Android’s AirDrop competitor demonstrated in new hands-on video

A new hands-on video from XDA Developers has given us our best look yet at Android’s upcoming AirDrop-style sharing feature called Nearby Sharing. The video of the unannounced feature shows a number of photos and a video file being sent between a Pixel 2 XL and a Pixel 4, although XDA notes that the feature has also been seen working on a OnePlus device.

Despite how useful AirDrop is, so far, Android has struggled to find much success with its own alternative. Its NFC-based take on the feature was discontinued in Android 10, and although Google’s Files app includes similar functionality, it’s not quite the same as having it baked it at the OS level. There have been reports that Google is working on an AirDrop competitor for Android for a little while, but this is the first time we’ve had the chance to see it in action.

In the video, Nearby Sharing is shown built right into Android’s quick settings menu. It doesn’t seem to be in a finished state just yet — the video shows it failing at least once when trying to send a video file — but once the transfer starts, it’s a fairly quick transfer over Wi-Fi. The feature says that it’s designed to work best when the two devices are within one foot of each other, but there are also options to restrict your device’s visibility if you don’t want strangers to be able to send you files using the feature.

Google isn’t the only player in the Android ecosystem that’s thought to be working on an AirDrop competitor. Just this morning XDA-Developers reported that Samsung has a file-sharing standard of its own called Quick Share, and last year, a trio of China’s biggest smartphone manufacturers — Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo — announced that they were working on their own protocol.

The advantage Nearby Sharing has is that it should eventually be available on phones from every Android manufacturer, rather than being limited to just a small group of them, or even just one in the case of Samsung. There’s no word on when the feature might be officially released (or even announced), but given it’s already in a working state, it can’t be too far away.

Now, you can use generative placeholder images for your web project

Generative Placeholders is a new tool that lets you embed autogenerated placeholder art into a website that changes with every page refresh. It only requires a brief bit of embedded code. The key word here is “placeholder,” which suggests that the tool’s creator, Stefan Bohacek, sees it as the visual equivalent of a Lorem Ipsum text generator (or the far superior Hipster Ipsum), designed to fill a prototype website with something while it’s under construction.

The code works by specifying how tall and wide a placeholder image should be, and it also lets you tweak the style and color of each image. There are eight different styles available, ranging from geometric layouts of circles or triangles to designs that are inspired by existing works of art like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover (embedded below) or the abstract art of Piet Mondrian (above). You can also tweak other settings, such as color palette and pattern density.

(Note: Refresh the page to see the image regenerate.)

Before you set about filling your own site with autogenerated images, you should know that the copyright rules surrounding machine-generated works are still emerging. When it comes to music, US law is struggling to deal with art that’s not created by humans, and there are arguments that copyright can belong to either the human that created the AI, the AI itself, or even the public domain. For what it’s worth, Generative Placeholders is provided under the MIT License, which generally only places limited restrictions on how you can use the software.

You can check out how to implement the images on the project’s webpage.

Update January 24th, 11:11AM ET: Updated to include generative placeholder image.

Samsung to debut AirDrop competitor alongside Galaxy S20, report claims

Samsung is developing its own alternative to Apple’s AirDrop file sharing service that will launch with the upcoming Galaxy S20, XDA Developers reports. Screenshots of the feature show that it will work similarly to AirDrop, allowing you to “share instantly with people nearby,” so long as their device has Quick Share turned on. You’ll also be able to restrict who can send you files to just people in your contacts, or else leave it wide open so that strangers can send you pictures of space sloths.

Despite how useful AirDrop has been on iOS and macOS since its initial launch in 2011, Android has struggled to come up with a viable competitor. For a while Android included an NFC-based version called Android Beam, but this was discontinued with Android 10. Google’s Files app also contains similar functionality, but it’s not the same as having the feature built directly into Android.

There are signs that this could change soon. XDA Developers has reported multiple times on an upcoming Android feature called Nearby Sharing which appears to be accessed directly from the operating system’s quick settings panel. The feature was first spotted under the name Fast Share back in June 2019, but appears to still be under development as of earlier this month.

As well as letting you share with other Samsung smartphone users, Quick Share also lets you transfer data to SmartThings devices. To do so, it uploads your file to Samsung Cloud, before downloading it on the device itself. This mode appears to be more limited, with a data cap of 1GB at a time, up to a maximum of 2GB a day.

Samsung isn’t the only Android manufacturer working on an AirDrop competitor. Last year, three of China’s biggest smartphone manufacturers — Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo — announced that they are working on a peer-to-peer transfer protocol that will work across their devices. The feature is expected to launch next month. Meanwhile, OnePlus also has its own file transfer system called FileDash, which is limited to its own devices.

Samsung’s Galaxy S20 is expected to launch on February 11th, where we could also see Quick Share officially detailed. XDA Developers says the feature is likely to come to all devices launching with One UI 2.1 or later, but speculates that it may end up on older Samsung devices in time.

How to secure your WhatsApp account from social hacking

Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service is incredibly easy to set up, but this easy setup process means that your account is open to abuse if you’re not careful. Thankfully, it’s fairly simple to enable an extra layer of security on your account, which means that you won’t lose it if your six-digit activation code gets compromised.

These security options unfortunately won’t stop you from a serious hack such as the one that hit Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. What it will do is offer another layer of protection if someone manages to trick you into sharing your security code, which is a process known as “social hacking.”

If you need any convincing about why it’s a good idea to use this extra security, then allow me to share a friend’s recent experience about what can go wrong when you don’t.

Bleary-eyed one Sunday morning, she received a WhatsApp message from a close friend that asked if she could forward over a six-digit code that she was just about to receive via SMS. Without thinking, and because she trusted her friend, she sent over the code and suddenly found herself logged out of her WhatsApp account.

You probably realized what happened. That wasn’t just any six-digit code; it was the six-digit code that WhatsApp sends to your mobile number via SMS to associate with your WhatsApp account. In sharing that number, my friend had inadvertently allowed the attacker to log in to her account.

Since her attacker now had control of her account, they were then able to send messages from it to any contacts she was in the same group chat with. That’s how the attacker was able to ask for my friend’s six-digit verification code via another friend’s number; they’d gained control of that account as well and used it to message every contact they could, trying to rope them into the scam.

In theory, having your WhatsApp account taken over should be a fairly easy situation to resolve: just enter your phone number into the app and have it send you another six-digit code. The problem is that hackers can spam your number with a bunch of incorrect six-digit codes so that you get locked out of your account for up to 12 hours. Then, if you hadn’t set up a PIN of your own, this leaves an attacker free to set up one of their own on your account, locking you out for seven days in total.

That’s why it’s so important to remember these two rules:

  1. Never share your six-digit WhatsApp code with anyone — not your parents, not your best friend, and definitely not your sibling. No one will ever have a legitimate reason to ask for the code that WhatsApp sends you over SMS, so don’t even think about sharing it.
  2. Should the worst happen, then setting up a PIN will act as another barrier to stop someone from being able to sign in to your account, and it will stop this nightmare from happening to you.

How to secure your WhatsApp account

Somewhat confusingly, the PIN is also six digits long. In order to set it up:

  • Open WhatsApp and tap the three dots on the top right of the screen
  • Hit “Settings” > “Account” and then pick “Two-step verification”
  • Hit “Enable,” and then pick your six-digit PIN. The gallery of screenshots below will walk you through the whole process.
  • This next step isn’t mandatory, but adding an email address will allow you to recover your account if you forget your PIN. WhatsApp will periodically ask you for your PIN while you’re using it so that you don’t easily forget it, but we’d still recommend having a backup.

One more thing: it would be remiss of us if we didn’t mention that, in the past, Facebook (WhatsApp’s parent company) has gotten in trouble for using phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication for ad-targeting. The Federal Trade Commission told the company to stop the practice last year. When we asked WhatsApp, it categorically denied that it does this with its backup email addresses, and we think the benefits of providing an email address outweigh the risks.

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Google’s ads just look like search results now

Last week, Google began rolling out a new look for its search results on desktop, which blurs the line between organic search results and the ads that sit above them. In what appears to be something of a purposeful dark pattern, the only thing differentiating ads and search results is a small black-and-white “Ad” icon next to the former. It’s been formatted to resemble the new favicons that now appear next to the search results you care about. Early data collected by Digiday suggests that the changes may already be causing people to click on more ads.

The Guardian’s Alex Hern is one of many commenters to point out the problem, noting that there’s now next to no visual distinction between ads and search results. “There is still, technically, *labelling*, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is supposed to be difficult to spot at a glance where the adverts end,” he tweeted.

It’s especially striking considering how distinct Google designed its ads in the past. Up until 2013, the search engine gave its ads an entirely different background color to distinguish them from its organic search results. But even after that, it continued to use unique colors that effectively let users quickly see where its ads ended and organic results began.

In the past, Google used to give its ads a different background color to make them distinct from the rest of its results. This screenshot is from 2013.
Image: Search Engine Land

In a blog post announcing the new design when it came to mobile last year, Google partially explained the change by saying that adding favicons to organic search results means that “a website’s branding can be front and center,” which means “you can more easily scan the page of results.” But it spent far less time talking about the changes to its ad designs, which now feel much more significant, especially when viewing results on a laptop or monitor.

In the past, Google’s Sundeep Jain justified simplifying the company’s ad designs by saying that a simpler design “makes it easier for users to digest information,” according to Search Engine Land. He added that the company was trying to reduce the number of different colors used on a page in order to bring a little more “harmony” to the layout.

It’s hard not to get the feeling that this “harmony” is less about offering a better user experience, and more about helping Google’s ad revenue. As Digiday reports, there’s data to suggest that’s actually the case. According to one digital marketing agency, click-through rates have already increased for some search ads on desktop, and mobile click-through rates for some of its clients increased last year from 17 to 18 percent after similar changes to Google’s mobile search layout.

Google is fundamentally an ad business. In the third quarter of 2019, Google’s parent company Alphabet made nearly $34 billion from Google advertising, out of a total revenue of $40 billion for Alphabet as a whole. At that sort of scale, small changes in ad click-through rates could end up having a huge effect on Alphabet’s bottom line, even if it means tricking users for cheap clicks.

WhatsApp’s dark mode arrives in latest Android beta

The latest beta version of WhatsApp’s Android app has introduced a long-anticipated dark mode, WABetaInfo is reporting. “Dark Theme” is available to all beta users with version 2.20.13, and can be enabled in the “Chats” section of the app’s settings menu. You have the option of turning WhatsApp’s dark mode permanently on, permanently off, or else having it dictated by Android’s system-wide dark mode or battery saver settings.

Proponents claim that dark modes make app interfaces easier on the eyes in dark environments, and they can also improve the battery life of devices with OLED displays. Purists are likely to object to the fact that WhatsApp’s dark mode is more gray than absolute black, but it’s still a lot darker than the app’s regular green and white color scheme.

Yep, looks pretty dark to me.
Image: WABetaInfo

With the beta release, WhatsApp has become the third of Facebook’s major apps to get the dark mode treatment after Facebook Messenger and Instagram. It’s not clear when the mode will be available for iOS or non-beta users, but it can’t be long considering this widespread release of the beta version.

The new mode is available to Android beta users for now, but since WhatsApp doesn’t appear to be accepting new signups, non-beta users will need to side-load an APK to get their hands on it. 9to5Google links to an APK available here — just remember that you’re side-loading it at your own risk.

Barstool Sports founder forced to delete tweet threatening to fire union supporters ‘on the spot’

Barstool Sports has agreed to delete a pair of anti-union tweets and to notify its employees about their right to unionize, Bloomberg Law reports. One tweet, which was posted by the company’s co-founder David Portnoy, threatened to fire any employees who attempted to contact a union supporter “on the spot.” The informal settlement with the National Labor Relations Board also confirmed that Barstool Sports was behind a fake twitter account posing as a Barstool labor movement in an apparent attempt to out union supporters. It is illegal in the US for an employer to threaten reprisal against its employees for unionizing.

The dispute arose shortly after staff at The Ringer announced their plans to unionize on August 12th. Later that day, Portnoy re-posted a 2015 blog post responding to the news in which he dared the company’s employees to unionize so he could “smash their little union to smithereens.” He followed up on Twitter on August 13th by threatening to fire and sue union supporting employees. In response the IWW Freelance Journalists Union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

One of Portnoy’s tweets threatened to fire employees “on the spot” for contacting a union supporter.
Image: Twitter via Bloomberg Law

Barstool Sports did not admit fault as part of the settlement, but it now has to remind its employees of their right to unionize via both email, as well as through notices posted at its offices in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Watertown, Mass. In the notice, which was posted by IWW Freelance Journalists Union on its Twitter account, the company says it will not attempt to prevent its employees from unionizing, and will not threaten those that do.

The company also agreed to remove a video titled “Professor Nate breaks down the entire Barstool Sports Union controversy,” in the settlement. The video mocked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she criticized Portnoy’s tweets. Bloomberg Law reports that the video, which claimed Ocasio-Cortez was just trying “to get a retweet from the president” has been deleted from YouTube, but remains up on Facebook as of publication.

The settlement also confirms that the company was behind a fake union twitter account called Barstool Sports Union which claimed to represent “the labor movement inside Barstool Sports.” The Twitter account solicited DMs from the company’s employees in what appeared to be an attempt to identify union supporters. “Would prefer to stay anonymous right now in beginning stages of unionization. DM. Serious inquiries only,” the account tweeted on the same day as Portnoy’s two anti-union tweets. The company removed the account as part of the settlement.

This isn’t the first time an employer has been criticized for posting anti-union tweets. Last year a judge ruled that Tesla CEO Elon Musk broke the law when he tweeted that joining a union meant giving up Tesla stock options. Musk was told to be present at a meeting at the company’s Fremont factory where a notice would be read to confirm that Tesla broke the law.

Google’s Pixelbook Go Chromebook is now available in that pink color

Google’s Pixelbook Go Chromebook is available in a color other than black now that the “not pink” version of the laptop is shipping from the US Google Store. Although the base $649 configuration with an Intel Core M3 chip is still only available in black, you can get the pink model if you’re willing to step up to the $849 Core i5 version we tested in our review. Chrome Unboxed was first to spot the availability of the new color scheme.

We can’t imagine there are many people who’ve been holding off on buying a Pixelbook Go purely because of the limited color options. Nevertheless, it was a decent-enough laptop when we tried it out for ourselves. Battery life is good, the keyboard is excellent, and overall it’s a solidly built laptop. Its slightly high price means that we wouldn’t go as far as to recommend it as the best Chromebook around. For comparison, Acer’s Chromebook C871 was announced earlier today with a starting price of $329.

If you want to go all out, then there’s a version of the Pixelbook Go available with a 4K screen that was released in December for $1,399.

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Go read this NYT expose on a creepy new facial recognition database used by US police

Hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the US have started using a new facial recognition system from Clearview AI, a new investigation by The New York Times has revealed. The database is made up of billions of images scraped from millions of sites including Facebook, YouTube, and Venmo. The Times says that Clearview AI’s work could “end privacy as we know it,” and the piece is well worth a read in its entirety.

The use of facial recognition systems by police is already a growing concern, but the scale of Clearview AI’s database, not to mention the methods it used to assemble it, is particularly troubling. The Clearview system is built upon a database of over three billion images scraped from the internet, a process which may have violated websites’ terms of service. Law enforcement agencies can upload photos of any persons of interest from their cases, and the system returns matching pictures from the internet, along with links to where these images are hosted, such as social media profiles.

The NYT says the system has already helped police solve crimes including shoplifting, identify theft, credit card fraud, murder, and child sexual exploitation. In one instance, Indiana State Police were able to solve a case within 20 minutes by using the app.

The use of facial recognition algorithms by police carry risks. False positives can incriminate the wrong people, and privacy advocates fear their use could help to create a police surveillance state. Police departments have reportedly used doctored images that could lead to wrongful arrests, and a federal study has uncovered “empirical evidence” of bias in facial recognition systems.

Using the system involves uploading photos to Clearview AI’s servers, and it’s unclear how secure these are. Although Clearview AI says its customer-support employees will not look at the photos that are uploaded, it appeared to be aware that Kashmir Hill (the Times journalist investigating the piece) was having police search for her face as part of her reporting:

While the company was dodging me, it was also monitoring me. At my request, a number of police officers had run my photo through the Clearview app. They soon received phone calls from company representatives asking if they were talking to the media — a sign that Clearview has the ability and, in this case, the appetite to monitor whom law enforcement is searching for.

The Times reports that the system appears to have gone viral with police departments, with over 600 already signed up. Although there’s been no independent verification of its accuracy, Hill says the system was able to identify photos of her even when she covered the lower half of her face, and that it managed to find photographs of her that she’d never seen before.

One expert quoted by The Times said that the amount of money involved with these systems means that they need to be banned before the abuse of them becomes more widespread. “We’ve relied on industry efforts to self-police and not embrace such a risky technology, but now those dams are breaking because there is so much money on the table,” said a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, Woodrow Hartzog, “I don’t see a future where we harness the benefits of face recognition technology without the crippling abuse of the surveillance that comes with it. The only way to stop it is to ban it.”

The Apple Archive is a compelling and completely unofficial trip down memory lane

A new and completely unofficial archive of all things Apple is attempting to make almost 44 years of the company’s official videos, ads, and imagery available to browse online. 9to5Mac reports that The Apple Archive currently contains just under 1TB of data, comprising over 15,000 files, and it includes everything from print ads, to TV spots, WWDC sessions, internal training videos, and even a collection of macOS and iOS wallpapers.

The whole collection is well worth browsing through, but there are a few particularly interesting inclusions. This unreleased social ad for the long-delayed-then-cancelled AirPower charging pad is fascinating. Not only does it show off how Apple might have marketed its wireless charger had it actually released, but also because the ad is so clearly in an unfinished state, offering the kind of work-in-progress insight that we so rarely get to see from a company like Apple.

Or how about this huge collection of internal videos which includes this particularly excellent video on Apple’s early patenting strategy (skip to the 4:15 mark if you don’t believe me) and this 1995 guide on how to photograph “VR” scenes. The archive includes a very 80s “I’m Different” TV ad that aired nine years before the well-known video of Steve Jobs introducing Apple’s iconic “Think Different” ad campaign.

The Apple Archive is the work of Sam Gold, who started putting it together after the EveryAppleVideo YouTube channel was unceremoniously taken down. After experimenting with starting his own YouTube channel, a Google Drive folder, and even attempting to work with the Internet Archive, Gold finally settled on using Vimeo to host the archive’s video content.

This collection is by no means finished. Gold is constantly on the lookout for higher resolution content, the videos are also having subtitles added where possible, and they’re also being transcoded to save on space.

The archive is an excellent dose of nostalgia for Apple fans. It might not have the same level of finish as Apple’s official coffee table book, but then again it doesn’t come with a $300 price tag.