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Television

Speech Recognition – Rip Off Britain: Live

Among the topics I cover in this series of Rip Off Britain: Live on BBC1 is speech recognition. In Tuesday’s show I went to Liverpool to investigate how viewers are talking to their tech to help make their everyday lives easier.

According to researchers at Stanford University we can talk three times faster – and with 20% more accuracy – than we can type or swipe on a mobile phone.

Proof that it’s good to talk, right?

It was no surprise, however, to find that many I spoke with were initially sceptical about the effectiveness of speech recognition. But I had a hunch that their lack of confidence was misplaced, with judgements on poor comprehension based on older generations of the technology.

Our day of filming in and around Liverpool proved my point: I found that Apple’s intelligent personal assistant Siri was better than even I was at comprehending commands, irrespective of accent or background noise.

Speech recognition technology – and Siri is far from the only or even the best example at present – has now reached a level of useful maturity. What is needed next to help more to benefit from it is further accessibility and behavioural change.

In the main Rip Off Britain series in September I also took a look at how voice biometrics are being used by major service providers as an authentication factor to make logins to our online accounts safer, simpler and more secure.

Check out further clips from this series of Rip Off Britain here on the BBC website.

BBC One - Rip Off Britain Logo

BBC Rip Off Britain 2016

The new series of Rip Off Britain begins this Monday on BBC1 resuming its mission to expose shams, scams and poor customer service.

BBC Rip Off Britain

Image: BBC Studios

In this series I look at how failures in Vodafone’s billing systems and customer services have left subscribers out of pocket and with costly black marks on their credit history; also I investigate how freely available information might be used by identity thieves to build up detailed profiles of their victims.

One item that I hope to be covering more of is the future of passwords.

Like a stuck record, over the last four or so seasons on Rip Off Britain I’ve made the point again and again about the importance of good password hygiene to minimise the risk of hacks.

But recent developments in voice biometrics technology might be part of a move to make our live online much safer. In fact, customers of some major UK banks and service providers are already using just their voices to securely log-in to their online accounts.

The software claims to analyse around one hundred different behavioural and physical characteristics of our voices (for example accent or length of vocal folds) and is being used by customers of TalkTalk and HSBC among others. Its developer, Nuance, says the technology is so sophisticated that it can even distinguish between identical twins.

We took a special version of the voice recognition app to the BBC pop up shop at the Trafford Centre in Manchester to discover whether shoppers there felt secure using their voice as their password.

Rip Off Britain airs on BBC1 Monday to Friday from 12th September at 9.15am.

BBC Right on the Money

Turn your Commute into Cash: Right on the Money

Right on the Money, hosted by Dom Littlewood and Denise Lewis, returns for a second season on BBC1 this summer and I’m excited to be part of the reporting team.

In Friday’s show I front a film about how make money on the move, armed with little more than a smartphone. I look at how people are using apps including Nimber, which pays you to be a courier, YouGov, which rewards you for sitting and submitting surveys, and also Bounts and Sweatcoin, which convert exercise into cash and prizes.

Here’s a quick clip from the show:

You can watch the full Right on the Money episode here (for as long as BBC iPlayer allows, that is).

Despite this appearing on screens in the height of summer, the item was filmed during the depths of winter – the shorts and t-shirt sequence in particular during a sub-zero day in High Wycombe!

Right on the Money airs on BBC1 weekdays 9.15-10am between 11th – 22nd July 2016.

What Britain buys? Dashcams.

The convergence of car tech and consumer tech is something I’ve spoken and written about in the past, so when Channel 4 asked if I’d explain more to Mary Portas in her new show What Britain Buys I was only too happy to oblige.

Mary was particularly intrigued by the emergence of the dashcam as the must-have in-car accessory for 2016. That said, she was somewhat preoccupied with what happens when the camera faces into the car rather than out front – mercifully our own carpool karaoke didn’t make it into the final cut.

As I wrote in The Metro recently, dashboard-mounted cameras are quickly becoming a must-have accessory for safety-aware, litigation-conscious drivers. Dashcams record video in the event of a bump or prang (or even a malicious key-scrape) with some insurers offering owners lower premiums to counter so-called ‘crash for cash’ and ‘flash for cash‘ scams.

What Britain Buys with Mary Portas is produced by Sundog Pictures for Channel 4.

BBC Watchdog Logo

Watchdog Wednesdays Hacks a Wi-Fi Hotspot

Watchdog Wednesdays continues on BBC Three and in this week’s film I investigate how easily a criminal can hack a public Wi-Fi hotspot and compromise its users’ personal information.

Coffee shops, high streets and hotels increasingly offer free public Wi-Fi so visitors can sync up while they eat, shop or stay. However, as I’ve reported on before, Wi-Fi hotspots are easy to spoof, are frequently unsecured, and even when there is a password there is still no guarantee of safety.

Hacking the Hotspot

So, in a controlled experiment at a central London coffee shop, I set out to see what the hackers see. What I saw when the Watchdog cameras began rolling surprised even me:

With very little investment in time or equipment I learnt how to intercept traffic sent between users’ devices laptops, smartphones, tablets and the internet.

I was shocked that supposedly secure websites such as John Lewisebay and Amazon were vulnerable to this basic attack

Just to be clear – I am not a hacker, I’m a journalist, but picking up the basics was worryingly easy.

The Man in the Middle

My attack (known as a ‘Man in the Middle‘ attack by ARP poisoning) targeted only a single device operated by a member of the BBC crew. It could equally have targeted a number of devices, perhaps all logged in to the Wi-Fi hotspot.

I found unencrypted traffic easily visible, plain text usernames and passwords flashed before my eyes in real time — gold dust for a hacker — and webpage images appeared on my hacktop just as they did on the victim’s machine. I was even able to work around some (but not all) websites’ attempts to enforce HTTPS security.

plain text usernames and passwords flashed before my eyes in real time — gold dust for a hacker

I was shocked that supposedly secure websites such as John Lewis, ebay and Amazon were vulnerable to this basic attack on an iPad, along with email accounts that didn’t have SSL security enabled. Facebook and Twitter didn’t fall for the hack.

Are we really aware of how easy it is for data we send over the airwaves to be intercepted by a silent criminal? I suspect not. This is a perfect crime where victims are unaware that their details have been compromised until the criminal executes his hack hours, days or weeks later when emails get intercepted, accounts get hijacked and funds go missing.

‘Hacktop’ Tech

There’s nothing here that’s difficult to get hold of:

  • Sony Vaio laptop
  • External USB antenna
  • Kali Linux operating system
  • Tools including Wireshark, sslstrip, ettercap, driftnet

I should add that none of the software used here was illegal; Kali Linux and its bundled utilities are open source, promoted as ‘penetration testing and ethical hacking’ software and is used by security professionals to ensure their corporate networks and public websites remain secure to hackers. Of course, the very same software may also be used by hackers for malicious means. And then, of course, there is YouTube – there’s any number of tutorials here to help you get to grips with the tools and utilities mentioned above.

Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

So there’s the scare story. But what can you do stay safe when on public WiFi?

  • For light browsing I prefer to bring my own network and tether from my smartphone or Mi-Fi, but my data plan is generous (and yes, expensive) to allow for that; if cellular reception is poor it’s painfully slow or impossible.
  • A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is my next security measure – this creates a secure ‘tunnel’ between my laptop, tablet or smartphone and a server elsewhere on the internet into which a fraudster cannot eavesdrop. These can be free, fairly cheap or you can even build your own.
  • If all else fails I make sure that websites I exchange data with support safe browsing, denoted by HTTPS and the green padlock (but beware that tools like ‘sslstrip’ can subvert this). I do not ignore errors from the web browser which talk about invalid certificates, even if I don’t understand exactly what they mean – I can visit those websites later when I’m on a secure connection.

How secure are apps? How do you know whether they’re secure if there’s no green padlock or HTTPS visible in an address bar? In my testing I found some apps that are blatantly not secure broadcasting personal details, but I’ll be exploring this in more detail very soon.

Keep watching BBC Three Watchdog Wednesdays for more films like these, and do get in touch on here or on Twitter if there are any other hacks or scams you’d like me to investigate.

BBC Three Watchdog Wednesdays Scams the PC Support Scammers

Watchdog Wednesdays, a spin-off from the popular BBC1 investigative consumer affairs show, has launched on BBC Three and I’m excited to be fronting its films about online hacks and scams.

My first film, a re-version of an item which aired in Watchdog in October, sees me and LBC’s James O’Brien shed light on a scam known to many as the ‘Microsoft Support Scam’, eventually catching the crooks red-handed.

Watchdog on Three – Microsoft ScammersIt’s time to scam the scammers…

Posted by BBC Three on Wednesday, 23 March 2016

 

A three-minute short can only tell so much of the story, so for the many who’ve gotten in touch here’s the technical bit:

On an Apple MacBook running virtual machine software I performed a fresh install of Microsoft Windows 7, loaded anti-malware software, and seeded files in my Users folder and desktop to make it look like a well-used PC. On the host Mac I ran screen recording software, an X server and the Wireshark packet sniffing software to help identify where the scammers were connecting from (alas, we didn’t get to cover the last bit in the film). My final tool was a web browser with some simple who.is tools, and an hour or so raking through some ‘who called me’ forums to find some leads.

In researching the story I’ve been indebted to generous input from Jim Browning and Troy Hunt, both of whom are very experienced at calling out PC support scammers – do check out their work.

Plenty more to come from Watchdog Wednesdays including a revelatory film on public Wi-Fi hotspot safety – keep an eye out over on BBC Three.

Videogame Nation

Virtual Reality Challenge

On Challenge TV’s Videogame Nation recently I chatted with presenter Dan Maher about the challenges faced by studios when developing games for Virtual Reality platforms.

Videogame Nation is that rare thing on mainstream television: a show about video games.

Hosted by Inside Xbox co-host Dan Maher, Aoife Wilson and John Robertson, produced by Ginx TV and airing in the UK on Challenge TV, VGN celebrates games and gaming culture with a maturity and intellect that appeals to gamers and non-gamers alike.

In this week’s episode I speak with Dan about a pet subject of mine: virtual reality. We discuss the specific challenges that studios face when developing for VR platforms, and the role that mobile can play in VR’s future.

Here’s a clip from the show where Dan and I talk about the challenges, how mobile will be an invaluable on-ramp for VR, and get hands on with Kickstarter project prototype, Goblin VR.

Hardware is one of the challenges faced by developers – platform fragmentation is already real – and so is grammar: a successful VR experience is not simply a case of lifting traditional a game and dumping it into a pair of virtual reality goggles. The fact is that developers don’t know what works yet; it’s frontier-land all over again which makes VR development a very exciting – if very risky – arena for studios to be working in.

*** UPDATE: Since I wrote this story in early 2016 VGN has, after four series and much critical acclaim, used up all of its credits – much to the disillusionment of gamers all over the internet. Fear not: without too much searching you can still find pretty much every episode of Videogame Nation on YouTube.

Sex, Lies and Online Affairs

Sex, Lies and Online Affairs – Unmasking Ashley Madison

The leak of personal details from the Ashley Madison extramarital dating website is one of the significant breaches of sensitive information in the web’s history.

High-profile data leaks have outed private customer data from internet service providers, online retailers and high-tech toy manufacturers in the last few months alone. As a result, cyberattacks have been elevated from trade-press niche news to stop-the-press nine o’clock news.

Yet the Ashley Madison data-breach is different: it wasn’t just email addresses and credit card details that were liberated this time, it was data of the most personal nature. Changing your passwords after a cyberhack is a hassle; salvaging your family relationships after being publicly outed on an adulterous dating website is something infinitely more profound.

While the story was still developing in August 2015 the team from Mentorn Media got in touch to ask if I could add some context to the story for a quick-turnaround documentary they were making for Discovery Networks. Beyond the hack itself, the show sought to explore the wider impact that internet and connected technology is having on 21st century sex and relationships – it’s not often I get to talk about teledildonics and virtual reality sex on television…

The documentary aired in September 2015 in the UK and in January 2016 in Australia. Here’s a trailer:

Sex, Lies And Online Affairs | New SpecialGet an insight into how the internet is changing marriage and monogamy in the 21st century with the new special, Sex, Lies And Online Affairs, premiering on TLC this Monday at 9:30pm AEDT.

Posted by TLC Australia on Monday, 11 January 2016

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Stay classy, Ashley: image grabbed from archive.org archive of AshleyMadison.com 2008

In whichever direction your moral compass points, Ashley Madison has for a long time been a hugely popular online destination. The Ashley Madison Agency Limited launched in 2001 and, until the events of July and August 2015, welcomed almost 125 million visitors every month from over 50 countries around the world.

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