Decrypted: Google finds a devastating iPhone security flaw, FireEye hack sends alarm bells ringing

In case you missed it: A ransomware attack saw patient data stolen from one of the largest U.S. fertility networks; the Supreme Court began hearing a case that may change how millions of Americans use computers and the internet; and lawmakers in Massachusetts have voted to ban police from using facial recognition across the state.

In this week’s Decrypted, we’re deep-diving into two stories beyond the headlines, including why the breach at cybersecurity giant FireEye has the cybersecurity industry in shock.


THE BIG PICTURE

Google researcher finds a major iPhone security bug, now fixed

What happens when you leave one of the best security researchers alone for six months? You get one of the most devastating vulnerabilities ever found in an iPhone — a bug so damaging that it can be exploited over-the-air and requires no interaction on the user’s part.

The AWDL bug under attack using a proof-of-concept exploit developed by a Google researcher. Image Credits: Ian Beer/Google Project Zero

The vulnerability was found in Apple Wireless Direct Link (AWDL), an important part of the iPhone’s software that among other things allows users to share files and photos over Wi-Fi through Apple’s AirDrop feature.

“AWDL is enabled by default, exposing a large and complex attack surface to everyone in radio proximity,” wrote Google’s Ian Beer in a tweet, who found the vulnerability in November and disclosed it to Apple, which pushed out a fix for iPhones and Macs in January.

But exploiting the bug allowed Beer to gain access to the underlying iPhone software using Wi-Fi to gain control of a vulnerable device — including the messages, emails and photos — as well as the camera and microphone — without alerting the user. Beer said that the bug could be exploited over “hundreds of meters or more,” depending on the hardware used to carry out the attack. But the good news is that there’s no evidence that malicious hackers have actively tried to exploit the bug.

News of the bug drew immediate attention, though Apple didn’t comment. NSA’s Rob Joyce said the bug find is “quite an accomplishment,” given that most iOS bugs require chaining multiple vulnerabilities together in order to get access to the underlying software.

FireEye hacked by a nation-state, but the aftermath is unclear

#apple, #articles, #computer-security, #cyberattacks, #cyberwarfare, #decrypted, #dragos, #fireeye, #google, #government, #infrastructure, #iphone, #massachusetts, #national-security-agency, #online-platforms, #orca-security, #president, #ransomware, #ron-wyden, #security, #series-b, #supreme-court, #the-washington-post, #trump, #u-s-government, #white-house, #wi-fi

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Bristol entrepreneur who exited for $800M doubles-down on the city with deep-tech incubator and VC fund

Harry Destecroix co-founded Ziylo while studying for his PhD at the University of Bristol. Ziylo, a university spin-out company, developed a synthetic molecule allowing glucose to bind with the bloodstream more effectively. Four years later, and by then a Phd, Destecroix sold the company to Danish firm Novo Nordisk, one of the biggest manufacturers of diabetes medicines, which had realized it could use Ziylo’s molecule to develop a new type of insulin to help diabetics. He walked away with an estimated $800m.

Destecroix is now embarking on a project, “Science Creates”, to repeat the exercise of creating deep-tech, science-based startups, and it will once more be based out of Bristol.

To foster this deep tech ecosystem it will offer a specialized incubator space able to house Wet Labs, a £15 million investment fund and a network of strategic partners to nurture science and engineering start-ups and spin-outs.

The Science Creates hub, in partnership with the University of Bristol and located in the heart of the city, is aspiring to become a sort of ‘West Coast’ for England, and the similarities, at least with an earlier version of Silicon Valley, are striking.

The Bay Area of old was cheaper than the East Coast of the US, had a cornerstone university, access to capital, and plenty of talent. Bristol has all that and for capital, it can access London, less than 90 minutes by train. But what it’s lacked until now is a greater level of “clustering” and startup-focused organization, which is clearly what Destecroix is planning to fix.

In a statement for the launch, he explained: “Where a discovery is made has a huge bearing on whether it’s successfully commercialized. While founding my own start-up, Ziylo, I became aware of just how many discoveries failed to emerge from the lab in Bristol alone. No matter the quality of the research and discovery, the right ecosystem is fundamental if we are going to challenge the global 90% failure rate of science start-ups, and create many more successful ventures.”

Science Creates is be grown out of the original incubator, Unit DX, that Destecroix set up in collaboration with the University of Bristol in 2017 to commercialize companies like his own.

The Science Creates team

The Science Creates team

The ‘Science Creates ecosystem’ will comprise of:

Science Creates Incubators: Unit DX houses 37 scientific and engineering companies working on healthtech, the environment and quality of life. The opening of a second incubator, Unit DY, close to Bristol Temple Meads train station, will mean it can support 100 companies and an estimated 450 jobs. The Science Creates’ physical footprint across the two units will reach 45,000 sq ft.

Science Creates Ventures: This £15 million EIS venture capital fund is backed by the Bristol-based entrepreneurs behind some of the South-West’s biggest deep tech exits.

Science Creates Network: This will be a portfolio of strategic partners, mentors and advisors tailored to the needs of science and engineering start-ups.

Destecroix is keen that the startups nurtured there will have more than “Wi-Fi and strong coffee” but also well-equipped lab space as well as sector-specific business support.

He’s betting that Bristol, with its long history of academic and industrial research, world-class research base around the University of Bristol, will be able to overcome the traditional challenges towards the commercialization of deep tech and science-based startups.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Bristol, commented: “We are delighted to support the vision and help Science Creates to build a thriving deep tech ecosystem in our home city. Great scientists don’t always know how to be great entrepreneurs, but we’ve seen the impact specialist support can have in helping them access the finance, networks, skills, and investment opportunities they need. Working with Science Creates, we aim to support even more ground-breaking discoveries to progress outside the university walls, and thrive as successful commercial ventures that change our world for the better.”

Ventures in Unit DX so far include:
– Imophoron (a vaccine tech start-up that is reinventing how vaccines are made and work – currently working on a COVID vaccine)
– Cytoseek (a discovery-stage biotech working on cell therapy cancer treatment)
– Anaphite (graphine-based science for next gen battery technology).

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Destecroix went on to say: “After my startup exited I just got really interested in this idea that, where discovery is actually founded has a huge bearing on whether something is actually commercialized or not. The pandemic has really taught us there is a hell of a lot more – especially in the life sciences, and environmental sciences – that has still yet to be discovered. Vaccines are based on very old technology and take a while to develop.”

“Through this whole journey, I started trying to understand it from an economic perspective. How do we get more startups to emerge? To lower those barriers? I think first of all there’s a cultural problem, especially with academically-focused universities whereby entrepreneurship a dirty word. I had to go against many of my colleagues in the early days to spin out, then obviously universities own all the IP. And so you’ve got to go through the tech transfer office etc and depending on what university you are at, whether it’s Imperial, Cambridge or Oxford, they’re all different. So, and I put the reason why there were no deep terch startups in Bristol down to the fact that there was no incubator space, and not enough investment.”

“I’ve now made about 14 angel investments. Bristol has now catapulted from 20th in the league tables for life sciences to six in the country in the last three years and this is largely due to the activities that we’ve been helping to encourage. So we’ve helped streamline licensing processes for the university, and I’ve helped cornerstone a lot of these deals which has resulted in a wave of these technology startups coming in.”

“I thought, now’s the time to professionalize this and launch a respectable Bristol-based venture capital firm that specializes in deep technologies.”

#advisors, #articles, #bristol, #business, #cambridge, #cancer-treatment, #deep-tech, #east-coast, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #finance, #london, #oxford, #private-equity, #start-up, #start-ups, #startup-company, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #venture-capital, #west-coast, #wi-fi

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iPhone zero-click Wi-Fi exploit is one of the most breathtaking hacks ever

The screen on the iPhone 12 Pro Max

Enlarge / That’s a lot of screen. (credit: Samuel Axon)

Earlier this year, Apple patched one of the most breathtaking iPhone vulnerabilities ever: a memory corruption bug in the iOS kernel that gave attackers remote access to the entire device—over Wi-Fi, with no user interaction required at all. Oh, and exploits were wormable—meaning radio-proximity exploits could spread from one near-by device to another, once again, with no user interaction needed.

This Wi-Fi packet of death exploit was devised by Ian Beer, a researcher at Project Zero, Google’s vulnerability research arm. In a 30,000-word post published on Tuesday afternoon, Beer described the vulnerability and the proof-of-concept exploit he spent six months developing single handedly. Almost immediately, fellow security researchers took notice.

Beware of dodgy Wi-Fi packets

“This is a fantastic piece of work,” Chris Evans, a semi-retired security researcher and executive and the founder of Project Zero, said in an interview. “It really is pretty serious. The fact you don’t have to really interact with your phone for this to be set off on you is really quite scary. This attack is just you’re walking along, the phone is in your pocket, and over Wi-Fi someone just worms in with some dodgy Wi-Fi packets.”

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#apple, #biz-it, #exploits, #ios, #iphone, #tech, #vulnerabilities, #wi-fi

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FCC takes spectrum from auto industry in plan to “supersize” Wi-Fi

A wireless router seen near a woman using a laptop.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Kittichai Boonpong | EyeEm)

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to add 45MHz of spectrum to Wi-Fi in a slightly controversial decision that takes the spectrum away from a little-used automobile-safety technology.

The spectrum from 5.850GHz to 5.925GHz has, for about 20 years, been set aside for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications service that’s supposed to warn drivers of dangers on the road. But as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today said, “99.9943 percent of the 274 million registered vehicles on the road in the United States still don’t have DSRC on-board units.” Only 15,506 vehicles have been equipped with the technology, he said.

In today’s decision, the FCC split the spectrum band and reallocated part of it to Wi-Fi and part of it to a newer vehicle technology. The lower 45MHz from 5.850GHz to 5.895GHz will be allocated to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed services.

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#biz-it, #dsrc, #fcc, #policy, #wi-fi

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Bridgefy launches end-to-end encrypted messaging for the app used during protests and disasters

Offline-messaging app Bridgefy — which innovatively uses Bluetooth and Wi-fi — became known as the go-to app by thousands of protesters around the world to keep communications going even when oppressive regimes blocked or shut down the Internet. Recently, activists in Nigeria and Thailand have urged supporters to download the app, as last year, when protesters in Hong Kong downloaded Bridgefy to face the government’s censorship of phone services or data connections. In the last 12 months, the startup says it’s reached 2 million downloads. And since the events of the weekend, when Turkey and Greece were hit by an earthquake, the app is now trending on app stores for those regions.

Bridgefy is now publishing a major new update, with a new, crucial feature for activists: end-to-end encrypted messages. This will allow people to securely send and receive messages when they don’t have access to data and will use the same encryption protocol used by Signal, Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger .

Bridgefy launched in 2014 (and appeared on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage in 2017) when the founders identified the problem of not being able to communicate during the earthquakes in Mexico City. It started as a mobile app, and an SDK was added a few years later so other apps could also work without the Internet. The Bridgefy SDK is now licensed to companies on an annual subscription model, based on user volume and is integrated by more than 40 companies across payments, messaging, gaming, social media, dating, and natural disaster apps. Technically-speaking, its competitors include GoTenna and the moth-ball gathering Firechat, although Bridgefy has become better known in the activist space.

The startup is now raising a Seed round and has already raised $800,000 USD, with investors including Twitter cofounder Biz Stone, Alchemist Accelerator and GAN Ventures.

#biz-stone, #bluetooth, #bridgefy, #cofounder, #computing, #europe, #facebook, #firechat, #mesh-networking, #messenger, #mexico-city, #nigeria, #operating-systems, #phone-services, #social-media, #software, #tc, #techcrunch, #thailand, #whatsapp, #wi-fi

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WeWork employees used an alarmingly insecure printer password

A shared user account used by WeWork employees to access printer settings and customer print jobs had an incredibly simple password — so simple that a customer guessed it.

Jake Elsley, who works at a WeWork in London, said he found the user account after a WeWork employee at his location mistakenly left the account logged in.

WeWork customers like Elsley normally have an assigned seven-digit username and a four-digit passcode used for printing documents at WeWork locations. But the username for the account used by WeWork employees was just four-digits: “9999”. Elsley told TechCrunch that he guessed the password because it was the same as the username. (“9999” is ranked as one of the most common passwords in use today, making it highly insecure.)

Read more on Extra Crunch

The “9999” account is used by and shared among WeWork community managers, who oversee day-to-day operations at each location, to print documents for visitors who don’t have accounts to print on their own. The account cannot be used to access print jobs sent to other customer accounts.

Elsley said that the “9999” account could not see the contents of documents beyond file names, but that logging in to the WeWork printing web portal could allow him to release other people’s pending print jobs sent to the “9999” account to any other WeWork printer on the network.

The printing web portal can only be accessed on WeWork’s Wi-Fi networks, said Elsley, but that includes the free guest Wi-Fi network which doesn’t have a password, and WeWork’s main Wi-Fi network, which still uses a password that has been widely circulated on the internet.

Elsley reached out to TechCrunch to ask us to alert the company to the insecure password.

“WeWork is committed to protecting the privacy and security of our members and employees,” said WeWork spokesperson Colin Hart. “We immediately initiated an investigation into this potential issue and took steps to address any concerns. We are also nearing the end of a multi-month process of upgrading all of our printing capabilities to a best in class security and experience solution. We expect this process to be completed in the coming weeks.”

WeWork confirmed that it had since changed the password on the “9999” user account.

#articles, #economy, #identity-management, #london, #security, #spokesperson, #startups, #web-portal, #wework, #wi-fi

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Google releases new, cheaper Google Wi-Fi alongside Nest Wi-Fi

A jar-sized electronic device looks like two oversized Tylenol stacked atop each other.

Enlarge / The new Google Wi-Fi pucks look much like the originals—the substitution of a DC barrel jack for the original USB-C charging port seems to be the biggest difference. (credit: Google)

This week, Google launched another, cheaper version of its Wi-Fi-mesh product line. A little more than a year after the introduction of Nest Wi-Fi, this new product line resurrects the original Google Wi-Fi branding and is sold in one-, two-, or three-piece sets.

For the most part, the new Google Wi-Fi seems pretty similar to the original—each device is a small, squat white cylinder sporting twin gigabit Ethernet ports, dual-band 802.11ac, AC1200 (Wi-Fi 5, 2×2) radios, along with Bluetooth Low-Energy support. The 2020 version of Google Wi-Fi has a simple DC barrel jack in place of the USB-C charging port on the original version.

The more expensive Nest Wi-Fi offers an integrated smart speaker in each node and a fatter Wi-Fi backhaul pipe—although both Nest Wi-Fi and Google Wi-Fi are dual-band 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), the 5GHz radio in the more expensive Nest Wi-Fi is 4×4, offering double the backhaul (connection to the next node closer to the Internet) throughput.

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#google-wi-fi, #nest-wi-fi, #tech, #wi-fi, #wi-fi-mesh

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Eero for Service Providers: Eero Wi-Fi mesh targeted at ISPs

Promotional image of three anodyne electronic devices.

Enlarge / A trio of Wi-Fi 6 Eero Pro devices like these should provide excellent Wi-Fi coverage and performance for nearly any home. (credit: Eero)

This Tuesday, Eero—one of the first and most popular Wi-Fi-mesh providers—announced a new hardware and software program that targets ISPs rather than retail customers. Ars spoke about the new program at length with Nick Weaver, Eero founder and CEO, and Mark Sieglock, Eero’s GM of Software Services.

The short version of Eero for Service Providers is simple: deploy new Eero 6 series hardware, let your customers self-install using a co-branded app with the ISP’s own name on it, and provide the ISP with Eero Insight, a dashboard allowing them to view metrics from the entire fleet-level down to individual households. The telemetry exposed to the ISP includes outages, speed-test data, client network topology, RF diagnostics, and more.

Weaver told us that the vanilla Eero Insight dashboard itself wasn’t the whole story, though. The metrics, charts, and graphs the dashboard exposes can also be accessed via API, allowing larger providers to seamlessly integrate the data into their own existing dashboards.

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#eero, #fiber, #fiber-to-the-home, #ftth, #isps, #tech, #uncategorized, #wi-fi, #wi-fi-6, #wi-fi-mesh

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Comcast adds new tri-band X-Fi pods to home Wi-Fi lineup

Today, Comcast launched an upgrade to its existing Plume-based Wi-Fi mesh offerings, the X-Fi Pods. The new, tri-band X-Fi Pods appear to be direct implementations of Plume’s Superpod design—which is good news for Comcast customers, since the Superpods still sit comfortably at the top of our Wi-Fi mesh performance charts.

The new tri-band X-Fi Pods are available today at $119 for one or $199 for two, and they integrate with X-Fi customers’ existing $25/mo X-Fi managed Wi-Fi.

Why does tri-band matter?

One important distinguishing characteristic between Wi-Fi mesh kits is the number of radios in each node. The highest-performance mesh kits—such as Netgear Orbi RBK53, Plume Superpods, or the new X-Fi Pods announced today—have three radios in them, not just two. The extra radio allows the mesh nodes to simultaneously communicate both to the client devices connected to them and the “backhaul” (their connection upstream to the router) on 5GHz radios.

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#comcast, #plume, #pods, #superpods, #tech, #wi-fi, #wi-fi-mesh, #wifi, #wifi-mesh, #x-fi

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Digital equity program in Maryland adds Plume Wi-Fi to its Internet access

Seventy low-income and special needs units in this apartment complex will offer Plume-managed Wi-Fi.

Enlarge / Seventy low-income and special needs units in this apartment complex will offer Plume-managed Wi-Fi. (credit: Michael Bennett Kress Photography)

Montgomery County, Maryland offers its low-income and special needs citizens Internet access via a 600-linear-mile fiber route as part of its Digital Equity program. In a new pilot project, the county will add onsite Wi-Fi—by way of Plume superpods—to its existing basic Internet access.

Digital Equity is defined as a condition in which all individuals in a society can access the technology needed to fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy. The Office of Broadband Programs (OBP) is taking steps towards achieving digital equity in Montgomery County, through programs such as expanding broadband services, educating seniors, and aiding individuals in connecting to the internet.

—Montgomery County Office of Broadband Programs

Ars spoke to Montgomery County’s Chief Broadband Officer, Joe Webster, about the upcoming project. Webster told us that although the county has been providing free or low-cost Internet service to residents in need for some time, significant challenges remain beyond the demarc. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “demarc” is ISP shorthand for “point of demarcation”—the point beyond which your IT problems are your own, not the service provider’s.

Wi-Fi is a particular pain point, and the low-income and special needs citizens served by Joe’s office face particular challenges trying to set up and administer in-home Wi-Fi, due to both the expense and complexity. Ongoing support of in-home Wi-Fi is also a challenging and expensive proposition—network equipment vendor Actiontec claims 60 percent of all ISP support calls are really for Wi-Fi, not the Internet service itself.

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#digital-equity, #low-income, #plume, #special-needs, #tech, #uncategorized, #wi-fi, #wi-fi-mesh, #wifi, #wifi-mesh

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Eero mesh Wi-Fi 6 hardware test results have been spotted at the FCC

White electronic devices in a row on a table.

Enlarge / We expect the new Eero Pro to look largely like the existing Eero Pro or the Amazon Eero units shown here. (credit: Jim Salter)

Tech blog Zatz Not Funny broke the news this weekend that Wi-Fi 6-enabled Eero hardware is at the FCC for testing and validation. Details on the new hardware are sketchy for the moment—Eero has requested confidentiality for most of the interesting data through March 10, 2021.

What we do know is that three devices under test are listed—an Eero Pro, Eero Gateway, and Eero Extender. All three are Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)-enabled parts. The Eero Pro is a tri-band design (one 2.4GHz radio and two 5GHz radios), similar to the current Eero Pro; the Gateway and Extender are dual-band designs differentiated by wired Ethernet ports—the Gateway has two, and the Extender has none.

Ars has reached out to Eero, with no response as of press time. All we know for sure is what limited nonconfidential data is available from RF testing at the FCC—Eero’s site itself still simply says, “there is no timeline set for 802.11ax (also known as Wi-Fi 6) support.”

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#802-11ax, #eero, #mesh, #tech, #uncategorized, #wi-fi, #wi-fi-6, #wi-fi-mesh

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Researchers develop laser-based underwater WiFi system for sub-sea data networks

A team of researchers working out of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have developed a two-way wireless data connection for use underwater. Strong wireless data connections are basically taken for granted in our daily lives, from cell service to home WiFi networks, but it’s actually tremendously challenging to create high-speed wireless connections in a medium like water. That could be very valuable for keeping underwater data centers connected with surface network infrastructure.

KUAST’s researchers approached the challenge using simple, readily available off-the-shelf components, including a Raspberry Pi that acts as the modem. They also built it to be compatible with existing 802.11 wireless standards, so that it can easily connect into the larger global internet for consistent and reliable connections.

The Raspberry Pi provides the compute need to convert the standard wireless signal into one that can be transmitted optically via laser. The signal comes in over the air to a buoy at the ocean’s surface, where the Pi then does the conversion and transmits the information via blue and green lasers, which then beam it down to an optical receiver located underwater, with a maximum practical transfer speed of 2.11 Mbps across a distance of 20 meters (around 66 feet).

The research team managed to use their system to do Skype calls and move files back and forth – but they also burned out the Raspberry Pi using lasers that overwhelmed its capabilities. This could be shored up by swapping in a dedicated optical modem, they said. A bigger problem that exists when using this so-called Aqua-Fi networking tech is dealing with the optical variation that can result underwater from currents and water movement.

To overcome those limitations, the team is considering a number of options, including a two-laser system in which a low-powered one does way finding to plot the course for the more powerful data connection, and can readjust orientation if a connection fails. They could also broaden the receiver with an array of multiple receivers – similar to how MIMO antenna arrays work on modern networking hardware.

#laser, #lasers, #mimo, #modem, #photonics, #raspberry-pi, #science, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #wi-fi, #wireless, #wireless-networking

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The best WiFi 6 home networking tech to upgrade your setup

Wifi 6 is here – making its way to more and more devices, with a noteworthy inclusion on last year’s flagship iPhone 11 lineup. This next-generation Wifi technology provides faster speeds for transferring data between devices, but more importantly, it also means your system will be better equipped to handle multiple Wifi devices connected at one time, without slowdowns or interruptions – and it can even reduce battery drain in mobile devices.

The number of Wifi 6 routers and mesh systems has definitely improved dramatically since the debut of the iPhone 11, and there are a range of options available at a variety of price points. But for those looking to get the most out of their Wifi 6 setup, two available systems in particular can provide all the power you need, with two different approaches that will appeal to differing user needs.

Orbi AX6000 Mesh WiFi System (starting at $699.99)

Image Credits: Netgear

Netgear’s Orbi lineup is a popular mesh option, and its latest AX6000 series offers WiFi 6 networking in either a 2- or 3-pack configuration. Even the 2-pack is able to cover a home of up to 5,000 square feet, Netgear claims, and it an support up to 2.5G internet connections from an Ethernet connected modem.

The Orbi AX6000 includes Netgear’s X technology, which can optimize streaming and media connections for optimal performance. Both the base unit and the satellite include 4 Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports for hardwired connections, which means you’re less likely to need an Ethernet switch to connect all your gear.

In real-world testing, the AX6000 proved a remarkably reliable and far-reaching mesh system. I tested a 2-device configuration, with one base unit and one satellite, and really saw the advantages of its range. In my testing, I was able to enjoy a consistent and strong Wifi connection with the AX6000 as far as around 500 feet or more outside – useful in the situation where I had it installed in a lake house for reaching all the way down to a dock.

Orbi’s system can be managed from a mobile app, which provides an overview of devices attached, with detailed information available for each. You can pause and resume access for each connected device from the app, and also enable features like a dedicated guest network.

Netgear also offers a service called Armor that provides real-time threat detection and protection on your network. It’s a subscription service, with a limited free trial included when you first set up your Orbi system. In practice, it did seem to effectively detect and block phishing and malware connections, and it’s optional as an ongoing paid add-on.

The real strength of the Orbi system for me was that when I used it with a cellular-based network connection in a relatively remote setting, it dramatically improved performance. That was true even when I used it with my home fibre connection, which is a 1.5Gbps network, but it improved the much less reliable 50Mbps mobile connection so much that it went from relatively unreliable to fully reliable.

Netgear’s offering also offers a level of simplicity in terms of the app and network management that has advantages and downsides, but that is probably much better suited to casual or non-technical users. I found that it lacked some advanced options I was looking for, like the ability to separate 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks under separate network SSIDs to more easily connect some smart home devices, but that’s probably not a feature most users want or need.

AmpliFi Alien WiFi 6 Router (starting at $379)

Image Credits: AmpliFi

The AmpliFi Alien router from AmpliFi, which is the consumer arm of commercial networking giant Ubiquiti, offers all the customization that an advanced user could want, on the other hand. The $379 device can act as a standalone tri-band router, or it can pair up with other Alient base stations (a 2-pack is $699) to form a mesh network for greater coverage. Unlike the Orbi option, AmpliFi’s hardware doesn’t have dedicated base station and satellite units, meaning they can be swapped out as needed to set up different networks if you don’t need the mesh capabilities.

AmpliFi’s Alien in testing also offered excellent coverage, and worked extremely well providing access to the full capabilities of my 1.5Gbps finer optic connection. In long-term testing, their reliability has been impeccable in terms of network uptime, and AmpliFi has consistently and reliably pushed updates to improve their performance as well.

Building on their reputation for delivering the best in advanced networking through Ubiquiti, AmpliFi has also equipped the Alien with some impressive hardware specs, including a custom antenna array and a dedicated 2.2 GHz 64-bit quad-core CPU in each base station. That’s more computing power than you’ll find in some mid-range Android smartphones, all committed to the task of continually optimizing your network and device connections for maximum performance.

All that onboard intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate to complexity, however – AmpliFi is meant to be Ubiquiti’s more accessible consumer brand, and it stays true to that with its simple, app-based setup and control. The AmpliFi app is very user-friendly and well designed, and includes all the features you’d expect from a mesh networking system including individual device views and controls, as well as rule creation and full stats reporting. You can also set up guest networking, and configure more advanced features like distinct SSIDs for different frequency networks.

The AmplifFi Alien also has a colorful, high-resolution display that provides at-a-glance information including current network performance, signal strength, and a list of connected devices. Both these menus and the in-app ones can get a little information dense compared to other options like the Orbi, however, which is why I think it’s a much better option for someone more comfortable with tech in general, and networking tech in particular.

The Alien system offers great expandability and flexibility (albeit with a cost since each is $379) and amazing custom control features. It’s definitely the networking solution to beat when it comes to advanced at-home Wifi 6 networking.

Bottom line

More and more Wifi 6 options are coming to market as the technology shows up on more consumer devices, and as mentioned, you can also get them at increasingly affordable prices. But Wifi 6 stands to be an investment that should provide you with many years of networking advantages, with more benefits accruing over time, so it’s likely worth investing money in a top-tier system that will provide future-proof performance.

Both the Netgear Orbi system and the AmpliFi Alien offer terrific performance, easy setup and a host of great features. Orbi’s AX6000 is likely better for those who prefer to set-it-and-forget-it, and who might appreciate the option of setting up threat detection on an ongoing basis. The Alien is better for power users and anyone who wants the ability to change their configuration over time – including potentially splitting up their networking hardware to use in multiple locations.

#amplifi, #android, #computing, #ethernet, #gadgets, #google-wifi, #hardware, #iphone, #lan, #mesh-network, #mesh-networking, #netgear, #network-management, #reviews, #smart-home-devices, #smartphones, #tc, #telecommunications, #ubiquiti, #wi-fi, #wifi-6, #wireless-networking

0

Twilio acquires Electric Imp to bolster its growing IoT business

While you may mostly think about Twilio in the context of its voice and text messaging platform, the company has recently made a number of moves to bolster its IoT platform, which is already one of its fastest-growing business units. To accelerate this push, the company today announced that it quietly acquired IoT platform Electric Imp a few months ago.

Before the acquisition, Electric Imp, which was one of the earlier IoT startups, had raised about $44 million from firms like Ramparts Capital, which led its 2016 Series C round, with participation from Redpoint, Foxconn, Lowercase Capital and PTI Ventures. The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.

Electric Imp makes it easier for businesses to securely connect their IoT devices with their data centers and third-party services. The company was co-founded by Hugo Fiennes, who was the engineering manager for the hardware team at Apple that launched the first iPhone. After managing four phone launches at Apple, he briefly went to Google to work on IoT projects there, but quickly realized that Google had already built the idea he wanted to work on in the company with Android for Things. He also turned down a job at Nest — though he did the design and architecture of their first thermostat, too. His, interest, and that of his co-founders (which include Gmail designer Kevin Fox, who left the company in 2013, and software architect Peter Hartley), was elsewhere, though.

“My worry for IoT was, I didn’t want to be spending many years building something which was just going to be a thermostat,” he said. “Not that a thermostat is not an important thing — it does save lots of energy — but it was more like, ‘oh my God, this technology — IoT, connecting a business service to the real world — allows you to optimize the real world.”

So the idea behind Electric Imp was to build a flexible, architecture-agnostic platform that would take care of all the plumbing to build an IoT system and then manage its life cycle throughout the years. Most businesses struggle with things like updates and, related to that, security, Fiennes argues. That’s what Electric Imp aims to essentially abstract away for its customers.

Image Credits: Twilio

“We always wanted it to be really accessible,” Fiennes said. “We don’t know all the applications. It’s not like ‘this is gonna be for us to tracking, let’s just chase asset tracking.’ If we know it’s for general purpose, has to be available to anyone, they just buy a dev kit and sign up, whatever, just try it. And a lot of our marketing, for better or for worse, was really just, ‘hey, it’s a great product, right?’ ”

As Fiennes noted, in that respect Electric Imp wasn’t that different from Twilio — and the company actually used Twilio when it demoed its product to potential Series A investors.

Twilio CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson also noted that the IoT space hasn’t been innovating at the pace of software. “It’s been fun watching Twilio customers invent new connected experiences like shared scooters, and wearables that enable kids to communicate with their parents,” he said. “It reminds me of the explosion of customer engagement use cases Twilio customers invented using our Programmable Voice and SMS APIs. But overall, the IoT industry doesn’t seem to attract innovation at the same rate as software. One possible reason is that experimentation — real experimentation — that is, testing real business models in the wild — remains difficult.  By democratizing access to cellular IoT connectivity, we’ve been able to help move things along, but many of the hardest infrastructure problems remain unsolved. With the Electric Imp acquisition, we gain the team and technology needed to make a bigger dent in the problems facing future IoT developers.”

Image Credits: Electric Imp

It’s worth noting that Electric Imp isn’t meant to be a platform for high-bandwidth use cases, like streaming video, but more for connecting sensors that produce a more manageable amount of data to the cloud. One of Electric Imp’s customers is Pitney Bowes, which makes postage meters, but you can also think smart grids, river-level monitoring etc. And while Electric Imp’s technology can also be found in smart devices for consumers, Fiennes believes that the real value of the platform isn’t necessary in high-volume products.

“I think it’s kind of like, a lot of those [consumer use cases are] are just like, ‘you can connect it, yes. But why?’ But there’s really a lot of things like, river-level monitoring and a whole load of things which are very hard to deal with without IoT. And they’re not necessarily hugely high volume, which is why a repeatable platform that can be sold to many customers without change is really important because you get to target the niches where there’s a lot of value.”

With this acquisition, Twilio is not just buying a product but also a lot of expertise in building an IoT infrastructure. While the company doesn’t disclose the size of its IoT team, Twilio’s Evan Cummack, the GM of Twilio IT, and Chetan Chaudhary, the VP of Sales for IoT, who together founded the IoT business unit, tell me that a lot of early Twilio employees now work on the IoT side, including Twilio’s very first architect and the company’s first sales rep.

Cummack and Chaudhary told me that after a few years of working at Twilio, the realized there was a lot of untapped potential in IoT for the company.

In the early days of Twilio, both worked on building out Twilio’s strategy for selling to enterprise companies — and to some degree, they are now aiming to use a similar playbook to build out Twilio’s IoT business, though the idea is actually quite a bit older and pre-dates Twilio’s 2016 IPO.

“What I realized was that it was the combination of a really strong go to market with the technical prowess that allowed us to get to the early big wins [for Twilio],” Chaudhary said. “And we had this idea around doing the same thing for cellular connectivity for IoT devices because we were already buying wholesale voice and messaging. And I got to work with some of our carrier relations folks and helping them close some of the connectivity deals. And I was like: ‘Why can’t we sell SIM cards?’ ”

Twilio launched its IoT business in partnership with T-Mobile in 2016. The first product was its programmable wireless service. It then acquired Berlin’s Core Network Dynamics in 2018 to solve another set of problems that IoT developers were facing around connecting their IoT devices.

“What we saw once we started playing in connectivity was that there’s still just a tremendous amount of plumbing that’s not solved for,” Cummack noted. “So you have a tremendous amount of customers having to build their own security stacks, over-the-air update capabilities, secure boot, manufacturing tools, testing, manufacturer, even just things like getting connected to wireless networks, cellular networks and Wi-Fi networks was way too high. And all of this stuff is what I would consider to be platform stuff. It’s all kind of plumbing.”

In its early days Twilio though of the IoT group as a bit of a startup within the company. But that seems to be changing. “Twilio IoT evolved from an internal experiment into a fully fledged business unit with a thriving connectivity business,” Lawson told me. “It has the potential to evolve again into a market-leading platform for the emerging IoT developer community.”

Twilio has already integrated a lot of Electric Imp’s services into its go-to-market strategy, Chaudhary noted. “They’ve already brought […] a lot of credibility in a couple of deals because of their DNA and because of the things that they were able to solve, especially around the embedded design and hardware design, we were able to see some really good synergies early on  and now we’ll start to see some net new customers, I think, come from it.”

Fiennes will continue at Twilio as a Senior Product Architect, working on IoT and Electric Imp is actually releasing its newest product today: the imp006 breakout board for prototyping IoT products, which — no surprise there — comes with Twilio’s Super SIM for global connectivity already pre-installed.

#cellular-networks, #electric-imp, #internet-of-things, #iot, #lowercase-capital, #ma, #redpoint, #smart-devices, #tc, #technology, #twilio, #wi-fi

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How to create the best at-home videoconferencing setup, for every budget

Your life probably involves a lot more videoconferencing now than it did a few weeks ago – even if it already did involve a lot. That’s not likely going to change anytime soon, so why not make the most of it? The average MacBook webcam can technically get the job done, but it’s far from impressive. There are a number of ways to up your game, however – by spending either just a little or a whole lot. Whether you’re just looking to improve your daily virtual stand-up, gearing up for presenting at a virtual conference, or planning a new video podcast, here’s some advice about what to do to make the most of what you’ve got, or what to get if you really want to maximize your video and audio quality.

Level 0

Turn on a light and put it in the right place

One of the easiest things you can do to improve the look of your video is to simply turn on any light you have handy and position it behind the camera shining on your face. That might mean moving a lamp, or moving your computer if all your available lights are in a fixed position, but it can make a dramatic difference. Check out these examples below, screen grabbed from my Microsoft Surface Book 2 (which actually has a pretty good built-in video camera, as far as built-in video cameras go).

The image above is without any light beyond the room’s ceiling lights on, and the image below is turning on a lamp and positioning it directed on my face from above and behind the Surface Book. It’s enough of a change to make it look less like I got caught by surprise with my video on, and more like I actually am attending a meeting I’m supposed to take part in.

Be aware of what’s behind you

It’s definitely too much to ask to set dress your surroundings for every video call you jump on, but it is worth taking a second to spot check what’s visible in the frame. Ideally, you can find a spot where the background is fairly minimal, with some organized decor visible. Close doors that are in frame, and try not to film in front of an uncovered window. And if you’re living in a pandemic-induced mess of clutter, just shovel the clutter until it’s out of frame.

Know your system sound settings

Get to know where the input volume settings are for your device and operating system. It’s not usually much of an issue, because most apps and systems set pretty sensible defaults, but if you’re also doing something unusual like sitting further away from your laptop to try to fit a second person in frame, then you might want to turn up the input audio slider to make sure anyone listening can actually hear what you have to say.

It’s probably controllable directly in whatever app you’re using, but on Macs, also try going to System Preferences > Sound > Input to check if the level is directly controllable for the device you’re using, and if tweaking that produces the result you’re looking for.

Level 1

Get an external webcam

The built-in webcam on most notebooks and all-in-ones isn’t going to be great, and you can almost always improve things by buying a dedicated webcam instead. Right now, it might be hard to find them in stock, since a lot of people have the same need for a boost in videoconferencing quality all at the same time. But if you can get your hands on even a budget upgrade option like the Logitech C922 Pro Stream 1080p webcam I used for the clip below, it should help with sharpness, low light performance, color and more.

Get a basic USB mic

Dedicated external mics are another way to quickly give your setup a big boost for relatively low cost. In the clip above, I used the popular Samson Meteor USB mic, which has built-in legs and dedicated volume/mute controls. This mic includes everything you need, and should work instantly when you plug it in via USB, and it produces great sound that’s ideal for vocals.

Get some headphones

Headphones of any kind will make your video calls and conferences better, since it minimizes the chance of echo from your mic picking up the audio from your own speakers. Big over ears models are good for sound quality, while earbuds make for less obvious headwear in your actual video image.

Level 2

Use a dedicated camera and an HDMI-to-USB interface

If you already have a standalone camera, including just about any consumer pocket camera with HDMI out capabilities, then it’s worth looking into picking up an HDMI-to-USB video capture interface in order to convert it into a much higher quality webcam. In the clip below I’m using the Sony RX100 VII, which is definitely at the high end of the consumer pocket camera market, but there are a range of options that should give you nearly the same level of quality, including the older RX100 models from Sony .

When looking for an HDMI interface, make sure that they advertise that it works with videoconferencing apps like Zoom, Hangouts and Skype on Mac and Windows without any software required: This means that they likely have UVC capabilities, which means those operating systems will recognize them as webcams without any driver downloads or special apps required out of the box. These are also in higher demand due to COVID-19, so the Elgato Cam Link 4K I used here probably isn’t in ready stock anywhere. Instead, look to alternatives like the IOGear Video Capture Adapter or the Magewell USB 3.0 Capture device, or potentially consider upgrading to a dedicated live broadcast deck like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini I’ll talk more about below.

Get a wired lav mic

A simple wired lavalier (lav) microphone is a great way to upgrade your audio game, and it doesn’t even need to cost that much. You can get a wired lav that performs decently well for as little as $20 on Amazon, and you can use a USB version for connecting directly to your computer even if you don’t have a 3.5mm input port. Rode’s Lavalier GO is a great mid-range option that also works well with the Wireless GO transmitter and receiver kit I mention in the next section. The main limitation of this is that depending on cord length, you could be pretty limited in terms of your range of motion while using one.

Get multiple lights and position them effectively

Lighting is a rabbit hole that ends up going very deep, but getting a couple of lights that you can move to where you need them most is a good, inexpensive way to get started. Amazon offers a wide range of lighting kits that fit the bill, or you can even do pretty well with just a couple of Philips Hue lights in gooseneck lamps positioned correctly and adjusted to the right temperature and brightness.

Level 3

Use an interchangeable lens camera and a fast lens

The next step up from a decent compact camera is one that features interchangeable lenses. This allows you to add a nice, fast prime lens with a high maximum aperture (aka a low ‘f’ number’) to get that defocused background look. This provides natural-looking separation of you, the subject, from whatever is behind you, and provides a cinematic feel that will wow colleagues in your monthly all-hands.

Get a wireless lav mic

A lav mic is great, but a wireless lav mic is even better. It means you don’t need to worry about hitting the end of your cable, or getting it tangled in other cables in your workspace, and it can provide more flexibility in terms of what audio interfaces you use to actually get your sound into the computer, too. A great option here is the RODE Wireless GO, which can work on its own or in tandem with a mic like the RODE Lavalier GO for great, flexible sound.

Use in-ear monitors

You still want to be using headphones at this stage, but the best kind to use really are in-ear monitors that do their best to disappear out of sight. You can get some dedicated broadcast-style monitors like those Shure makes, or you can spring for a really good pair of Bluetooth headphones with low latency and the latest version of Bluetooth. Apple’s AirPods Pro is a great option, as are the Bang & Olfusen E8 fully wireless earbuds, which I’ve used extensively without any noticeable lag.

Use 3-point lighting

At this stage, it’s really time to just go ahead and get serious about lighting. The best balance in terms of optimizing specifically for streaming, videoconferencing and anything else your’e doing from your desk, basically, is to pick up at least two of Elgato’s Key Lights or Key Light Airs.

These are LED panel lights with built-in diffusers that don’t have a steep learning curve, and that come with very sturdy articulating tube mounts with desk clamps, and that connect to Wi-Fi for control via smartphones or desktop applications. You can adjust their temperature, meaning you can make them either more ‘blue’ or more ‘orange’ depending on your needs, as well as tweak their brightness.

Using three of these, you can set up a standard 3-point lighting setup which are ideal for interviews or people speaking directly into a camera – aka just about every virtual conference/meeting/event/webinar use you can think of.

Level 4

Get an HDMI broadcast switcher deck

HDMI-USB capture devices do a fine job turning most cameras into webcams, but if you really want to give yourself a range of options, you can upgrade to a broadcast switching interface like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini. Released last year, the ATEM Mini packs in a lot of features that previously were basically only available to video pros, and provides them in an easy-to-use form factor with a price that’s actually astounding given how much this thing can really do.

On its own paired with a good camera, the ATEM Mini can add a lot to your video capabilities, including allowing you to tee up still graphics, and switch to computer input to show videos, work live in graphics apps, demonstrate code or run a presentation. You can set up picture-in-picture views, put up lower thirds and even fade-to-black using a hardware button dedicated to that purpose.

But if you really want to make the most of the ATEM Mini, you can add a second or even a third and fourth camera to the mix. For most uses, this is probably way too much camera – there are only so many angles one can get of a single person talking, in the end. But if you get creative with camera placement and subjects, it’s a fun and interesting way to break up a stream, especially if you’re doing something longer like giving a speech or extended presentation. The newer ATEM Mini Pro is just starting to ship, and offers built-in recording and streaming as well.

Use a broadcast-quality shotgun mic

The ATEM Mini has two dedicated audio inputs that really give you a lot of flexibility on that front, too. Attaching one to the output on an iPod touch, for instance, could let you use that device as a handy soundboard for cueing up intro and title music, plus sound effects. And this also means you can route sound from a high-quality mic, provided you have the right interface.

For top level streaming quality, with minimal sacrifices required in terms of video, I recommend going to a good, broadcast-quality shotgun mic. The Rode VideoMic NTG is a good entry-level option that has flexibility when it comes to also being mountable on-camera, but something like the Rode NTG3m mounted to a boom arm and placed out of frame with the mic end angled down towards your mouth, is going to provide the best possible results.

Add accent lighting

You’ve got your 3-point lighting – but as I said, lighting is a nearly endless rabbit hole. Accent lighting can really help push the professionalism of your video even further, and it’s also pretty easy and to set up using readily available equipment. Philips Hue is probably my favorite way to add a little more vitality to any scene, and if you’re already a Hue user you can make do with just about any of their color bulbs. Recent releases from Philips like the Hue Play Smart LED Light Bars are essentially tailor made for this use, and you can daisy chain up to three on one power adapter to create awesome accent wall lighting effects.

All of this is, of course, not at all necessary for basic video conferencing, virtual hangouts and meetings. But if you think that remote video is going to be a bigger part of our lives going forward, even as we return to some kind of normalcy in the wake of COVID-19, then it’s worth considering what elements of your system to upgrade based on your budget and needs, and hopefully this article provides some guidance.

#amazon, #articles, #bluetooth, #driver, #gadgets, #hardware, #hdmi, #laptop, #logitech, #microphone, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #operating-system, #operating-systems, #philips, #rode, #smartphones, #sony, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #teleconferencing, #usb, #video-conferencing, #webcam, #wi-fi, #wireless-earbuds

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The new August Wi-Fi Smart Lock is now available, and it’s the connected smart lock to beat

It’s been a few years since August introduced any new hardware, but its August Wi-Fi Smart Lock, which it debuted at CES this year, is now available. This is the new flagship in the August lineup, replacing the August Smart Lock Pro as the latest and greatest feature-packed connected lock from the company, and it brings an improved design along with built-in Wi-Fi. August’s existing locks are the market leaders in easy conversion kits for existing thumbturn deadbolts, and the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock improves upon that reputation in every way.

Design

The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock has a great design pedigree already, since the company was originally co-founded by Yves Béhar. Béhar spearheaded the design of this generation as well, and the result is a look that is recognizably August, but with upgraded looks and tactile improvements, too. The satin nickel finish on my review hardware looked great and premium (it also comes in black) and the textured outer edge feels great when turning the lock to manually lock/unlock. There’s a slightly raised ‘pointer’ to provide a quick visual indicator of whether the door is locked or unlocked now as well.

The biggest design change vs. the August Smart Lock Pro, however, is that it’s quite a bit smaller. August says it’s 45% smaller by volume, in fact, and 20% slimmer front to back, and the size savings definitely show. The rather large dimensions of the Smart Lock Pro meant that it wasn’t even able to be installed on some doors, so there’s a practical, functional benefit to the change, but it also just looks a lot nicer and is less likely to stick out among the rest of your home decor.

The smaller design was made possible despite inclusion of Wi-Fi built-in in part due to the switch to CR2 batteries, which are a lot less common than the AAs used by the Smart Lock Pro, but which you should still be able to find pretty easily at a drugstore or via Amazon.

Size aside, the design still provides a great, easy to use manual turn for physically unlocking and locking your door. The install process is also still very easy, even if you’re not particularly handy. August even provides paint-safe tape in the box for securing the other side of your lock while you remove the thumb plate, and its app gives you easy instructions for matching the right included size adapter depending on your deadbolt manufacturer. Replacing my own thumb turn took about five minutes start to finish.

Features

The whole point of August’s technology is that it provides you with a way to lock and unlock your door with your phone. With the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock, that’s a lot less complicated than it has been in the past because it has Wi-Fi built-in. Previous August locks relied exclusively on Bluetooth, and required that you also purchase and own a separate Connect dongle, which plugs into a standard wall socket, to connect to the lock itself via Bluetooth and act as a bridge to your Wi-Fi network.

Doing away with the need for a Connect means you connect the Wi-Fi Smart Lock to your network during setup, and then it’s reachable anywhere using the August smartphone app. You can easily tap to lock and unlock the door so long as you have an active data connection, and you can do a lot more besides, including granting others access.

August allows you to provision virtual keys to friends via email (they’ll be asked to register for an account if they don’t have one). This is a popular feature for Airbnb hosts, since you can also revoke permission once you no longer want someone to have access. It’s also great for letting in neighbors to feed your pets (once travel is an option again, of course) and for giving family an easy way to check in. Plus, you can share it with other members of your households and make them owners for top-level access and controls as well.

You can also set the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock to automatically lock once you close the door, either immediately or after a set time that you can customize. This works using DoorSense, which is facilitated by a magnetic sensor that August includes in the box and that you install in your door frame upon setup.

Auto-unlock for me has worked most of the time, though I have had a few occasions where upon returning, I get a ‘Welcome home’ notification from the August app, but the door doesn’t actually unlock and I have to do so by opening the app and pressing the button. In general, however, it works well, and is a great benefit when you return home with your arms full of groceries, for instance.

Performance

The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock brings an updated design and integrated wifi, but it doesn’t change much in terms of the core functionality of August’s previous locks, and it also seems to be at least a match for prior generations when it comes to reliability. Using the app, I was consistently able to both lock and unlock the door, both within and outside of the home.

August also offers integration with voice assistants, including Alexa, Google Home and HomeKit. These I found a bit more unreliable, with at least one actual failed unlock attempt via HomeKit, but overall they also performed mostly well, with a bit more lag than doing things via the August app directly. You’re also able to unlock via voice command, though the app wisely forces you to register an authorization code to protect against manipulation, like someone trying to yell at Alexa through your door to unlock the unit.

August also offers the option to receive push notification about lock and unlock events, and stores a whole history of the lock’s usage, including door open and closed status, manual/automatic/remote locking and unlocking events, and more. It’s a great way to maintain peace of mind about who’s accessing your home, when and how.

Bottom line

August has a long history of building connected locks, and its reputation has earned it both accolades and a 2017 acquisition by leading international lock maker Assa Abloy, which operates a number of brands including Yale. This is the first lock that it has launched since that acquisition, and it’s a promising indicator that the deal hasn’t dulled their edge when it comes to August-branded product development. This is a great smart lock, with fast and easy installation and ergonomic, visually pleasing design and broad compatibility. Its auto-lock and unlock features really change the way you go about everything from running errands to walking the dog – it’s surprising how much a little convenience can make even the most mundane tasks more pleasant.

The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock is available for $249.99 via August.com and Best Buy, and will expand availability to additional retailers beginning May 17.

#airbnb, #alexa, #assa-abloy, #august-home, #best-buy, #bluetooth, #gadgets, #google, #hardware, #lock, #security, #smart-lock, #smartphone, #tc, #technology, #wi-fi, #yale, #yves-behar

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UK eyeing switch to Apple-Google API for coronavirus contacts tracing — report

The UK may be rethinking its decision to shun Apple and Google’s API for its national coronavirus contacts tracing app, according to the Financial Times, which reported yesterday that the government is paying an IT supplier to investigate whether it can integrate the tech giants’ approach after all.

As we’ve reported before coronavirus contacts tracing apps are a new technology which aims to repurpose smartphones’ Bluetooth signals and device proximity to try to estimate individuals’ infection risk.

The UK’s forthcoming app, called NHS COVID-19, has faced controversy because it’s being designed to use a centralized app architecture. This means developers are having to come up with workarounds for platform limitations on background access to Bluetooth as the Apple-Google cross-platform API only works with decentralized systems.

The choice of a centralized app architecture has also raised concerns about the impact of such an unprecedented state data grab on citizens’ privacy and human rights, and the risk of state ‘mission creep‘.

The UK also looks increasingly isolated in its choice in Europe after the German government opted to switch to a decentralized model, joining several other European countries that have said they will opt for a p2p approach, including Estonia, Ireland and Switzerland.

In the region, France remains the other major backer of a centralized system for its forthcoming coronavirus contacts tracing app, StopCovid.

Apple and Google, meanwhile, are collaborating on a so-called “exposure notification” API for national coronavirus contacts tracing apps. The API is slated to launch this month and is designed to remove restrictions that could interfere with how contact events are logged. However it’s only available for apps that don’t hold users’ personal data on central servers and prohibits location tracking, with the pair emphasizing that their system is designed to put privacy at the core.

Yesterday the FT reported that NHSX, the digital transformation branch of UK’s National Health Service, has awarded a £3.8M contract to the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm which was involved in developing the initial version of the NHS COVID-19 app.

The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”, per the newspaper’s report.

The work is also described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, which the FT suggests means it’s still at a preliminary phase — thought it also notes the contract includes a deadline of mid-May.

The contracted work was due to begin yesterday, per the report.

We’ve reached out to Zuhlke for comment. Its website describes the company as “a strong solutions partner” that’s focused on projects related to digital product delivery; cloud migration; scaling digital platforms; and the Internet of Things.

We also put questions arising from the FT report to NHSX.

At the time of writing the unit had not responded but yesterday a spokesperson told the newspaper: “We’ve been working with Apple and Google throughout the app’s development and it’s quite right and normal to continue to refine the app.”

The specific technical issue that appears to be causing concern relates to a workaround the developers have devised to try to circumvent platform limitations on Bluetooth that’s intended to wake up phones when the app itself is not being actively used in order that the proximity handshakes can still be carried out (and contacts events properly logged).

Thing is, if any of the devices fail to wake up and emit their identifiers so other nearby devices can log their presence there will be gaps in the data. Which, in plainer language, means the app might miss some close encounters between users — and therefore fail to notify some people of potential infection risk.

Recent reports have suggested the NHSX workaround has a particular problem with iPhones not being able to wake up other iPhones. And while Google’s Android OS is the more dominant platform in the UK (running on circa ~60% of smartphones, per Kantar) there will still be plenty of instances of two or more iPhone users passing near each other. So if their apps fail to wake up they won’t exchange data and those encounters won’t be logged.

On this, the FT quotes one person familiar with the NHS testing process who told it the app was able to work in the background in most cases, except when two iPhones were locked and left unused for around 30 minutes, and without any Android devices coming within 60m of the devices. The source also told it that bringing an Android device running the app close to the iPhone would “wake up” its Bluetooth connection.

Clearly, the government having to tell everyone in the UK to use an Android smartphone not an iPhone wouldn’t be a particularly palatable political message.

One source with information about the NHSX testing process told us the unit has this week been asking IT suppliers for facilities or input on testing environments with “50-100 Bluetooth devices of mixed origin”, to help with challenges in testing the Bluetooth exchanges — which raises questions about how extensively this core functionality has been tested up to now. (Again, we’ve put questions to the NHSX about testing and will update this report with any response.)

Work on planning and developing the NHS COVID-19 app began March 7, according to evidence given to a UK parliamentary committee by the NHSX CEO’s, Matthew Gould, last month.

Gould has also previously suggested that the app could be “technically” ready to launch in as little as two or three weeks time from now. While a limited geographical trial of the app kicked off this week in the Isle of Wight. Prior to that, an alpha version of the app was tested at an RAF base involving staff carrying out simulations of people going shopping, per a BBC report last month.

Gould faced questions over the choice of centralized vs decentralized app architecture from the human rights committee earlier this week. He suggested then that the government is not “locked” to the choice — telling the committee: “We are constantly reassessing which approach is the right one — and if it becomes clear that the balance of advantage lies in a different approach then we will take that different approach. We’re not irredeemably wedded to one approach; if we need to shift then we will… It’s a very pragmatic decision about what approach is likely to get the results that we need to get.”

However it’s unclear how quickly such a major change to app architecture could be implemented, given centralized vs decentralized systems work in very different ways.

Additionally, such a big shift — more than two months into the NHSX’s project — seems, at such a late stage, as if it would be more closely characterized as a rebuild, rather than a little finessing (as suggested by the NHSX spokesperson’s remark to the FT vis-a-vis ‘refining’ the app).

In related news today, Reuters reports that Colombia has pulled its own coronavirus contacts tracing app after experiencing glitches and inaccuracies. The app had used alternative technology to power contacts logging via Bluetooth and wi-fi. A government official told the news agency it aims to rebuild the system and may now use the Apple-Google API.

Australia has also reported Bluetooth related problems with its national coronavirus app. And has also been reported to be moving towards adopting the Apple-Google API.

While, Singapore, the first country to launch a Bluetooth app for coronavirus contacts tracing, was also the first to run into technical hitches related to platform limits on background access — likely contributing to low download rates for the app (reportedly below 20%).

#alpha, #android, #api, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #australia, #bbc, #bluetooth, #ceo, #colombia, #computing, #estonia, #europe, #google, #health, #instagram, #ios-11, #iphone, #ireland, #mobile, #mobile-app, #national-health-service, #nhs, #nhsx, #operating-systems, #privacy, #singapore, #smartphone, #smartphones, #spokesperson, #switzerland, #the-financial-times, #united-kingdom, #wi-fi

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