• Home robots are about to hit the mass market…
  • What’s up with WhatsApp?
  • The scary future of “contact tracing”…

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And thank you again for taking the time to read The Bleeding Edge. Your support and engagement motivate me to do the work I do every day. I very much appreciate it.

Now let’s turn to today’s insights…

A fully functional robot butler will be ready later this year…

Last week was the big Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Typically held in Las Vegas, this is the largest consumer electronics conference of the year. It is where the world’s top electronics companies typically make their biggest product announcements of the year.

As we would expect, CES was held virtually this year. While Las Vegas was quiet, companies still did their best to attract attention remotely. And one of the more interesting product announcements that gives us a glimpse of the near future came from Samsung.

Samsung revealed its home robot named Bot Handy. While I haven’t experienced the tech in person yet, it looks impressive.

Bot Handy is enabled with artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision, and 3D sensors powered by light detection and ranging (lidar) technology. All of these features allow it to move around the house safely and autonomously. And it is equipped with a mechanical arm that’s quite dexterous and able to perform complex tasks.

Oh, and Bot Handy even has a robotic face that reminds me of Rosey the Robot from The Jetsons. Have a look:

Samsung’s Bot Handy in Action

Source: The Verge

As we can see, Bot Handy can do many chores around the house. It can load the dishwasher, pick up laundry, and set the table. It can even pour a glass of wine and bring us a glass of water. Incredible.

When I look at a product like this, it is clear to me that many of the early challenges with home robotics have been overcome. We are at the point now where consumers will begin to adopt home robots like Bot Handy to do all kinds of useful tasks. The home robotics space isn’t just about robotic vacuums anymore.

We’re about to take the next leap in form and function due to the remarkable advancements over the last two years in artificial intelligence.

And here’s the exciting part – Samsung is on track to release Bot Handy for sale in the first half of this year. It is only months away.

The company has not yet revealed its pricing. I suspect the first generation of these units will be expensive. But in time, just like all electronics, we can expect prices to drop rapidly. And that will accelerate consumer adoptions. I can’t wait to see it in action.

Facebook’s WhatsApp is nothing more than spyware…

One of the biggest conversations in the tech industry over the past week has been about the privacy policy changes that Facebook is making to its WhatsApp chat application.

As a reminder, Facebook acquired WhatsApp back in 2014 for $19 billion. Back then, it was a somewhat obscure messaging application. It seemed like a crazy deal at the time, but WhatsApp has become one of the largest messaging platforms in the world, with two billion monthly active users.

And that’s why Facebook’s privacy changes caught my attention. This sleight of hand will impact billions of people around the world.

When users log in to WhatsApp for the first time after these changes go live, they are greeted with a full-screen notice that asks them to accept the new privacy terms. Of course, it’s just a simple push of a button – yes or no? Nothing material is disclosed in the pop-up.

What most users probably don’t know is that accepting the terms gives Facebook sweeping new control over their data.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy allows it to collect the phone numbers of everyone in a user’s address book. It permits WhatsApp to collect all profile names and profile pictures associated with that user’s contacts.

It also allows WhatsApp to monitor the user all day long and collect diagnostic data from the other apps running on his or her smartphone.

And get this – this is really the key point – Facebook reserves the right to share all collected data with its family of companies. Agreeing to WhatsApp’s new privacy policy allows Facebook to do whatever it wants with the data it collects.

And of course, we know that Facebook has become one of the wealthiest companies on the planet by using our data to sell advertising. That is the company’s entire business model.

To me, this means WhatsApp is no longer just a messaging application. It is spyware. Its primary purpose is to engage in behavioral surveillance.

So that begs the question – what if a user doesn’t agree to the new privacy policy?

Well, users are locked out of WhatsApp if they don’t opt in. The only way to opt out is to give up WhatsApp entirely.

And that’s exactly what I recommend doing.

Companies like Facebook only get away with these business practices because consumers continue to use their products. I understand the issue here. After all, who in their right mind would spend hours reading a long, dense privacy policy for each and every smartphone application?

For those who are particularly sensitive to privacy violations, the simple action to take is to abandon all of Facebook’s products. Get rid of WhatsApp, Instagram, and the Facebook platform itself.

For those looking for an alternative messaging application, I recommend using Signal. It employs open-source software that provides end-to-end encryption so that no one can spy on its users – not even Signal itself. It is literally designed so that it cannot spy on its users.

And the good news is that Signal is no longer an obscure platform.

In fact, Signal’s servers temporarily crashed last week because so many new users were flocking to the platform. That was thanks in part to a simple tweet that came from Elon Musk. All it said was “Use Signal.” I got a good laugh out of that one.

I’m with Musk. WhatsApp users would be best served by moving to Signal. I recognize that the hard part will be getting organizations and groups to move from one platform to another, but the inconvenience is worth it.

Contact tracing is going to be permanent…

We will wrap up today with another troubling violation of privacy.

Singapore was one of the first countries to implement contact tracing with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March. This is software installed on smartphones that tracks each person you come into contact with. The idea is that when somebody tests positive for COVID-19, we will quickly know the people that person may have infected based on who they had encountered recently.

Singapore told its citizens that this contact tracing software would only be used to track the virus. The government promised that it would not use this data for any other purpose.

The government lied.

Just last week, Singapore revealed that data from its contact tracing software can also be accessed by police. And it’s not just data regarding the people one has come into contact with. The government can access other data from a person’s smartphone, including banking records.

Of course, this is all done based on the premise of assisting criminal investigations. But the fact is, all this data is made available to police and government officials in Singapore automatically. They don’t need to show evidence that a person was involved with a crime to get access to their data.

Sadly, I think this is a scary view of the future.

What just happened in Singapore will continue to happen in other countries. COVID-19 was simply used as the justification for implementing tracking systems onto our phones.

Once governments see that they have more power to track citizens, they will make contact tracing permanent. Always in the name of security, safety, or stopping the bad guys, of course.

As for the U.S., we talked last April about how Apple and Google implemented contact tracing directly in the Apple and Android operating systems. They claim we must “opt in” to initiate it, but that’s not entirely true.

Anything built into the operating system is embedded in the phone’s software already. There’s no way to opt out. And considering that Google and Apple control more than 99% of the smartphone operating systems, there is basically no choice. If we want to have a smartphone, we are essentially agreeing to be tracked.

So I don’t expect to see Apple or Google remove their contact tracing software, even after COVID-19 is a distant memory. Unfortunately, Singapore has set a terrible precedent that others will follow.

There is something of a solution… but it is inconvenient.

If we simply leave our smartphone at home as we go about our day, there’s no way for us to be tracked. And if we need to carry a phone with us to make calls, we can pick up a “burner” phone from the store and load it with $20 worth of minutes.

Another alternative is to simply use the old school feature phones that don’t have a screen. And these phones don’t have Apple or Google software running on them. About the only thing they can do is make calls and send/receive texts.

Again, these aren’t the best options. But for those who are concerned about violations of their privacy, at least there are some choices that are within our control.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge

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