Archive for September, 2012

Don’t Blame Google For Everything

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Apart from using its search engine regularly and being a customer of Google AdWords and a couple of its products, I’ve no personal or professional interest in Google. However, as a technology professional, I feel compelled to point out that the recent Economic Times article titled Is It Time to Sign Off is full of inaccuracies, and blames Google for many things for which it’s not responsible.

google02-250wFirst, most users visit Google Search, run a search, click on one or more of the results, and exit Google. Google’s new privacy policy does not impact them in any way. Under the new policy, Google links users’ identities with their browsing habits only if they click the +You hyperlink appearing on the top left corner of the screen and sign-in by supplying their Google Account credentials. Since most users never sign-in while doing a Google search, the author Prerna Katiyar’s contention that there is “nary a choice for billions of subscribers” is plainly wrong. For the moment, I’m ignoring the fact that users can switch to Bing or many other Google alternatives without incurring any cost.

Second, the writer incorrectly blames Google’s new privacy policy for ads that keep “popping up no matter what website you surf, no matter where?”. Such ads are called “retargeted ads”. Apart from Google, there are many other providers of retargeted ads such as Bizo in B2B and ReTargeter and TellApart in B2C. These ads use cookie technology to do their job and don’t need personally identifiable information (PII) gathered by Google via its new privacy policy.

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Third, by claiming that Google will show job ads to people who log on to their office PCs just because they have searched for jobs on their home PCs, the author betrays her ignorance of how Google Ads work. Like organic results, Google determines the list of ads to be displayed on its search engine results page (SERP) solely on the basis of the keyword entered by the user in the Google search bar. Therefore, only an employee who enters a job-related keyword on Google Search will be caught red-handed with job-related ads on his or her office PC. For that, the employee deserves to be blamed, not just for using company resources for personal use but for being so stupid and self-incriminating while doing so. Even retargeted job ads, whether from Google or others, will be interspersed with many other ads about other topics on third-party websites. Even the most suspicious company can’t question its employees about all the ads appearing on all the websites they surf.

I could go on and on but I’m sure my message is clear: Let’s not blame Google for everything.

The Clear & Present Danger With Contactless & NFC Payments

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

jbclc02Technophobes and security pundits have been warning for a long time that it’s possible for a passerby with an RFID reader – and malafide intent – to skim debit / credit card details off of contactless cards and NFC smartphones even when they’re tucked away inside their owners’ wallets, pockets or hand bags.

I’d a first hand exposure of this security hazard during a recent visit to my friendly neighborhood book lending library, which is part of a nationwide chain of libraries that makes innovative use of RFID technology. With RFID reader kiosks reading RFID tags embedded inside every book, issue and return of books has become a frictionless, self-service process across the chain. You can read more about this library chain in Innovations At A Click-And-Mortar Library.

During this trip, I selected a book and placed it on the kiosk. When I tapped the ‘Issue’ button, the kiosk read the RFID tag in the book and displayed its title on the touchscreen. But, alongside the book I wanted to borrow, I noticed another book in the list. When I pointed out the spurious entry to the store manager, she’d a quick look at the screen and told me to ignore it. It turned out that the false alarm was raised by a book being read by one of the library’s staff sitting beside the kiosk. In other words, the kiosk wrongly scanned a book that wasn’t placed on its tray but happened to be situated a couple of feet away.

As I was filing out of the library, I overheard the store manager grumbling to her colleagues about the kiosk’s temparamental behavior: On some days, it failed to identify books placed on its tray, whereas on other days like that one, it overzealously scanned books located several feet away.

I generally don’t get scared off a new payment technology just because someone somewhere claims to have hacked it and proved it to be unsafe – greater convenience tends to win me over. But, on this one, I think the aforementioned technophobes and security pundits have got a point. Based on this experience, I’m bound to be extremely cautious about contactless cards, NFC or any other RFID-based payment method in future. While the addition of one incorrect book to my library account isn’t such a big deal, I can’t say the same about my credit / debit card details getting flashed to all and sundry around me.

Having said that, let me hasten to add that the overall consumer experience with contactless and NFC payments will be shaped by the way in which the technology is implemented rather than by the technology per se. In this context, I’ll readily admit that I’ve used Transport for London’s contactless Oyster Cards regularly for two years and never faced any reliability or security problems with them during the entire period (except for still not receiving refund of the credit balance lying in the card when I’d surrendered it upon leaving the UK over four years ago!).

First Impressions Of Google Maps Navigation

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

maproute01-100wThree days ago, Google announced turn-by-turn navigation with voice assistance on the Android version of its Maps app for the top six cities in India including Pune in Western India. While driving back to my house in NE Pune from my parents’ house in SE Pune earlier tonight, I got the chance to try out the app. This was on an entry-level smartphone (Samsung Galaxy Y, BTW).

Here are my first impressions of  Google Maps Navigation:

  1. The route suggested by the app was valid although it differed from my usual route beyond the first km.
  2. When I turned left into a side road instead of staying on the main road per the suggested route, the app sensed my deviation and worked  out the alternative route – my usual one – immediately. I was relieved that the lady didn’t tell me to “take a right turn at the next intersection”. Although the first turn was due in less than a minute, the app was zippy enough to work it out and display it on time.
  3. navigationroute02All visual cues for turns were perfect although the accompanying voice instructions weren’t very audible. I made sure that my phone’s media volume was set at its maximum. I also noticed later that the app didn’t have any internal internal volume controls. This won’t bother the majority of automobile drivers on Indian roads who get by with plain-vanilla Google Maps or just by asking passesrbys on the roadside for directions. But it could seriously limit adoption of the app by the small segment of drivers who practice defensive driving and who I’d imagine form the primary target audience for this app.
  4. For lack of any other place, I’d kept the phone in the gap between the dashboard and the windscreen. Everytime my car went over a bump on the road, the phone kept falling off. For safe use of this app, a dashboard holder for placing the phone securely is mandatory.
  5. My phone lost almost 60% of its battery charge during the trip that lasted less than 15 minutes. This isn’t abnormal for most phones whenever the GPS is kept on – with or without this app. You just need to make sure that, when you buy the holder, you select one that permits the phone to be charged – via a cigarette lighter charger – while it’s on the holder.

The overall experience of using Google Maps Navigation was satisfactory although not on par with what you’d get from a dedicated satnav system, especially as regards voice-assistance quality. But, it costs nothing. Besides, the performance could only get better on a more powerful smartphone (I hope). This is one more reason I wish the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 smartphone that I’ve been eyeing for a long time becomes available in India soon. It was launched in Europe at the start of the year. Although it was slated for release in India by June, it hasn’t hit the stores yet. Hope I won’t have to wait much longer before I can lay my hands on one.

Height Of eBanking Irony

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Irony is when

  1. My bank wants me to visit its branch to update my email. I wonder why I can’t convey my new email address to my bank via Internet Banking or in a letter signed by me in ‘wet ink’.

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  2. Left with no choice, I visit the branch but find that it has moved.
  3. Despite ‘friending’ it on Facebook, I keep getting irrelevant offers from my bank on my newsfeed, but when its branch relocates, it doesn’t notify me of such an important event in advance. When I ask my bank if payors who customarily make electronic fund transfers to my account need to update the branch address field in their ‘List of Beneficiaries’ screen, my bank is clueless.
  4. EFTs can happen in one hour but my bank won’t let me initiate one for 24 hours. The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) has established a net settlement system that can complete a retail payment transaction within one hour by running over 10 settlement cycles during an 8 hour window. However, my bank takes 24 hours to approve my request to add a new payee, without which I can’t initiate the ePayment. It doesn’t bother to explain how this 24 hour ‘cooling period’ benefits the payor, payee or itself. Since my account doesn’t get debited until the next day, float – the usual suspect in such cases – can’t be responsible for the hold up.
  5. ePayments need cheques. Apart from providing my bank account details, I’m required to submit a canceled cheque before a payor can transfer money to my account electronically. Asking payors why this step is required is pointless since all of them uniformly blame it on ‘security measures imposed by the regulator’. It’s quite dumb if the payor requires the canceled cheque to establish that I’m the legitimate owner of the said account – I’m not stupid enough to falsify the bank account details and see my money getting transferred to someone else.
  6. The regulator makes online payments more secure but most people prefer to pay with cash even for e-commerce purchases. By mandating two-factor authentication, the regulator has tried to make online shoppers feel more safe about making ePayments via cards, bank transfers, and so on. However, the average shopper is put off by the friction caused by extra passwords and frequent transaction outages. Therefore, cash on delivery becomes the most popular method of payment for e-commerce in India.
  7. My biller adds passwords to ostensibly make me feel more comfortable with its eBills and eStatements but I go back to its printed bills and statements. This one needs a whole blog post to explain. Luckily, I’ve already written it here: Is Email Principally Unsuited For Delivering Statements?

I’d love to hear more examples of ironies in Internet, mobile and social media banking, whether restricted to a few banks or applicable across the country.