Monday, May 15, 2017

SNL sketch imagines an Amazon Echo designed for the retired and older generations

“The latest technology isn’t always easy to use for people of a certain age.” So says the narrator in one of sketches from last night’s Saturday Night Live, which imagined an Amazon Echo speaker designed for the elderly.

The sketch runs through a handful of features for the device, Amazon Echo Silver, playing to the usual senior citizen stereotypes. It’s super loud, responds to any name that sounds remotely similar to Alexa, and has an “uh huh” conversation mode for long, rambling conversations. It’s a bit patronizing in its delivery, but there are companies out there working on home assistants specifically for the elderly.

However, SNL does nail the sketch with its closer: the device can be yours for just 3 easy payments of $9.99.

Amazon’s Echo calling has a privacy threat that can let people spam message and call you

Amazon seems to have made a significant oversight in bringing voice calls and messaging to its Echo speakers: there’s no way to block communication that you might not want. So long as someone has your phone number and the Alexa mobile app (which requires an Amazon account), that person can place voice calls, record voice messages, and send text messages that will reach both your Echo device and Alexa app. They’ve got a direct line to a speaker in your home.

As of now, there is no way to block contact from specific people. Nor is there any way of whitelisting only certain individuals for calling and messaging privileges; it’s all or nothing. Elise Oras published a Medium post about the issue. An Amazon spokesperson confirmed via email to her that a block feature "will be available in the coming weeks. We know this is important to customers, and we’re working on it." But it's not available now, even though the calling and messaging features are.

Perhaps most alarming, even if you’ve blocked someone’s phone number from your smartphone, calls to the Echo speaker will still go through. It’s easy enough to stop voice calls from ringing your iPhone, but if you’ve enabled Alexa calling, it’s currently impossible to prevent them from reaching your Echo. This is because Alexa doesn’t use your phone for voice calls. It’s merely using your phone number to identify you.

When you enable the Echo’s calling and messaging features, Amazon accesses your contacts list to determine who else has an Echo device in their home. And it skims your entire contacts database to find this information; there’s no way to limit it to a certain favorites list, for example. Amazon wants Alexa calling and messaging to gain popularity, so it’s taking a broad approach to populate that list quickly.

At best, this will likely result in Alexa displaying “contacts” you have no real interest in calling. But at worst, and as Oras notes, it might show the names of people you’re actively trying to avoid and have labeled accordingly in your contacts. They can see and reach you just as easily. If you want someone off the list, you’ve got to erase them from your contacts altogether. Your phone number is central to all of this, as it’s tied to your Amazon account. And it’s not a two-way handshake; if someone has your phone number, they can reach you — even if that person isn’t in your contacts list. The Verge has confirmed this in testing the new feature.

Before anyone is able to send calls and messages using Alexa, they must authenticate their own phone number by entering a PIN code received via text message. But that, plus the Amazon account prerequisite, are about the only security measures in place. It’s not even clear whether Amazon’s team has the ability to review inappropriate messages delivered with Alexa. This FAQ page currently says that “Amazon Customer Service is not able to see or review your messages, voice messages, calls, or contacts.” Who are you supposed to report inappropriate calls or messages to?

Amazon automatically transcribes voice messages sent to Echo devices and pushes a notification to your smartphone when they’re received. It’s possible to delete these, but there’s no way to permanently stop receiving them from any individual. Alexa also supports text messages, and those similarly cannot be blocked from the recipient’s end. Nor is there any way to hide the message content and view only a sender’s name. Voice messages can be played back by anyone in proximity to your Echo, with no PIN or passphrase required.

Worse still, Amazon makes disabling its new calls and messaging feature difficult once you’ve switched it on. Users must call the company’s customer service to turn off calls and messaging. There’s no simple toggle in the Alexa app’s settings, which is a terrible decision on Amazon’s part.

For now, users have just two choices if they want to avoid unwanted contact through Alexa. You can choose to never turn on calls and messages in the first place, or you can use Alexa’s “do not disturb” to block calls and messages from everyone. That’s Amazon’s best “privacy” suggestion. But even in that case, messages would still appear in your Alexa app; Do Not Disturb only prevents calls and messages from reaching Echo products. There’s no such thing as a simple “Report” button. There’s no block list.

Amazon is likely to make rapid improvements to these new Alexa features. They’re convenient and open new possibilities for Echo devices. But that calling and messaging have launched without some common sense privacy tools is very unfortunate. At least for now, there’s very real potential for harassment and spam.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cricket Wireless increased data for it's $40 plan at no cost

Yesterday morning, Cricket announced that it will add more data to their $40 plan without a price hike. Starting on customers’ next billing cycle, their $40 plan will include 4GB of data instead of 3GB. Hey, thanks, Cricket! 

Of course, the data speeds on Cricket are still throttled to 8Mbps down at all times. I hate to have to mention that in every Cricket post, but I want to make sure you all know. Their prices are some of the best, just know that they do carry that one big asterisk.

Again, the new plans go live shortly and will hit your account at the beginning of your next billing cycle. As another reminder, be sure to sign-up for autopay and you’ll save $5 per month.

BOGO: T-Mobile launches a deal for the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+

To help you pick-up the ultimate Mother’s Day gift, T-Mobile has opened up a BOGO (buy one, get one free) deal on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ for a limited time.

In order to get the deal, you’ll have to buy two Galaxy S8 or S8+ devices on their no-interest Equipment Installment Plan. T-Mobile will then send you a prepaid card or the value of the second device you got for free (Ex: $750 for a Galaxy S8), which you can then use to pay off the 2nd device.

As far as pricing, T-Mobile charges you $30 down for the S8 or $130 for the S8+, followed by monthly payments of $30. Depending on how long the prepaid card takes to get to you, it might be a month or so before you can fully pay off the phone. Either way, it’s going to cost you some cash down for both phones. Still, not a bad deal.

T-Mobile Deal Link

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Amazon introduces Alexa calling and messaging for their line of Echos

Along with Amazon’s Echo Show announcement this morning, the company also introduced Alexa calling and messaging. With Alexa calling and messaging, you’ll soon be able to send voice messages or place calls to anyone with the Alexa app installed on Android or iOS phones, along with those who have supported Echo devices. 

On the new landing page for Alexa calling and messaging, Amazon only says that the feature is coming soon. However, they do give us a handful of examples for how this will work. As expected, you’ll ask Alexa to call someone who has the Alexa app or a supported Echo device. That call will go through and people can answer by saying something like, “Alexa, answer the call.” From there, you can enjoy a voice conversation. As for messaging, it works similarly. You tell Alexa to send a voice message and the person on the other end can receive that voice message, not just as a dictation by Alexa either.

In order to be able to call someone, they’ll have to enable Alexa calling and messaging from within the Alexa app. From the videos below, it also doesn’t seem like Alexa notifies you with the name of the person that is calling or sending a message, so that could lead to some awkward situations.

Alexa calling and messaging is free and will work on the Echo, Echo dot, and Echo Show, as well as through the Alexa app.

Fore more, head over to Amazon’s Alexa calling and messaging site.