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Business travel abroad? Stay connected on the cheap with eSIM, Google Fi and more

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Best travel tech: Cables, chargers, batteries, and more
Jason Cipriani and Jason Perlow discuss in this week’s Jason Squared which gadgets and accessories — a.k.a travel tech — they need most when hitting the road. Read more: https://zd.net/2HOu1iZ

Not that long ago, staying connected while traveling overseas involved a difficult set of choices. You could stop at a sketchy airport shop to pick up a prepaid SIM card and then (maybe) figure out how to forward your calls to the new temporary phone number. The alternative was to pay truly frightening roaming rates and risk receiving a four-figure mobile bill a few weeks after getting home.

Mere vacationers and business travelers on a budget simply turned off their cell phones at the beginning of the trip and checked in over email every time a Wi-Fi connection was handy.

Also: Forget the smartphone: Get yourself a satellite phone that will work anywhere on the planet 

Thankfully, those days are long past. I’m about to leave on a two-week trip to Europe, and I have multiple connectivity options available to me. Best of all, none of them require losing touch with home or worrying about a surprise bill at the end of the trip.

I could still pick up a local SIM after landing in Madrid, but why should I bother, when I have three options available to me that don’t require any extra effort?

  • My current U.S. carrier, Sprint, offers inexpensive phone calls, free text messages, and 2G (slow) basic data access while I’m overseas. For $5 a day or $25 a week, I can upgrade to 4G LTE speeds. That program is similar to what T-Mobile provides, and the weekly rate is less than half of the $10 “day passes” that AT&T and Verizon sell.
  • My Google Fi account offers full-speed LTE data access on the T-Mobile network as part of my normal $10-per-GB plan, at the same rate I would pay if I were just walking around my own neighborhood. (The maximum data charge for any billing period is $60, in addition to a $20-per-month access fee for the line.) On previous overseas trips, I’ve used my Google Fi device as a hotspot with excellent results, and I’ll have it available as a backup device for this trip.
  • And then there are data providers like Ubigi, the customer-facing brand for the global Transatel network, which provides low-cost data-only access overseas by targeting devices that support eSIM capabilities. A prepaid package of 10 GB of mobile LTE data in Spain, good for 30 days, costs a mere $19 from Ubigi. That’s more than enough of an allowance for a two-week trip, at a fraction of the weekly rate from Sprint ($50) or the daily rate from Verizon/AT&T ($140).

That eSIM option (the e stands for embedded) is the most intriguing one of all. Recent iPhones (iPhone X and later)  and cellular-enabled iPad models include eSIM support, as do the Google Pixel 3 and 4. The Arm-based Lenovo C630 laptop that I’m taking on this trip has a standard SIM slot and eSIM capabilities, as does the forthcoming Surface Pro X.

Setting up the eSIM on an iPhone XS for use with the Ubigi network is a multiple-step process.

First, go to https://cellulardata.ubigi.com/ and sign up for a free eSIM profile, which arrives in the form of a QR code via email. You can also install the Ubigi app, which will come in handy later.

Next, go to iPhone Settings > Cellular, tap Add Cellular Plan, and scan that QR code. (If you can’t scan the code, you can copy and paste the activation code or type it in manually.)

With that step complete, you should see two cellular plans available, as shown below. (I’ve used a custom label for each line to make it easier to distinguish the two.)

setup-esim-iphone.jpg

Adding a cellular plan to iPhone involves scanning a QR code with an eSIM profile.

Now open the Ubigi app (or go to the mobile website at https://ubigi.me). Turn off Wi-Fi and turn off your local carrier’s cellular data plan temporarily. After connecting to the Ubigi network you should be prompted to set up a new account, where you can purchase a data plan.

You can choose a recurring plan or, as I’ve done here, a one-off plan. After entering payment information and completing the transaction, I can check the plan’s status any time using the app.

ubigi-data-status.jpg

This one-off data plan costs a fraction of what a U.S. carrier charges.

From the Cellular Data page in the iOS Settings app, I can choose which connection I want to use as my default voice line and which to use for mobile data. The Allow Cellular Data Switching option means I can keep both data networks connected and let the phone decide which network is most appropriate at any given time. In that configuration, the iOS Control Center shows both networks.

iphone-multiple-networks.jpg

Using cellular data switching, an iPhone can choose the stronger of two mobile networks.

Of course, counting on cellular coverage is always a bit of a gamble, thanks to dead zones caused by geography and the vagaries of network coverage. But for this trip at least, I feel fully prepared.



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Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law – TechCrunch

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Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.

That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.

Indeed, 1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 million higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.

A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.

The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.

A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.

The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.

 

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Twitter rolls out vaccine misinformation warning labels and a strike-based system for violations – TechCrunch

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Twitter announced Monday that it would begin injecting new labels into users’ timelines to push back against misinformation that could disrupt the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. The labels, which will also appear as pop-up messages in the retweet window, are the company’s latest product experiment designed to shape behavior on the platform for the better.

The company will attach notices to tweeted misinformation warning users that the content “may be misleading” and linking out to vetted public health information. These initial vaccine misinformation sweeps, which begin today, will be conducted by human moderators at Twitter and not automated moderation systems.

Twitter says the goal is to use these initial determinations to train its AI systems so that down the road a blend of human and automated efforts will scan the site for vaccine misinformation. The latest misinformation measure will target tweets in English before expanding.

Twitter also introduced a new strike system for violations of its pandemic-related rules. The new system is modeled after a set of consequences it implemented for voter suppression and voting-related misinformation. Within that framework, a user with two or three “strikes” faces a 12-hour account lockout. With four violations, they lose account access for one week, with permanent suspension looming after five strikes.

Twitter introduced its first pandemic-specific policies a year ago, banning tweets promoting false treatment or prevention claims along with any content that could put people at higher risk of spreading COVID-19. In December, Twitter added new rules focused on popular vaccine conspiracy theories and announced that warning labels were on the way.

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Facebook launches BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps – TechCrunch

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Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is today launching its next experimental app, called BARS. The app makes it possible for rappers to create and share their raps using professionally created beats, and is the NPE Team’s second launch in the music space following its recent public debut of music video app Collab.

While Collab focuses on making music with others online, BARS is instead aimed at would-be rappers looking to create and share their own videos. In the app, users will select from any of the hundreds of professionally created beats, then write their own lyrics and record a video. BARS can also automatically suggest rhymes as you’re writing out lyrics, and offers different audio and visual filters to accompany videos as well as an autotune feature.

There’s also a “Challenge mode” available, where you can freestyle with auto-suggested word cues, which has more of a game-like element to it. The experience is designed to be accommodating to people who just want to have fun with rap, similar to something like Smule’s AutoRap, perhaps, which also offers beats for users’ own recordings.

Image Credits: Facebook

The videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length and can then be saved to your Camera Roll or shared out on other social media platforms.

Like NPE’s Collab, the pandemic played a role in BARS’ creation. The pandemic shut down access to live music and places where rappers could experiment, explains NPE Team member DJ Iyler, who also ghostwrites hip-hop songs under the alias “D-Lucks.”

“I know access to high-priced recording studios and production equipment can be limited for aspiring rappers. On top of that, the global pandemic shut down live performances where we often create and share our work,” he says.

BARS was built with a team of aspiring rappers, and today launched into a closed beta.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the focus on music, and rap in particular, the new app in a way can be seen as yet another attempt by Facebook to develop a TikTok competitor — at least in this content category.

TikTok has already become a launchpad for up-and-coming musicians, including rappers; it has helped rappers test their verses, is favored by many beatmakers and is even influencing what sort of music is being made. Diss tracks have also become a hugely popular format on TikTok, mainly as a way for influencers to stir up drama and chase views. In other words, there’s already a large social community around rap on TikTok, and Facebook wants to shift some of that attention back its way.

The app also resembles TikTok in terms of its user interface. It’s a two-tabbed vertical video interface — in its case, it has  “Featured” and “New” feeds instead of TikTok’s “Following” and “For You.” And BARS places the engagement buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen with the creator name on the lower-left, just like TikTok.

However, in place of hearts for favoriting videos, your taps on a video give it “Fire” — a fire emoji keeps track. You can tap “Fire” as many times as you want, too. But because there’s (annoyingly) no tap-to-pause feature, you may accidentally “fire” a video when you were looking for a way to stop its playback. To advance in BARS, you swipe vertically, but the interface is lacking an obvious “Follow” button to track your favorite creators. It’s hidden under the top-right three-dot menu.

The app is seeded with content from NPE Team members, which includes other aspiring rappers, former music producers and publishers.

Currently, the BARS beta is live on the iOS App Store in the U.S., and is opening its waitlist. Facebook says it will open access to BARS invites in batches, starting in the U.S. Updates and news about invites, meanwhile, will be announced on Instagram.

Facebook’s recent launches from its experimental apps division include Collab and collage maker E.gg, among others. Not all apps stick around. If they fail to gain traction, Facebook shuts them down — as it did last year with the Pinterest-like video app Hobbi.

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