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13 ways to screw over your internet provider – TechCrunch

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Internet providers are real bastards: they have captive audiences whom they squeeze for every last penny while they fight against regulation like net neutrality and donate immense amounts of money to keep on lawmakers’ good sides. So why not turn the tables? Here are 13 ways to make sure your ISP has a hard time taking advantage of you (and may even put it on the defensive).

Disclosure: Verizon, an internet provider guilty of all these infractions, owns TechCrunch, and I don’t care.

1. Buy a modem and router instead of renting

The practice of renting a device to users rather than selling it or providing it as part of the service is one of the telecommunications industry’s oldest and worst. People pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars over years for equipment worth $40 or $50. ISPs do this with various items, but the most common item is probably the modem.

This is the gadget that connects to the cable coming out of your wall, and then connects in turn (or may also function as) your wireless and wired router. ISPs often provide this equipment at the time of install, and then charge you $5 to $10 per month forever. What they don’t tell you is you can probably buy the exact same item for somewhere between $30 and $100.

The exact model you need will depend on your service, but it will be listed somewhere, and they should tell you what they’d provide if you ask. Look online, buy a new or lightly used one, and it will have paid for itself before the year is out. Not only that, but you can do stuff like upgrade or change the software on it all you want, because it’s yours. Bonus: The ISP is limited in what it can do to the router (like letting other people connect — yes, it’s a thing).

2. Avoid service calls, or if you can’t, insist they’re free

I had an issue with my Comcast internet a while back that took them several visits from a service tech to resolve. It wasn’t an issue on my end, which was why I was surprised to find they’d charged me $30 or so every time the person came.

If your ISP wants to send someone out, ask whether it’s free, and if it isn’t, tell them to make it free or ask if you can do it yourself (sometimes it’s for really simple stuff like swapping a cable). If they charge you for a visit, call them and ask them to take it off your bill. Say you weren’t informed and you’ll inform the Better Business Bureau about it, or take your business elsewhere, or something. They’ll fold.

When someone does come…

3. Get deals from the installer

If you do end up having someone come out, talk to them to see whether there are any off the record deals they can offer you. I don’t mean anything shady like splitting cables with the neighbor, just offers they know about that aren’t publicized because they’re too good to advertise.

A lot of these service techs are semi-independent contractors paid by the call, and their pay has nothing to do with which service you have or choose. They have no reason to upsell you and every reason to make you happy and get a good review. Sometimes that means giving you the special desperation rates ISPs withhold until you say you’re going to leave.

And as long as you’re asking…

4. Complain, complain, complain

This sounds bad, but it’s just a consequence of how these companies work: The squeaky wheels get the grease. There’s plenty of grease to go around, so get squeaking.

Usually this means calling up and doing one of several things. You can complain that service has been bad — outages and such — and ask that they compensate you for that. You can say that a competing ISP started offering service at your location and it costs $20 less, so can they match that. Or you can say your friend just got a promotional rate and you’d like to take advantage of it… otherwise you’ll leave to that phantom competitor. (After all, we know there’s often little or no real competition.)

What ISPs, and, more importantly, what their customer service representatives care about is keeping you on as a customer. They can always raise rates or upsell you later, but having you as a subscriber is the important thing.

Note that some reps are more game than others. Some will give you the runaround, while others will bend over backwards to help you out. Feel free to call a few times and do a bit of window shopping. (By the way, if you get someone nice, give them a good review if you get the chance, usually right after the call or chat. It helps them out a lot.) Obviously you can’t call every week with new demands, so wait until you think you can actually save some money.

Which reminds me…

5. Choose your service level wisely

ISPs offer a ton of choices, and make it confusing on purpose so you end up picking an expensive one just to be sure you have what you need. The truth is most people can probably do pretty much everything they need on the lowest tier they offer.

A 1080p Netflix stream will work fine on a 25 Mbps connection, which is what I have. I also work entirely online, stream high-def videos at a dozen sites all day, play games, download movies and do lots of other stuff, sometimes all at the same time. I think I pay $45 a month. But rates like mine might not be advertised prominently or at all. I only found out when I literally asked what the cheapest possible option was.

That said, if you have three kids who like to watch videos simultaneously, or you have a 4K streaming setup that you use a lot, you’ll want to bump that up a bit. But you’d be surprised how seldom the speed limit actually comes into play.

To be clear, it’s still important that higher tiers are available, and that internet providers upgrade their infrastructure, because competition and reliability need to go up and prices need to come down. The full promise of broadband should be accessible to everyone for a reasonable fee, and that’s still not the case.

6. Stream everything because broadcast TV is a joke

Cord-cutting is fun. Broadcast TV is annoying, and getting around ads and air times using a DVR is very 2005. Most shows are available on streaming services of some kind or another, and while those services are multiplying, you could probably join all of them for well under what you’re paying for the 150 cable channels you never watch.

Unless you really need to watch certain games or news shows as they’re broadcast, you can get by streaming everything. This has the side effect of starving networks of viewers and accelerating the demise of these 20th-century relics. Good ones will survive as producers and distributors of quality programming, and you can support them individually on their own merits. It’s a weird transitional time for TV, but we need to drop-kick them into the future so they’ll stop charging us for a media structure established 50 years ago.

Something isn’t available on a streaming service? 100 percent chance it’s because of some dumb exclusivity deal or licensing SNAFU. Go pirate it for now, then happily pay for it as soon as it’s made available. This method is simple for you and instructive for media companies. (They always see piracy rates drop when they make things easy to find and purchase.)

This also lets you avoid certain fees ISPs love tacking onto your bill. I had a “broadcast TV fee” on my bill despite not having any kind of broadcast service, and I managed to get it taken off and retroactively paid back.

On that note…

7. Watch your bill like a hawk

Telecoms just love putting things on your bill with no warning. It’s amazing how much a bill can swell from the quoted amount once they’ve added all the little fees, taxes and service charges. What are they, anyway? Why not call and ask?

You might find out, as I did, that your ISP had “mistakenly” been charging you for something — like equipment — that you never had nor asked for. Amazing how these lucrative little fees tend to fall through the cracks!

Small charges often increase and new ones get added as well, so download your bill when you get it and keep it somewhere (or just keep the paper copies). These are really handy to have when you’re on the phone with a rep. “Why wasn’t I informed my bill would increase this month by $50?” “Why is this fee more now than it was in July?” “Why do I pay a broadcast fee if I don’t pay for TV?” These are the types of questions that get you discounts.

Staying on top of these fees also means you’ll be more aware when there are things like mass refunds or class action lawsuits about them. Usually these have to be opted into — your ISP isn’t going to call you, apologize and send a check.

As long as you’re looking closely at your bill…

8. Go to your account and opt out of everything

When you sign up for broadband service, you’re going to get opted into a whole heap of things. They don’t tell you about these, like the ads they can inject, the way they’re selling this or that data or that your router might be used as a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

You’ll only find this out if you go to your account page at your ISP’s website and look at everything. Beyond the usual settings like your address and choice of whether to receive a paper bill, you’ll probably find a few categories like “privacy” and “communications preferences.”

Click through all of these and look for any options to opt out of stuff. You may find that your ISP has reserved the right to let partners email you, use your data in ways you wouldn’t expect and so on. It only takes a few minutes to get out of all this, and it deprives the ISP of a source of income while also providing a data point that subscribers don’t like these practices.

9. Share your passwords

Your friend’s internet provider gets him streaming services A, B and C, while yours gives you X, Y and Z. Again, this is not about creators struggling to get their content online, but rather all about big media and internet corporations striking deals that make them money and harm consumers.

Share your (unique, not reused!) passwords widely and with a clean conscience. No company objects when you invite your friends over to watch “Fleabag” at your house. This just saves everyone a drive!

10. Encrypt everything and block trackers

One of the internet companies’ many dirty little deals is collecting and selling information on their customers’ watching and browsing habits. Encrypting your internet traffic puts the kibosh on this creepy practice — as well as being good security.

This isn’t really something you can do too much to accomplish, since over the last few years encryption has become the rule rather than the exception, even at sites where you don’t log in or buy anything. If you want to be sure, download a browser plug-in like HTTPS everywhere, which opts you into a secure connection anywhere it’s available. You can tell it’s secure because the URL says “https://” instead of “http://” — and most browsers have other indicators or warnings as well.

You should also use an ad blocker, not necessarily to block ads that keep outlets like TechCrunch alive (please), but to block trackers seeded across the web by companies that use sophisticated techniques to record everything you do. ISPs are among these and/or do business with them, so everything you can do to hinder them is a little mud in their eye.

Incidentally there are lots of ways you can protect your privacy from those who would invade it — we’ve got a pretty thorough guide here.

11. Use a different DNS

Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

On a similar note, most ISPs will usually be set up by default with their own “Domain Name Service,” which is the thing that your browser pings to convert a text web URL (like “techcrunch.com”) to its numerical IP address.

There are lots of these to choose from, and they all work, but if you use your ISP’s, it makes it much easier for them to track your internet activity. They also can block certain websites by refusing to provide the IP for content they don’t like.

TechCrunch doesn’t officially endorse one, but lots of companies offer free, fast DNS that’s easy to switch to. Here’s a good list; there are big ones (Google, Cloudflare), “open” ones (OpenDNS, OpenNIC) and others with some niche features. All you need to do is slot those two numbers into your internet configuration, following the instructions they provide. You can change it back at any time.

Setting up a VPN is another option for very privacy-conscious individuals, but it can be complicated. And speaking of complicated…

12. Run a home server

This is a bit advanced, but it’s definitely something ISPs hate. Setting up your home computer or a dedicated device to host a website, script or service seems like a natural use of an always-on internet connection, but just about everyone in the world would rather you sign up for their service, hosted on their hardware and their connection.

Well, you don’t have to! You can do it on your own. Of course, you’ll have to learn how to run and install a probably Unix-based server, handle registry stuff, install various packages and keep up to date so you don’t get owned by some worm or bot… but you’ll have defied the will of the ISP. That’s the important thing.

13. Talk to your local government

ISPs hate all the things above, but what they hate the most by far is regulation. And you, as a valued citizen of your state and municipality, are in a position to demand it. Senators, representatives, governors, mayors, city councils and everyone else actually love to hear from their constituency, not because they desire conversation but because they can use it to justify policy.

During the net neutrality fight, a constant refrain I heard from government officials was how much they’d heard from voters about the issue and how unanimous it was (in support, naturally). A call or email from you won’t sway national politics, but a few thousand calls or emails from people in your city just might sway a local law or election. These things add up, and they do matter. State net neutrality policies are now the subject of national attention, and local privacy laws like those in Illinois are the bane of many a shady company.

Tell your local government about your experience with ISPs — outages, fees, sneaky practices or even good stuff — and they’ll file it away for when that data is needed, such as renegotiating the contracts national companies sign with those governments in order to operate in their territories.

Internet providers only do what they do because they are permitted to, and even then they often step outside the bounds of what’s acceptable — which is why rules like net neutrality are needed. But first people have to speak out.



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All the little things that add up to make iPadOS productivity a pain

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Rumor has it a new iPad Pro is around the corner, which means Apple is about to make another big pitch for the iPad as a productivity and content-creation device.

But while we’ve found in our iPadOS reviews that Apple has done a marvelous job with the big-picture changes to the OS aimed at making it real-work-friendly, there are still a bunch of minor annoyances or “nope, you can’t do that” limitations that sabotage Apple’s intentions.

For that reason, it makes sense to preempt that upcoming marketing push with a few key caveats—especially since Apple likely won’t announce a major iPadOS software update alongside new hardware in March. Significant new OS changes probably won’t be discussed until the company’s developer conference in June, and said updates probably won’t reach the public until September or October.

Most of these are tiny problems, but they add up. iPads won’t be a real laptop replacement for everyone until most of these issues are addressed.

Webcams and multitasking

It won’t take you long in current computing use cases to notice this one: the front-facing camera on the iPad shuts off when you swipe away from whatever app is using it, Zoom included. Reviewers have brought this up again and again when reviewing recent iPads—us included. But 12 iPadOS updates later, it’s still an issue.

Granted, some applications will show your camera view in a small, picture-in-picture window over other apps when you switch spaces. But you don’t always want to see that—screen real estate is at a serious premium on iPads—and not every app does it.

Where third-party apps don’t support the picture-in-picture view, Apple needs to find a way to incentivize them to do so. But better yet: allow users to enable background video capture on a per-app basis in Settings.

A lot of people are spending a great deal of time on video calls these days, for obvious reasons. It’d be great if Apple’s flagship mainstream dedicated computing product actually did that well.

Audio-source management

Obviously, the iPad does support background audio. Apps like Apple Music or Spotify can play in the background, as can some (but not all) video apps. The problem is that it’s all too easy for the currently active app to silence the one in the background, because two audio sources usually cannot play at the same time.

So for example, if you are watching a Twitch stream in the background but an autoplaying video with audio comes up on a webpage, your Twitch stream will stop. You’ll have to stop the video on the Web, then go back to the Twitch app to start it up again. And sometimes, websites or apps take over your audio even if they aren’t apparently making any sound at present.

At a minimum, the iPad should either not stop the first audio source when this happens or at least resume playing whatever was playing in the background once the new audio sources starts. But the ideal situation would be a panel for managing multiple audio sources at once by app, including their levels.

External monitors

When Apple first announced that the iPad Pro would be able to work with external monitors via USB-C as part of an overall pitch of the Pro as a heavy-duty productivity and content-creation device, many users expected something very different than what they got.

Yes, you can hook your iPad Pro up to an external USB-C monitor. But typically, all it does is mirror the iPad’s display. It doesn’t give you more spaces for apps, and it doesn’t even adopt the aspect ratio of the screen you’re sending the image to.

There is a very small number of iPad apps, like iMovie, that let you use the external monitor a little differently. But the vast majority don’t, making external monitor support essentially useless on Apple’s tablet.

The limitations of the USB-C port

The move to USB-C from Lightning in recent iPads is a welcome one, even if it means some people had to buy some new cables. The ecosystem of USB-C accessories—like external storage devices, monitors, music production tools, and so on—is quite robust compared to what we get on Lightning.

Enlarge / The iPad Pro has USB-C instead of Lightning as its one port.

So we’re not knocking USB-C here. We’re knocking how many USB-C ports there are. The iPad Pro only has one, and all too often, it doesn’t play nicely with external USB-C hubs that you might normally use with a Mac. Users complain of constant disconnects and inconsistent behavior. Some hubs just don’t work at all.

If Apple can’t rely on other companies like CalDigit to do this well, and if it really must insist on not adding at least one more port, then it needs to release its own USB-C dock that is guaranteed to work smoothly with the iPad.

It certainly didn’t help that Apple removed the headphone jack from recent iPads. Some of the advertising around the iPad Pro centered on music production, but good luck producing music when you can’t easily connect both an instrument and headphones at the same time.

You’ll need a dongle, which is expensive and a hassle, and a whole lot of them don’t work well.

Pro app support

A computer is only as good as the apps it can run, of course. And while the iPad has many excellent apps for consumers of content, many good productivity apps, and several good tools for hobbyists in various creative disciplines, users of apps that are popular in certain professional contexts face a significant gap between iPadOS and either macOS or Windows.

And it’s not just from third parties. Apple’s own Final Cut, Logic, and Xcode are not available on the iPad. There aren’t a ton of great options from other companies either. Yes, Adobe has been working on fairly robust versions of both Photoshop and Illustrator for the iPad. But we haven’t heard a word about Premiere, for example.

And there are numerous widely used pro apps from other companies that aren’t available. There’s no Maya, no Blender, no Unity, no Visual Studio. There is an AutoCAD app, but it’s minimally functional compared to the desktop version.

If Apple is going to keep calling the iPad a device for professional content creators, it needs to convince these third parties to release more functional iPad apps. And at least as importantly, it needs to adapt its own software for the device.

How likely are we to see these changes?

For years, Apple has moved further away from the idea of more ports, large feature sets, and so on—particularly on mobile devices like the iPad. So in the past, we wouldn’t have expected most of these things to actually happen.

However, the world of Apple devices looks noticeably different in the wake of reliable reports that new MacBook Pro laptops later this year will include SD cards or HDMI ports. Apple seems to be changing course to better court high-end and certain pro use-case customers. Well, at least as far as the Mac is concerned.

The company has also moved aggressively in other ways on the iPad front, at least in terms of software—just maybe not as fast as everyone would like. It seems plausible to us that multitasking issues (like those with webcams and audio sources) may be fixed in the future. And at this point, never say never to iPad versions of Logic or Final Cut.

We’re less bullish on the idea of a multiport iPad Pro, though, and there’s only so much Apple can do to attract third parties to make more robust apps for the platform.

Apple is expected to announce a new iPad Pro before the end of March, so we’ll have a hint at what’s to come soon enough.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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Hard-coded key vulnerability in Logix PLCs has severity score of 10 out of 10

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Rockwell Automation

Hardware that is widely used to control equipment in factories and other industrial settings can be remotely commandeered by exploiting a newly disclosed vulnerability that has a severity score of 10 out of 10.

The vulnerability is found in programmable logic controllers from Rockwell Automation that are marketed under the Logix brand. These devices, which range from the size of a small toaster to a large bread box or even bigger, help control equipment and processes on assembly lines and in other manufacturing environments. Engineers program the PLCs using Rockwell software called Studio 5000 Logix Designer.

On Thursday, the US Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration warned of a critical vulnerability that could allow hackers to remotely connect to Logix controllers and from there alter their configuration or application code. The vulnerability requires a low skill level to be exploited, CISA said.

The vulnerability, which is tracked as CVE-2021-22681, is the result of the Studio 5000 Logix Designer software making it possible for hackers to extract a secret encryption key. This key is hard-coded into both Logix controllers and engineering stations and verifies communication between the two devices. A hacker who obtained the key could then mimic an engineering workstation and manipulate PLC code or configurations that directly impact a manufacturing process.

“Any affected Rockwell Logix controller that is exposed on the Internet is potentially vulnerable and exploitable,” said Sharon Brizinov, principal vulnerability researcher at Claroty, one of three organizations Rockwell credited with independently discovering the flaw. “To successfully exploit this vulnerability, an attacker must first obtain the secret key and have the knowledge of the cryptographic algorithm being used in the authentication process.”

Brizinov said that Claroty notified Rockwell of the vulnerability in 2019. Rockwell didn’t disclose it until Thursday. Rockwell also credited Kaspersky Lab and Soonchunhyang University researchers Eunseon Jeong, Youngho An, Junyoung Park, Insu Oh, and Kangbin Yim.

The vulnerability affects just about every Logix PLC Rockwell sells, including:

  • CompactLogix 1768
  • CompactLogix 1769
  • CompactLogix 5370
  • CompactLogix 5380
  • CompactLogix 5480
  • ControlLogix 5550
  • ControlLogix 5560
  • ControlLogix 5570
  • ControlLogix 5580
  • DriveLogix 5560
  • DriveLogix 5730
  • DriveLogix 1794-L34
  • Compact GuardLogix 5370
  • Compact GuardLogix 5380
  • GuardLogix 5570
  • GuardLogix 5580
  • SoftLogix 5800

Rockwell isn’t issuing a patch that directly addresses the problems stemming from the hard-coded key. Instead, the company is recommending that PLC users follow specific risk mitigation steps. The steps involve putting the controller mode switch into run, and if that’s not possible, following other recommendations that are specific to each PLC model.

Those steps are laid out in an advisory Rockwell is making available to customers, as well as in the above-linked CISA advisory. Rockwell and CISA also recommend PLC users follow standard security-in-depth security advice. Chief among the recommendations is ensuring that control system devices aren’t accessible from the Internet.

Security professionals universally admonish engineers to place critical industrial systems behind a firewall so they aren’t exposed to the Internet. Unfortunately, engineers struggling with high workloads and limited budgets often don’t heed the advice. The latest reminder of this came earlier this month when a municipal water treatment plant in Florida said that an intruder accessed a remote system and tried to lace drinking water with lye. Plant employees used the same TeamViewer password and didn’t put the system behind a firewall.

If Logix PLC users are segmenting industrial control networks and following other best practices, it’s unlikely that the risk posed by CVE-2021-22681 is minimal. And if people haven’t implemented these practices, hackers probably have easier ways to hijack the devices. That said, this vulnerability is serious enough that all Logix PLC users should pay attention to the CISA and Rockwell advisories.

Claroty has issued its own writeup here.

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Google’s Smart TV software will have a “dumb TV” mode

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The new Google TV is a fine smart TV interface, but when it gets integrated into some TV sets later this year, its best feature might be that you can turn it off. A report from 9to5Google details an upcoming “Basic TV” mode that will be built into Google TV, which turns off just about all the smart TV features. Right now, Google TV is only available in the new Chromecast, but Google TV will be built into upcoming TVs from Sony and TCL. Basic mode means we’ll get smart TVs with a “dumb TV” mode.

The rise of smart TVs has led to the extinction of dumb TVs—today, basically every TV has some kind of computer and operating system built into it. If you’re actually expecting to live with a TV for several years, the problem with smart TVs is that the dirt-cheap computers inside these TVs don’t last as long as the display does. When your smart TV is a few years old, you might still have a perfectly good display panel, but you’ll be forced to interact with it through a slow, old, possibly abandoned integrated computer. Companies should sell dumb TVs without any of this crap permanently integrated into them, but if they refuse, letting consumers turn off the software is the next best thing.

When the new feature rolls out, you’ll be asked to choose between “Basic TV” or “Google TV” at setup. 9to5Google says that with basic mode, “almost everything is stripped, leaving users with just HDMI inputs and Live TV if they have an antenna plugged directly into the TV. Casting support, too, is dropped.” The UI notes that you’ll be turning off all apps, the Google Assistant, and personalized recommendations.

9to5 found this feature via the ADT-3 development set-top box and the Android 12 developer preview, so it’s not entirely clear how it will work when it’s running on a real TV. It seems like basic mode will only show a minimal set of icons for things like input-switching and settings. There’s also a big banner advertising Google TV mode, which you’ll presumably just have to learn to ignore. A Google spokesperson told the site that this feature is destined to hit TVs sold with integrated Google TV in the future.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between “Android TV” and “Google TV,” Google TV is kind of like the next version of Android TV. Google TV is just the Android TV codebase with a new interface, which offers things like a unified search. The upgrade path for existing Android TV devices is Google TV, assuming your device manufacturer is actually shipping updates. By 2022, Google says TV manufacturers won’t be allowed to ship Android TV and will instead ship Google TV. There are some product lines that Google just loves to rebrand every few years, and Android TV/Google TV is one of them.

Google TV will be in Sony’s entire Bravia XR 2021 lineup and select TCL TVs later this year.

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