New York assembly bill aims to penalize encrypted phones

Some politicians in the state of New York have gone mad, introducing senate bill A8093 to fine smartphone makers for failure to allow law enforcement to decrypt the device, or for not having a backdoor into the mobile OS. If the bill becomes law then every smartphone sold in the state would not be truly secure and users’ privacy would be severely compromised.

Since Apple is the top seller of smartphones and has quite a few flagship stores in New York, the company stands to lose the most. Add to the fact that its CEO Tim Cook has been the most outspoken against government imposed backdoors, I wonder if A8093 was drafted to target Apple. Perhaps a game of chicken? – would Apple uphold its privacy-above-all philosophy and quit the New York market (unlikely), or would the desire for profit make the company acquiesce to the state’s absurd demand?

Hopefully, the voters of New York will loudly protest and voice opposition to this bill. The sponsors of the bill cites reasons of anti-terror protection of its citizens. But criminals will always find a way to circumvent or break law – that’s the definition of crime. What this bill really does is further chipping away the liberties of everyday law-abiding New Yorkers, and financially hurt the companies that value consumer privacy.


A Look Inside Cybercriminal Call Centers

Brian Krebs’ blog, KrebsOnSecurity, is always a great read, especially when it’s about criminal call centers:

One of the cybercrime underground’s oldest call center services — CallMeBaby — serves a variety of swindles but specializes in helping criminals cash out dating scams. It charges $10 for each call in English, and $12 for calls in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. […]

CallMeBaby advertises the availability of a male and female to impersonate anyone in the above-supported languages, and operates between the hours of 17:00 to 03:00 Moscow time (business hours in America).

Personally, I’ve received foreign (based on the accent of the callers) scam calls about delinquent IRS taxes, viruses on my Windows computer, and signing up for mobile service (okay, the last one may just be a legit but annoying telemarketer).

I have to wonder though: are these call centers run much like legitimate ones, where call handling time, agent performance, etc. are measured?


Vultures deserve our hugs too

From National Geographic, about the important role vultures play in the ecosystem and their declining numbers which are often ignored:

In July 2012, 191 vultures died after feasting on an elephant that had been poached and then sprinkled with poison in a Zimbabwean national park. A year later roughly 500 vultures were killed after feeding on a poison-laced elephant in Namibia. Why do poachers, intent on ivory, target vultures in this way? “Because their kettling in the sky over dead elephants and rhinoceroses alerts game wardens to their activities,” Ogada says. Ivory poachers now account for one-third of all East African vulture poisonings.

Cultural practices have also taken a toll on vultures. According to André Botha, co-chair of the vulture specialist group at the Inter­national Union for Conservation of Nature, many of the birds found at poached carcasses are missing their heads and feet—a sure sign they’ve been sold for muti, or traditional healing. Shoppers at southern African markets have little trouble buying body parts believed to cure a range of ailments or impart strength, speed, and endurance. Dried vul­ture brain is also popular: Mixed with mud and smoked, it’s said to conjure guidance from beyond.

Still, the biggest existential threat to African vultures remains the ubiquitous availability and use of poisons. FMC, the Philadelphia-based maker of Furadan, began buying back the compound from distribution channels in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania—and suspended sales in South Africa—following a 60 Minutes segment on lion poisonings in 2009. But the compound, in generic form, persists. Agriculture is the second largest industry in Kenya, and the nation has a long history of using toxins to combat outbreaks of disease and pests. Anyone can walk into a Kenyan agro-veterinary shop and, for less than two dollars, buy highly toxic pesticides off the shelf—to kill insects, mice, feral dogs, hyenas, leopards, jackals, and even fish and ducks meant for human consumption. (Poachers claim, erroneously, that removing the animal’s entrails, then slowly roasting the carcass, detoxifies the flesh.)

Had no idea that vulture parts were sold for misguided medicinal and spiritual purposes. I hope this brings more attention to saving these magnificent birds, on the same level as elephants, dolphins, and whales.

Is it time to ditch self-service in IVR?

Image from page 251 of "Bell telephone magazine" (1922)

The technology to call a machine, enter an account number, and have it say back an account balance or recent transactions is wonderful… if you live in the past.

Let’s be realists here, in today’s era of smartphones and feature-rich websites. The last time you ever called an IVR to find out an account balance was when you were sporting a flip phone or maybe a BlackBerry. Back then we (the customers) were limited in our method of interacting with companies, so the smarties at the companies engineered a box, gave it a voice, and forced you to input (or say) an account ID that’s ridiculously long anyway.

Caller self-service, they proudly say. Cuts down on agent talk time and improves customer satisfaction.

True, when the Motorola Razr was bling and carrying a BlackBerry was a status symbol. But times have changed…

First came the fancy websites. Computers had gotten cheap, broadband speeds became decent, and companies figured it’s even more cost effective to direct customers to the website for self-service. Ironically this is still true as many IVRs still tell callers to go on the website for certain information.

Then came the iPhone. Even with just slow EDGE (2G) cellular data speeds initially, customers and developers realized the potential with the mobile web, and with later models capable of 3G and 4G connectivity, the power of native smartphone apps.

I’ll go out on a limb and proclaim this: Rarely does one call the IVR for self-service today. Almost always we are going on the website or using an app on the phone.

So if nobody is using the IVR for self-service, why even allow it?

  • Self-service on IVR makes it bloated. Strip away all the self-service stuff in your existing IVR. Now admire its simplicity. Call, pick a menu item, transfer. If the person’s calling the IVR, it’s very likely s/he wants to speak to a live agent anyway (because the website and app couldn’t help!). Might as well get her/him to an agent as quickly as possible.
  • Self-service on IVR makes implementation costly. Building call flow menus isn’t that hard but does require very good documentation and organization skills. The challenging part is making the IVR communicate to a database, web service, or whatever backend interface necessary to obtain customer data. That adds complexity, which translates to more development time, more testing time, and more money. (How about using that money to hire/train better agents, improve the website user interface, or develop an awesome smartphone app?)
  • Self-service on IVR may not improve customer satisfaction. Are you happy having to read off a n-digit number to the IVR, half of the time it gets it wrong, and you’re transferred to an agent only to be asked to repeat the number? People are more satisfied speaking to a courteous live representative. Record IVR prompts in the most friendliest voice and people will still dislike it. Has a customer ever wrote a letter telling management how helpful and friendly the IVR is? No, customers take time to send letters thanking nice agents.
  • Self-service on IVR for REALLY simple tasks. For example, credit card activations or requesting printed documents. There are use cases which make sense, just keep in mind that the phone keypad is a terrible navigation device. 

Some of you may protest: What if our majority customer demographics are folks who are not tech-savvy, like the elderly?

To that I’ll respond: Stop living in denial. Does grandma prefer to listen to voicemail or actually speak to her grandchild? If you are servicing the elderly, there’s even more reason to get them connected to a live agent ASAP.


Feds raid Chinese hoverboard booth at CES

Bloomberg reports on Thursday that U.S. Marshals raided a Chinese hoverboard booth at the Consumer Electronics Show at the request of Future Motion, maker of the Onewheel:

Future Motion first found out about the Changzhou First International Trade product late last year, when a Onewheel user posted about it in an online forum. A listing by the Chinese company on Alibaba’s online marketplace promised to provide some 2,000 boards per month for about $500 apiece to retailers. (Future Motion sells the Onewheel for $1,500 through its website.) “We said, ‘Wow, that’s clearly a knockoff,’” Doerksen said. According to Alibaba’s website, retailers in Iceland, Germany, and the U.S. bought about $70,000 worth of products.

In December, Kolitch sent a letter to Changzhou First International Trade demanding that it stop selling the products. He never heard back. Kolitch tried again the day before the show floor opened, by approaching the booth directly but got nowhere. By 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Onewheel filed a request with a judge to stop the Trotters from being displayed on the show floor.

Chinese knockoffs are everywhere these days so I’m not surprised to see this. Kudos to Future Motion for defending their intellectual property especially on American soil. The Chinese company was given multiple opportunities to resolve the matter before coming to CES, but clearly it didn’t care.

Christian father makes unique videogame about life with his dying son

Wired profiles Ryan Green, gives readers a glimpse into his life with a dying son, his Christian faith, and the inspirations for his videogame, That Dragon, Cancer:

Green began working on That Dragon, Cancer in November 2012. Joel, who had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer just after his first birthday, was approaching the age of 4. Green and his wife, Amy, lifelong devout Christians, saw this longevity as a miracle; back in November 2010, when Joel developed a new tumor after several rounds of chemotherapy, the doctors had declared him terminal, placed him on palliative care, and given him at most four months to live. The Greens had spent much of the next two years celebrating small victories and enduring crushing setbacks. Tumors that shrank, or even disappeared, then reemerged with greater vigor months later. Steroids that filled Joel with a powerful rage. A tumor that pressed on Joel’s optic nerve, causing his right eye to turn inward.

Green’s idea to make a videogame about Joel came to him in church, as he reflected on a harrowing evening a couple of years earlier when Joel was dehydrated and diarrheal, unable to drink anything without vomiting it back up, feverish, howling, and inconsolable, no matter how Green tried to soothe him. He had made a few games since then and had been thinking about mechanics, the rules that govern how a player interacts with and influences the action on the screen. “There’s a process you develop as a parent to keep your child from crying, and that night I couldn’t calm Joel,” Green says. “It made me think, ‘This is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work.’”

Not very often do you read an in-dept article about faith, family, a dying child, and videogames. A very touching read. Well done, Wired.

NYC to get free Google WiFi soon

Fortune reports on LinkNYC, the project to bring free WiFi to all five boroughs of the city:

Each Link will also put out a strong 400-foot Wi-Fi signal with a top speed of 1 Gbps, depending on network congestion.

When New York decided to build the Link network, it contracted with a group of four companies: Qualcomm; the chip designer Comark, which builds the physical kiosks; Titan, a display advertising firm; and Control Group, which was the company leading the strategy for the effort. In June, Google’s Sidewalk Labs subsidiary was a investor in the move that resulted in Titan and Control Group merging to become Intersection.

Each Link kiosk will also have USB ports for charging and two large screens to display advertisement (after all, it’s a Google product).