I-Spies Are Looking for You

Courtesy of Workingthewebtowin.com
By Carl Weiss

Just when you thought online privacy couldn’t get any worst, technology developers have unveiled software that lets your smartphone eavesdrop on your TV viewing habits.  Called SilverPush, this Android-based third-party app uses your smartphone to listen for television shows, in turn providing advertisers with information concerning user’s viewing habits. When the app was unleashed in Europe, it caused the US Federal Trade Commission to send letters to12 developers known to be using SilverPush.  While the developer of SilverPush claims that the software hasn’t been used in the US as of yet, the feds warned them that use on American smartphones would result in the developers being held liable for damages if users weren’t made aware of the data being collected.

You can’t put the toothpaste back in the YouTube

More troubling than the development of an eavesdropping app is the fact that this and other similar technology currently on the shelf could open a Pandora’s Box letting the virtual marketing spy into our lives. This is beginning to take place as our homes, businesses and vehicles start to become virtual listening stations. Soon other IoT devices could easily be turned into spies.  Already there is technology like Apple Siri, Google Now, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft Cortana that listen and learn from users ostensibly to help them get more out of their Internet browsing experience.  But what would happen if the same technology that allows us to ask for useful information should suddenly be turned against us?

Virtual Assistant Turned into a Virtual Salesperson

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Just as Americans have been forced to accept the loss of privacy every time they log onto most search engines and social nets, will there come a time in the not too distant future when everything we say in private is bought and sold to the highest bidder?  Even worse, what if major Etailers start using their AI’s to sell us products of their own choosing.  Think that concept is a little farfetched?  A recent blogpost on recode.net entitled,Amazon’s end goal for the Echo is letting you order anything on Amazon by voice might just be a taste of things to come.

The Amazon Echo helps you do a lot of things beyond shopping, which is a big reason why it has become an out-of-nowhere sensation. But for the Echo to “achieve the long-term vision,” according to Amazon’s devices head David Limp, it’s going to have to become an all-out shopping machine. 

Indeed, the only thing that limits Echo users from shopping till they drop at present is the fact that currently the device is audio-only. This means that while you can easily order commodities via voice, ordering other items such as clothing that requires a consumer to see the product they are interested in purchasing is still not available.  Not that the powers that be at Amazon aren’t considering the solution to this dilemma.

Limp declined to give any hints on how Amazon plans to close the gap between the ordering capabilities available today and the long-term shopping goals of tomorrow. One far-out idea? Pairing the Echo with a virtual reality headset to show an Echo user an item as they ask Alexa about it, all without the need to take out a phone or laptop.

Courtesy of  youtube.com
While having your virtual assistant turned into a virtual sales rep might be a bit creepy, think of what the same technology could be used to accomplish:

  1. A VR enabled virtual assistant already makes it possible to work in a virtual office, complete with virtual secretary.
  2. A VR/AI enabled physician could make virtual house calls a reality.
  3. You’d have a virtual research assistance literally at your fingertips.
  4. With the right app, your home and business could be protected by a virtual security guard.
  5. You could give your child an AI equipped smartphone to act as a virtual nanny.
Quite literally, as AI evolves, more and more tasks that require human intervention will be outsourced to virtual employees.  Whether this is a good thing or bad depends upon whether or not it is your job that is being replaced.  However, much as there is potential for progress in the virtual world, there also lurks the potential for abuse. 

In the first place, what most people who use digital assistants do not understand is that there are people in the pipeline.  While digital assistants act as though they are holding a conversation with you, there are legions of writers that are employed on a daily basis to determine what Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Now say.

In an article on PCWorld.com entitled, “How real people help Cortana, Siri and other virtual assistants feel alive,” writer Mike Elgin points out that while people know that they’re talking to a computer, they are also struck by the fact that the responses they receive seem far more human than they expect.

Courtesy of  pcworld.com
What you get as a response to your question or request to a virtual assistant isn’t what a real-live person said.  It’s what a team of people believe a real-live human being could or should say.  Some replies are constructed from prerecorded words and phrases – the sentences are pieced together by software to answer some arbitrary question – and other are written as full sentences or paragraphs. 

These writing teams virtually take a meeting every morning where they pour over the questions being posed to their AI as well as the responses given.  This means that all questions posed to an AI are recorded and subject to review by a human being.  Each AI also has a preprogrammed personality that is written much like a character in a novel.  That should come as no surprise since the writing staff assigned to update all AI includes novelists, screenwriters, playwrights and essayists.

Will Big Brother Arrive Disguised as Little Sister?
So while you might entrust your AI of choice to answer simple questions, don’t entrust her with any business secrets.  Also, don’t trust either big business or the hacking community, not to exploit technology that allows them to virtually wiretap your life.  Especially when their front man comes disguised as a digital assistant with a soothing female voice.
In a January 2015 blog on the Huffington Post entitled, Will Big Data Be Used to Create Ad Zombies or Virtual Assistants? writer Gary Ebersole cites a South Park episode that lampoons the loss of privacy online.
Courtesy of  youtube.com
Between bouts of outright laughter and knowing chuckles, it wasn’t hard to see the truth in the dystopian view delivered by Trey Parker, writer and director of these episodes. Parker shrewdly avoided giving his characters the “tech-speak” dialogue typically associated with discussions of big data algorithms that drive online advertising. Instead, he very effectively presented a vision of an online world dominated by a blizzard of popup ads and sponsored content masquerading as news. In that distorted reality, the residents of South Park were unable to separate reality (or as “real” as the online world can be, cartoon or otherwise) and the fictional world of advertising. Indeed, at the close of the season a character on the show, Leslie, has been completely transformed by online advertisers into the ultimate consumer—a walking, talking, human-appearing ad zombie.
He also points out that the episode alludes to the fact that George Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is rapidly being replaced by Big Business.  Ebersole further emphasizes that the best way to avoid being steered like a herd of lobotomized sheep to do their corporate overlords business is for consumers to demand transparency from corporations out to harvest ever more personal information.  What he doesn’t address is the fact that most Americans have already ceded their right to online privacy by allowing big business to strip mine their browsing and buying habits. 
Virtual Visigoths are at the Gate
Courtesy of Websiteknowhow.com
With everything from smart appliances to AI enabled devices that are becoming more commonplace in homes, offices and vehicles, it seems inevitable that our last bastions of privacy are being quickly eroded.  Add to this the disturbing reality that hackers are currently deploying software that enables them to do everything from surreptitiously take control of your laptop’s webcam to rifling through and locking you out of your computer. Like it or not, what it comes down to is the realization that the Virtual Visigoths are at the gate and that I-Spies are looking for you.
In this article I have covered the alarming emergence of our appliances spying on us. This trend started with the introduction of “The Internet of Things” and has now manifested itself as virtual assistances turned marketing spy’s. This article covers everything from the new smart phone app “SilverPush”, designed to listen to which TV shows you’re watching, to Echo’s Alexa and how Amazon plans to use it to achieve more sales. I even provide links to articles that provide more detail on this subject.

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If you found this article useful please share it with your friends, family and co-workers. If you would like to learn more about this subject, visit the notes page on this blog for the BlogTalkRadio show dated 3/29/16. I recommend checking out "Has the Internet Made Us Smarter?“, "Hector the Connector Predictions for 2016 and Beyond!", "Is The Internet of Everything Really, Everything They're Cracking it Up to Be?" and “The Piracy of Privacy - The Looting of Privacy in America”. You can also search for other related articles by typing in “Virtual Assistant” in the search box at the top of this blog.

If you feel your business could use some help with its marketing, contact us at 904-410-2091. We will provide a free marketing analysis to help you get better results. If you'd like a free copy of our eBook, "Internet Marketing Tips for the 21st Century," please fill in the form below and we will give you immediate access to it. Your information is always kept private and is never sold.

Carl Weiss is president of WorkingtheWebtoWin.com a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida that routinely works with bloggers and other online marketers to grow their businesses.

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Ok, you're now in charge of the company's social media marketing program (along with several other tasks in your business).  Where do you start? Where will I find content to post and when should I post It? How will I find time to research and share useful content? How will I measure my success? I'm already in charge of several other programs, how will I manage the pressure? If you're asking yourself any of these questions, you're setting yourself up for social media marketing burnout! In this week’s blog, I will cover how to be efficient and effective as a social media manager. I will tell you how to quickly and easily find and post what works, how to measure what's working and how to minimize the time social media marketing takes out of your life. So tune in and turn on to this week's article of Working the Web to Win and learn How to Avoid the Stress & Burnout of Social Media Management.  

The Crypto Crunch - Ransomware Run Amok

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By Carl Weiss 

The Crypto Virus is unlike anything you have encountered in the past.  Sure, other forms of malware can disrupt your web browsing, slow your machine to a crawl or pop up an endless stream of annoying ads.  But this nasty bug has the ability to ratchet up your angst a number of ways.  That’s because not only can Crypto encrypt your hard drive and hold your machine for ransom, but it can also infect any other peripheral connected to it, including the cloud.  This is the same virus that so infected the servers of a local police department in Georgia that when the cops asked the FBI what to do, the feds told them to pay the ransom.  Before your wired world gets turned upside down and your computers are held hostage, you had better read on so you can beef up your immunity to the nastiest bug in Cyberspace.

So reads the headline on a recent LA Times column.  In it, writer Michael Hiltzak details the digital mayhem caused to a local hospital, the LA County Department of Health Services and a school that lost access to their records due to Crypto.  He also pointed out the fact that when it comes to calling the authorities, the FBI, while encouraging victims of ransomware to notify the Bureau, isn’t exactly going to mount a manhunt to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Last year, its cybercrime chief in Boston, Joseph Bonavolonta, was quoted telling a gathering of cybersecurity experts, "To be honest, we often advise people just to pay the ransom." 
Courtesy of  commons.wikimedia.org

So the onus is on the public to cover their online assets by installing anti-malware, by backing up their data, and by being careful about the software they install and the emails they open.  Even worse is the fact that this is a growth industry, where the bad guys can buy ransomware on the gray market and they can use Bitcoins to cover their digital tracks. 

Ransomware Takes a Byte Out of Apple

Even Apple computers, which are some of the most secure in the world, are not immune to ransomware.  An app called KeRanger proved that when it quickly infected thousands of Macs by encrypting online photographs, spreadsheets, invoices and other targeted documents before demanding a ransom of $400.  A blog on Wired.com reported that,

Anyone who downloaded one of two installers of Transmission version 2.90, between the hours of 11 a.m. PST on March 4 and 7 p.m. PST on March 5 is potentially affected. It’s not clear currently how many people that is, but if you downloaded that BitTorrent client recently, you should be aware of what’s coming.

The Clock is Ticking

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Like most forms of ransomware, KeRanger gives victims only 72 hours to pay up, or risk having their files permanently deleted.  That leaves victims with precious little time to find an alternative to their problem.  Even more terrifying is the fact that Crypto Viruses have the unnerving habit of evolving just as their biological counterparts do.  To start off with, there are two genres of malware: Crypto and Locky.  The first allows access to the machine but it encrypts infected files.  The second simply locks the owner out of their machine.  Recent developments have created subphylum of ransomware that hone in on soft targets.

ScareWare is a sheep in wolf’s clothing that sends victims an alert that their system has been compromised and demands payment to correct the situation. This form of ransomware can easily be dealt with by any competent IT tech.
Lock-Screen Viruses will lock up your computer before displaying an FBI or Dept. of Justice logo that purports to inform you that you have violated the law and must pay a fine.  Just like scareware, most lock-screen viruses can be eliminated by a skilled IT technician.
KeRanger targets Macintosh computers.
CTB-Locker goes after WordPress websites.
GameOverZeus while neither a Crypto or Locky virus, it still inflicts financial losses since it specifically targets banking information.  It then enslaves the infected machine which it uses to send out copies of itself via spam.  It can also be used to directly infect machines or enslave them for use in Distributed Denial of Service attacks.
Courtesy of  en.wikipedia.org
VirRansom called the AIDS of ransomware, this bug is a parasitic virus that leaves hundreds or even thousands of infected files on a system.  This means that even one copy that goes undetected can spread the virus anew.
CryptoLocker arrives via email. This last variant according to the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team can wreak the most havoc.  That’s because CryptoLocker is designed to find, infect and encrypt files located on networks, external hard drives, USB drives and even the cloud.

If you want to take a crack at resolving scareware or lock-screen issues on your own, check out the blog on PC World entitled, “How to rescue your PC from Ransomware.” 

Preventing Infection

Of course the best way to protect you and yours from the perils of ransomware is to do the following:

  1. Make sure you use a top notch antivirus/malware application installed and running on your system (including tables and smart phones). We use TrendMicro, but there are many top notch products out there. Avoid the free products, they generally have gaps in their protection.
  2. Add a second level of virus protection to your system by installing an anti-malware program such as Malwarebytes.
  3. Make sure you keep your antivirus/malware apps up to date. Having an expired or non-updated AV application is asking for trouble, and more often than not, you find it.
  4. Actively scan your computers, tables and smartphones on a regular basis. Not scanning on a regular basis widens the gap of discover. The longer a virus has time to do its dirty work, the harder it is to remove and eradicate.
  5. Make sure you have a bulletproof backup of your system that is not connected to your machine or network. This can be a backup to a flash drive, USB drive you use to make backups (that is not always connected) or an online service that you connect and disconnect from.
  6. If you're using a cloud backup service, make sure in includes revision management so that you keep earlier versions of your documents. This way, if a ransomware virus breaches your cloud connection, you may still have earlier revisions you can access and retrieve.
  7. It's also a good idea to make different kinds of backup and restore points on your computer. Have multiple and frequent restore point could allow you to roll back a system to a date before the ransomware infection.
  8. Avoid opening any email attachments unless you know specifically where they came from and what they represent. (Remember, the first thing many viruses do once they infect a system is to sniff out email addresses to which they send a copy.) Since many crypto viruses come disguised as an email from FedEx, UPS or USPS, beware of any suspicious emails from shippers.
  9. If you must open unfamiliar emails or surf questionable website, use protection. Install a program that prevents other programs from making changes to your system. One such program is Sandboxie (http://www.sandboxie.com) which works with a number of popular web browsers to intercept and isolate your machine from programs that try to run programs on your system. Also, there are many antivirus and utility applications that will lock your system setting to prevent 3rd party apps from making changes. A good one that comes a freeware is Spybot Search and Destroy.
  10. Don’t leave your computer running all the time. If it's running, it’s usually connected to the internet and thus, it is vulnerable to attack. Shut your system off at night, or at least set it to sleep mode. At Working the Web to Win, we do system maintenance weekly on our computers. The software we use (advanced system care) allows us to automatically shut the machine down when maintenance is complete. So at least once a week, we set it do maintenance, then the computer shuts itself off.
  11. Keep your Browser up-to-date and make sure you use antimalware plug ins to help keep the drive by anti-malware at bay. Many antivirus products provide browser support so make sure you install their plug-in’s as well.
  12. There are also browser plugin’s designed to rate the risk of many URLs’, even before you click on them. One such plugin is “Web of Trust”. This product flags URL with a color code, (Red=bad, yellow=caution, Green=good and gray=new).
  13. Many security threats begin in the social network world. That’s why my last suggestion is to have your anti-malware products audit your social networks for security weaknesses. Products like TrendMicro do these scans. Also, make sure you follow the suggestions of the social networks you use. Many of the big names, are actively asking their subscribers to self-audit and plug security loopholes.

The bottom line is this, unless you want to revert to using a typewriter, you had better take heed as well as an ounce of prevention so you won’t wind up getting caught up in the Crypto Crunch.

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In this article I have covered the latest attacks and threats caused by the Crypto viruses like KeRanger and other Ransom malware hitting the streets in 2016. I cover everything from the many variants of Crypto viruses to how to avoid getting attacked and infected. I even provide links to articles that provide help for removing such viruses.

If you found this article useful please share it with your friends, family and co-workers. If you would like to learn more about this subject, visit the notes page on this blog and listen to the podcast on BlogTalkRadio show dated 3/15/16. I recommend checking out "Is There a Silver Lining Inside Cloud Computing?“, “The Trouble with Texts - New Text Virus Hits Europe”,  “Are You Prepared for the Onslaught of Cyber-Attacks?”, "The endless Scams of Christmas (and Beyond)“, “It’s Time for Some Hi-Tech Spring Cleaning”,  and “The Hack Attack is Back”. You can also search for other related articles by typing in “Ransomware”, “Scams” or “Hacking” in the search box at the top of this blog.

If you feel your business could use some help with its marketing, contact us at 904-410-2091,We will provide a free marketing analysis to help you get better results. If you'd like a free copy of our eBook, "Internet Marketing Tips for the 21st Century," please fill in the form below and we will give you immediate access to it. Your information is always kept private and is never sold.

Carl Weiss is president of WorkingtheWebtoWin.com a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida that routinely works with bloggers and other online marketers to grow their businesses. 

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