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Check out our Thanksgiving tech support survival guide (2018 edition)

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It’s that time of year again…

Thanksgiving is a time of year which sees “the techies” and “the non-techies” come into contact. And chances are that you, being the techie, will be spotted an hunted down — The Walking Dead style, albeit these zombies are slower and sleepier thanks to all the tryptophan — by the non-techies in search of “help.”

And why not?

Don’t doctors get asked for advice on boils and sores at every get-together they attend? Don’t all lawyers help friends and family members with their latest crop of legal problems? No… well, we must be in the wrong line of work.

With this in mind, I’ve put together what I call a “Turkey Day” tech support survival guide. I’ve called it a “Turkey Day” guide — though it will work just as well at other times of year — because this seems to be the time of year when the techie’s superhero skills are in greatest demand.

The first rule of Thanksgiving tech support is…

Don’t needlessly take on huge projects. They will end up sucking away all your time, and you’ll be back at work wondering where Thanksgiving went.

Only take on projects that you can finish in a short amount of time. Also, if you’re not making any headway with an issue, know when to give up.

Collect several high-capacity USB flash drives

The foundation of the “Turkey Day” tech support survival kit is several large USB flash drives. 4GB is good, but 8GB or more is better. Make sure you have several of them on hand.

Not only are they a must-have for storing your “superpowers” (software tools) on, but they also come in handy if you have to move or back up any files.

Download updates in advance

You know that PC that you worked on last year? The one that hadn’t been updated in a year? Chances are it has not seen an update since the last time you laid hands on it.

Be prepared and download updates in advance. You know better than I do what operating systems your family (and any nearby friends) are running, but here are some quick links:

Alternatively, if you’re going somewhere that has a fast internet connection, use the operating system’s own updater to bring in the updates (this is usually quicker and needs less hand-holding).

Top tip: Thanksgiving is NOT the right time to be upgrading operating systems — remember that first rule? If family and friends start asking you about Windows 10 or macOS Mojave, my advice is to tell them you’ll talk about that another time. Upgrading OSes is the sort of timesuck to avoid if you want to relax.

Other patches and updates should be small enough for you to be able to download them over a poor connection. If not, then impress your family and friends by setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot using your smartphone or tablet and download them that way.

Secure your bases

In my experience, about half of what I would affectionately call “home users” don’t run any security software (unless it was pre-installed), and the other half are running an outdated package.

As for a comprehensive, nag-free antivirus for both Windows and Mac systems, I recommend you take a look at Sophos Home, which offers commercial-grade antivirus to consumers at no cost.

I also find it handy to have a scanner that I can install and run to clean up any infected Windows PCs I stumble across. For this I use VIPRE Rescue, which is a superb tool for on-the-fly malware removal.

Remember to check that all installed browsers are up-to-date (along with any add-ons). This is a good time to be on the lookout for any random toolbars or dodgy add-ons that need removing.

Here are a few other things worth checking: Java | QuickTime (or just dump it if possible, since it’s not been updated in over a year) | Flash.

Another good security tip is to determine which program is the default PDF reader on the system. If it’s not an up-to-date version of Adobe Reader then I’d recommend uninstalling it and adding FoxIt Reader, a move that will make the system in question safer.

I used to recommend Flexera Personal Software Inspector scanner for identifying programs that were insecure or in need of updating, and it could also automatically update many commonly used applications. Unfortunately, this product has been discontinued and direct alternatives are not available. Two of the alternatives that I’ve tested are SUMo and Patch My PC.

Install this now, and next year you might actually get to watch the game.

Prepare for battle… erm… troubleshooting

My favorite portable troubleshooting utility is, and has been for years, the Ultimate Boot CD.

Ultimate Boot CD now allows you to run the .ISO disk image from a USB flash drive, which is more convenient and a lot easier to keep updated than a disc (although for older systems it’s still wise to have a CD in your bag, just in case it won’t boot from a USB drive).

This is without doubt the best collection of tools and utilities available, and has saved my bacon more times than I care to remember.

Get ready to fight crapware

For any relatives who might have a new PC (that’s more than likely stuffed full of ‘crapware’), then PC Decrapifier is a handy tool to have nearby. Running this on a new PC can make it feel like an even newer PC.

Then there’s all the other stuff!

It’s not just PCs these days. It’s also everything else: iPhones, iPads, Android devices, set-top devices, etc.

This is where life gets extra complex and it’s wise to pick your battles here.

Make sure you have some basic tools

You need to be packing hardware as well as software. I find that at minimum it’s good to carry the following:

  • A #2 Phillips screwdriver (or a good multitool)
  • An anti-static wrist strap
  • A few anti-static bags
  • Some spare screws (drive screws and motherboard screws are especially handy)
  • A spare Lightning and micro USB charger cables for smartphones and tablets
  • Spare USB charger

If you have a decent everyday carry kit with you, you should be OK for tools.

Thinking on your feet

Don’t waste time (remember, this is your time too). If you don’t know something, don’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel; instead hit up your favorite search engine to look for answers. Jumping straight to this stage (as opposed to going through long-winded troubleshooting procedures) can save you a lot of time.

Alternatively… just say no!

Toss aside the keyboard, frisbee the boot CD into the garbage can, and just gorge yourself on giant slabs of turkey and pumpkin pie.

Do you think that this t-shirt from ThinkGeek is a fantastically passive-aggressive way to get the message across that you’re not in the mood to fix PCs? It might be the best $20 you’ll spend this year.

It’s an absolute classic!

Have a good Turkey Day, folks, and try to find time to have fun!

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New privacy bill would put major limits on targeted advertising – TechCrunch

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A new bill seeks to dramatically reshape the online advertising landscape to the detriment of companies like Facebook, Google and data brokers that leverage deep stores of personal information to make money from targeted ads.

The bill, the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, introduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) in the House and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in the Senate, would dramatically limit the ways that tech companies serve ads to their users, banning the use of personal data altogether.

Any targeting based on “protected class information, such as race, gender, and religion, and personal data purchased from data brokers” would be off-limits were the bill to pass. Platforms could still target ads based on general location data at the city or state level and “contextual advertising” based on the content a user is interacting with would still be allowed.

The bill would empower the FTC and state attorneys general to enforce violations, with fines of up to $5,000 per incident for knowing violations.

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” Rep. Eshoo said. “This pernicious practice allows online platforms to chase user engagement at great cost to our society, and it fuels disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses, and so many other harms.”

Sen. Booker called the targeted advertising model “predatory and invasive,” stressing how the practice exacerbates misinformation and extremism on social media platforms.

Privacy-minded companies including search engine maker DuckDuckGo and Proton, creator of ProtonMail, backed the legislation along with organizations including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Anti-Defamation League, Accountable Tech and Common Sense Media.

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Snapchat says it’s getting better at finding illicit drug dealers before users do – TechCrunch

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Snapchat has faced increasing criticism in recent years as the opioid crisis plays out on social media, often with tragic results.

In October, an NBC investigation reported the stories of a number of young people aged 13 to 23 who died after purchasing fentanyl-laced pills on Snapchat. Snapchat parent company Snap responded by committing to improve its ability to detect and remove this kind of content and ushering users who search for drug-related content to an educational harm reduction portal.

Snapchat provided a glimpse at its progress against illicit drug sales on the platform, noting that 88 percent of the drug-related content it finds is now identified proactively by automated systems, with community reporting accounting for the other 12 percent. Snap says this number is up by a third since its October update, indicating that more of this content is being detected up front before being identified by users.

“Since this fall, we have also seen another important indicator of progress: a decline in community-reported content related to drug sales,” Snap wrote in a blog post. “In September, over 23% of drug-related reports from Snapchatters contained content specifically related to sales, and as a result of proactive detection work, we have driven that down to 16% as of this month. This marks a decline of 31% in drug-related reports. We will keep working to get this number as low as possible.”

The company says that it also recently introduced a new safeguard that prevents 13 to 17 year-old users from showing up in its Quick Add user search results unless they have friends in common with the person searching. That precaution is meant to discourage minors from connecting with users they don’t know, in this case to deter online drug transactions.

Snapchat is also adding information from the CDC on the dangers of fentanyl into its “Heads Up” harm reduction portal and partnering with the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), a global nonprofit working to “prevent substance misuse through collaborative community efforts.”

The company works with experts to identify new search terms that sellers use to get around its rules against selling illicit substances. Snapchat calls the work to keep its lexicon of drug sales jargon up to date “a constant, ongoing effort.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration published a warning last month about the dangers of pills purchased online that contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is deadlier in much smaller doses than heroin. Because fentanyl increasingly shows up in illicitly purchased drugs, including those purchased online, it can prove fatal to users who believed they were ingesting other substances.

In December, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram called Snapchat and other social media apps “haven[s] for drug traffickers” in a December interview with CBS. “Because drug traffickers are harnessing social media because it is accessible, they’re able to access millions of Americans and it is anonymous and they’re able to sell these fake pills that are not what they say they are,” Milgram said.

While social media platforms dragged their feet about investing in proactive, aggressive content moderation, online drug sales took root. Companies have sealed up some of the more obvious ways to find illicit drugs online (a few years ago it was as simple as searching #painpills on Instagram, for instance) but savvy sellers adapt their practices to get around new rules as they’re made.

The rise of fentanyl is a significant factor exacerbating the American opioid epidemic and the substance’s prevalence in online sales presents unique challenges. In an October hearing on children’s online safety, Snap called the issue the company’s “top priority,” but many lawmakers and families affected by online drug sales remain skeptical that social media companies are taking their role in the opioid crisis seriously.

 

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Twitter expands misinformation reporting feature to more international markets – TechCrunch

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Last August, Twitter introduced a new feature in select markets, including the U.S., that invited users to report misinformation they encountered on its platform — including things like election-related or Covid-19 misinformation, for example. Now the company is rolling out the feature to more markets as its test expands. In addition to the U.S., Australia, and South Korea, where the feature had already gone live, Twitter is rolling out the reporting option to users in Brazil, Spain, and the Philippines.

The company also offered an update on the feature’s traction, noting that the company has received more than 3.7 million user-submitted reports since its debut. For context, Twitter has around 211 million monetizable active daily users, as of its most recent earnings, 37 million of which are U.S.-based and 174 million based in international markets.

According to Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, the “vast majority” of content the company takes action on for misinformation is identified proactively through automation (which accounts for 50%+ of enforcements) or proactive monitoring. User-submitted reports via the new feature, however, Twitter to identify patterns of misinformation — an area where Twitter has seen the most success so far from the feature, Roth says. This is particularly true in areas like non-text-baed misinformation like media and URLs that link to content hosted off Twitter’s platform.

But he also noted that when Twitter reviewed a subset of individual reported tweets, only around 10% were considered “actionable” compared with 20-30% in other policy areas, as many tweets analyzed didn’t contain misinformation at all.

In markets where the feature is available, users can report misinformation by clicking the three-dot menu in the upper-right of a tweet, then choosing the “report tweet” option. From there, they’ll be able to click the option “it’s misleading.”

While Twitter already offered a way to report violating content on its platform before the addition of the new flagging option, its existing reporting flow didn’t offer a clear way to report tweets containing misinformation. Instead, users would have to pick from options like “it’s suspicious or spam” or “it’s abusive or harmful,” among others, before further narrowing down how the specific tweet was in violation of Twitter’s rules.

The ability to flag tweets as misinformation allows users to more quickly and directly flag content that may not fit into existing rules, as well. But the reports themselves are tied into Twitter’s existing enforcement flow, where a combination of human review and moderation is used to determine if a punitive action should take place. Twitter had also said the reported tweets would be sorted for review based on priority — meaning tweets from accounts with a large following or those showing higher levels of engagement would be reviewed first.

The feature is rolling out at a time when social networks are being pressured to clean up the misinformation they’ve allowed to spread across their platforms, or risk regulation that will enforce such cleanups and perhaps even enact penalties for not doing so.

The flagging option is not the only way Twitter is working to fight misinformation. The company also runs an experiment called Birdwatch, which aims to crowdsource fact-checking by allowing Twitter users to annotate misleading tweets with factual information. This service is still in pilot testing and being updated based on user feedback.

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