just an attack on banking and financial sites. It’s an attack on the future of online commerce, which, believe it or not, is still vulnerable because it relies on trust. And trust is not just about reassuring customers, or launching vague ‘education campaigns’ to give people a vague idea about whether they’re safe, and what to do to make themselves safer. It’s about making transactions secure, policing website registries for fraudulent domains, working together for a better way to communicate between retailer/bank and customer. All of these things, a year after phishing took off, haven’t been done. Hence The Fear.