Tag Archives: Voicemail

The Phantom Threats We Face

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We fear what we don’t know, even if it’s a guy in Shenzhen trying to make an honest living developing software that changes the background color of your mobile phone display.

Here’s what happened. I’ll save the lessons for the end of this piece.

A guy who prefers to go by the name Jackeey found a  niche for himself developing programs—usually called apps—for the Android cellphone operating system.

They were wallpaper applications—basically changing the background to the display.

That was until an online news site, VentureBeat, reported on July 28 that a security company, Lookout, had told a conference of security geeks that  that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification, voicemail phone number password” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China.

Yikes! Someone in China is listening to our conversations! Figuring out what we’re doing on our phone! Sending all this info to Shenzhen! Sound the alarum!

Word did indeed spread quickly. About 800 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Daily Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. Firstly, VentureBeat had the story wrong: The applications in question only transmitted a portion of this data. No browsing history was transmitted, no text messages, no voicemail password.

VentureBeat corrected the story—sort of; the incorrect bits are crossed out, but there’s no big CORRECTION message across the top of the story—but the damage was done. Google suspended Jackeey’s apps. Everyone considered Jackeey evil and confirmed suspicions that a) Android was flakey on security and b) stuff from China was dodgy.

All kind of sad. Especially when you find that actually Jackeey himself is not exactly unreachable. A few keyword searches and his email address appears and, voila! he’s around to answer your questions. Very keen to, in fact, given the blogosphere has just ruined his life.

Here’s what he told me: He needed the user’s phone number and subscriber ID because people complained that when they change their phone they lose all their settings.

That’s it. That’s the only stuff that’s saved.

Needless to say he is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had most of the bloggers and journalists who dissed his applications.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer has posted some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters.

The story sort of ends happily. After investigating them Google has reinstated the apps to their app store and will issue a statement sometime soon. It told Jackeey in an email that “Our investigation has concluded that there’s no obvious malicious code in your apps, though the implementation accesses data that it doesn’t need to.”

VentureBeat hasn’t written an apology but they have acknowledged that: “The controversy grew in part because we incorrectly reported in our initial post that the app also sent your text messages and browser history to the website.”

For his part Jackeey is redesigning his apps to take into account Google’s suggestions. He points out that to do so will require him to have users set up an account and enter a password, which some users may be reluctant to do. And the Google suggestion is not entirely secure either.

Obviously this is all very unsatisfactory, in several ways.

Firstly, the journalism was a tad sloppy. No attempt was made to contact the developer of the app for comment before publishing—how would you feel if it was your livelihood on the line?—and the correction was no real correction at all.

Secondly, the internet doesn’t have a way to propagate corrections, so all the other websites that happily picked up the story didn’t update theirs to reflect the correction.

Thirdly, Google maybe should have contacted Jackeey before suspending the apps. It would have been kinder, and, given they’ve not found anything suspicious, the right thing to do.

Fourthly, us. We don’t come out of this well. We are somehow more ready to believe a story that includes a) security issues (which we don’t understand well) and b) China, where we’re perhaps used to hearing stories that fit a certain formula. Suspicious?

And lastly, perhaps we should look a little harder at the source of these reports.  We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

So spare a thought for Jackeey. If you do a keyword search for him, the first hit is the story “’Suspicious’ Android wallpaper app nabs user data”, and links to 863 related articles. Below—a week after the hoo-ha, and after Google has sort of put things right–are headlines like: “Jackeey Wallpaper for Android steals your personal info”, “Your Rotten App, Jackeey Wallpaper” and “Jackeey steeling [sic] info on Android devices”.

In other words, anyone who checks out Jackeey’s wares on Google will find they don’t, well, check out.

I got back in touch with Jackeey to see how he’s holding up, a week after the storm broke. I’m in some pain, he says, “because mass negative press said that I steal users’ text messages, contacts and even passwords.” People have removed his applications from their phone, and people have been blasting him by email and instant messaging, calling him “thief”, “evil person” and other epithets.

“I am afraid that it will destroy my reputation and affect my livelihood forever,” he says.

I’m not surprised. We owe to folk like Jackeey to make apps for our phones, so we should treat him a little better.

The Skype Revolution Wears Thin

What’s going on over at Skype? The one thing that I felt was really useful with the service, apart from all the free chats, was their Skype In service, allowing you to have one phone number wherever you were. You could set it up to forward to any phone on the planet, or your Skype account, or to your Skype voicemail, and it worked great. Now it’s gone.

Well, not gone, but they’ve had to change some of their numbers. This is the message I just received from them:

We’re very sorry to tell you that we have to change your SkypeIn number. As some of you may know, we get SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers. Unfortunately, we have to return some of the 0207 SkypeIn numbers to one of our suppliers of London numbers.

This means your number will stop working from December 20th 2007. We realise the inconvenience this will cause you, and sincerely apologise.

That’s less than a month away. How on earth can you go around the world telling every Tom, Dick and Auntie Phyllis you’ve ever given your “lifetime” number to that it’s changed in that time? And just before Christmas, to boot!

To soften the blow Skype have given people affected “a new SkypeIn number and voicemail – free for 12 months on us – to thank you for your patience and to help make the changeover as painless as possible for you.” 

Nice thought, and would help, except the voucher doesn’t work. At least not for me. Just keep getting an “invalid voucher” message. So more pain and delay. 

I still talk about the Skype Revolution, where ordinary Joes can suddenly increase their tech knowledge and stay in touch with people more easily than ever before, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t time for someone smarter, quicker and better organized to take over the revolution.

Update: I’ve heard from Merje Järv- Griffiths of Skype, who offers this extra information on the dropped numbers:

As you know, Skype obtains SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers.  The London-based SkypeIn numbers in question came from one of these telecoms suppliers. We spent months in discussions with a telecoms supplier to see if we could keep the SkypeIn numbers we rented from them, confident that the issue could be resolved. Hence the somewhat late notice to our users — we never thought things would get this far, given the time and effort put into resolving the situation.

Unfortunately, we have to return some of our 0207 numbers so we’re asking our SkypeIn users who are affected to change their London-based SkypeIn number.

And if any of you are having the same problems I had in redeeming the voucher, try this.

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Saving Skype Voicemail

This is not particularly new, but I thought it worth making a note of, since there still seems to be some confusion about whether it’s possible to save Skype voicemail messages as audio files onto your computer. There are other ways, but this one, posted at SkypeJournal last year by a guy called Carlos, does the trick most simply, in my view, and doesn’t require any extra software. (This will probably only work on duplex soundcards, but most are nowadays, methinks.) I’ve edited it a bit for clarity.

  • Open the Windows Volume Control (under Accessories/Multimedia in your Start Menu, or via the little speaker in the System Tray)
  • Click on Options and then Properties
  • Select Recording, then make sure Wave Out Mix is selected. Click OK
  • In the Recording Control window, Select Wave out Mix
  • Open the Windows Sound Recorder program (under Accessories/Multimedia) or whatever audio recording program you use
  • Start recording
  • Play the VoiceMail on Skype
  • You should now be recording. Adjust the levels on your audio recording program (I found I had to set it very, very low) as necessary
  • Save the file.

The Skype Hole

Perhaps this isn’t that new, but I’ve noticed that Skype chat messages often don’t get through until hours later, even if both parties are online. 

The problem seems to be that while both parties are online — i.e., have Skype running and are shown as online, or away or something — the other party can’t see them. This is odd, given that Skype is usually better than other similar services at establishing a connection. It’s also somewhat embarrassing, and undermines its effectiveness as a business tool. Twice in the past couple of days I’ve been waiting for a scheduled call only for us to miss each other because we cannot see each other online. Calling anyway is no good, because the call either doesn’t connect or goes through to voicemail. Any text messages sent, along the lines of “Are you there?”, ‘Hello?” and “Weren’t we supposed to be talking around now, you %#@(#@(?”, only arrive hours later:

Skype4

Is this common? Is it an old problem? Or is Skype’s connectivity — its key strength, along with voice quality — slipping?

Call Me, If You Can Figure Out My Number

Why do people leave their mobile or alternative telephone numbers on their phone greetings messages, spoken so fast they sound like Mongolian railway stations? “Hi, this is Janice, if you need me really urgently you can call me on blblsvblffblsxsvvngihtblblle. Thanks for calling, and have a great day trying to figure out the number I just gave!”

Who in the world can remember more than about four digits spoken quickly in sequence, let alone the nine or so in your average phone number? And why are these always the same people who never repeat the number, as one would do in any normal conversation? And why are these the voice message recordings that never leave the listener with the option to have the message repeat (“press 1 to leave a message, press 2 to page the person, press 3 to leave your number, press 4 to have the number repeated at a normal human hearing and cognition speed”?)

And why are these always the people that actually you do need to reach quite urgently? I guess that’s why they do it, as a sign of power. “We’re incredibly smart and busy people, so if you’re not smart enough, and needy enough, to want my phone number you’re either going to have call me back four times so you can hear the number or else you’re going to just have to leave a message in a rather pathetic voice hoping I might just listen to my voicemail once a year.” It’s natural selection by voicemail.

Anyway, here’s the answer: Skype phone recording. Skylook, for example, records every phone conversation you have, if you want, and if you don’t care about the legal ramifications. So you don’t have to call the stupid jerk back to listen to their stupid greeting message again and again, you can just listen back to the recording. Ha. Gotcha. Of course, I then had to listen to another prerecorded greeting, with another number tacked on to the end of the message, but I still feel I’m ahead. Unless of course I deciphered the first number wrongly and was listening to the voicemail of someone completely different.

Plea: If you’re going to leave a number in a message, please speak it slowly, and repeat it. It may be a number you’re so familiar with you can cite it without actually moving your lips or tongue, but for the rest of us it’s probably a new configuration of digits, so we’d like to hear it a speed that doesn’t make it come out as blblsvblffblsxsvvngihtblblle. Thanks for calling.

Beware Skype Voicemail

Just got off the phone with my old friend Buzz, who calls me up whenever he needs to show off the wonders of Skype or Google Talk. But I noticed something that might be worth bearing in mind: Should the connection fail at any point, and you have voicemail activated on Skype, chances are whatever you’re saying that doesn’t get through to the other person because the connection fails goes through to their voicemail. Nice, and potentially useful if you just need to leave a quick tailgate message, but not so impressive if you’ve realised you’ve been disconnected and then start cursing the connection, Skype, the other person, or their spouse, or if you start a conversation with those around you thinking the line has already been disconnected. It has, but what you’re saying will go through to the other person’s voicemail. I got 10 minutes of Buzz chatting away. I felt I was eavesdropping and stopped listening after 9.5 minutes.

Needless to say, Buzz didn’t say anything nasty about me in the voicemail he unwittingly left for me.. And I don’t think I said anything nasty about Buzz either. But be aware. The wonderful connectivity that Skype and its ilk bring us should carry a health warning.

SkypeIn’s Wonders, And One Nagging Concern

The SkypeIn thing is really excellent. I was a bit slow to get aboard, mainly because of credit card issues, but now I’m there I’m impressed. It’s great to see a free service adding extra paid services that are really useful, rather than the usual free service later weighed down by sneaky efforts to grab your cash by limiting services, confusing users or adding dodgy features that don’t add up to a hill of beans.

The voicemail is excellent, very clear, the notification subtle but helpful, the message coming through almost immediately I’d hung up. My only concern is this: Incoming calls seem to lack caller ID:

Skype

Perhaps this is just a glitch, because the website version shows clearly the incoming number. Maybe this will be fixed. If not, isn’t there a danger of the number being used by VoIP spammers and others? Who is going to take a call on SkypeIn from an unidentified number? To me the whole beauty of IM/Skype is the ability to screen who it is who is trying to reach you.

Fax Over Internet: Still Around

This is a bit old, but I hadn’t noticed, so perhaps some of Loose Wire’s Asia-based readers hadn’t either: j2Global Communications, provider of the eFax Internet fax service, have this year started offering local toll-free numbers in Asia — well at least in Manila and Singapore. It says it’s planning to add numbers in Malaysia soon.

This means you offer customers, bosses, spouses, friends, colleagues or whoever local numbers in those countries to cut down on fax and voicemail costs. The press release says the company has a regional footprint now encompassing Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore, although I can’t see anything on their sign-up page that suggests offering Hong Kong yet. (Australia offers three cities, New Zealand one and Japan two. J2 says they’re continuing to pursue our vision of providing customers with local fax and/or voicemail numbers in as many cities as possible around the world.

The service costs $15 a month, with a $15 set-up fee. Incoming faxes are free, outgoing cost 10 cents a page, wherever they go. There is a free version available, where you can recieve faxes only: The only numbers available for that service, I believe, are in the U.S. I have not been overly impressed with the eFax service in the past, but it’s good to see local Asian numbers appearing in a service like this.