Using your cellphone when overseas (2018 edition)

I just returned from a trip to Israel, and as the old joke goes, my arms are so tired. Actually, my fingers, because I have been spending the better part of two days on the phone with support techs from both AT&T and Apple to try to get my phone back to the state where it works on the AT&T network.

My SOP for travel is to use a foreign SIM card in my phone. This has several benefits. First, you don’t pay roaming charges for local in-country calls, although if you are calling back to the States, you might have to pay international long distance charges, depending on your plan. Second, if people in-country are trying to reach you, they don’t pay for any international calls either, since they are calling a local number. (Some of the networks overseas have the more enlightened method of calling party pays, but we won’t go there for now.) You also don’t use any minutes or data GB on your American cell account, which is nice if those are limited.

For the past several years, I had been using two different travel SIMs. First is one from FreedomPop, which was a very inexpensive card with monthly fees around $15 for a decent plan. I had some billing issues initially but these were resolved. It doesn’t work in Israel, so I ended up buying another SIM at the airport kiosk in Tel Aviv. My last trip in October had some major hiccups with that card, and so I decided to try a new supplier, Call Israel. They offered a plan for $50 that seemed reasonable. AT&T charges $60 a month with lower data usage for Israel. If you go elsewhere the fees could be less.

Call Israel mailed me a SIM a week before my trip, and right away I saw an issue: I was just renting my SIM card. At the end of my trip, I had to mail it back. Strike 1.

But strike 2 was a big one. I made the mistake of taking my Israel SIM out of my phone when I changed planes in Europe on the return trip, and put in my AT&T SIM card. That confused my phone and got me in trouble. When I landed in the States I spent an hour on the phone with a very nice AT&T person who verified that my phone was working properly on their network. Except it wasn’t: I could get voice service, but not broadband data service. Some parameter that the Call Israel SIM had needed was still set and messing up my phone, and there was no way that I could access that information to remove it.

I ended up speaking to Apple next, because I figured out that they could get rid of whatever it was that was blocking my data service. I had to find an older iTunes backup that I had made before I went abroad (lucky I had done so with Time Machine), and then wipe my phone clean and bring that backup to the phone. All told, several hours were wasted. I found out that there is a subtle but important difference in how iTunes and iCloud handle backups. I was fortunate to find a very nice woman from Apple who called me back as we tried various strategies, and eventually we figured out what to do. This took place over the course of a couple of days. Here is the bottom line: your phone has hundreds of parameters that determine whether it will communicate properly. Some of them aren’t accessible to you via the various on-screen controls and are hidden from your use. The only way to change them is to restore from a known working backup.

So if you are planning on being out of the country, think carefully about your options. Consider if you need a foreign SIM for a brief trip. If you can afford service from your American provider, do so. Or if you can find Wifi hotspots, you probably can do 90% of the work on your phone by setting it to airplane mode when you leave town and not turning it on until you return. Under this scenario, you would use Facetime, What’sApp and Skype for voice and texting. Does that additional 10% make the difference? If you have a terrible sense of direction and need Google Maps, for example, you will need that broadband data. Or if you are traveling with other Americans and need to meet up, you might need the cellular voice flexibility.

SIMs come in at least three different sizes, and most suppliers ship them with cardboard adapters so you can fit them in your phone’s compartment. It doesn’t hurt to check this though.

Next, don’t swap SIMs until you reach your destination. If you need to look at buying a local SIM, make sure you understand how you have to bring your phone back to its original state when you come home. Make backups of your phone to your computer, to the cloud, to as many places as possible before you leave town. If you have an iPhone, read this article on how to find the iTunes backups on your system.

Next, when you are looking for a mail-order SIM, make sure you are actually buying it and not just renting it. Check to see that it will work in all the countries on your itinerary. Or wait until you get to your destination, and buy a local SIM from a phone store or airport kiosk.

Finally, examine the calling plan for what it will entail and match it with your expected usage on texting, data, and voice volume. Examine whether your calls back to the States are included in the plan’s minutes or not. If you don’t use a lot of data, you probably can get by with a cheaper voice-only plan and finding WiFi connections.  Happy trails, and hope they don’t turn into travails.

The intersection of art and technology with Thomas Struth

As I grow older, I tend to forget about events in my youth that shaped the person that I am now. I was reminded of this last week after seeing a Thomas Struth photography exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum. Struth’s pictures are enlarged to mural size and depict the complex industrial environments of the modern age: repairing the Space Shuttle, a blowout preventer at an oil rig (shown here), the insides of physics and chemistry labs, the Disney Soarin’ hang glider simulation ride, and chip fabrication plants. Many of these are places that I have had the opportunity to visit over the years as a technology reporter.

The pictures reminded me of a part-time job that I had as an undergraduate student. My college had obtained a set of geometrical string models that were first constructed back in the 1830s and demonstrated conic sections, such as the intersection of a plane and a cone. Back then, we didn’t have Mathematica or color textbooks to show engineering students how to draw these things. These models were constructed out of strings threaded through moveable brass pieces that were attached to wooden bases, using lead weights to keep the strings taut.

The models were first built by a French mathematician Theodore Olivier, and were used in undergraduate descriptive geometry courses up until 1900. I was one of the students who helped restore them. While the models look very nice now, back when I was a student they were in pretty bad shape: the wooden bases were cracked, the brass pieces were tarnished, and the strings were either tangled or missing. It took some effort to figure out what shapes they were trying to display and how to string them properly. Sometimes there were missing parts and I had the help of the college machine shop and local auto body shops to figure out what to do. The best part of this job was that it came with its own private office, which was a nice perk for me when I needed to escape dorm life for a few quiet hours. After I graduated, the college put the finished models on display for everyone to see.

The intersection of art and technology has always been a part of me, and it was fun seeing Struth’s work. it was great to get to see the details captured and the point of view expressed from these images, lit and composed to show their colors and construction. And the photos reminded me of the beauty of these advanced machines that we have built too.

Behind the scenes at a Red Cross shelter

A friend of mine, Dave Crocker, has been volunteering for Red Cross activities around the California fires and Houston floods over the past several months, and has been working as a volunteer for them for more than nine years. I thought it would be an interesting time to chat with him about his experiences and consider why the media is so often critical of the Red Cross .

Crocker was in Houston for two weeks, starting two weeks after the hurricane hit. He has been a shelter supervisor at both small and large operations, a dispatcher for daily, local disasters, and helps out in other situations, both in the field and in their offices. Given his tenure as a volunteer, he has taken numerous Red Cross training classes, including learning to drive a fork lift (although not that well, he ruefully notes).

The work is challenging on several levels. First are the 12 hour shifts, usually 7 to 7. Except they often don’t end exactly at 7:00; so your shift lasts 13 or 14 hours or more. If you are on a night shift, that can be even tougher. You get one day off per week, if you are lucky. You sleep wherever you can find a bunk, sometimes that means you don’t exactly have five-star accommodations, or even one-star. “I’ve slept on a shelter’s army cots, but in Ventura I paid for my own accommodations and got a hotel room. I don’t sleep well on cots. Some of my fellow volunteers have slept in their cars or on the ground.”

He is very proud of his volunteer efforts, although he doesn’t carry any personal hubris in what he does. “First and foremost, it’s about helping our clients,” he told me in a recent phone call and over a series of emails and Facebook posts. “Self-praise almost never shows up in anyone’s behavior. The focus is the work.”

One of the things he learned from the recent series of disasters was to expand his definition of a “client”. Originally, he thought just the people displaced by the floods or fires were his clients, but other volunteers pointed out that the Red Cross ecosystem is much greater, including someone who donates items or funds to a relief effort. “The rest of the community is also our client, because they are also affected by the disaster and are compelled to be connected to it, by coming to the shelter to donate or by asking how can they help.”

One of the challenges is that these spontaneous donations can become overwhelming. In the Ventura County fires, Crocker experienced this first-hand. “We saw an enormous amount of donations of water, snacks, face masks, diapers, clothing, toys, and more, That was all brought to our shelters, and our warehouses quickly got filled. Processing all that requires a lot of staff. Historically, these donations have been turned away by the Red Cross, with a request to just send money. This has regularly produced word-of-mouth criticism of the Red Cross. This year, Red Cross policy changed and the rule is to say yes and then figure out how to make it work.”  Crocker said that many tens of thousands of bottles of water were donated, as were donations that had been ordered online, with enough showing up to fill a shipping container.

Running a large disaster response is sometimes compared to the logistics of running a military deployment. “Even the smallest shelter has an enormous amount of detail to it,” Crocker told me. “There is the whole setting-up of beds and linens, and then taking it all down, the ongoing cleaning of various items as clients leave and new ones register; then there is feeding three meals a day plus snacks. It is a massive logistics game and the situation is highly dynamic. Communication is challenging because you have to deal with a lot of noisy information. And equipment and geography can be difficult.”

Fires are unpredictable, especially when the wind changes, and that puts a wrench in your plans, for who is affected and where to locate the shelters. The Ventura Fairgrounds shelter he worked at had roughly 250 clients, with a peak of about 500, before he arrived. The range of quality in facilities that are available is also highly variable. At Ventura, the shelter was in a building that is typically used for livestock shows. “We were in better shape in the wine country fires because we had use of a church with excellent kitchen and shower facilities and had been explicitly designed for be used as a shelter.” That church-based facility has hosted a disaster shelter 11 times in the last few years. In Houston, there were roughly 4,000 volunteers in the relief effort, divided amongst 25 different shelters.

The timing of the Ventura fires produced an unusual benefit for the shelter’s clients. Because the fires were around the holidays, a lot of corporate parties were canceled and as a result restaurants had surplus food that they repurposed as donations to feed the volunteers working the shelters.

One of the frustrations Crocker cites for himself and his colleagues is the negative press surrounding the response of the Red Cross volunteers to these disasters. “Sometimes the reporting focuses only on the negative, citing only one or another disgruntled person.” While certainly there are issues, for the most part he sees the relief efforts as run as well as they can be, given the complex and dynamic circumstances that any large effort like this will have. “Certainly, there are people who try to scam the system, something that I’ve seen in my limited volunteer efforts. But Red Cross policy is to err in the direction of helping rather than rejecting people who ask for assistance.”

“The work itself, and the privilege to do it, is what I enjoy, and being around people with a similar attitude, and getting the work done.” Crocker mentioned in one Facebook post that “everyone has had a collaborative tone” including Red Cross volunteers, employees and even clients, which could be because many clients have been displaced by multiple fires in past years. Note that more than 90% of Red Cross staffing is done by volunteers.

I highly recommend taking a moment, and getting involved in your local Red Cross chapter. Give blood, give money, give your time. You are working with a great group of people and for something very worthwhile.

My love affair with the phone central office

I have a thing about the telephone central office (CO). I love spotting them in the wild, giving me some sense of the vast connectedness that they represent, the legal wrangling that took place over their real estate, and their history in our telecommunications connectedness. That is a lot to pack into a series of structures, which is why I am attracted to them.

Many of you may not be familiar with the lowly CO, so I should probably back up and set the scene. Back in the day when all of us had landline phones, indeed, before we even called them such things, the phone company had to wire these phone lines to one central place in each community. A pair of low-voltage wires ran from your home to this central office, and were connected to a vast wire switching center called the main distribution frame. The central office actually supplied the dial tone that you heard when you picked up your phone, which assured you that your phone line was operating properly.

Interestingly, one of the inventors of the central office was a Hungarian named Tivadar Puskas, and I actually got to visit the fruits of his labors when I was in Budapest several years ago. The building that housed his switchboard is now offices occupied by the firm Prezi. Notice it still is quite a beautiful structure, with gothic touches and high ceilings.

I was reminded of visiting the Prezi offices when I was on a trip last week to Columbus Indiana. I have been wanting to go there for several years since first learning that the small city contains some of the best examples of modern architecture in one place. What does this have to do with phone COs? Well, they have a beautiful CO building that was designed in 1978 and it once looked like this.

Columbus’ CO was actually an expansion of an earlier and more modest building that was built in the 1930s. The phone company needed more room as the town grew and they were adding services, and so we have this space-frame curtain-glass wall structure that was built around the original building. I would urge those of you interested in seeing other great modern structures to schedule your own trip to the town and see what they have done because there is a lot to see.

But let’s get back to the phone CO. These buildings were at the center of activity back in the 1990s when DSL technology (which is the broadband technology that the phone companies still use to deliver Internet services) was first coming into popularity. At the time there were a number of independent startups such as Covad and Rhythms that wanted to provide DSL to private customers. The phone companies tried to block them, claiming that there wasn’t enough room in the COs to add their equipment. Back in the day, there weren’t many higher-speed data service offerings, so DSL was a very big improvement. This battle eventually was won and while these startups have come and gone, we have Uverse service offered by AT&T as a result. (I wrote about these DSL issues in an interesting historical document from that era.)

In 2001, I was teaching TCP/IP networking to a class of high school boys and wanted to take them on a series of field trips to noteworthy places and businesses near the school. Now, field trips are normal for younger kids, but when you get to high school, that means taking your kids out of other regularly scheduled classes. I thought this would be interesting to my students and so one of the first trips we took was a short one, down the street to the local CO. This was in a very non-descript structure that many of us passed by frequently and didn’t give it any thought (see the photo here).

To give you additional context, this was about two months after the 9/11 attacks. Somehow I was able to convince the Verizon folks (what the local phone company was called at the time) to allow me to bring a bunch of high school kids into their CO. I recall we had old Bell veterans who gave us a tour, and when the time came to show the kids where their home phone lines were located, I volunteered to have them find my own wire pair. I remember the employee pulled the location of my phone wires and told the class that I had something very unusual: back then I had an office phone that also was wired to my home, and he could show the students how this worked so the phones rang in both locations.

I realize that nowadays the landline is a historical communications curiosity more than anything, and you have to look long and hard to even find someone who uses one anymore. So it is great that there are few phone COs that are grandly designed and stand out as great examples of architecture and design, such as the ones I have seen in Budapest and Columbus. Do send me your own favorites too, and best wishes for a great 2018.

Lessons learned from the Minitel era

Technologists tend to forget the lessons learned from the immediate past, thinking that new tech is always better and more advanced than those dusty modems of yesteryear. That is why a new book from MIT Press on Minitel is so instructive and so current, especially as we devolve from a net-neutral world in the weeks and years to come. Much as I want to be tempted to discuss net neutrality, let’s just leave those issues aside and look at the history of Minitel and what we can learn from its era.

Minitel? That French videotext terminal thing from the 1980s and 1990s? Didn’t that die an ignominious death from the Internet? Yes, that is all true. But for its day, it was ahead of its time and ahead of today’s Internet in some aspects too. You’ll see what I mean when you consider its content and micropayments, network infrastructure, and its hybrid public/private ownership model. Let’s dive in.

Minitel was the first time anyone figured out how to develop a third-party payments system called Kiosk that made it easier for content providers to get paid for their work, and laid the foundation for the Apple App Store and others of its ilk. It presaged the rise of net porn well before various Internet newsgroups and websites gained popularity, and what was remarkable was that people paid money for this content too.  It was the first time a decentralized network could hook up a variety of public clients and servers of different types. Granted the clients were 1200 bps terminals and the network was X.25, but still this was being done before anyone had even thought of the Web. It was the first public/private tech partnership of any great size: millions of ordinary citizens had terminals (granted they got them free of charge) well before AOL sent out its first CD and before the first private dot coms were registered. The authors call this “private innovation decentralized to the edges of the network.” This is different from what the Internet basically did beginning in the middle 1990s, which was to privatize the network core. Before then, the Internet was still the province of the US government and had limited private access.

Minitel made possible a whole series of innovations well before their Internet-equivalents caught on, sometimes decades earlier. The book describes a whole series of them, including e-government access, ecommerce, online dating, online grocery ordering, emjois and online slang, electronic event ticketing and electronic banking. When you realize that at its peak Minitel had 25,000 services running, something that the Web wouldn’t reach until 1995, it is a significant accomplishment.

Minitel wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Like AOL, it was a “walled garden” approach, but in some aspects it was more open than today’s Internet in ways that I will get to in a moment. It had issues being controlled by a nationalized phone company.

Certainly, the all-IP Internet was a big improvement over Minitel. You didn’t have to provision those screwy and expensive X.25 circuits. You could send real graphics, not those cartoon ones that videotext terminals used that were more like ASCII art. Minitel was priced by the minute, because that is what the phone company knew how to do things. Certainly, the early days of the Internet had plenty of 1200 bps modem users who had to pay per call, or set up a separate phone line for their modems. Now we at least don’t have to deal with that with broadband networks that are thousands of times faster.

One side note on network speeds: Minitel actually had two speeds: 1200 and 75 bps. Most of the time, the circuits were set up 1200/75 down/up. You could send a signal to switch the speeds if you were sending more than you were receiving, but that had to happen under app control.

So what can we learn from Minitel going into the future? While most of us think of Minitel as a quaint historical curio that belongs next to the Instamatic camera and the Watt steam engine, it was far ahead of its time. Minitel was also a cash infusion that enabled France to modernize and digitize its aging phone infrastructure. It was the first nationalized online environment, available to everyone in France. It proved that a state subsidy could foster innovation, as long as that subsidy was applied surgically and with care.  As the authors state, “sometimes complete control of network infrastructure by the private sector stifles rather than supports creativity and innovation.”

When we compare Minitel to today’s online world, we can see that the concept of open systems is a multi-dimensional continuum, and that it is hard to judge whether Minitel and the Internet are more or less open.  As we begin the migration of a neutral Internet infrastructure to one that will be controlled by the content providers, we should keep that in mind. The companies that control the content have different motivations from the users who consume that content. I do think we will see a vastly different Internet in 30 years’ time, just as the Internet of 1987 is very different from the one we all use today.

Book review: Good Reception by Antero Garcia

The use of technology in schools is analyzed from the actual front lines of a ninth grade classroom in South Central LA in this new book. The teacher, Antero Garcia, has learned some valuable lessons on his own about how technology can’t fix broken schools and how teachers use new media such as smartphones and tablets as an ancillary activity and not part of mainstream classroom methods. Garcia finds that the transformative moments for his students happened in spite of his pedagogical activities, and that the iPods he supplied as part of the research project described in this book often hindered rather than helped their learning. This book will be interesting to educators and parents who are trying to understand the appropriate role of technology with students and schools.

Book review: The Selfie Generation

Alicia Eler once worked for me as a reporter, so count me as a big fan of her writing. Her first book, called The Selfie Generation, shows why she is great at defining the cultural phenomenon of the selfie. As someone who has taken thousands of selfies, she is an expert on the genre. Early on in the book she says that anyone can create their own brand just by posting selfies, and the selfie has brought together both the consumer and his or her social identity. The idea is that we can shape our own narratives based on how we want to be seen by others.

Do selfies encourage antisocial behavior? Perhaps, but the best photographers aren’t necessarily social beings. She captures the ethos from selfie photographers she has known around the world, such as @Wrongeye, Mark Tilsen and Desiree Salomone, who asks, “Is it an act of self-compassion to censor your expression in the present in favor of preserving your emotional stability in the future?”

Are teens taking selfies an example of the downfall of society? No, as Eler says, “teens were doing a lot of the same things back then, but without the help of social media to document it all.”

She contrasts selfies with the Facebook Memories feature, which automatically documents your past, whether you want to remember those moments or not. She recommends that Facebook include an option to enable this feature, for those memories that we would rather forget.

Eler says, “Nowadays, to not tell one’s own life story through pictures on social media seems not only old-fashioned, but almost questionable—as if to say ‘yes, I do have something to hide,’ or that one is paranoid about being seen or discoverable online.”

Eler mentions several forms of selfies-as-art. For example, there is the Yolocaust project, to shame those visitors to the various Holocaust memorials around the world who were taking selfies and make them understand the larger context. And the “killfie,” where someone taking a picture either inadvertently or otherwise dies.

This is an important book, and I am glad I had an opportunity to work with her early in her career.

Time to really go paperless when it comes to boarding passes

I have been a big fan of paperless airline boarding passes almost since their introduction, and a recent post reminded me of yet another reason: they can become an easy way to compromise your identity. The reason is a combination of the low and high technology, all leveraging your smart phone’s camera.

The issue has to do with the way the airlines make it easy to use the printed bar code information to gain access to your flight details. Brian Krebs first wrote about this several years ago, and if you still use the printed boarding passes, the first thing you should know is that you shouldn’t post pictures of them on any of your social media outlets. Krebs found more than 90,000 such images exist when he did a quick search.

So here is what could happen. Criminals look for these photos, and could then use the QR code or the booking reference number to gain access to your flight details. Think about this for a moment. Let’s say you are on vacation, and you post your “here I am at the airport about to take off for a long trip on the other side of the planet” obligatory photo. Now someone comes along, and can change your return flight, or use this information to leverage more identity theft since the booking contains information such as your passport number and birthdate.

And of course, posting flight details is another way that criminals could decide to pay your unoccupied home a visit while you are away too.

Some folks purposely blur out the details about their name, but leave the barcode visible, such as this photo above, where we can find out her full name by scanning the barcode. Oops.

This method works for dumpster diving too. How many of us leave our used boarding papers on board the aircraft that we are leaving, thinking no use to me? I have done that several times. Again, someone could use that information to hijack my account. So avoid leaving your boarding pass in the trash at the airport or tucked into that seat-back pocket in front of you before deplaning. Instead, bring it home and shred it. And don’t take pictures of your boarding pass. Finally, be careful of spreading your “real” birthday around on social media. My “birthday” has been January 1 for several years: my real friends know when it actually is.

So go paperless when you can. And be careful what you post online.

Netgear’s Arlo Pro security cameras: Better than before but pricey

This article is the latest installment in my smart home series. A natural addition to any smart home would be to use security cameras to monitor your entry points. I tested the latest Netgear Arlo cameras, including the Arlo Pro and the Arlo Go. Overall, my review is mixed.   

Netgear has had its Arlo line for several years. What is new with these two units is the rechargeable batteries, so you don’t spend a small fortune on replacing the ones in the cameras. The design goal with Arlo is that you can run them completely cable-free, so you can place them optimally without regard to wiring. By that they mean that you don’t have to run any wires to them, either for power or network connectivity.

But there are two different battery sizes for the Pro and the Go models. Go includes a slightly larger unit that comes with its own stand. Pro has a smaller magnetic attachment device to be mounted on the wall.Either Pro or Go batteries can be recharged outside the camera with an optional $60 charging dock, which is included in some of the multiple-camera kits.  

The older Arlo models used ordinary batteries that drained quickly. These newer models use rechargeable ones that last a couple of weeks, depending on usage, and connect via Wi-Fi networks (in the case of the Pro) or Go has its own AT&T SIM card. That means the Go can be placed anywhere that has a cell signal, and if you don’t have any indoor Wifi. You can see the signal strength on its web portal page. This is great for a remote cabin the woods, as long as it isn’t too far afield from a cell tower.

Both of the newer cameras can record ambient audio and can see a 130 degree video view in HD quality, along with night vision rather at 850 nm that can see things up to 25 feet away. You can also control a 8x zoom lens in real time. The original Arlo cameras has a 110 degree view and no audio capabilities.  

Camera setup is very simple. You connect the controller to your wired network, download the smartphone app, and press the button on the controller and then on each camera for it to be recognized by the system. You need to create a login ID with the web service. One ID per system only. Once you have setup the cameras with this login, you can use the smartphone app outside of your home network.

You can only be logged in at one location: either via the smartphone app or the web portal. This is a security feature. The web and smartphone app controls are almost the same, with the exception of geo-fencing mode that is available on the phone app only.

The cameras have four different detection modes: armed, schedule, geo, and disarmed. The schedule mode allows you to turn off the detection during the weekend or when motion sensing would kick off too many alerts. You can also set up your own custom rules for all the cameras connected to your hub or for particular Go cameras.

You can set various thresholds — for motion (the claim is 23 feet from the camera) or sound detection. Then the cameras record the next ten seconds. When you purchase the camera, you get a free week’s worth of video storage in the cloud, after that you have to purchase a storage plan if you want to keep the videos for any length of time. (You can access your video library easily at any time, shown here.) You can download these videos as MP4s, and also share them with Netgear. If you use the Pro models, they attach to a local controller, which has two USB slots where you can fit a USB thumb drive for local storage. The Go units have a microSD slot where you can store your video recordings.

The biggest new feature of the Pro/Go cameras is audio, and it is two-way so you can get an alert via email and then talk remotely to someone who has stopped by your lake house and knocked on your door when you aren’t home as an example. You can also set off a very loud alarm remotely if you see something amiss.

The Arlo setup comes with a free basic subscription plan. This covers up to five cameras and up to seven days of 1 GB of cloud storage for your recordings. There are a variety of paid consumer and business plans that up the level and duration of storage and the number of cameras per account, these start at $100/year per account. The cameras retail for $950 in a kit that includes six Pro cameras, several wall mount options, power chargers and a base station. A single camera system is $250. The Go camera on the Verizon cellular network retails for $350, plus $85 a month, provided you sign a two-year contract.

If you have an older Arlo setup, it probably isn’t worth it to upgrade to Pro or Go collection. If you are looking for a smart home webcam, you can certainly find cheaper models that will require some wiring, or use ordinary batteries. It might be worthwhile to have a single Arlo Pro or a Go in the case of the remote cabin without any Internet connection. If you don’t mind replacing batteries and don’t need the two-way audio, you should stick with the older Arlo models.

When anonymous web data isn’t anymore

One of my favorite NY Times technology stories (other than, ahem, my own articles) is one that ran more than ten years ago. It was about a supposedly anonymous AOL user that was picked from a huge database of search queries by researchers. They were able to correlate her searches and tracked down Thelma, a 62-year old widow living in Georgia. The database was originally posted online by AOL as an academic research tool, but after the Times story broke it was removed. The data “underscore how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines,” said the Times story.

In the intervening years since that story, tracking technology has gotten better and Internet privacy has all but effectively disappeared. At the DEFCON trade show a few weeks ago in Vegas, researchers presented a paper on how easy it can be to track down folks based on their digital breadcrumbs. The researchers set up a phony marketing consulting firm and requested anonymous clickstream data to analyze. They were able to actually tie real users to the data through a series of well-known tricks, described in this report in Naked Security. They found that if they could correlate personal information across ten different domains, they could figure out who was the common user visiting those sites, as shown in this diagram published in the article.

The culprits are browser plug-ins and embedded scripts on web pages, which I have written about before here. “Five percent of the data in the clickstream they purchased was generated up by just ten different popular web plugins,” according to the DEFCON researchers.

So is this just some artifact of gung-ho security researchers, or does this have any real-world implications? Sadly, it is very much a reality. Last week Disney was served legal papers about secretly collecting kid’s usage data of their mobile apps, saying that the apps (which don’t ask parents permission for the kids to use, which is illegal) can track the kids across multiple games. All in the interest of serving up targeted ads. The full list of 43 apps that have this tracking data can be found here, including the one shown at right.

So what can you do? First, review your plug-ins, delete the ones that you really don’t need. In my article linked above, I try out Privacy Badger and have continued to use it. It can be entertaining or terrifying, depending on your POV. You could regularly delete your cookies and always run private browsing sessions, although you do give up some usability for doing so.

Privacy just isn’t what it used to be. And it is a lot of hard work to become more private these days, for sure.