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Bill Bennett

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Technology has never been riskier. There are holes everywhere and ratbags only too keen to exploit them. Keeping informed about threats and issues is the key to staying safe online.

Security software: how to know if you need it

Many computer users don’t need to spend extra money on security software. Others do. Here’s a short guide to help you decide where you fit.

Modern operating systems have built-in security software. Windows has Microsoft Defender1 for free. MacOS has built-in security features2.

For many people these free OS security tools are more than enough protection.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore security risks. Far from it. Online security is more a state of mind than a product.

Online is a dangerous world

You will continue to rub up against risks. The online world is as dangerous as ever.

Yet, for many people paying for additional protection delivers little value. You might be better off using the money elsewhere. If, say, you run a business, it may be smarter to spend the money on training your staff about the risks.

Your computer security won’t be foolproof even if you buy the most comprehensive security products or services on the market. A clever social engineering attack can shimmy past the most sophisticated defences.

Passwords

The most common example is when a crook persuades a victim to hand over a password or otherwise let them behind the defences. No software will stop that.

Teaching people not to hand over information that helps a criminal to know or guess a password is better protection.

Backups

Backups are a powerful weapon in your armoury. If you make regular encrypted backups of everything you’ll recover fast if attacked.

This is an essential defence against ransomware attacks. If you have backups, your data can’t be held to ransom.

Given a choice between spending on security software or a backup service, I’d pick the latter every time.

You should make more than one type of back-up. Say, a cloud service and a local hard drive or server. Ideally that would be a removable hard drive that you can store from your computer.

With back-up in place you can recover from common attacks. You can buy commercial security products and services that include back-up as part of their deal.

Were you should spend on security

When do you need to spend on extra protection?

  • If you deal with customer data or anyone’s personal data then you have a legal responsibility to protect that information from attack. Installing suitable security software goes part way towards meeting your legal obligations. Not having security could increase your liability. Security software can reduce the likelihood of attack, criminals find enough low hanging fruit to leave protected data alone.
  • If you have valuable data including material you want to stay secret. This includes complex business plans or product designs.
  • If you are otherwise a potential target for online criminals. This can include having valuable IP that crooks or government sponsored attackers might want. There’s a similar risk if you work for a political party or a campaign where there’s a sizeable community that would be happy to embarrass or otherwise expose your information.
  • If you indulge in risky behaviour online. This can mean activity like illegally downloading material or visiting dodgy streaming sites. In cases sites at the darker end of the web are fronts to find victims.
  • If you run a small business where employees are on a local network or you have a home system with teenagers. Sure, you trust people, but you can’t be certain they won’t make mistakes, either by indulging in risky behaviour or being susceptible to scams. Spending money on security is easier and less stressful than attempting to monitor and police other people’s activity.

  1. Microsoft Defender isn’t perfect, but it does a good job and doesn’t interfere with your computing ↩︎
  2. In six years I’ve never had the slightest security scare on my Macs ↩︎

Digital Boost, Productivity Commission and living standards

On Tuesday small business minister Stuart Nash kicked off the Digital Boost Alliance. On Thursday a report from the Productivity Commission told us why business needs a digital shot in the arm.

The Digital Boost Alliance is a group of 20 companies. It was pulled together by Craig Young who heads Tuanz.

There are multinationals like Microsoft and AWS in the mix. You’d expect that.

Business support

The local companies in the alliance are more interesting.

Money, an important part of the digital equation, is represented by the five main banks operation here. Then come local tech companies: Datacom, Xero and, if we accept Australia as local, MYOB.

New Zealand’s telecommunications sector is represented by Spark, 2degrees and Chorus. Vodafone is a notable non-starter.

CertNZ and MBIE are in the mix. So is The Warehouse. While founder Sir Stephen Tindall is a keen personal supporter of initiatives like this, the Warehouse Group sells a lot of technology and supporting products to small business.

Mindlab is a member. It hosted the launch event.

Access and training

Alliance members aim to improve small business access to digital technology. More important they will help businesses get the training needed to make use of technology.

Each partner offers something different. There are offers of discounts of products and services, extra support, employee training and research.

It’s a big, ambitious goal.

World beating

Nash says he wants New Zealand to have the world’s most digitally-enabled small business sector.

We have been here before. Other initiatives have had similar goals. The difference this time is there is more money, broader industry support. It is a public-private joint venture.

Nash says the government kicked-in $44 million for digital training and advice in this year’s budget.

He singles out cloud computing. He says it has great potential. “A 20 percent increase in the uptake of cloud computing could be worth another $6 billion to the economy.”

Small business web sites

One industry speaker said only half of NZ small businesses have a web site. The implication being this is a measure of how much further we need to go.

Having a web site can help small businesses. It’s an efficient way of finding and retaining customers.

Yet it is not always appropriate. Many small businesses are subcontractors. They don’t need to sell themselves online. Nor do they need to spend money advertising with Google or Facebook.

Their digital needs are elsewhere.

Small business barriers to digital

MYOB surveyed small business owners. The results are revealing.

  • 41 percent say cost is the barrier to technology adoption.1
  • 22 percent say staff training is the barrier
  • 21 percent say a lack of knowledge is the issue.
  • 23 percent say the problem is the time taken to implement.

At the event I spoke to a couple of blokes from Innate Furniture, a Christchurch small business who flew up for the launch.

I assumed their story was going to be about how they built a website and sales took off. Instead they told me how last year they moved all their backend systems to the cloud and how that made a real difference to the business.

This is where there are huge benefits.

Why Digital Boost matters

First, New Zealand’s economy is more dependent on small business than many other economies. Small business accounts for a larger share of our GDP and a bigger proportion of jobs.

Larger companies can afford to have technology specialists on the team. With smaller firms responsibility might be with the owner. Most likely it will be with someone without training or experience.

Second, New Zealand small businesses are smaller than you find in other countries.

We’re talking about companies with a less than a couple of dozen employees and the majority are much smaller than that. In other countries these would be called micro-businesses.

Productivity gap

Third, our productivity lags other countries. Today’s Productivity Commission report says New Zealanders work longer hours than people in other rich-world countries and produce less in each hour they work.

  • 34.2 hours a week compared with a 31.9 hours average in the OECD.
  • $68 of output an hour compared with $85 average elsewhere in the OECD.

These numbers affect our living standards.

Innovation is key

Commission Chair Dr Ganesh Nana says: “Innovation is the key to unlocking New Zealand’s productivity. There are only so many hours in the day that people can work, so creating new technology and adopting new and better ways of working is critical to achieving effective change.”

Which means the Digital Boost project is timely.

If there’s one area both the Digital Boost project and the Productivity Commission agree on is that we need to do more than move people to digital tools.

Show how

The key here is to show people how they can use these tools.

There is an echo with cyber security. Many managers and business people think spending money on security products will solve the risks.

It can help, but without educating employees on how to think in more security conscious ways, that spending is wasted.

Spending money on new computers, software and services is a start. Yet it’s crucial to set aside part of the tech budget for training.

Skills essential for digital boost

Skills are essential to unlock the potential.

Likewise, it is important to use technology where it has the most benefits.

It’s no accident that Xero and MYOB are behind Digital Boost, moving to digital account keeping, tax paperwork and electronic invoicing can have an instant pay-off for a small business.

If Digital Boost delivers, Nash says it can be worth billions of dollars each year to the New Zealand economy.

That’s great, but meaningless to individuals, what matters more is that it has the power to lift everyone’s standard of living.

iPhone versus Android: Which is best?

Android remains the most popular phone operating system. It has seen-off Blackberry, Nokia Symbian and Windows Phone. It’s polished and complete, yet many will tell you iOS offers a better experience.

The truth is that both iOS and Android are good. Each has its advantages. If you want more control over your phone choose Android. If you worry about your privacy and security choose iOS.

Fans of both swear their favourite is more productive or more fun. They both can be. And anyway, these things depend on your definition of productivity or fun and how you work.

Should you change?

Before we look closer at the differences, one other key point. If you’ve spent the last ten years using one or the other, you’ll need a good reason to switch.

Making a change is disruptive. You’ll need to learn new ways to do things and, if you see your phone as a work tool, chances are, you’ll spend a small fortune buying new apps. You may also need to budget for things like earbuds and any other peripherals.

Only Apple makes iOS devices. You can’t buy them from a third-party. It makes the hardware and it makes the software. This is important.

There are no jarring glitches where one company’s responsibility stops and another’s starts. Apple gets to control every step from the moment you open the product box.

The hardware and software knit together. The experience is seamless and integrated. It is not always clear where one stops and the other starts.

Apple hardware is often beautiful. The beauty isn’t skin deep; it goes all the way through.

Integration

Android can’t match Apple’s integration.

Take Samsung, the leading maker of Android phone hardware. It speaks volumes that Samsung hides Android behind its own software overlay. So do the other phone makers.

You can buy Google Pixel branded phones with vanilla Android versions. Nokia also makes a range of pure Android phones with no overlay.

These are better integrated. They are a smoother experience than the phones with overlays. Yet, even here, Android’s integration is not as tight as Apple’s.

There’s also an inconsistent user experience.

Consistency

Move from any Apple iPad to an iPhone and things work much the same. This is not always ideal, but third-party apps are  consistent across the iOS range. Controls are consistent. Things act in the same, predictable way wherever you are.

Someone who uses an older iPhone can move to the latest one with little difficulty.

Android is better than it was five or six years ago. Yet, it still lacks consistency. A user switching from one Android brand to another will have to make mental adjustments. It’s not huge. For the most part it is no longer jarring. But it’s there. It’s a barrier to productivity.

Fragmentation

When Apple introduces a new version of iOS, most users upgrade in days. That’s less the case with Android. It is a fragmented market with different users on different Android versions. And that’s before you account for overlays.

Although matters have improved in recent years, there are times when an Android app may not run on every model and OS version. Fragmentation makes life harder for app developers. They tend to write code for the most popular options, not all options.

While there are iOS apps that don’t run on some iPhones, there’s no similar fragmentation in Apple’s world.

Sometimes free is too high a price

Apple’s business model is about selling hardware and services like Apple Music. iOS is made for that purpose.

Google’s business model is selling advertising. Android’s  key commercial goal purpose is to collect data so Google can sell more ads. Google doesn’t even sell its software to phone makers. They get it free. This tells you everything.

You might be cool with that. You may think owning an Android phone means you’ll see better targeted advertising. And it is fair to say Apple collects data. But there’s a difference between data collection being a byproduct and being the goal.

It shapes how Google views you as a customer.

The problem comes when Apple engineers make a choice about how something works. Their point of reference is how do we make this experience better?

Google engineers ask themselves the same question. But they’ll also think about opportunities to collect more data.

Android not all bad

Android is not a bad phone OS. It’s great.

Yet compared with iOS, it’s feels messy and disorganised. That’s not all negative. Some geeks like to tinker with their phones – that’s easier in the Android world. For some the freedom to tinker is more important than being productive or efficient. For others freedom is a path to productivity and efficiency.

Android has its charms. Apart from anything else, there wouldn’t be affordable phones without Google’s mobile operating system. Not everybody can afford to pay Apple’s premium prices. Not everybody wants to pay a premium. Android means you can get a  decent phone for a few hundred dollars.

And let’s not forget Android allowed Samsung and others to get into the phone market. It made competition possible. For that Google deserves everyone’s thanks.

Choosing the right mobile phone for 2021

For many people, a mobile phone is the computer they spend the most time with.

That makes sense. Phones don’t do everything well, but they are handy. Up to a point they are easy to use. Best of all, as the name suggests, they are mobile. You can take them to the work instead of bringing the work to them.

Modern phones handle voice calls, messaging and video calls. That’s only the start. They all have internet browsers, which gives you access to many cloud applications.

They also run apps in their own right. Your phone includes a camera and a GPS device that knows where you are and how to get to your destination.

All modern phones can play music and games when you are not working. Some include features allowing you to measure distances or handle other specialist tasks.

We’re not at the point where you can leave your wallet at home, but you can pay bills or unlock doors using your phone.

Popular mobile phone choices

There is a bewildering array of phone models. Although there is less phone brand choice than you might imagine. Here I’ve focused on the most popular models from the best-known brands. There are also a couple of wild-cards worth considering.

You should consider whether you need a 5G mobile. While 5G is faster than 4G, the older network is good enough for every mobile application in use today.

There’s no pressing need to upgrade. At the time of writing Vodafone and Spark have limited 5G networks. But they are growing fast. If you expect a phone to last years, it may pay to get a 5G model the next time you upgrade.

A word of warning, the Covid pandemic disrupted phone supply chains. New Zealand is not always at the front of the queue for models, especially with the Asian phone brands.

You may need to look further this year than in the past.

Apple is favourite

At the end of 2020 Apple was New Zealand’s top selling phone brand. It got there on the back of the iPhone 12. This comes in four models ranging from the $1350 iPhone 12 mini to the $2700 iPhone 12 Pro Max. The less expensive models are doing best at the moment.

The iPhone 12 represents the biggest change to Apple’s phone line since the iPhone X in 2017. It’s an all-screen design which brings together the best features of recent iPhones in a thinner, lighter package. Battery life is long, I go two working days between charges.

Performance is better than any other phone on the market and the iPhone 12 is more durable than other mainstream phones. The iPhone 12 works with the new 5G networks carriers are now building around New Zealand.

Depending on the model you either get a great camera or what could be the best camera available on any phone.

While iPhone 12 is expensive compared to rivals, you can expect it to earn its living for the next five years. That’s not something you could say about most alternatives.

Samsung top Android

There’s a reason Samsung, along with Apple, dominates New Zealand phone sales.

Samsung’s Galaxy models have been the best Android phones over the long haul. Rivals, especially Huawei, may pull ahead at times, but you can’t go wrong with a Samsung phone.

This year Samsung sales have fallen back a little. Yet the brand still enjoys success with its high-end and mid-range models.

Phones don’t get any further upmarket than the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. It’s beautiful. If you need a device that is more a tablet you can fit in a pocket than a traditional phone then it is worth the $3500 asking price.

A bigger, 7.6-inch, screen, means you can read much more than on an ordinary phone. It also works better with web-based cloud apps.

There’s something magical about looking at a web page on the outside screen when using the Fold2 as a normal phone, then opening it to the same place on the same page on a much bigger screen.

Samsung has less expensive phones. According to IDC Research, the company’s A Series phones sold well last year. This year Samsung has updated A Series models.

The $700 Galaxy A51 has many of the features found in upmarket phones. It includes a fingerprint reader hidden behind the main screen. There’s a huge 6.5 inch AMOLED screen that is brighter than everyday displays.

Huawei in decline

Until recently Huawei was the clear challenger brand. That changed when President Trump banned US companies from working with the company. This meant Huawei couldn’t use American technology.

Huawei has the resources to make its own hardware and software. That’s what it does now, but the ban means users don’t have easy access to services like Gmail, Google Maps and so on.

It’s possible to work around the ban. Yet to no-one’s surprise most people chose not to buy Huawei phones. If the ban doesn’t worry you, the Huawei Y6p is an excellent budget phone. You can expect to pay around $230 for the Y6P.

For the money you get a lot of phone. There’s a 6-inch screen, 64GB of storage and a 5000mAh battery that will run for a couple of days. The catch is that you can’t run Google services. Many Android apps are not available. Although Huawei does offer a vast library of suitable apps through Petal Search, a few popular choices are missing.

Beyond the mobile phone big brands

Nokia and Xiaomi are two interesting smaller Android phone brands worth considering.

The $400 Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T is New Zealand’s lowest priced 5G phone. It does 95 percent of what a phone costing four times the price might do but leaves you with cash to spend elsewhere.

You may remember Nokia. These days another company, HMD, uses the brand under license. It makes a range of non-nonsense Android phones.

Nokia guarantees its models, like the $300 Nokia 3.4, get regular software and security updates. That puts it ahead of most other Android brands.

It’s slow compared with other phones mentioned here. And isn’t outstanding in any department except the quality of its software and its value for money. It’s a great choice if you don’t plan to push mobile tech to the limit.

A version of this post was first published in NZBusiness magazine. It is online as Which mobile phone is right for you?

Spy boss warnings, ransomware surge – Hear me on RNZ Nine-to-Noon

Technology commentator Bill Bennett joins Kathryn to talk about the GCHQ chief’s warning of the West facing a “moment of reckoning” over cybersecurity, and the need for countries like the UK to build their own technologies lest other nations take control.

Meanwhile ransomware payments have climbed 43 per cent since the end of last year – with attackers setting their sights on big corporations.

And what happens when a computer program, used to prove you committed a crime, has a bug? Bill looks at the case of the UK Post Office.

Listen at the RNZ website.