Tech Thoughts Net News – Friday – December 30, 2016

The Best VPN Services of 2017;  The first things you should do with your new Android phone;  10 killer PC upgrades that are shockingly cheap;  How to improve the security and privacy of your iPhone: 5 steps;  Best apps to increase your productivity;  End-of-the-year cleanup checklist for Macs;  16 Android Apps Actually Worth Paying For;  Amazon is putting ‘thousands’ of digital items on sale December 30;  The 10 best paid Android games of 2016;  Germany May Fine Facebook $552K Per Fake News Story – and much more news you need to know.

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Report: Germany May Fine Facebook $552K Per Fake News Story – Facebook has already taken steps to get its fake news problem sorted out, but the social network may want to make solving this issue a bigger priority in the near future. Because if not, the company may face some big penalties in Germany. Word has it that the German government is mulling a new law under which Facebook could be fined up to 500,000 euros ($522,000) per fake news story per day it’s on the platform. The law would reportedly apply to other social networks as well.

The first things you should do with your new Android phone – There’s a special type of geekish delight that comes with a new Android phone. While it may sound trite, your options for phones are truly better than ever thanks to a new phone from Google and solid updates to other models. It’s also less hassle than ever to switch from the iPhone or an older Android phone. Yet we still have some insider tips to pass along, as you can’t have enough knowledge when it comes to setting up the optimal smartphone experience.

The Best VPN Services of 2017 – As consumers, we expect computer hardware and software manufacturers to keep us safe. The problem is, we all too often use our computers in risky ways. Connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, for example, is a commonplace practice, but these are also excellent avenues for attackers to seize your personal information. Enter virtual private networks, or VPNs. These services use simple software to secure your Internet connection and give you greater control of how you appear online. You can even use them to stream Netflix from other countries. While you might have never heard of VPN services before, they are valuable tools that everyone should have at their disposal.

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How to check if your VPN is leaking private data – A trusted virtual private network is a great tool for security and privacy, but if it’s not configured correctly it may not be so private.

10 killer PC upgrades that are shockingly cheap – Investing small amounts in key new PC hardware can keep your computer running strong for years to come. These upgrades—most costing well under $100—breathe new life into slow machines. You just have to be strategic and make sure you’re putting your money in the best place for your particular system.

Best apps to increase your productivity – There are admittedly dozens, if not hundreds, or productivity apps and tools out there promising you the world and future. Sometimes choosing which one to stick to is ironically the most unproductive thing you can do. So to help you get started, here are some of our favorites to kickstart your journey towards a rocking 2017.

Samsung Focus is an all-in-one productivity app for Android – Samsung has announced what it calls an all-in-one productivity app, Samsung Focus. This app brings together all the things you’d normally consider part of a productive workday: your email, memos, phone contacts, and calendar, namely. Samsung Focus features a tabbed interface and serves as a single destination in which to access these items, including multiple email accounts. Users can even select specific keywords around which notifications will revolve. Samsung Focus is available for Android devices running Android version 6.0.1 Marshmallow or later, and can be downloaded from the Google Play Store now.

16 Android Apps Actually Worth Paying For – Android’s poly-manufacturer ecosystem has long since eclipsed iOS as the world’s most popular mobile operating system. However, app developers still tend to fare better in the Applesphere—financially speaking. Even though Google Play regularly outshines the App Store in total number of downloads, Apple users are far more willing than their Android counterparts to actually plunk down cash for their apps. This is not surprising, given what we know about users of each ecosystem. Speaking very broadly, Apple is a premium brand that appeals to users who will spend extra for what they believe (rightly or wrongly) to be a superior experience, while Android is the mass appeal brand for those who are fine with the basics.

How to improve the security and privacy of your iPhone: 5 steps – The iPhone is known for its security, due to Apple’s closed ecosystem and the company’s stance on encryption, but there are some additional steps you can take and settings you can change to further improve it. Here are five quick tips that will help you boost the security and privacy of your iPhone.

Windows 10 tip: More hibernation secrets to save time and disk space – Hibernation is a great alternative to sleep, allowing you to cut your PC’s power use to zero while still being able to quickly get back to work. Here’s how to configure this feature and manage the size of the hibernation file.

Facebook & Google dominate the list of 2016’s top apps – Mobile applications from Facebook and Google dominated the new list of the year’s top apps released today by Nielsen. Not surprisingly, Facebook again grabbed the number one spot on the list, with more than 146 million average unique users per month, and 14 percent growth over last year. In fact, Facebook scored several spots on the top 10 chart, thanks to Messenger (#2) and Instagram (#8) – the latter which also showed some of the highest year-over-year growth, up 36 percent from 2015. Messenger came in second place this year, with over 129 million average unique monthly users, followed by YouTube with over 113 monthly uniques. However, it was Google, not Facebook, that grabbed the most spots on the year-end chart.

End-of-the-year cleanup checklist for Macs – Get your Mac ready for 2017 with this easy to follow, itemized guide of important steps to keep your Mac running smoothly into the new year.

You Can Use This Operating System and USB Drive to Revive Derelict Laptops – We’ve all got an older computer or laptop laying around the house that we just can’t be bothered to fix. Maybe it’s riddled with malware because Aunt Clara couldn’t figure out how to stop clicking on those pesky pop-up ads. Or maybe you just didn’t feel like reformatting it after installing and reinstalling things over and over again as the years went by. Whatever the case may be, you’ve probably got one or have one somewhere, and you don’t have much you can or want to do with it. Until now, that is. The creators of the Raspberry Pi have created an experimental operating system known as Pixel that’s meant to revitalize computers just like the ones I described above.

Twitter launches 360-degree video streaming on Periscope – The feature is launching immediately — you can already watch the “first ever #Periscope360” stream right here. But while everyone can watch in 360 degrees, only “select partners” are able to stream in 360 degrees at launch. The implementation is pretty typical. On the desktop, you can click and drag around on the screen to rotate the camera. And on mobile, you can twist and turn your phone to change your perspective. The video quality isn’t particularly great — but then, most 360-degree video streams aren’t that great anyway. And it does appear to work.

Amazon is putting ‘thousands’ of digital items on sale December 30 – Amazon is holding its first-ever “Digital Day,” a 24-hour period of steep markdowns on apps, games, music, TV shows, movies, ebooks, comics, and other digital content. The company has set up a teaser page revealing some of what will be on sale, including temporary savings on a subscription to Amazon’s Spotify competitor, Amazon Music Unlimited. “Enjoy up to 80 percent off hundreds of video game titles, 50 percent off on top movies and TV shows, 75 percent off on hundreds of digital comics, and other great deals on popular content for your devices,” the page reads. In total, Amazon is promising savings on “thousands” of digital items.

Popular video transcoder HandBrake hits version 1.0 after 13 years – HandBrake is celebrating a new milestone this week, as an update released over the Christmas holiday brought the transcoding program to version 1.0. That’s a big enough reason for celebration and champagne all its own, but what makes this release more important for the Handbrake team is that it took 13 years to reach this point. Yes, HandBrake was initially released in August 2003.

Download.com 20th anniversary: 20 of our most popular apps – Discover the most downloaded messaging, gaming, and antivirus software — then and now.

Security:

Obama announces sanctions for Russian election hacking – The sanctions cover nine individuals and organizations in Russia, and will prevent four officials from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, from traveling to the U.S. or keeping assets here. But the sanctions may not have a significant impact, the New York Times reports, since GRU officials do not often visit the U.S. Thirty-five Russian intelligence operatives will also be forced to leave the U.S. Three companies were also singled out in the announcement of the sanctions: the Special Technologies Center, Zor Security, and a group called the “Autonomous Non-commercial Organization Professional Association of Designers of Data Processing Systems” that reportedly provided training to hackers.

It’s 2017 and changing other people’s flight bookings is incredibly easy – The travel booking systems used by millions of people every day lack modern authentication methods and allow attackers to easily modify other people’s reservations.

Critical flaw in PHPMailer library puts millions of websites at risk – A critical remote code execution vulnerability in PHPMailer, one of the most widely used PHP email sending libraries, could put millions of websites at risk of hacking. The flaw was found by a security researcher named Dawid Golunski and an initial fix was included in PHPMailer 5.2.18, which was released Saturday. However, it turns out that the patch was incomplete and can be bypassed. The PHPMailer library is used directly or indirectly by many content management systems (CMSs) including WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. Where the library is not included in their core code, it is likely available as a separate module or can be bundled with third-party add-ons.

Good Guy Hacker Launches ‘Security Without Borders’ to Defend At-Risk Dissidents – Some hackers have lost their way. Today, countless techies have entered the for-profit cybersecurity business, potentially neglecting what one security researcher calls their responsibility to civil society: helping at-risk users like dissidents with the security of their work, for example. To that end, Claudio Guarnieri, who has spent years analyzing cyberattacks against activists and journalists, has launched a new project tentatively titled ‘Security Without Borders’, which he hopes will more effectively connect white hat hackers with targeted groups and individuals.

Here’s what a “digital Miranda warning” might look like – Smartphone owners need to know if—and when—they need to reveal their passcodes.

Five unexpected lessons from the Ashley Madison breach – This complaint and settlement is important, but not for the obvious reasons. The Ashley Madison complaint follows a long line of actions brought by the FTC to combat unfair and deceptive data protection practices. The site’s exploitation of users’ desperation, vulnerability, and desire for secrecy is exactly the sort of abuse of power the Federal Trade Commission was created to mitigate. But there are five key lessons that should not be missed in discussions about the agency’s settlement of the case. This complaint and settlement are more than just business as usual—they reflect a modern and sustainable way to think about and enforce our privacy in the coming years.

Company News:

SoftBank lets Trump brag about creating jobs (he didn’t) so that it can buy T-Mobile – In a convoluted turn of self promotion, the President-elect just revisited his not-so-humblebrag from earlier this month, falsely taking credit for SoftBank’s Vision Fund, a joint $100 billion plan between SoftBank and Saudi Arabia to invest in emerging technologies. As announced in October, the fund’s creators plan to seed it with $25 billion and $45 billion respectively over the next five years. Given that Silicon Valley is world capital of tech innovation, a lot of that money was bound to land stateside regardless of Trump’s claims to take credit after the fact. Nonetheless, Trump continues to tout his election win for SoftBank’s pre-existing plan to create 50,000 U.S. jobs through its investments in Sprint, OneWeb and the Vision Fund.

Oculus buys The Eye Tribe for eye-tracking control – Eye-tracking inside virtual reality headsets may soon become all too real. Oculus’ acquisition of The Eye Tribe could jump-start the technology reaching the public. This acquisition may be for more than virtual reality devices as The Eye Tribe’s creation of a $99 eye-tracking device for developers works for all manner of hardware – that includes smartphones as well as VR headsets and PCs.

In light of discrimination concerns, Uber and Lyft defend their policies to show rider names and photos – Uber and Lyft have responded to Senator Al Franken’s questions regarding potential racial discrimination against passengers. Last month, Franken wondered why it’s necessary to include names and photos of passengers requesting rides, and what steps both companies can take to dissuade drivers from canceling rides on people with “black-sounding” names. In Uber and Lyft’s responses to Franken, both of the companies CEOs defended their respective policies. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who first clarified that drivers only see the first names of passengers and not photos of them, said Uber designed it this way in order “to ensure a smooth and safe pick-up process.”

Amazon files patent for ‘Death Star’ flying warehouse – In an image straight out of a dystopian consumerist vision of the future, Amazon has filed a patent for a huge flying warehouses equipped with fleets of drones for airborne drops. The patent describes the airborne fulfillment center (AFC) as an airship that could remain at a high altitude, at around 45,000 feet, with a fleet of drones “to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations.” The flying warehouse may be “positioned at an altitude above a metropolitan area and be designed to maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user.”

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Volvo integrates Skype for Business in its 90 series vehicles – The Skype integration is a way of getting around the messier parts of joining conference calls, including entering long participant pin codes, and sometimes sequential button requirements that feed you through a chain of options before you ever even get to the meeting itself. Volvo and Microsoft are clearly doing everything they can to position this as a distraction reducer, rather than the other way around.

Games and Entertainment:

The 10 best paid Android games of 2016 – Paying for a game doesn’t automatically ensure that it will be awesome, but you can’t go wrong with the 10 games collected here. For just $2 to $5 a pop, these games provide engrossing fun, polished gameplay, and some of the most inventive experiences we’ve played on smartphones all year. Here’s a look at 2016’s best premium Android games.

Super Mario Run for Android pre-registration opens – Super Mario Run has been breaking records and it has been doing its record breaking while only be available on one of the major smartphone platforms. Super Mario Run has been on iOS only since launch and has still ticked up about 40 million downloads. Android gamers will soon get to join in the action with Super Mario Run coming soon for Android.

PlayStation Plus games for January 2017: Day of the Tentacle and more – Sony has detailed the free games arriving for PlayStation Plus members in January 2017, and chief among them is a remastered version of the classic game “Day of the Tentacle” for the PlayStation 4. The game was originally released in 1993, and it enjoys a healthy fanbase that will get to re-experience it on Sony’s latest-gen console soon. There are five other games in the lineup, including titles for the PlayStation 3 and the PS Vita.

Microsoft might add ‘game mode’ to Windows 10 for maximum gaming performance – Gaming on Windows 10 might be getting even better. A report from UberGizmo cites Twitter user @h0x0d, who found a new “gamemode.dll” in the latest Windows 10 developer build. The feature appears to allow Windows 10 to adjust CPU and GPU resources when running a game to allocate more power for the game that’s running instead of toward any background apps. It’s a move that essentially allows PCs to act almost like consoles, freeing up almost all the computational firepower of the machine for the sole purpose of running games as well as possible. The so-called “game mode” is another indication that Microsoft is continuing to take PC gaming on Windows 10 even more seriously.

Hulu is getting over 50 Disney movies thanks to new licensing deal – In its continuing battle with Netflix, Hulu this week announced a new licensing deal with Disney which sees Hulu gaining the exclusive rights to stream a sizable collection of Disney movies via its subscription service. In total, over 50 titles will become available on Hulu in the months ahead, including “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Mulan,” “Pocahontas,” “Hercules,” “Tarzan,” and others.

Diablo 3 20th Anniversary brings in-game goodies to other Blizzard titles – In celebration of Diablo’s 20th Anniversary, Blizzard has announced cross-game promotions with each of its other titles. The Lord of Terror will be featured in all Blizzard titles in one way or another, with some games getting more content than others. Blizzard hasn’t revealed when, precisely, these promotions will begin, but it seems safe to assume that they’ll kick off on or around December 31, which is the anniversary of the original game’s release.

DirecTV Now’s $35, 100-channel plan will jump to $60 on January 9 – DirecTV Now’s limited-time introductory $35-per-month subscription deal is going away early next month. AT&T’s website confirms that the “Go Big” package of over 100 channels will switch to its normal $60 monthly cost starting January 9th. If you’re at all interested in the streaming TV service, you should sign up before that date — otherwise you’ll miss out on the promotional price. If you do start a DirecTV Now subscription by the 9th, you’ll be able to continue paying that $35 each month without being switched to the more expensive subscription plan. Once the limited offer ends, there will still be a $35 plan, but with significantly fewer channels:

Off Topic (Sort of):

5G promises to transform the world again – At Huawei’s Mobile Broadband event last month, I saw what a 5G future looks like — ultra-fast, always on connectivity, making life more simple. A world based on data and collaboration, with automated intelligence and sensor-equipped surroundings, becomes a canvas to create businesses, to educate, and to make life more efficient. The next shift is about to happen, and it’s 5G.

Study: 40% of Americans use their phone within 5 minutes of waking up – A new global mobile consumer survey details technology trends from the U.S. as noted throughout 2016, and among them are details about how US techies use their phone. Most notably, about 40-percent of Americans check their smartphone within five minutes of waking up in the morning. That number grows over the minutes following, with most people checking their phone within an hour of waking up, and continuing to check it dozens of times throughout the day.

5 underrated Microsoft announcements that could change the world – This was a big year for Microsoft. The HoloLens began shipping to developers, Windows 10 made it through its first year intact (though not without controversy), and the company got into the desktop computer market with a stunning mega-touchscreen. But there were a few key announcements that flew under the radar this year. While they may not have the splash factor of a Surface Studio or HoloLens, these developments have the potential to alter Microsoft and the world for years to come. Here’s the rundown on what you probably missed.

Eye candy from space: The most beautiful panoramas and photos of the universe around us – Straight outta sci-fi: these beauty shots from all over space offer a startling, spectacular look into the cosmos. Watch the universe at work, from our own lonely planet to the deepest image of the Orion Nebula ever captured.

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Sorry folks, science says hands-free calls are still a big driving distraction – Hands-free technology is largely viewed as the solution to phone-addicted drivers, but another study has surfaced that disagrees. According to QUT’s study, which utilized the CARRS-Q Advanced Driving Simulator as part of its research, hands-free phone use while driving is still quite a distraction, delaying reaction time significantly compared to those who weren’t using any phones, hands-free or otherwise.

Why Oakland Police Turned Down Predictive Policing – Predictive policing is becoming popular for American police departments, but some have rejected the tech over concerns about bias.

Tom Arnold calls on ‘gamers’ to get Trump’s taxes – The actor and comedian has also teased a database that he claims contains ‘The Apprentice’ outtakes that don’t portray the President-elect in a good light.

Trump Tales:

Americans — especially but not exclusively Trump voters — believe crazy, wrong things – Many Americans believe a lot of dumb, crazy, destructive, provably wrong stuff. Lately this is especially (though not exclusively) true of Donald Trump voters, according to a new survey. The survey, from the Economist/YouGov, was conducted in mid-December, and it finds that willingness to believe a given conspiracy theory is (surprise!) strongly related to whether that conspiracy theory supports one’s political preferences. Remember Pizzagate? That’s the bizarre theory that Hillary Clinton was helping run a child sex slave ring out of a D.C. pizza joint, as allegedly proven by code words in hacked Democratic emails. Lest you think this theory was espoused by only a handful of Internet nutjobs, observe that nearly half of Trump voters believe it’s true. This result is based on a poll conducted after a North Carolina man burst into the restaurant with an assault-style rifle, leaving only when he was satisfied that no child sex-slaves were harbored there.

Donald Trump Says ‘Nobody Knows Exactly What’s Going On’ Because of Computers – Asked whether the U.S. should sanction Russia over computer hacking on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump cast doubt on the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and said, “We ought to get on with our lives.” But it was his next lines that had an oddly familiar ring to them: “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” Trump told reporters in Florida, according to multiple media reports. “The whole age of [the] computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.” It isn’t the first time a U.S. leader has appeared uncomfortable with technology.

Donald Trump, After Dismissing Hacking, Agrees to an Intelligence Briefing – President-elect Donald J. Trump edged away on Thursday from his dismissive stance on American assessments of Russian hacking, saying he would meet with intelligence officials next week “to be updated on the facts” after the Obama administration announced sanctions against Moscow. In a brief written statement, Mr. Trump’s first response to President Obama’s sweeping action against Russia, the president-elect reiterated his call for “our country to move on to bigger and better things.” But he said that, “in the interest of our country and its great people,” he would get the briefing “nevertheless.”

Something to think about:

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

–         Aldous Huxley

In Pursuit of Freedom – The Pushback Continues:

Facebook stalls in lawsuit alleging its facial recognition tech violates Illinois law – An Illinois law is proving a thorn in Facebook’s side as a class action lawsuit, alleging mishandling of biometric information, moves toward trial. The latest developments in the case have the social network objecting against releasing or even admitting the existence of all manner of data, but the plaintiffs aren’t taking “objection” for an answer.

The case revolves around a 2008 state law known as the Biometric Information Privacy Act. BIPA basically makes it illegal to collect or use biometric data, such as a “scan of hand or face geometry,” without rigorous disclosure of methods, intentions and guarantees regarding that data. The class action suit, filed in mid-2015, alleges that Facebook has knowingly failed to perform this disclosure for its many Illinois users.

Separate suits have been filed against Shutterfly, Snapchat and Google. The Shutterfly suit was settled, and Snapchat’s sent to arbitration. The Google case is technically ongoing, but the company argues that analysis of digital photos doesn’t count as biometric data, nor could an Illinois law prevent a California company from performing such analysis outside Illinois. Facebook has likewise fought the suit, aiming for dismissal under similar arguments.

Singapore to record iris scans of citizens – Starting January 1 next year, Singapore will begin including iris scans as part of the country’s registration process for citizens and permanent residents.

This was part of efforts to improve the “effectiveness and efficiency” of operations undertaken by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement Wednesday.

The ministry said amendments to the country’s National Registration Act (NRA), enacted in 1965, had been passed in parliament to facilitate the move, and would take effect in January. The act facilitates the registration of citizens and permanent residents in Singapore, which encompasses the issue of national identity cards and other associated purposes.

ICA would begin collecting iris images as another identifier, in addition to photographs and fingerprints, the ministry said, adding that this also would be carried out for re-registration of identity cards as well as passport application and renewals.

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