Apple | The Knowledge Dynasty


Google’s ‘Pixel Buds’ may be the key to breaking the language barrier

Mandatory Credit: Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (9114955r)
Google Pixel Buds are shown at a Google event at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco
Google Showcase, San Francisco, USA – 04 Oct 2017

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Out of all the products Google launched at its big event this week, there’s one that should have Apple really worried.

No, it’s not the Pixel phones (though they certainly seem like worthy iPhone competitors) or the MacBook-like Pixelbook, it’s the Pixel Buds.

More than any other gadget Google launched, the $159 Pixel Buds (which, by the way, are already out of stock on Google’s store), perfectly encapsulate how Google can use it’s incredible AI advantage to beat Apple at its own game.

To be clear, this isn’t about whether the Pixel Buds, as they are right now, are better than AirPods. I’m on record as a huge fan of my AirPods, and I walked away from my first Pixel Buds demo less impressed with the look and feel of Google’s ear buds.

But I’m talking about much more than just aesthetics, which are easily fixed (particularly now that Google has an extra 2,000 engineers from HTC onboard).

No, it was this — Google’s first public demo of the Pixel Buds — that should have Apple very, very worried.

That demo is perhaps Google’s best example of how its new “AI-first” vision can completely and radically change its hardware — and its ability to compete with Apple. Pixel Buds, which have Google Assistant and real-time translation for 40 languages built right in, are, for now, Google’s best example of this vision.

But Pixel Buds are only the beginning.

These types of integrations will make their to the rest of Google’s hardware faster than you can say “talking poop emoji.” There are already signs of it. The Pixel Phones use algorithms — not extra lenses — to enable portrait mode and an overall smarter camera. The new Google Home Max uses AI to make its sound better. And Google’s first-class computer vision capabilities — whether it’s in the Lens app, the Clips camera, or the Pixelbook’s image search — has the potential to completely change how you use cameras, and laptops, and smartphones.

So while Apple has the iPhone 8 and the massively hyped iPhone X for now — even I won’t pretend Google has a shot at outselling Apple in the near term — Google’s AI is so much farther ahead of Apple’s it’s almost laughable.

Yes, Cupertino has made a concerted effort to step up its AI recently, particularly when it comes to Siri. And the company’s latest iPhones are unquestionably its smartest yet. But FaceID and talking emoji pale in comparison to Google’s dominance.

And nowhere is that more evident than Pixel Buds.

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How secure is Apple’s Face ID, really?

In its latest product event, Apple confidently moved to convince consumers that face recognition is the most convenient way to secure your phone and the sensitive information you store in it. Face ID, the company’s face recognition technology, which will be replacing its fingerprint scanner in the new iPhone X, requires you to only show your face to your phone in order to unlock it, to confirm ApplePay payments, in iTunes and App Store.

According to Phil Schiller, senior vice president of marketing at Apple, “With the iPhone X, your iPhone is locked until you look at it and it recognizes you. Nothing has ever been more simple, natural, and effortless. This is the future of how we’ll unlock our smartphones and protect our sensitive information.”

To be sure, showing your face to your phone is easier than typing a passcode or pressing your finger against a scanner. It saves you a few seconds, you obviously can’t forget it, and it won’t be affected by moisture and oil.

But is it more secure?

Here are the key things you should consider about facial recognition before you enroll in the latest fad that is overcoming the iPhone and other major smartphones.

Can Face ID be spoofed?

Face recognition authentication has existed for several years, but it has become notoriously renowned for its security flaws. Researchers and cybercriminals have been able to easily circumvent face locks on various devices by using hi-res pictures and videos of the owners. And as opposed to passwords, your face is not a secret. It’s available to anyone who Googles your name or gets close enough to snap a picture of you. Even Samsung’s S8 face lock was proven to be fooled by a photo.

However, Face ID has incorporated a technology to make it exponentially harder to bypass the lock. During setup, Face ID projects 30 thousand infrared dots to create a 3D depth map of its owner’s face. It subsequently uses that map during authentication to make sure that it’s a real face standing before the camera and the physical features correspond to those of the owner.


Getting around depth maps will be much more difficult than using flat images. Apple says not even professionally made masks will work. Some experts believe it’s not impossible to fool, however, and it’s only a matter of time and “enough external data” before the technology can be sidestepped. And per Apple, if you have an identical twin, Face ID may be fooled to mistake them for you.

Further, depth sensors like the ones used in the iPhone X do have their own technical challenges. They might fail under distinct conditions such as intense light or when you’re wearing a hat or scarf. Apple says that it works under various conditions, but we’ll have to certify when the device actually ships.

Can Face ID be forcibly activated?

This is a question that regards all biometric authentication mechanisms, including fingerprint scanners. If you’re captured by criminals or taken into the custody of law enforcement, can they unlock your phone by holding it up to your face?

Unfortunately, they can. The technology doesn’t work if you’re not staring at it or if you close your eyes but is not yet smart enough to understand the difference between a real unlock attempt and a forced one (maybe someday it will). In the case of police, at least, they would legally be required to obtain a warrant before forcing you to unlock the device, according to legal experts.

Apparently, Apple recognizes this as a possible flaw in its technology. In iOS 11, users have to enter the iPhone’s passcode when connecting it to a new computer. This will make it harder to siphon data from a phone unlocked forcibly. Apple has also made it possible to disable Face ID and Touch ID, its fingerprint-scanning technology, by pressing the Home or Power button (depending on the device model) five times in rapid succession.

Where does Apple store your face data?

Your mug is not the most private part of your body. Governments have huge databases of citizens pictures, the internet may be flooded with pictures of you and your friends if you’ve been on social media in the past years, and facial recognition is already a serious privacy concern.

Nonetheless, you should be concerned about where your data is stored and how secure it is, especially the depth map of your face, which is still somewhat private. Most facial recognition software relies on machine learning algorithms, programs that work with huge data sets that are stored on cloud servers. Companies running these types of software need to collect more and more data samples to improve their performance. They might also mine the data for other commercial purposes or share it with third parties.

For the moment, Apple has made it clear that no face data will be leaving your phone, the same approach it has used on Touch ID. Everything will be computed on the device thanks to its powerhouse A11 processor, and sensitive data will be stored on the Secure Enclave, the most secure component of the iPhone.

Screenshot via Apple

Apple’s Phil Schiller shows off Face ID on the iPhone X.

How much data does Face ID collect?

This is perhaps the creepiest side of Face ID. The technology has no manual trigger on iPhone X. You only need to hold it in front of your face to activate it, which means it’s always watching, waiting for your face to show up. How much data it stores is an open question.

But we’ve seen similar functionality cause privacy controversies in the Echo, Amazon’s smart home system. And unlike the Echo, your iPhone doesn’t remain in your home. You take it with you wherever you go.

Moreover, there’s the question of what Apple will do with the technology once it has access to millions of people’s faces. The company didn’t have much incentive to collect fingerprint data. But face and gaze information is a totally different matter and can be used for things such as tracking attention and reaction to ads. We’ll have to see if Apple will resist the urge to make use of the technology in other potentially profitable endeavors.

For most users, Face ID will provide a secure and reliable way to protect your iPhone, with decent workaround against most of its flaws. Apple says it has 1/1,000,000 chance of getting unlocked by someone other than you, as opposed to TouchID, which stood at 1/50,000.

However, if you prefer privacy over convenience (as I do), remembering and typing a passcode is a small price to pay for higher security.

Ben Dickson is a software engineer and the founder of TechTalks. Follow his tweets at @bendee983 and his updates on Facebook.

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Tumblr just added a switch in the iOS Settings that lets you turn the porn back on

Here’s an interesting change: Tumblr’s iOS application just received an update which now lets you turn on or off adult-oriented, NSFW search results just by toggling a switch in iOS’s Settings. That’s right: you can now switch on or off the Tumblr porn with ease. Weirder still, Tumblr’s note about the change in the App Store update text says this was implemented per Apple’s content guidelines.

Why is that weird?

Because Apple’s developer guidelines at least today explicitly tell app developers not to do this sort of thing.

Above: Tumblr’s iOS app update text

While Apple has never permitted explicit apps whose sole purpose is to serve pornography, it long ago carved out an exception for social networks hosting user-generated content, provided they agreed to filter and hide the NSFW content by default.

This is an issue that greatly impacts Tumblr, given that its blogging network is actually composed of a lot of porn. In fact, according to website analytics service SimilarWeb, adult content is the top category that drives direct clicks to Tumblr’s desktop site, accounting for 20.53% of clicks, compared with the next-largest referring category, books and literature, which drove just 7.61% of clicks.

Above: Tumblr’s new porn toggle

Tumblr has always had NSFW content, saying that its policy about this sort of material is a live-and-let-live kind of thing, but it draws the line at actually hosting sexually explicit videos. (Embed them, it says.)

To be allowed into the iTunes App Store, Tumblr has had to filter out and hide this content in its iOS app by default. There’s a loophole, though as I’m sure many of you know.

According to Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, apps like Tumblr are allowed to show the NSFW content if the user turns the setting on via the services website.

Here’s the full text, per Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, about how this system is supposed to work, emphasis ours:

Apps with user-generated content or services that end up being used primarily for pornographic content, objectification of real people (e.g. hot-or-not voting), making physical threats, or bullying do not belong on the App Store and may be removed without notice. If your app includes user-generated content from a web-based service, it may display incidental mature NSFW content, provided that the content is hidden by default and only displayed when the user turns it on via your website.

Tumblr clearly fits in that latter category of apps that display incidental mature NSFW content, but it’s now being told to put a toggle in iOS’s Settings?


The most logical explanation for this sort of change is that Apple will allow this setting to be locked down via its parental controls at some point. That’s not the case right now, though.

Under Settings > General > Restrictions, you can block the kids from using Apple’s built-in apps, block app downloads, and can block apps based on their current rating. (Tumblr is rated 17+, for example). However, there is not a way to force something like a Safe Search toggle switch to remain on.

Above: iOS 10’s Restrictions screen

It’s possible that Apple will roll out improved parental controls in the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 11, which is expected to be announced at WWDC this summer. Perhaps it directed Tumblr to implement this setting in preparation of that change. (And maybe Apple didn’t expect Tumblr to code the fix so quickly or call it out in the apps update text!)

Other apps where adult content could be a concern like Google, Twitter, Reddit, Flickr, 500px, and Pinterest don’t currently offer this sort of toggle switch in the iOS Settings, even though they may offer content filtering mechanisms of their own in their apps or on their websites.

Tumblr used to have in-app Safe Search controls as well, somehow bypassing Apple’s rules. This is an area Apple has cracked down on before, as with third-party Reddit apps. But in that case, the Reddit app makers were advised that after removing their toggle switches, users would have to turn on NSFW content from the Reddit website, as per Apple’s guidelines. Tumblr is doing it differently.

Of course, another explanation is that Apple is just chilling out about NSFW content in general, but that seems far less likely given the company’s historical position on a being a family-friendly App Store.

“Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,” Steve Jobs famously said.

Apple has not responded to requests for comment about the matter. Tumblr declined to comment.

Disclosure: Yahoo owns Tumblr, and is in the process of being acquired by Verizon; Verizon owns TechCrunch parent company AOL.

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