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Data Doctors Tips and Tricks



Computing Tips & Tricks



 



Trying to decide which smart thermostat to install in my home.

Thu, 17 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Programmable thermostats have been around for a long time and provided you take the time to actually program them, they can save you money.

‘Smart’ thermostats take energy saving to another level because they don’t solely rely on your initial programming.

The main ways that they can save you money is by detecting when no one is home and automatically adjusting the temperature to your lower energy ‘away’ setting and by allowing you to remotely control them.

Heating or cooling your home when no one is home will add up over a year’s time, which is why a lot of these smart devices can pay for themselves over time.

Nest – The Learning Thermostat

Nest was the first real advance in smart thermostats because of its sleek design, simple interface and it’s unique approach to the programming portion of the setup.

Instead of sitting down to guess what temperature to set for each day and day-part, the Nest system simply has you adjust the temperature the way you would an old-school thermostat and automatically builds a schedule for you.

Nest also has a built-in motion sensor that helps it determine when no one is home, so it can automatically change the thermostat to a pre-designated ‘away’ temperature.

This is a huge benefit to anyone that has an irregular schedule but it also helps Nest ‘learn’ your patterns for better scheduling.

Nest was acquired by Google a couple of years ago and has become their platform for the smart home.

If you have or want to include Nest security cameras, smoke/CO detectors, smart lights, doorbells and control everything with voice commands via the Google Home smart speaker, you can see all the offerings at https://store.nest.com.

EcoBee – With Remote Sensors

The EcoBee thermostats (https://ecobee.com) don’t have the ‘learning’ ability of the Nest, but they do have the same motion sensing capabilities.


For those that have larger homes, having a single motion sensor like the Nest offers may not be the best way to monitor movement.

EcoBee offers various models that include remote sensors that can be placed in the rooms that you use the most.  This is helpful for those that might work for long periods of time in a home office, for example. 

The recently launched EcoBee4 system also has a built-in microphone and native support for Amazon’s voice-technology, so it extends your ‘Alexa’ voice command range in the house.

Honeywell – Value Options

Honeywell has a long track record in the thermostat business, but they lack some of the ‘smart’ sophistication of the other two.

If you’re looking for lower cost options with remote controls and programmability, there are many options to choose from at: https://goo.gl/5hjNa4


Installation and Compatibility

Installation can range from simple to a complete nightmare depending upon the age of your HVAC system and your technical skills, so proceed accordingly.

If you plan on expanding your smart home to other devices, make sure you review the compatibility of the thermostat with the smart platforms you are interest in using. 




I mistyped a web address while following setup instructions for my printer and ended up at a scam support site. How can these guys get away with this?

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) One of the oldest tricks on the Internet is something called ‘typosquatting’ or the registration of misspelled websites.

Since so many users manually type in web addresses every day, all it takes is one character to be off for this scam to be effective. Instead of going to your intended location, you’ll end up at a potentially harmful site that may look close or even identical to the site you were seeking.

Is It Legal?

Typosquatters aren’t always using the misspelled sites for malicious activities and unless a trademarked name is part of the address, there’s no laws being broken.

Registering commonly misspelled websites and redirecting the errant traffic to a legitimate website is perfectly legal and a common practice, especially by a competitor of a large brand.

The more popular a website is like Facebook or Google, the more likely there will be many misspelled versions of it registered to try to take advantage of sloppy spelling errors.


Typically, sites that engage in malicious activities can be brought down by the company that’s hosting the site, but it’s so easy to switch to another host, create their own webservers or switch to another misspelled address in this ongoing game of ‘whack-a-mole’.

Dangerous Misspellings

Anyone that’s ever been in a hurry when typing in a web address has accidently missed a letter like the ‘c’ in ‘.com’ or typed c before the ‘.’ in their haste.  The resulting web address ends with .om which is the country code for Oman. Hundreds of well-known names have been targeted by .om typosquatters.

Another well documented domain that has popped up as a variety of scams over the years is ‘goggle.com’ prior to Google’s long battle to finally acquire the domain.

This highlights one of the problems with regulating website registrations. Clearly ‘goggle.com’ benefited from the misspelling of ‘google.com’ but because it’s a generic word, it didn’t violate any of Google’s trademarks resulting in the long process of acquiring control of it.

Protecting Yourself

The obvious tip is to slow down and make sure you’re spelling things correctly. If it’s a site you’ll be visiting frequently, create a bookmark or shortcut to it for future visits.

If you aren’t sure about the spelling of a website, type the web address in without .com so that it turns into a Google search.  Google’s autocorrect, page ranking algorithm or ‘did you mean’ engine will kick in to most likely point you to the legitimate resource.

As far as legitimate support from a specific company goes, try typing the company’s web address followed by /support (ex: hp.com/support) as this is a pretty standard method used by tech companies.

The best way for companies to protect themselves against typosquatting is to register the misspelled versions themselves and redirect the traffic to the proper address.  Facebook, for instance, registered commonly misspelled versions of their site like facebok.com and facbook.com which redirects users to Facebook.com.  




Is it true that the Amazon Echo records everything I'm saying to it and that someone has figured out how to hack it?

Thu, 3 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image)

The popularity of ‘smart speakers’ that are voice controlled has grown to over 35 million users and Amazon’s Echo is far and away the most popular.

The small cylinder with a seven-microphone array is powered by the Alexa intelligent personal assistant so users can interact with it via voice commands to control a wide variety of services ranging from music to smart home devices.

Is My Echo Storing My Voice Commands?

Just about any device that you use via voice commands (Echo, Siri, Google Asisstant, etc.) may retain your interactions as a way of identifying you and improving its comprehension of your commands.

Both the device and a remote web server will likely have your recorded commands as a means of personalizing your interactions.

Humans communicate in all types of accents, clarity and tone, so the audio data that is collected is useful in improving the accuracy of the ongoing interactions.

What is Actually Being Stored?

Most voice-controlled systems are pretty much always listening to you waiting for you to say the ‘magic word’ but not recording anything.


Once you use the wake word such as ‘Alexa’ (which can be changed to Amazon, Echo or Computer in the Alexa app) the Echo knows that you’re giving it a command and it stores every command that you’ve ever given it by default.


The stored recordings actually include a brief moment just before the wake word, so this means that it’s possible that your recorded command includes small bits of a conversation preceding your use of the wake word.

How Can I Hear What’s Been Recorded?

Amazon makes it pretty easy to hear and manage what the Echo has recorded through their Alexa app (https://goo.gl/7jASW9).

Just tap into the ‘Settings’ menu and scroll down to the ‘History’ option to see everything in reverse chronological order – the most recent commands will be at the top.

When you tap on any entry in the History, you will be able to see the date and time of the command along with a play button if you want to hear it.  If you want to delete the recording, simply tap the ‘Delete Voice Recordings’ bar and it’s gone.

Every command also has the question: ‘Did Alexa do what you wanted?’ which when you respond, will help the system get better at recognizing your way of speaking.


Hacking the Echo

A recent report by a British security researcher detailed a method of modifying older versions of the Echo by physically interacting with it.


This ‘proof of concept’ hack required that they be in physical possession of the device so they could disassemble it, solder in a connector and insert code via an SD card and this only worked on pre-2017 models.

These requirements eliminate the possibility of a random remote Internet hacker turning your Echo into a snooping device, but it does underscore that buying a used pre-2017 Echo from a stranger isn’t such a good idea.




What should I do to keep my Roomba from sharing any information?

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) A recent New York Times article (https://goo.gl/Dtk69g) reported that iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba line of automated vacuum cleaners, was considering the sharing of user floorplan data to third parties such as Amazon, Apple and Google.

This speculation arose from a Reuters interview about the future of the smart home with iRobot’s CEO, Colin Angle (https://goo.gl/kZo35v) that appears to have been misconstrued.

Which Roomba Models Send Data?

iRobot has been offering robotic vacuum cleaners since 2002, so unless you have a relatively new model that has a built-in Wi-Fi connection, there’s no way for it to share any information with others.

The primary models being discussed in the NYT article are the 960 and 980 models which have iRobot’s latest mapping technology.

Even if you do have a model with built-in Wi-Fi, such as the 690 or 890, it doesn’t have the ability to create a floorplan of your home like the 900 series.

What Data Is Being Sent?

All Roomba models that can talk to the iRobot Home app have the ability to show users data on how the device performed.

Usage data such as how long it cleaned, how far did it went, if it encountered any error codes and if it functioned correctly gets sent to their Cloud server so it can be processed and shown on the mobile app.

900 series devices also have a low-resolution black and white camera that helps it better navigate your home and create maps, but the camera has no connection to the Internet and images captured by it are not sent to the Cloud according to iRobot’s Privacy and Data Sharing policy (https://goo.gl/669gBx).

Their privacy policy goes on to say “No data is sold to third-parties. No data will be shared with third-parties without the informed consent of our customers. iRobot's privacy policy allows customers to share data with third parties for the customer's benefit, if they provide consent. For example, customers can currently choose to share limited data to enable voice control of the robot using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. Customers would have to knowingly consent to sharing this data with Amazon or Google, and the data shared would be limited to only the data required to enable the voice control service.”

What You Can Do

If you’re concerned about data collected by your Roomba, there are simple steps that can be taken to manage your privacy.

If you don’t care about using their app, you can reset the device which will clear out the Wi-Fi connection along with any stored data. If you never setup a Wi-Fi connection on your Roomba, nothing was ever shared.

If you do want to use the iRobot Home app, but don’t want cleaning reports processed by their cloud server, you can turn it off by going to the Settings menu and toggling the ‘Clean Map Report’ option.

If you want data that’s been shared in the past removed from iRobot’s Cloud servers, you can contact their customer service department (https://goo.gl/znQmKb) to make the removal request.




Do I need to do anything to my laser/copier/fax printer before I get rid of it?

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Most of us are very aware of the dangers of disposing of our computers, smartphones and tablets without first wiping it clean of our personal information, pictures and files but not so much with our printers.

Depending upon the type of printer you have, you may very well have to take steps to ensure that your private information isn’t still being stored in the device’s internal memory.

What’s At Risk?

It may not be that obvious, but your printer/fax/scanner can potentially be storing some of the most sensitive information that you have ever printed, scanned, faxed or copied.  Everything from tax returns to medical forms to insurance documents have likely passed through your printer over its life.

More sophisticated network printers that can e-mail documents directly can also be storing sensitive e-mail server configuration and passwords that you’ll want to wipe out.

Consumer Printers

Most consumer grade printers have very little storage memory and it’s generally considered ‘volatile memory’ which means that when the power is turned off, whatever it was storing is gone.

If your printer has no fax or copier functions, it most likely won’t have any type of persistent memory storage that needs to be reset, but just to be sure, check your printer’s ‘Settings’ menu for any options that allow you to reset the device to the factory defaults.


If you ever get a message during the reset process warning you that all your data will be lost, you’ll know that it was storing personal information.

If your device has memory card slots for things like camera cards, don’t forget to check to see if you’ve left any old cards in there.

Networked Multifunction Printers

While most consumers aren’t likely to have printers with internal storage, virtually every business grade copier/printer/fax device is highly likely to be storing a large amount of sensitive information on a persistent storage device.

If your company printer has the ability to receive faxes and route them via e-mail to the proper recipient, it first has to store the incoming faxes in some form of internal memory.

If your device can store addresses for sending scanned documents, you should assume that it can store more than just addresses.

Private printing, which refers to the ability for a printer to hold a print job until you are physically in front of the printer and type in a code, certainly points to an internal storage device.

The ability to re-order print jobs that are in the queue is another indication of internal memory capabilities.


Protection Suggestions

Most of today’s printers that include large internal storage devices also include secure wipe options in their settings.

If you can’t find the reset instructions for your printer, a simple Internet search that includes your exact make and model with the word reset after it should yield the directions.

If you can’t find any info from a general search, try checking at http://resetprinters.com and if you can’t find anything there, you probably have nothing to worry about.




What can I do to be safe when using public Wi-Fi?

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The convenience of public Wi-Fi networks has become somewhat of an expectation when we’re away from our primary home and work connections, but it’s important to understand the risks.

Anytime you share a connection with strangers, whether it’s at an airport, on an airplane, in a coffee shop or at a hotel, anyone else on the network can use a variety of tools to capture the traffic floating through the network.

Rented Space

Think of public Wi-Fi as a rented space, like a hotel room - where you have no idea who else has access to your stuff.

Leaving valuable items in your hotel room while you’re out has inherent risks, even though in most cases nothing bad will happen. Using public Wi-Fi also has inherent risks which are greater because of the ease in which compromises can occur.

Any activity that requires you to type in a username and/or password is best avoided on any public Wi-Fi connection.

Man-In-The Middle Scams

While sharing a connection with strangers is a very real threat, a bigger threat is getting fooled into connecting to a rogue connection posing as a legit one.

The off-the-shelf technology available to quickly setup a fake Wi-Fi connection runs less than $100 and fits in your shirt pocket.

Originally developed as an audit tool for IT administrators, these devices have been repurposed by cyber-thieves to setup the hard to detect Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) scams.

They connect to legitimate Wi-Fi connections and then mimic them or they’re setup as an alternative ‘free’ connection in areas where users are generally required to pay.

Thieves know that everyone wants to connect to free Wi-Fi, so they will often call their connections ‘free Wi-Fi’ in airports or in congested urban areas.

VPNs and Private Hotspots

If you’re a regular user of public Wi-Fi, you should consider installing a tool known as a VPN (Virtual Private Network - https://goo.gl/FBGEGc) which will essentially make your data invisible while you’re connected.

The very best way to stay safe in public places is to use your own cellular connection by turning your smartphone into a hotspot (be sure you turn off the Wi-Fi first!)

By tethering to your smartphone, you will be the only one on the connection, therefore bypassing the ‘stranger danger’.


Private Hotspot Issues

Two things to keep in mind if you are going to use your smartphone as your hotspot: battery life and your data plan.

I always find a power outlet whenever I turn on my smartphone’s hotspot because it’s a battery killer.

If you’re on a limited data plan, sharing your phone’s connection with your laptop or tablet can eat up your data in a hurry.

Another option, especially frequent travelers with multiple devices, is to use a separate personal hotspot such as Verizon’s MiFi (https://goo.gl/FpU65P) or Karma’s pay as you go option (https://goo.gl/xo6ZoL).

Both will have exponentially longer battery life as hotspots, so you won’t have to find a power outlet and they won’t eat into your smartphone’s data plan.




Trying to decide between Amazon Echo and Google Home. Any thoughts?

Wed, 21 Jun 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The ‘smart home assistant’ market continues to grow and improve but there’s so much more to this battle than what meets the eye.

‘Smart speakers’ allow you to interact with them through verbal commands and connect to a variety of devices and online services to act as a virtual butler in your home.

The Proxy War

All of these devices are actually a proxy to the real battle: the platform wars.

With the ‘connected home’ market expected to grow to over $50 billion by 2022, finding ways to get consumers familiar with one platform over another can lead to a bigger piece of the market.

Amazon was first to market with the Echo, but being first doesn’t always ensure that you’ll end up being the market leader and the gap between Amazon and the rest of field is narrowing.

Echo vs Google Home

Google’s entry into the market was with a smaller device that they call Google Home.

As expected, Google Home is designed to integrate with many of Google’s services like search, YouTube and the Chromecast but also popular services like HBO Now and Hulu.


The Echo has substantially more ‘skills’ (https://goo.gl/t953vP) than Google Home, so you can ask it to do more things.

Amazon has over 10,000 skills while Google only offers a couple of hundred.  This may sound like a huge deal, but it’s likely that the most useful skills like ordering a car or a pizza and getting your favorite playlist to start playing are available on both.

Google’s responses to information found on the web is generally more robust, but as you would expect, the Echo excels when it comes shopping related questions.

If you plan on using the device as a music speaker, Home has a fuller sound and it’s smaller, so it’ll fit in smaller bookshelves and nooks.

Which Is Best For You?

What was once a no-brainer choice (Echo) has now become a little more complicated as each platform has added features and capabilities.

The best way to determine which is best for you is to review the supported services and devices for each.  Start with your preferred streaming service as well as your music and video streaming services.

Amazon made a big splash at this year’s CES with announcements that they were integrating with a lot of other companies including Ford, which is going to allow Alexa to work in the car or check on your car while you’re in your home.

Apple’s Upcoming Option

Apple users will be able to add a third option in December when Apple will reportedly release the HomePod powered by Siri.

As usual, Apple’s option will be the most expensive ($349) vs Amazon Echo ($179) or Google Home ($129) and we really won’t know what it will actually do until it’s released.

If you’d like to dip your toe in the smart home assistant pool but you’re not ready to spend the big bucks, I’d highly recommend getting the Amazon Echo Dot ($49) as a primer.




Have you had a chance to test any of the mesh network products for a larger house?

Wed, 14 Jun 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Wi-Fi can be a challenge when you have a large area that you’d like to cover or when you have construction materials that impact coverage.

Concrete walls, metal structures and lots of metal air conditioning ducts are common reasons that a Wi-Fi signal can be obstructed, even in a smaller home.

In the past, if you wanted to improve your Wi-Fi signal in low signal areas, you either installed another access point or a range extender.

Neither of those solutions was perfect as one required you to run new cables and the other would generally give you half the signal strength as connecting directly to your router.

Mesh Networks

A newer technology known as a ‘mesh network’, while more expensive, is significantly better when dealing with large areas of coverage.

A typical system will consist of three ‘nodes’ which all talk to each other and provide the same level of performance as a result.  It’s almost like having 3 access points in your home.

In our tests using the Ubiquiti Labs AmpliFi HD (https://amplifi.com), we found dramatic improvement in coverage over a traditional single router in a large home.

Ubiquiti has long been a supplier of commercial grade networking devices and recently entered the consumer market to provide some of the same technology at a lower cost.

The Setup

The setup was pretty simple with a base station that took the place of the original router and two additional wireless mesh nodes that simply needed to be plugged into an AC outlet in the areas that we wanted to improve the signal.

The wireless mesh nodes automatically find the base station and connect themselves within a few minutes of plugging them in.  All three will appear as the same SSID (or network name) throughout your house.

A signal strength meter on the nodes lets you know how strong the signal is in your chosen location.

Not only did it fill in the gaps within the home, it extended the signal reach far outside of the house, which allowed for connectivity by the pool, which was a good distance away from the house and the garage, which never had signal before.

The company rates their coverage of the full system at about 20,000 square feet, so if you don’t need that much coverage, you can buy a base station and a single wireless mesh node and save some money.

The Amplifi HD is designed for less tech savvy users, so complicated security issues are handled with their mobile app (iOS or Android), which also allows parents to manage the various devices that connect to it.

The app makes it simple to limit usage by certain devices based on the time of day, so you can create a ‘virtual bedtime’ for internet access for a child’s device.

Conversion Tip

If you decide to replace an existing router with this or any other mesh network solution, make sure you use the same SSID and password you were using on your previous network to avoid having to reset all your devices in order to connect.




Which browser is best to use if I tend to open a lot of tabs?

Wed, 31 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Tabbed browsing changed the way we used the Internet and has become both a blessing and a curse.

If you spend time gathering information from multiple sources while researching anything online, this feature has been a game changer.

Being able to open additional tabs eliminated the need to hit the ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons in order to jump from one page to another, but the downside to this convenience is the memory usage.

Every tab you open consumes working memory (aka RAM) which can eventually lead to significant performance issues so keeping the number of open tabs to a minimum is always in your best interest.

There are many variables involved in determining actual memory usage, so the various testing sites that proclaim one browser over another may not be applicable to you unless you use your browser the exact same way they tested them.


If I had to make a general recommendation, Firefox for Windows users and Safari for Mac users  seem to have the lowest memory usage based on a compilation of various tests.

Changing Your Behavior

If you can change the way you manage open tabs, you won’t have to consider changing browsers.  As convenient as it may be to have a tab open all day with Facebook running in the background, if you can do without it, you can save memory.

Bookmarking your commonly used sites for easy access and remembering that you can quickly reopen recently closed tabs in most browsers by hitting Ctrl-Shft-T should help you feel better about closing idle tabs.

Sniffing Out Memory Hogs

Different web resources will use different amounts of memory, so you if you want to see how much memory a specific site is taking up, most browsers offer a way to do that.

In Chrome, hitting Shift-Esc will open Google’s Task Manager, which lists all of your open tabs along with various details.  If you click on the ‘Memory’ heading, it will re-sort your open tabs in order of the largest memory usage.

Internet Explorer provides the information as a pop-up that you have to open on each page by hitting Control-Shift-U (hitting it again will close the pop-up).

Firefox users can install an add-on called Tab Memory Usage (https://goo.gl/DXtBuK) which will display the memory usage of each page in the upper right section of the browser window.

By identifying the memory hogs in your regular rotation, you’ll know which ones to close first if things start to slow down.

For ‘Tabaholics’

If there’s no possibility for you to change your tabbing behavior, then adding more RAM or installing add-ons may be a better solution to allow for lots of tabs.

Chrome users can try The Great Suspender (https://goo.gl/DCj4Gt) which will automatically suspend unused tabs to free up memory.

Both Firefox and Opera users can try Tab Suspender (https://goo.gl/9sDEcs) to accomplish the same thing.

Unnecessary Add-Ons

Add-Ons also contribute to memory usage, so avoid installing them if you don’t really need them and disable or get rid of the ones you may have already installed that you don’t use.




How can I check to see if my HP laptop has the key tracking problem?

Wed, 17 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) A recent discovery by Swiss security firm Modzero exposed a major security problem in a large number of HP laptops.  They found that an audio driver that was ‘listening’ for specific ‘hotkeys’ was also recording every keystroke and storing them in an unprotected log file.

Often referred to as ‘keylogging’, this type of activity is usually associated with nefarious programs that try to steal passwords or other sensitive credentials by recording all your keystrokes.

In HP’s case, there’s nothing indicating that anyone was remotely capturing the keystrokes contained in the log files; It’s more of a major mistake made by the company that provided HP with the software.

Who’s At Risk?

Conexant is a primary supplier of audio componentry to most of the major laptop manufactures as well as devices like Amazon’s Echo (Alexa), but this particular issues appears to be isolated to specific HP laptops.

They inadvertently left special debugging code active in the final driver provided to HP, which can potentially be exploited in a number of ways because every keystroke you make – even if you can’t see the character as you type – is being captured to this unprotected file.


It’s the digital equivalent of your computer ‘talking in its sleep’; any program that cares to ‘listen’ could make use of this extremely sensitive information.

Owners of any of HP’s Elite, EliteBook, ProBook or ZBook models from 2015 and 2016 should check their computers for the bug.


How to Check Your Laptop

The following steps may be a bit technical for some, but it’s too important to ignore, so make sure you get help from a trusted technical resource.

Different model laptops exhibit different behaviors, but many of the most common models will have created this log file in the following location: C:\Users\Public\MicTray.log.

If your computer has this log file and you can see data in it when you open the file, your computer has the problem.

If you see the file with no data in it, you’re still not in the clear as the debug output could still be exposing your keystrokes to other programs or it will be empty if you just logged into your computer.


To check for leaking keystrokes, you can run Microsoft’s DebugView while typing random characters on your keyboard to see what is being captured.  If you see any lines in DebugView that refers to ‘Mic target’, your computer is operating with the defective audio driver.


How to Kill the Keylogger

Both HP and Microsoft have released updates to fix the problem, so if you regularly keep your computer updated, you may have already fixed the problem.

HP laptop owners that want to make sure they have the updated audio driver can go to HP’s driver download page in the ‘Support’ section of their website.

This logging behavior goes back to October of 2016, so even if you have fixed the problem, your old backups could contain old log files. Make sure you search for and delete any instance of the MicTray.log file in any of your backups as well.