Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Be safe, your favourite app might be infected

Apps drive mobile devices. There’s one for everything, including one to detect a bomb! Apps are tricky in a sense, because they need access to your personal data in the device.

All apps ask for permission while downloading. Some are: access data network, call records, GPS coordinates, rights to modify contents of SD card, to start on reboot etc. On the face of it, they look harmless, and ordinarily most of us grant the permission. But problems crop when the apps have Trojans (a form of virus) hiding in them. With proliferation of apps, they are becoming a popular vehicle for viruses.

Earlier this year, Sophos security firm detected a trojanized version of the Angry Birds game. These are infected apps that resemble the original one, misleading people.

Having such apps is a risk. "Trojans can come disguised as wallpaper applications. They contain the malicious package within it and may be hard to uninstall," says Ruchna Nigam, Security Researcher, Fortiguard Lab.

"Zitmo is a well-known banking Trojan (it has Symbian, Android and Blackberry versions) that can receive commands from the attacker to intercept SMS second-factor authentication banking tokens and forward them to the attacker, thereby exposing users to banking fraud," she says.

Some apps, malicious ones particularly, seek permission for activities unrelated to their function. When a music app seeks access to call records, you must wonder why, and check the credentials of the developer. For all that you know, it might be safe app. But it’s a call worth taking.

Juniper Networks’ Mobile Threat Center analyzed over 1.7 million apps on the Google Play from March 2011 to September 2012. It found that in the cards and casino games category, 94% of free apps that could make outbound calls didn't describe why they would use this capability. Similarly, 84.51% of free apps that could send SMS didn't specify why they should do so.

In the racing games section, 99% of paid apps and 92.42% of free apps had rights to send SMS, while 50% could use camera and 94.54% could initiate outgoing calls -- without any explanation as to why they needed to do that, says Ravi Chauhan, managing director, Juniper Networks.

The survey found free apps were 401% more likely to track location and 314% more likely to access contacts than their paid counterparts. Among location-tracking apps, 24.14% were free, while only 6.01% were paid.

This gives an impression that free apps access info to target ads. But out of the 683,238 apps examined, the share those with top five ad networks was much less than the total number tracking location (24.14 percent). “This leads us to believe there are apps collecting data for reasons less apparent than advertising,” says Chauhan.

How to be safe
1. Avoid free, unsecured wi-fi. Strangers can peep into what you are sending.
2. Download from official app stores like Google Play or iOS.
3. Check if access permissions sought are needed. Trojanized apps seek more permissions than are required.
4. Check who the developer is.
5. Install mobile security app from known brands like Kaspersky, Norton, McAfee or Avast.

(This article was published in The Times of India, Bangalore, today).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How to access internet via text messages

It’s not necessary to have internet connection on your phone to access the web. A mere text message sent to a particular number can get you basic data from sites like Google and Wikipedia. Text-based applications also provide information like live update of cricket scores.

Companies like txtWeb, Google and Innoz Technologies have such services.

At the heart of the technology is adoption of a different method to access the internet. These services are popular because of three reasons: one, majority of mobile phones in India are low-end ones with just ‘talk-and-text’ features; two, many people who have smartphones don't have a data plan; and three, those who have data plan, use it sparingly considering poor bandwidth and high cost.

In txtWeb, the keywords have to be sent to 9243342000. For example, to see the Wikipedia entry on Diwali SMS ‘@Wikipedia Diwali’. @cricket gives you the latest scores of cricket matches.

You can get the autorickshaw fare between two locations in a city -- for example, send ‘@auto fare Bangalore, Koramangala, M G Road’. Users can text ‘help’ or ‘txtweb’, to get a list of top apps, featured apps etc. The response sent to the user also contains many tips on how to make better use of the platform, says Manish Maheshwari, director, txtWeb.

Randomly sending a keyword also provides a list of applications related to that subject. Besides, a complete list of all the apps is available at ‘txtweb.com/ apps’.

Google has ‘SMS applications’, wherein simple queries can be answered by sending an SMS to 9773300000. For example, to know how much is one dollar in rupee, text "1 dollar in INR". Similarly, by texting "Bangalore weather", you get information like temperature, humidity, windspeed, sunrise time etc.

If you want the definition of a word, say, inflation, send an SMS ‘what is inflation’. Flight status and list of trains running between two stations too can be obtained by this service.

Another company working in this field is Innoz Technologies. It has developed an innovative operating system for mobiles that enables access to internet through SMS. All that users have to do is to send the keyword to 55444 to get the answer. The company is in talks with mobile phone manufacturers to have the Innoz OS preinstalled in basic phone models.

(This is article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on Nov 20)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Personal computers are not dying

Desktops may be on their deathbed but definitely not any other personal computing device.

The original definition of PC referred to desktops, the complete set of CPU, monitor, keyboard, speakers, modem and voltage stabilizer. Now desktops have shrunk to laptops and netbooks (notebooks). PCs are seen different from smartphones and tablet; though mobile devices are highly personal and effective computing devices.  
The talk of imminent death of PCs is evidently prompted by the ever-growing popularity of mobile phones. Many people have two phones, or a phone and a tablet. But it’s no argument that personal computers, to mean laptops and netbooks, are dying.
In spite of all the advantages, mobile devices have their flip side. One, small user interface, because of the screen size. A 14- or 16-inch monitor of a laptop is definitely not the same as a 4-inch mobile screen. Higher dimensions of 5, 7 and 10 inch screens are a shade better. Besides, wider screens are easy on the eye.
Two, mobile devices generally work well for quick work on the go; a multitasking device that lets you talk, text, check mails and Facebook, send a one-line reply, do a web search, etc. But if you want to watch a 3-hour movie or live streaming of a sports event, or read or type a long document, the wider screen and broad keyboard of a laptop is more comfortable.
Three, screen navigation is easier when it comes to keyboard and mouse. Be it opening multiple tabs or copy-pasting text or working on photos or playing games, the superior user experience of a laptop is undeniable.
PC shipments in India grew by 4.9 per cent to 2.99 million units in July-September period of the current year over the previous quarter, according to global market intelligence and advisory services provider IDC. Even the netbook with 10-inch screen and much lower processing capacity compared to the laptop, was supposed to have flopped but that’s not the case. Many people possess both netbook and laptop, and use each for different purposes.
But it is a fact that PC shipments have slowed over the past few years. One, most people have a laptop. So the boom-time, first-acquisition numbers have tapered. Two, with tablets and other options, use of laptops have reduced, making them last longer. So, the replacement-buy is delayed.
Personal computers will be around for some time. Multiple devices is the norm -- each being used for a specific purpose. Nevertheless, a time may come when the nascent convertibles, a cross between mobile phones and laptops with detachable keyboards, would replace laptops. But that is quite some time away. At least now, it’s too premature to say PCs are dying.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Misplaced good intentions on Diwali

There are good autorickshaw drivers. Only that it's like finding a needle in a haystack. Very difficult. Few people have any kind words about them. Instead, everyone has plenty of anecdotes to describe his or her horrible experiences.

They are rude, is one unanimous opinion everyone has. Other complaints include: refusal to ply, running tampered meters and overcharging.

Here is the experience of a friend who had to travel a little over one km today, Diwali day. The normal fare is just the minimum -- Rs 20. But drivers ask for Rs 30. My friend always insists that she will give only Rs 20.

Today, as usual, the driver said Rs 30. My friend said Rs 20. When he agreed she boarded it. While travelling, my friend thought, since it was Diwali she would tip the driver Rs 5, and pay Rs 25. After all, he is working on a festival day
because financial situation at his home must have forced him to.  

But to my friend's horror, after three-fourth the distance, the driver stopped the autorickshaw and told her that for Rs 20 she could travel only that far!
Feeling totally cheated, she barely managed to control her anger. But, not to be outdone, she handed the driver Rs 15 and walked away. She wondered if there was any one driver who deserved a good deed.

I too have faced many such situations.

When I ask the drivers why they behave rudely, they say they get angry only when the passenger behaves rudely!

When I ask why they tamper with the meter, they say it's a machine after all and it goes bad once in a while!

When I ask why they overcharge, they say cost of living has gone up so much that they have no option but to charge more!

When I ask why they spoil the good image of Bangalore, they hurl a counter-question: how on earth are they spoiling the good image!

Well, I think we should just leave it at that.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Connecting Kinect and Android

Nothing like an app developers' congregation to see young brains at their creative best, pushing frontiers to make out-of-box ideas work. Droidcon 2012 at MLR Convention Centre on Nov 2 and 3 was no exception.

Droidcon is an international meetup on everything related to the Android operating system; and the first such gathering was in Berlin in 2009. India hosted its first Droidcon last year in Bangalore. The 2nd edition, organised by HasGeek, brought together a galaxy of app developers, visual and interaction designers, software startups, enterprise software companies, robotics and arduino wizards, kernel and ROM hackers, OEMs and platform providers, besides of course the technology enthusiasts.

Aravind Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Levitum and Program Chair, Droidcon, said the objective of the conference was to provide a platform for people to meet each other, brainstorm ideas and share knowledge. "We, in fact, encourage participants to skip sessions, so that they can meet other participants and exchange ideas. It is all about learning new things while having fun."

Allen Thomas, a young software professional working with the Innovation Lab at UST, TechnoPark, Thiruvananthapuram, was one of the participants. He spoke on how Microsoft Kinect and an Android device could be used to help two people interact with each other (pictured below). His premise was that the gesture-recognition features of Kinect could be made use of to develop applications that give more value to interactions among different users.


To demonstrate this, he devised a captivating game of swatting a fly. The movement of the fly is controlled by one of the players using an Android device. The other player, who is tracked by Kinect, will have to swat the fly using his hand. With more Android devices, more flies could be added to the game. Thomas said the big challenge was to ensure that there wasn't data transfer loss between the two systems.

There are many user-end applications for Kinect, one of them being the virtual dressing room. You would no longer have to undress many times to try on new clothes. By standing in front of a Kinect sensor and by waving your hand, you can virtually try out new outfits. Kinect has also proved to be a great education tool in classrooms. Teachers could engage their students better this way than with the chalk-and-board approach. Some of the other daily-life applications of Kinect-based systems are for physiotherapy and and market research in department stores.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)