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01 June 2016 ~ 0 Comments

WhatsApp adds secure message encryption

WhatsApp recently announced that it has added end-to-end encryption to all its messages. We previously looked at how governments spy on your mobile but what is the implication of this change for the over one billion people who use the application? And what does encryption actually mean?

Seen in the light of the recent battle between Apple and the FBI to give the security agency access to private messages and information, this is a significant move by the Facebook-owned company. It means that WhatsApp are physically unable to give third parties access to messages, images, and even voice recordings since the messages are encrypted and the company has no access to the content of these messages. The company is one of first communication platforms to offer full end-to-end encryption, which is on by default. It is likely that other companies will offer a similar service soon.

“The desire to protect people’s private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it’s personal”, said Jan Koum, one of the app’s founders who was raised in Ukraine under Soviet rule. “The fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States,” he said on WhatsApp’s official blog page.

End-to-end encryption is the jumbling of information using a “key” to then decrypt it. What happens is that each party has a couple of keys, one which is public and one which is private. Only the sender and recipient of the message are able to see the contents of the message. True end-to-end encryption is known as “zero knowledge” which means the platform responsible for hosting the message (WhatsApp) has no knowledge whatsoever of the information contained within the message.

Users do not need to activate encryption. It happens automatically and also applies to WhatsApp calls. You can check if encryption is working by tapping on the message which comes up after you have sent your message. It should read as follows: “Messages that you send to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption.” You can then view a QR code and a 60-digit number. You can also scan your QR code or compare the 60-digit number with the person you are chatting with. We’d also recommend updating your security settings so all security messages are displayed – this might help you avoid man in the middle attacks that could compromise your communications.

The decision to enable end-to-end encryption on all WhatsApp communication has not met universal approval. Many governments are unhappy that there is no way to access private messages and in the UK politicians have proposed banning the technology or forcing companies to install backdoors that would weaken the security so that messages can be read by spies.

Of course, this shows an alarming level of technical illiteracy and failure to think through consequences by politicians. Not only will intentionally weakening encryption technology have severe and troubling repercussions for the functioning of the internet as a whole, it is trivial for anyone with nefarious intentions to simply switch to other, mathematically-proven, encryption algorithms and it will only weaken the security of normal people.

22 May 2016 ~ 5 Comments

Free mobile roaming in the EU

Tesco Mobile and Vodafone have both announced free-roaming options in the light of the EU anti-roaming plans which have resulted in all roaming charges being reduced to €0.05 per minute, €0.02 SMS and €0.05 per MB. Roaming charges will be completely removed in June 2017.

Customers of Tesco Mobile who travel to Europe have been offered zero roaming fees for the summer. This means that both Pay as You Go and contract customers will be able to use their existing mobile tariffs for calls, texting and data usage. The scheme called ‘Home From Home’ applies to subscribers visiting any EU countries as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The offer will be available between 23rd of May and the 3rd of September.

Vodafone is offering its customers on their RED plan free EU roaming in 40 countries. The plan is similar to Tesco Mobile’s offering, except Vodafone also offers a monthly data allowance of up to 4GB while roaming. Customers will not be able to use all the data in their bundles when abroad since the EU data is capped and there are restrictions depending on the data plan a customer has. An 8GB RED Value bundle will give 2GB of inclusive data while a 12GB Red Value plan will give you 4GB of data. The downside of Vodafone’s offering is that it will only apply to new and upgrading customers signed up from the 6th of May. Existing customers will be disappointed to know that they will be excluded from this offer.

The announcements of free roaming will be welcomed by UK mobile users planning a summer holiday in EU countries.

18 May 2016 ~ 4 Comments

Microsoft proposes a Phone which could predict touch

microsoft-pre-touch-sensing

Touch screens have been around for a long time. Initial examples were not very sophisticated and expensive to manufacture. Elographics built the first touch screen with a translucent surface in 1974. The first computer with touch screen elements was the HP-150 in 1983, but it was not a success. In 1993, Apple released the Newton PDA and IBM the smartphone called Simon with limited touchscreen features.

The major breakthrough came from Apple when they released their new touch screen smartphone called the iPhone on June 29, 2007. Today pretty much every phone manufacturer delivers a touch screen phone and the next development in touchscreen technology seemed to be Apple with its ForceTouch which measures the pressure applied on the screen.

Microsoft has stirred the market with a research project announced in April called Pre-Touch Sensing for Mobile Interaction. Ken Hinckley, a principal researcher at Microsoft who led the project, said the research is based on a whole different philosophy of interaction design. The research uses the phone’s ability to sense how you are gripping the device as well as when and where the fingers are approaching it.

Pre-touch sensing effectively allows the smartphone interface to be turned off until it detects a finger approaching the screen. The term used for this action is called a “nick of time” user interface which could, for example, hide the player controls on a video until they are needed. The technology starts approaching artificial intelligence when you realise that because the smartphone can detect how it is being held, it could also determine which hand a particular finger belongs to. So, if you were using the phone one-handed, pre-touch sensing could deliver a different interface than if you were holding it with two hands—allowing you to easily scrub through a video with just your thumb, or offering a different keyboard depending on what fingers you have available.

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The technology offers many possible improvements to the way we use our mobile devices. It should be possible to have much better precision when tapping small on-screen elements. For example, if you’re reading a webpage in your mobile browser, the UI could highlight the link you’re trying to tap before you even tap it. It would also give mobile users the equivalent of a right-click. You could tap a file or icon with one finger, then hover your thumb over the screen to select between options in a contextual menu.

Although this development is still at the research stage, it offers very exciting possibilities for innovative development if existing technologies. But like all of Microsoft Research’s projects, there’s no telling whether or not a smartphone with pre-touch sensing will ever come out of the prototype phase—especially as Microsoft winds down its Nokia smartphone business.

How innovative do you think this technology is? And will it change the way we interact with our phones forever?