Amazon drones, digital switch-over and Yahoo's mail fail

By Peter Griffin 08/12/2013

I was on This Way Up on Saturday talking tech with host Simon Morton.

You can click on the player below to listen to the segment and my thoughts on some of the issues we covered in the commentary below…

Yahoo Xtra mail fail

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 10.29.01 PMI was alerted to the latest vulnerability in YahooXtra’s mail service last weekend when I received spam email from a couple of contacts. I dutifully responded to both to inform them that their accounts had been compromised and used to spam their contact lists.

This latest breach follows several larger ones earlier in the year, one of which affected 87,000 customers. Staggeringly, Telecom still has around 450,000 email users on the YahooXtra platform managed by its partner Yahoo! Yahoo has been embarrassed again and again in recent years by email vulnerabilities – some of which have been caused by a cross site scripting vulnerability. It seems Yahoo hadn’t got around to adequately fixing this exploit for Telecom’s customers.

I’d suggest YahooXtra has used up all its lives on this one – how many times in that period has my Gmail account been hijacked? None. While all webmail providers are vulnerable to such exploits, Yahoo has a particularly poor track record in this area. My advice on the radio on Saturday was to ditch YahooXtra as an email platform – there are plenty of better, free alternatives, such as the aforementioned Gmail and Microsoft’s

No matter who you have your email service with, a few things to attempt to keep yourself safe – use complicated passwords like Sj49sn01. Don’t click on random links that turn up in emails sent to you. Use two-factor authentication where available – this means that you may have to validate the various devices you use to access your email and confirm your identity via a text message verification system on your mobile phone if you log in from a new computer. It is worth the hassle, just like with internet banking.
Also make sure you haven’t got malware, viruses and keyloggers sitting on your computer by regularly scanning your computer with security software.

Digital switchover

December 1 marked the end of analogue TV broadcasts in New Zealand. I wasn’t sad to see them go – I’ve been in the digital world for years and enjoy high-definition TV as a result. If you want to continue to get free to air TV in New Zealand you need a Freeview decoder, a MySky set top box (or Vodafone’s T-Box equivalent) or Igloo, the set top box Sky offers in conjunction with TVNZ.

But an increasing number of people are opting to ditch broadcast TV and piece together a collection of content online. The options are actually pretty good. TVNZ On Demand is a very good service and TV3’s equivalent features the best shows from channels 3 and 4. Maori TV offers much of its programming streamed from its website.

On my Samsung Smart TV, I can access apps for TVNZ, TV3 and numerous news services such as the BBC, Euronews and Al Jazeera. i have Quickflix for movie downloads (granted, the selection is very limited). Occasionally I’ll dip into the iTunes store to buy a show I want. One News and 3News stream the 6pm news live from their websites, so I can still keep up to date with the day’s big events. If a service like Netflix entered the market it would really shake up the TV market as many would see that as the trigger to cut the cord with Sky or Freeview and do everything online. That day can’t be far away with Netflix eyeing up further international expansion. The sooner it gets here, the better.

Amazon Drones

E-tailing giant Amazon caused a sensation last week when it revealed it was working on Amazon Prime Air, a delivery service for small parcels that will rely on “octocopters” – small, lightweight drones to deliver parcels to customers within a 16 kilometre radius of its depots. You can see Amazon’s reasoning here – 86% of its parcels weigh less that 2.3kg, so a drone could potentially fulfil a large number of orders. Drones would speed up delivery times massively, trumping even premium courier bike services.

But it is rife with problems too. The service would need Federal Aviation Authority approval to get off the ground and the safety threshold that needs to be satisfied there is very high. Amazon would have to convince the FAA that its drones wouldn’t fall out of the sky on people, vehicles or property, interfere with aircraft or collide with other drones.

Then there are the technical issues to consider – battery life for the current generation of drones extends to just 30 minutes or so – will that be enough to successfully make a delivery and return to base? What about weather – will the drones be able to deal with driving rain, wind and hail? Presumably the drones will communicate with Amazon wirelessly – possibly via mobile data drawing on the mobile network. Will that make them prone to hijacking? You can bet hackers will be out to attempt just that.

Drones also have the stigma in the US of being used to kill people in war zones and employed by the police to perform surveillance. So they aren’t that popular with the US public.

Amazon’s drone ambitions are a bit like Google’s plans for driverless cars – brilliant in concept, but faced with daunting technological and regulatory hurdles. I can’t see drones whizzing around with parcels on a large scale for a decade at least. Great to see this type of innovative thinking from the big tech players, but a reality check is needed.