eXtensions - Thursday 8 December 2022


Thursday Review: CSAM Cancelled; 75 years of Transistors; iPad News Delivery; AirTags Good and Bad

By Graham K. Rogers


Updates are expected to Apple iOS and others next week. The controversial CSAM detection has been cancelled while Apple tightens up on other user security. 75 years of the transistor: some of us can remember when all home devices had vacuum tubes. It was surprising when NewsCorp pulled The Daily: an early vote of confidence in the iPad; but money talks and there are better alternatives. Netflix and AppleTV march on with Wednesday, Slow Horses and Time's Man of the Year, Volodomyr Zelenskyy. AirTags are good; AirTags are bad.

It is widely reported that Apple has put out developer release candidates for several of the operating systems. WatchOS 9.2, tvOS 16.2, iOS 16.2, iPadOS 16.2 and Ventura 13.1 have all been mentioned. This probably means there will be updates for the rest of us soon. It is likely that these could arrive early next week. As ever, make sure your data is backed up and the devices are ready for the updates when they arrive. Several sites are reporting that AirDrop will be limited to 10 minutes as a security measure.

In one of its more controversial moves earlier this year, Apple released plans for on-device scanning of CSAM images if they were to be synchronized to iCloud. The outcry caught Cupertino by surprise and this was swiftly put on the back boiler, although there were still plans to use this. Other protections for children that were announced at the time, for example with messaging, were implemented. I have looked carefully at this and read some of the research.

CSAM outline The authorities want this and seem to dismiss the risks, particularly changes that might be forced on Apple in the future. The scanning used hashes (sometimes called digital DNA) that could identify altered versions of the photographs stored on a specific child abuse database in the USA. There was no guarantee that if Apple were forced to add other hashes (say of persons who opposed a particular regime) they would be able to refuse.

A look at how China has forced Apple to make changes on some software in the past is an indication of the potential. It is not unknown for law enforcement (particularly in the USA) to try and force Apple to unlock iPhones. Sometimes they have resorted to 3rd party hacking methods; all of which suggests that the secure hashing system could be abused in the future.

It is now reported by Lily Hay Newman on Wired (and several other online sources) that "the CSAM-detection tool for iCloud photos is dead." Instead Apple is to focus on other, more palatable safety features. These changes come at the same time Apple has announced it is "expanding its end-to-end encryption offerings for iCloud, including adding the protection for backups and photos stored on the cloud service." Apple writes,

With iMessage Contact Key Verification, users can verify they are communicating only with whom they intend. With Security Keys for Apple ID, users have the choice to require a physical security key to sign in to their Apple ID account. And with Advanced Data Protection for iCloud, which uses end-to-end encryption to provide Apple's highest level of cloud data security, users have the choice to further protect important iCloud data, including iCloud Backup, Photos, Notes, and more.

Advanced Data Protection for iCloud is already available in the USA. It will be rolled out to the rest of the world next year, while the other features will start to become available in 2023. It is not known at this time if all the features will be available in all countries.

solid state devices This week sees the 75th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. This was when the team at Bell Labs demonstrated a working version of the technology. There had been experiments pre-war in several countries using a number of different materials, but the resources, the will and the expertise that was all part of Bell Labs, was first past the post. A good explanation of this can be found in Jon Gertner's book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. This is a remarkable book by any standards and the history of Bell Labs is well worth examining.

Like the British Post Office research establishment at Dollis Hill that was used by Turing and his team when developing hardware for cracking Enigma code, Bell Labs looked at many ways in which the telephone service could be improved, including for example, the optimum distance between telegraph poles. As with Apple now, there was considerable research into materials and the industrial processes used to improve manufacturing. With the list of successes, the court-enforced break up of Bell led inevitably to the selling off of Bell Labs, which ended up, after being bought by Lucent, as part of Nokia. The patents must be worth a fortune.

When I was a child, televisions and radio had valves: vacuum tubes. So did Colossus, the first analytical computer built as part of the Enigma project. In the mid-50s cheap transistor radios became available and as the use the technology increased, so transistors and other solid state devices, were improved. The size was reduced too: now we can put several billion inside a small laptop computer, giving any user more computing power than the room-sized computers of the 1950s and early 1960s; and certainly more power than NASA had for its lunar program. Instead of going to the planets we play games.

solid state circuitry

I mentioned briefly last time that the makers of Ilford films, Harman Technologies, had announced the release of a couple of its Kentmere films in 120 format. I use 120 or medium format almost exclusively as I have a few suitable cameras. I find 35mm fiddly, especially when scanning the negatives. I may only have 12 shots on a roll with the 6x6 cameras, but there is much more information there. With 6x9 I only have 8 shots.

A number of online sources, including PetaPixel (Jaron Schneider), reported on the announcement and included some test shots from Harman showing the potential of the ISO 100 and 400 films which are apparently available for $5.80 per roll directly from Ilford Photo's website. However, when I link to the site I am always directed to find a local retailer. My usual supplier is not showing this yet. It is worth noting that the decision to produce these films in 120 format was as a result of a global survey. Some companies do take note of customer's opinions.

Medium format film cameras
Medium format film cameras

One of the moments that (I thought) showed how effective the iPad would be was when NewsCorp announced, The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper. I saw this, as Luke Dormehl (Cult of Mac) writes, as "the perfect digital replacement for dying print media". Despite the money thrown at it by Murdoch, who must also have seen the potential, "it failed to offer content sufficiently different from free outlets." Download speeds also affected users with the massive size. Online access should be click and go. It was closed down on 3 December 2012 having cut 30% of staff a few months earlier, with NewsCorp announcing that they "could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term". I saw much potential in this and was sorry to see it fail.

iPad Pro
iPad Pro x2

It is also reported that Apple News is having some problems, although this is one of the many services that Apple does not provide in this country so I have no specific experience of this. Joe Wituschek (iMore) reports that some publishers are experiencing growth problems on the platform, although reading through it appears that some have excellent growth. People dropped 36%, while other publications are showing negative growth and the NYTimes has left. The app subscriptions are up 6% (a plus), but that is compared to the first half of 2021. It is down 18% when looking at the second half of 2021: a time when Covid was widespread and many people worked from home.

There have been other aggregators between The Daily and Apple News with one or two showing some potential, but for one reason or another they faded away. As for magazine subscriptions, I prefer direct access, not that Apple News is available to me. Instead, my news is delivered through headlines and short summaries via RSS feeds (I use Newsify on the iPad) and Twitter from a wide variety of sources.

On Newsify I choose the feeds I want to access and while some are news/politics, there is also a wide selection of technical sources. On Twitter, I have little choice about what is delivered as even the limited number of those I follow, will Like or Retweet news from others. This puts ideas in front of me that I might not otherwise have seen, although a recent algorithm change also adds in Tweets based on my likes. Well, that is fine: as with all, I look at the outline and either move on or examine deeper.

I am wary of the way data is collected by online apps and sites so I have reduced my use of Facebook, while Twitter is on probation in my house. I see that anti-vax and masking posts are now allowed and Musk was on the warpath against Apple last week. I guess he has to find a scapegoat if he is intent on destroying Twitter. There are more secure alternatives to messaging and mail, such as Proton Mail, Signal and Telegram, although the latter appears to have suffered a setback regarding the data it keeps.

A teacher in India found that her materials were being disseminated on Telegram and, according to Manish Singh on TechDirt, sued Telegram "for not doing enough to prevent unauthorised distribution of her course material on the platform". A court in India "ordered Telegram to adhere to the Indian law" and give her the details of those breaking her copyright, but the company was reluctant as its servers are in Singapore where different laws apply regarding user data. As this was just sending the information to those with an interest in the matter of the materials distribution, it was not in breach of security rules an appeal court decided.

I had been looking forward to the arrival of Wednesday on Netflix. It appears a lot of other viewers were too and the initial figures show this series broke the previous record held by Stranger Things. I had enjoyed the Addams Family when it was originally released. It never really took itself seriously and there were some lovely digs at the ways people behave. With Tim Burton at the helm of this series, this was likely to continue and there were some interesting cast choices. Jenna Ortega plays Wednesday Addams, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán as Morticia and Gomez, her mother and father.

A surprise for me was seeing Percy Hynes Whyte as one of the more interesting students. I first saw this actor in an otherwise dull series, Between. When he arrived in series 2 (after a brief appearance in series 1), even though in his early teens, his sheer presence marked him out as a face to watch. Much taller now and no longer a teenager, he has since done several TV series and movies. He won an award for his part in The Gifted a couple of years back.

Wednesday is not to be taken seriously of course. Nor was the original Addams Family series, but there are some beautiful quips on life, on death and social interaction. It is beautifully made and totally improbable, like Frankenstein or Dracula; but people read the books and watch the movies. There is a hint of the Salem Witch trials here, with a villain who is far worse than those he killed. It is fun and had me hooked.

I looked around for something else when I finished that and found Servant of the People, with the current president of Ukraine, Volodomyr Zelenskyy, before he was President. In another case of Life mirroring Art, this is about a history teacher secretly recorded by a student in a tirade about government bureaucracy and all that was wrong in society. It went viral and as a result of his popularity he was elected to the high office. After a deliberately ridiculous beginning where he is led by the bureaucrats, he looks to deal with corruption.

I saw the first two episodes and will be back for more, but was interrupted by the arrival on AppleTV of Slow Horses, Series 2. There are a couple of additions to the cast, led by Gary Oldman, who apply skills and background knowledge in their quest. The first 2 episodes appeared this week with another episode to follow each subsequent Friday.

Apple AirTags

We have heard a lot about AirTags being used and misused: finding lost or stolen property; and being used to track people, despite the warnings built in. Joe Wituschek (iMore) reports on a stolen car that was tracked using AirPods. These are also shown in Find My and a couple of days after the event, a user suddenly remembered that his AirPods had been in the car when it was stolen. He checked in FindMy and there they were. After the police were contacted the car was found and the thieves subsequently arrested.

On a less than positive note, two women are suing Apple because AirTags were used to track them (Sami Fathi, MacRumors). One involved a former boyfriend, the other a husband. The women claim that the safeguards Apple has provided are "woefully inadequate". The woman whose husband allegedly tracked here, claims the AirTag was placed in her child's backpack. I may be missing some information, but that does not sound like she was being tracked and a lawyer would argue strongly that this was for the safety of the child. The case of the other woman sounds more substantial in that it was her ex- and that the AirTag was placed in the wheel of her car.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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