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YouTube lands on Fire TV and Amazon Prime Video arrives on Chromecast, Android TV

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It’s nice when people can come together and work through their differences to make it easier to watch stuff. That’s exactly what happened today, when the long-standing detente between Google and Amazon over streaming video services came to an end, with YouTube arriving on Fire TV and Prime Video making its way to Chromecast and Android TV.

Amazon’s second-generation Fire TV Stick, their Fire TV Stick 4K, the Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick Basic Edition and Fire TV Edition smart TVs made by partner OEMs will all get support for the official YouTube app globally starting today, and Amazon intends to extend support to even more of its hardware in the future. YouTube TV and YouTube Kids will also come to Amazon Fire TV devices later this year.

On the Google side, both its own Chromecast devices, as well as partner TVs and hardware that support Chromecast built-in, or that run Android TV, will gain support broadly for Prime Video. Plus, any Chromecast Ultra owners will also get access to Prime Video’s 4,000-title library, at no additional cost, as part of the new tie-up between the two companies.

Prime has been available on some Android TV devices to date, but it’s expanding to a much broader selection of those smart TVs and streaming boxes from today.

This has been a long time coming — several years in fact, with the most recent spat between the two coming as a result of Amazon’s implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show. Then, in May, the companies announced they’d reached an agreement to put the feud behind them in the interest of consumers, which is what resulted in this cross-platform launch today.

Let the streams flow!

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Windows.com bitsquatting hack can wreak “unknown havoc” on PCs

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Bit flips are events that cause individual bits stored in an electronic device to flip, turning a 0 to a 1 or vice versa. Cosmic radiation and fluctuations in power or temperature are the most common naturally occurring causes. Research from 2010 estimated that a computer with 4GB of commodity RAM has a 96 percent chance of experiencing a bit flip within three days.

An independent researcher recently demonstrated how bitflips can come back to bite Windows users when their PCs reach out to Microsoft’s windows.com domain. Windows devices do this regularly to do things like making sure the time shown in the computer clock is accurate, connecting to Microsoft’s cloud-based services, and recovering from crashes.

Remy, as the researcher asked to be referred to, mapped the 32 valid domain names that were one bitflip away from windows.com. He provided the following to help readers understand how these flips can cause the domain to change to whndows.com:

01110111 01101001 01101110 01100100 01101111 01110111 01110011
w i n d o w s
01110111 01101000 01101110 01100100 01101111 01110111 01110011
w h n d o w s

Of the 32 bit-flipped values that were valid domain names, Remy found that 14 of them were still available for purchase. This was surprising because normally, Microsoft and other companies buy these types of one-off domains to protect customers against phishing attacks. He bought them for $126 and set out to see what would happen. The domains were:

  • windnws.com
  • windo7s.com
  • windkws.com
  • windmws.com
  • winlows.com
  • windgws.com
  • wildows.com
  • wintows.com
  • wijdows.com
  • wiodows.com
  • wifdows.com
  • whndows.com
  • wkndows.com
  • wmndows.com

No inherent verification

Over the course of two weeks, Remy’s server received 199,180 connections from 626 unique IP addresses that were trying to contact ntp.windows.com. By default, Windows machines will connect to this domain once per week to check that the time shown in the device clock is correct. What the researcher found next was even more surprising.

“The NTP client for windows OS has no inherent verification of authenticity, so there is nothing stopping a malicious person from telling all these computers that it’s after 03:14:07 on Tuesday, 19 January 2038 and wreaking unknown havoc as the memory storing the signed 32-bit integer for time overflows,” he wrote in a post summarizing his findings. “As it turns out though, for ~30% of these computers doing that would make little to no difference at all to those users because their clock is already broken.”

The researcher observed machines trying to make connections to other windows.com subdomains, including sg2p.w.s.windows.com, client.wns.windows.com, skydrive.wns.windows.com, windows.com/stopcode, and windows.com/?fbclid.

Remy said that not all of the domain mismatches were the result of bitflips. In some cases they were caused by typos by people behind the keyboard, and in at least one case the keyboard was on an Android device, as it attempted to diagnose a blue-screen-of-death crash that had occurred on a Windows machine.

To capture the traffic devices sent to the mismatched domains, Remy rented a virtual private server and created wildcard domain lookup entries to point to them. The wildcard records allow traffic destined for different subdomains of the same domain—say, ntp.whndows.com, abs.xyz.whndows.com, or client.wns.whndows.com—to map to the same IP address.

“Due to the nature of this research dealing with bits being flipped, this allows me to capture any DNS lookup for a subdomain of windows.com where multiple bits have flipped.”

Remy said he’s willing to transfer the 14 domains to a “verifiably responsible party” and in the meantime will simply sinkhole them, meaning he will hold onto the addresses and configure the DNS records so they are unreachable.

“Hopefully this spawns more research”

I asked Microsoft representatives if they’re aware of the findings and the offer to transfer the domains. The representatives are working on getting a response. Readers should remember, though, that the threats the research identifies aren’t limited to Windows.

In a 2019 presentation at the Kaspersky Security Analysts Summit, for instance, researchers from security firm Bishop Fox obtained some eye-opening results after registering hundreds of bitflipped variations of skype.com, symantec.com, and other widely visited sites.

Remy said the findings are important because they suggest that bitflip-induced domain mismatches occur at a scale that’s higher than many people realized.

“Prior research primarily dealt with HTTP/HTTPS, but my research shows that even with a small handful of bitsquatted domains you can still siphon up ill-destined traffic from other default network protocols that are constantly running, such as NTP,” Remy said in a direct message. “Hopefully this spawns more research into this area as it relates to the threat model of default OS services.”

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SpaceX Starlink factory in Texas will speed up production of Dishy McFlatface

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Enlarge / The SpaceX Starlink satellite dish partway through a teardown.

SpaceX says it is building a factory in Austin, Texas, to design systems that will help make satellite dishes, Wi-Fi routers, and other equipment for its Starlink satellite broadband network. The news comes from a job posting for an automation and controls engineer position flagged in a story Tuesday by local news channel KXAN.

“To keep up with global demand, SpaceX is breaking ground on a new, state of the art manufacturing facility in Austin, TX,” the job posting said. “The Automation & Controls Engineer will play a key role as we strive to manufacture millions of consumer facing devices that we ship directly to customers (Starlink dishes, Wi-Fi routers, mounting hardware, etc).”

The factory apparently won’t make the dishes and routers on site but will instead design systems that improve the manufacturing process. “Specifically, they will design and develop control systems and software for production line machinery—ultimately tackling the toughest mechanical, software, and electrical challenges that come with high-volume manufacturing, all while maintaining a focus on flexibility, reliability, maintainability, and ease of use,” the job posting said.

Starlink is in beta and is serving over 10,000 customers, and it has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to deploy up to 5 million user terminals in the US. SpaceX calls this piece of hardware “Dishy McFlatface,” and it receives transmissions from SpaceX’s low-Earth orbit satellites. See our article about a Dishy McFlatface teardown for more details on the hardware’s inner portions, and this article for more pictures of the dish in its fully intact state.

Starlink has been charging $99 per month plus a one-time fee of $499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router. Starlink recently began taking preorders for service that would become available in the second half of 2021.

Shipping to 25 countries this year

The new job posting said the successful applicant will work in Austin but spend up to 25 percent of the time at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles “until [the] Austin facility is fully established.” The new engineer will make an impact on Starlink’s ability to ship hardware this year. The person will “set, implement, and maintain schedules and budgets to ensure project completion as we strive to ship to 25+ countries by the end of the year,” the job posting said.

The engineer will be expected to “design, develop, and manage automation and controls projects to manufacture consumer electronics that are easy for humans around the world to use, but are technically very sophisticated—this includes initial factory ideation, on-line commissioning and proof of rate capability, and eventual hand-off to operational teams.” The engineer will also “spearhead facility bring up and initial equipment conceptual development by carefully balancing product specifications, process requirements, layout complexity, cost, and lead-time limits,” the job posting said.

We asked SpaceX for more detail on plans for the Austin facility and when it will open, and on where exactly the dishes and routers will be manufactured. We’ll update this article if we get an answer.

The new SpaceX factory would be near Tesla’s planned car factory in Austin. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is also the CEO of Tesla.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

Even after adding a plan to the cart and going through most of the checkout process, I could not find any mention of upload speeds. I got to the point where you have to enter credit card information to continue, so I initially stopped there. I later confirmed that Comcast’s ordering system will show upload speeds after it checks whether your credit card is valid, in the final page where you submit an order.

Deliberately keeping customers in the dark

I’ve long known that it’s difficult to find upload speeds on Comcast’s website, but I’m not sure exactly when it became virtually impossible. There were complaints about this very problem on Comcast’s customer support forums in 2020 and in 2019, though. “What is my upload speed now? No where in the world can I find documentation,” one customer asked. The answer was that existing customers can find upload speeds for their own plan in their account settings after logging in and navigating to the correct section.

But that does not help people who are signing up for service and want to find out what upload speeds they’ll get or compare upload speeds of different plans. Even the Xfinity.com comparison tool that lets you compare details of different plans doesn’t reveal their upload speeds. The absence of upload speeds from Comcast’s website is so thorough that it is clearly a deliberate attempt to keep customers in the dark. This gallery shows how the Comcast Xfinity website displays Internet plans without mentioning upload speeds and continues that tactic through nearly the entire checkout process:

Thankfully, the third-party website CableTV.com lists both download and upload speeds, showing that Comcast’s 25Mbps download plan comes with 3Mbps uploads; the 100Mbps and 200Mbps download plans both have 5Mbps uploads; the 300Mbps download plan has 10Mbps uploads; the 600Mbps plan has 15Mbps uploads; and the 1Gbps download (1.2Gbps in some areas) comes with 35Mbps:

Comcast speeds and prices, no thanks to Comcast's website.
Enlarge / Comcast speeds and prices, no thanks to Comcast’s website.

Comcast’s website does list the 35Mbps upload speeds for the gigabit plan at this page, but I couldn’t find anything similar for Comcast’s other cable-Internet plans. Comcast also offers a fiber-to-the-home service with 2Gbps speeds both downstream and upstream. But Comcast’s residential fiber requires installation charges of up to $500, and the service costs $300 a month, which is more than three times as much as the gigabit-cable plan that has 35Mbps downloads.

Comcast, why did you make this so hard?

I contacted Comcast today with two primary questions: is there any way to find upload speeds on Comcast’s website before submitting an order for Internet service, and does Comcast have any plans to raise its cable upload speeds?

Comcast’s answer on where to find upstream speeds was as follows:

Our network report shows that, despite the growth in upstream traffic in 2020, patterns remain highly asymmetrical as downstream volumes were 14x higher than upstream throughout 2020. Our website reflects the way customers use the Internet with downstream overwhelmingly dominating usage, but upstream speeds are included in your cart and are visible upon check out when you submit your order.

Despite Comcast claiming that “upstream speeds are included in your cart,” I could find no evidence of this. Adding a Comcast Internet plan to the cart and then clicking the cart icon brought me to an ordering page that does not mention upload speeds. I confirmed this behavior on Xfinity.com in both Chrome and Safari.

I circled back to the Comcast spokesperson and asked what exact steps I need to take to make upload speeds show up in the cart. It turns out the upload speeds never show up in the cart at all unless you define “cart” to include the entire ordering process. Comcast told us the upload speeds will finally appear “when you are at the step when you review your order.”

Despite my earlier reluctance to enter my credit card information for service I am not ordering, I finally did so to check whether this is accurate. I submitted my address, phone number, and credit card information, and I clicked “Next.” This triggered a step in which Comcast’s system checked to see whether I had entered a valid credit card. I accidentally entered a recently expired card number, so Comcast’s system “declined” my card and made me re-enter it. After I entered a card number that Comcast could charge, I finally got to this page, where the 300Mbps download-plan’s 10Mbps upload speeds are shown:

The last page in Comcast's ordering system.
Enlarge / The last page in Comcast’s ordering system.

Xfinity.com

At this page, with Comcast having already verified your card, you can view upload speeds and decide whether to submit the order or exit the ordering system. The part of Comcast’s statement that upload speeds are “visible upon check out when you submit your order” is thus accurate. But refusing to tell a prospective customer what they’re paying for until after they submit credit card information is simply ridiculous. You can probably get upload speeds earlier by asking a Comcast rep in an online chat or phone call, but that shouldn’t be necessary.

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