Monday, 1 January 2018

Appy New Year

With Christmas and New Years celebrations over with, it is time to face the bill for the holiday excesses. For assistance with financial tasks, there is the Pocket Book app (https://getpocketbook.com). This Australian based app will help you manage your finances by linking to your banks accounts and automatically categorising your spending habits. It also has a budgeting function (called safely spend) to help you manage your cash flow. In addition, the app can notify you of upcoming bills so you can avoid late payment fees. The app is free which is nice, but also means that they use your information to make the app profitable. Their privacy policy (https://getpocketbook.com/privacy-policy/) states how they do this and if you are comfortable with sharing your information to gain access to the app then it is worth while.

If you need help with fitness goals this year then the My Fitness Pal app (https://www.myfitnesspal.com/) is highly recommended. This app makes it easy to keep track of your daily food intake. You can scan barcodes of packaged products using your phone or manually enter food portions that you consume. The app has a large database of food types and this is used to analyse the macro (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) and micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your diet. The result is a comprehensive overview of not just calories consumed but also the nutritional value of your food. The app can also track exercise and show you a daily balance of the calories in versus the calories out. It integrates with activity trackers (such as Garmin or Fitbit) to determine how many calories you have expended. You can also track your weight and it will remind you to jump on the scales to keep track of your goals. The app is ad supported or you can buy a premium subscription, which also unlocks additional features. As always, check the privacy policy to ensure your are comfortable with how they use your information (https://account.underarmour.com/privacy?locale=en_US).

Good luck with your New Year's resolutions and hopefully these apps will make them easier to achieve.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency is the term used to described new forms of digital currency that can be traded on the Internet. The most popular of these is Bitcoin, which was founded in 2008. Other popular cryptocurrencies are Ethereum and Litecoin. The underpinning technology is called blockchain. This allows for transactions to be made using a ledger style system. All transactions can be viewed on the ledger, making it a transparent system. Each transaction has a digital fingerprint that can't be faked, and thereby making it a trustworthy system. Blockchain relies on decentralised processing by multiple computers using a peer to peer network, in much the same way that bittorrent shares files between computers. To perform a transaction using bitcoin, you will need a digital wallet. This is used to store your transactions and the private key, which is used to encrypt your transactions and verify your digital identity. It is the encryption that creates the trustworthy part of the system and is why these are called cryptocurrencies.

When a transaction is made, it is added to a block of transactions. Miners will mathematically verify this block and ensure it is consistent with the previous block in the chain (hence the term blockchain). The blockchain (or ledger) is verified through a mathematical fingerprint (hash). Each transaction has to be mathematically proven in order for it to be verified. This is called mining. Computers that perform the mining calculations are rewarded with bitcoins. The difficulty of the calculations (and as a result, the processing effort) increases as more transactions are made. This means more power is required to verify a block of the blockchain as the number of transactions increases. So mining was a lot easier a few years ago, but requires more processing today and is therefore a more expensive process.

You may have seen in the news that Bitcoin has been reaching an all time high value. Currently it is sitting over US $10,000 per bitcoin. The cryptocurrency has gone through an exponential increase in value since 2016 when it was sitting at around US$500 per bitcoin (https://www.investing.com/currencies/btc-usd). This rapid rise can lead to swings in value as investors seek to profit and others are driven by FOMO (fear of missing out). Economists have seen this behaviour before (in the dotcom craze) and warn that this can lead to a bubble in the market. As more investors seek to buy the cryptocurrency, its value will rise, as there are only 21 million bitcoins that can be traded. The fundamental value of using a cryptocurrency is yet to be proven and only when there is mainstream support for using the cryptocurrency can it become truly useful. Some retailers are starting to offer payment with bitcoin (or other cryptocurrencies) but this is limited to a small part of the market. There is history of bitcoin trading sites getting hacked or the founders embezzling the funds. As usual it pays to be cautious when dealing with your hard earned cash. The largest trading site is coinbase.com

There are clear benefits in using a distributed transparent and trustworthy ledger system. From a banking perspective this could simplify and minimise the cost of interbank transfers. Currently it can take days for money to transfer between banks, with a block chain system this could be completed in a matter of seconds. This leads to benefits in time for the customer and cuts down on fees for the bank. There is no doubt banks are looking to use this technology but it can also be a digital disruptor to their way of working as the threat of cryptocurrencies becoming legitimised grows. For more information about cryptocurrencies take a look at the articles at www.coindesk.com/information/

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

GSuite for Small Business

Last month I wrote about Microsoft's Office 365 cloud offering for small business. Google also offer similar services with their GSuite products, which includes, email, calendar as well as apps for documents (Docs), spreadsheets (Sheets), presentations (Slides), file storage (Drive) and video conferencing, amongst many other apps. The main difference is that Google is a cloud based company first and foremost, so their services are delivered with Cloud and mobile access at their core. Google Drive operates similar to Dropbox, where files are synchronised from your local device to the cloud and back to other devices you have connected to it. You can also create a shared space where team members can share files. This is called Team Drive.

GSuite allows collaboration and sharing between members of the same organisation. Pricing is based on a monthly user subscription and the Business plan is currently $10/user per month (https://gsuite.google.com.au/pricing.html). For a small business. this is a quick way to get the services needed to run a business available, with little up front cost. The Office apps are cloud based, so do not offer as many functions as the Microsoft desktop apps, although they are compatible with the Microsoft formats. If you want the advanced functionality of Microsoft Office apps, you can either buy the Microsoft suite and still use the storage with Drive, or go with the Office 365 subscription mentioned last month. You will get similar services either way, it depends what you are familiar with.


For more information on GSuite take a look here (https://gsuite.google.com.au/).

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Office 365 for Small Business


If you have a small business and want a more professional digital image, such as your own email domain e.g. myname@mybusiness.com.au, then you may want to consider using Office 365. The benefits of using Office 365 are enterprise level email service, team collaboration through Sharepoint document management as well as video and audio conferencing through Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams. Office 365 allows small businesses to use these enterprise level services without requiring the on premise setup of servers and equipment as these are all provided from the Cloud (using Microsoft's services). You will still need your own PCs or tablets to use these services, as well as a reasonable internet connection.

Office 365 plans are based on a subscription model and are charged per user per month. The cost will vary according services provided and the following plans are suitable for small businesses:
  • Business ($7.04/user/month) - Office apps, cloud file storage and sharing. No email.
  • Business Essentials ($13.20/user/month) - Email, cloud file storage and sharing. Video and audio conference through Skype for Business. No desktop office apps provided. 
  • Business Premium ($17.49/user/month) - Includes essentials services plus the office apps. 
Note that pricing is based on a user per month but is billed annually. A pro rata monthly rate will be slightly more expensive (https://products.office.com/en-au/compare-all-microsoft-office-products?tab=2).

Just another note on email usage. A user can have multiple email addresses (e.g. info@mybusiness.com.au, accounts@mybusiness.com.au), but all emails will go to one mailbox. It is possible to have multiple business domains E.g. myname@business1.com.au and myname@business2.com.au, but sending from both requires a bit of finessing, but is possible. If you want to keep the emails in separate mailboxes then you will need a subscription for each mailbox.

There are many benefits for small businesses to use the subscription service. Access to enterprise level services at a fraction of the setup costs are a good deal. Note that the initial setup may require a professional to configure, but once setup, should be relatively easy to maintain.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Spam management

Spam is unsolicited email that you get in your inbox, usually attempting to sell you something or entice you to a website. This email can be annoying if it arrives en masse but some spam can also be malicious, attempting to phish information or install malware on your computer. Depending on your email provider, they will usually have a spam filter applied to your email, but these can be overcome if you signup for marketing emails, or your email address is added to a spam list.


One of the largest spam databases has been discovered recently, weighing in at a massive 14GB and approximately 711 million email addresses. Worryingly, some of these email addresses also included passwords. These are likely to have been harvested from hacked sites such as Yahoo. If you want to identify whether your email address is on the list then go to https://haveibeenpwned.com/ and check there. If you do find your email listed, then it is a good idea to change the passwords associated with that email address so that hackers don't use those details to gain access to your information.


The other issues with being on the spam list is that you are likely to get more spam emails. Once your email is added to a spam list it is difficult to remove it. While legitimate companies will provide an unsubscribe feature, this can be used by illegitimate spammers to confirm that your email address is active. So once you click on the unsubscribe link, you will be targeted for further emails. As mentioned earlier, depending on your email provider, the spam protection may vary. The larger email providers like GMail and Outlook.com allow you to identify spam in your inbox, and this helps fine tune the settings for your email. Bigpond don't have the same level of protection so you will need to use a client based spam filter to fine tune the spam settings. Spamfigher (http://www.spamfighter.com/) is a paid product with a free ad supported version, that can be added to the common email clients (Outlook, Windows Mail etc.) to provide additional spam protection if required. Some anti-virus products will also include spam protection as part of the security suite.


Often the best way to beat spam is to avoid it. To prevent your email address being used for spam, use a separate junk email address for signing up to sites or marketing lists. This way you can check the junk email occasionally for any legitimate email but keep your private email safe from spam. For more information on tuning your spam filter in gmail and outlook.com, take a look at these sites.


https://support.google.com/mail/answer/1366858
https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Help-keep-spam-out-of-your-Inbox-in-Outlook-com-a3ece97b-82f8-4a5e-9ac3-e92fa6427ae4

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Limiting internet data usage

If you are unfortunate enough to only have access to mobile broadband or satellite broadband, then chances are you will need to keep a close watch on how much data you use over the month. These plans have a limited allocation (or quota) and you will either be charged excess usage fees, have your internet shaped (limited speed) or have no internet access at all, if you exceed your monthly quota. As a result it is important to manage your bandwidth usage, and there are a few ways to do this.

One of the most common causes of excess usage is system updates. In the case of Windows 10 PCs, these updates are mandatory and can be large, especially for feature updates. There is a way to prevent automatic downloads on Windows 10 by changing your network setting to a metered connection. Go to Start > Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > and then either Advanced or your Connection name. Set Metered Connection to On and you will now be prompted when updates are available. It is still advisable to apply updates regularly, especially security updates, but at least with this setting on you can choose when to download them.

iPhones and iPads are also bandwidth hogs when it comes to updates. These can be as large as a gigabyte for major updates. Apple does not make it easy to prevent these updates but if the pre-requisites aren't met then it will not download the updates. In particular, the device needs to be on charge and connected to a wifi network. Disabling wifi when you charge your phone is one work around. For other options take a look at this post (https://discussions.apple.com/docs/DOC-9741). It is possible to restrict automatic updates of Apps on iOS devices. This can be done by going to Settings > iTunes and App Store and disabling all the options under Automatic Downloads. This way you can choose to update Apps when you have the bandwidth available.


If your updates are not causing your bandwidth usage then it may be the content that you are downloading. Video streaming will quickly use up bandwidth, this includes the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Any site that shows videos has the potential to eat into your precious monthly quota so keep a watch on the sites you visit.


Unfortunately there is a big disparity between prices for data on mobile broadband and other forms of broadband. Until this improves, it pays to be careful about what is download over these expensive connections.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Cyberwar and ransomware

Ransomware has been making the news lately with the WannaCry and, more recently, Petya strains grabbing the headlines. These threats were so dangerous because they easily spread to unpatched computers. The reason these malware attacks were so effective was because they used a zero day exploit that was developed for cyber attacks by the U.S. National Security Agency (called EternalBlue). The exploit was made public by hacking groups and Microsoft did develop patches to protect their systems, but the issue is that many systems remained unpatched resulting in outages to many businesses. More exploits are being released. The CIA hacking tools were released on Wikileaks in March 2017 (https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/) which will no doubt lead to further malicious threats being released in the wild.

So what is a patch? These are software updates to the system developed by the software vendor. Microsoft regularly releases patches to improve performance or fix security flaws on Windows systems. These show up as Windows Updates. It is a good idea to apply these updates as they are released. In fact, Windows 10 doesn't give you the option, it enforces the updates automatically. This does require internet access in order for the updates to be downloaded though.

So the computers most effected by these exploits were running older Windows systems (mainly Windows 7) and Microsoft took the rare step of releasing a security patch for Windows XP (which is no longer supported and doesn't get security updates any more). Even though WannaCry preceded Petya, many systems were still impacted when Petya was released. Initially it was thought that Petya was another ransomware threat but it turned out that it was not possible to get the encryption keys and the email address used to contact the criminals was shut down, making it impossible to get in contact, even if a company wanted to. It would appear that Petya was written to destroy data while acting like ransomware. As this threat first appeared in the Ukraine, it would seem that they were the initial targets of the attacks, which subsequently spread to the rest of the world.

With the continued release of these exploits that are used by nation states for cyber warfare, it raises issues about disclosure to the software vendors. Is it ethical for a government to withhold these zero day exploits from the vendors, especially when they can be used for criminal purposes? More to the point, it has become critically important that companies maintain regular updates to avoid being attacked by malware. It is surprising to me that many companies do not stay on top of this. For the home user, it is also important to ensure that they maintain regular patching for their system and software they use (such as Microsoft office, Adobe reader, Adobe flash and java etc). Be aware though that updates must come from a trusted vendor site and not a third party website as these can be used to inject malware instead of legitimate software. For more information on how to maintain patching in Windows go to https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/12373/windows-update-faq. For Apple Macs check this link https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT201541.