Amazon employees may be listening to things you say to (and around!) Alexa, YouTube TV got a price hike, Instagram cleans up “inappropriate” recommendations, and a lot more. Here are the biggest stories for the morning of April 11, 2019.

Our First Glimpse of a Black Hole Thanks to a Marriage of Science and Technology

This type of story is normally outside of the things we talk about here at HTG, but it’s a really big deal, and it’s really cool. It’s worth talking about!

Yesterday, the first image of a black hole was released. Scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration shared the image. The fact that we’re getting real-life human eyeballs on one of the most powerful forces known to man is humbling, fascinating, and just downright cool.

The caption for the image on the Event Horizon Telescope homepage is enough to boggle the mind on its own:

The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. This long-sought image provides the strongest evidence to date for the existence of supermassive black holes and opens a new window onto the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity.

Six point five billion times more massive than the sun. That’s bigger than our entire solar system. That is so profoundly huge it’s nearly impossible to comprehend. The image was captured using eight strategically-placed telescopes in Hawaii, Arizona, Chile, Mexico, Spain, and the South Pole. According to CNET, the concept is to “combine the signal strength of the observatories on different corners of the globe to form an array as wide as Earth itself.” So, a telescope that’s effectively as big as the world.

To put into perspective how difficult it is to capture an image of this magnitude, the Director of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration Shep Doeleman likened it to “being able to read the date on a quarter in Los Angeles, standing here in Washingon D.C.” It’s hard to imagine how that’s even possible in the first place.

The data for the image was initially collected in 2017 and contained petabytes of data. It was such an extensive collection of information it was stored on multiple physical hard drives and then stitched together by a supercomputer.

To add even more cool factor to the story, the capture itself was possible thanks to one MIT graduate. Her name is Katie Bouman, and she spearheaded the creation of the algorithm that stitched together the radio images collected by all of the aforementioned telescopes. I’m sure that the first image of the black hole was an emotional experience for her because the algorithm was initially announced in 2016—years of work led to that moment.

Now that we’ve seen the first image of a black hole, scientists are confident that they can work towards getting better, clearer images by adding more telescopes to the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration. We’ll likely even see clearer pictures of this particular black hole, as well.

So cool. Even my seven-year-old can’t stop talking about it.

But now it’s time to talk about tech news.

Apple News: Apple Brings Podcasts to the Browser

Plus the number of suppliers that are running Apple production on 100% renewable energy doubles.

  • Apple updated its Podcasts web interface with a cleaner design, which also allows users to listen without having to load up iTunes. Nice. [The Verge]
  • Apple talked a lot about running off of renewable energy at its iPhone XS/XR event last year, and yesterday it announced that the number of suppliers committed to running off of 100 percent renewable energy has now doubled. [Apple Newsroom]

It was recently rumored that Apple would be breaking up iTunes by moving Podcasts and Music into dedicated apps on macOS. The original rumor came from Apple hacker Steve Troughton-Smith and was later confirmed by 9to5Mac.

Bringing Podcasts to the web could be the first steps to breaking Podcasts out of iTunes, which Apple has long required to listen to, well, anything within the Apple ecosystem. This could, in fact, be the beginning of the end for iTunes as dedicated apps and web services replace its various functions.

Google and Android News: YouTube TV’s Price Hike Isn’t a Good Look

Plus Android 7.0 devices can be used as physical 2FA devices, a Google engineer talks about fighting botnet malware (and winning), the story behind the black hole Google Doodle, and a lot more.

  • Yesterday, Google announced that YouTube TV is getting ten new channels from Discovery Network brands. It also announced that the price is jumping to $50. [YouTube Blog]
  • We’ve long been talking about the benefits of using physical 2FA, like a USB security key. Now, everyone with an Android phone running 7.0 (Nougat) or above has one, thanks to a new security feature implemented by Google. [The Verge]
  • Wired has a fascinating piece about how the Android security team took on the Chamois botnet malware and won. [Wired]
  • To celebrate the first image of a black hole, Google whipped up a quick Doodle. Turns out the concept was created by the artist on his way to work. What a fun story. [CNET]
  • G Suite users are getting more security tools. [TechCrunch]
  • Google re-uses the Currents name for the new Google+ for Enterprise. If you recall, Currents was the original name for what we now know as Google News. I wonder if Google realizes there are more words out there and they don’t have to re-use names? [9to5Google]
  • Pretty soon you’ll be able to edit Microsoft Office files in Docs natively. [The Verge]
  • A fake Google Wallet app is being granted access to authentic Google accounts. This is…troubling. It even happened to one of our editors here at HTG. Oof. [Android Police]
  • Google has a program called YouTube Signature where it scores smartphones based on video playback. The Huawei P30, P30 Pro, and Honor View20 are the latest to make the cut. [XDA Developers]
  • Visible, a Verizon MVNO, will let you trade in any working Android phone—regardless of how old it is—and give you its branded Visible R2 device instead. [9to5Google]

YouTube TV was once one of the best deals in streaming TV—at just $35 a month (the initial price), it was a no-frills streaming plan with a lot to offer. It came with unlimited cloud DVR, support for six profiles, and just one package. It was simple.

But as more channels have been added, the price has gone up. After yesterday’s price hike, there’s been quite a bit of backlash—both from current YouTube TV customers and the media. The harshest criticism is also the one I hear the most: that YouTube TV is becoming too much like a cable package. The entire point of streaming television is to offer choice and to keep costs down.

While the one-package-for-everyone approach was good when YouTube TV initially launched, it’s not starting to become an issue, especially for current subscribers. Because even if you don’t want the new Discovery Channels—which includes things like HGTV and Food Network—you’re still paying for them. The price increase is happening across the board, even for users who were grandfathered into the original $35 per month fee. Those users will see a $15 a month bump, likely for channels they don’t even want. That is a very cable company thing to do.

The dream TV watchers have had for years is a true a la carte plan that lets you add only the channels you actually watch and none of the fluff you don’t want. Right now, Sling TV is the only provider available that offers anything close to this, and it’s still not ideal.

Maybe we’ll get there one day. But not if it’s left up to TV providers.

Other News: Amazon Employees May Be Listening to What You Say To (and Around) Alexa

Plus Instagram is going to stop promoting inappropriate content, AT&T comes under more fire for its 5G E crap, Facebook talks about cleaning up (again), and more.

  • According to a recent report by Bloomberg, thousands of Amazon employees may be listening to your Alexa audio clips—which often includes private conversations— to improve the AI’s responses. [Bloomberg]
  • Instagram is going to stop recommending posts that are inappropriate but don’t go against guidelines. They’ll stop showing up on the Discover page and in hashtag results. [TechCrunch]
  • AT&T is once again under fire for its 5G E network speed claims. [The Verge]
  • Facebook is once again highlighting what it’s going to do to improve the quality of content on its site. Seriously, this same song and dance is getting old. Just do it already. [Facebook Newsroom]
  • Wired writer Andy Greenberg penned a fascinating look at a new spyware framework called TajMahal that has gone otherwise undetected for five years. [Wired]
  • Netflix is launching its own comedy radio on SiriusXM. [TechRadar]

Smart speakers and digital assistants are becoming prolific, with more and more homes inviting them inside for everyday use. Hell, I have no fewer than four Google Homes in my house right now.

It’s also no secret that these assistants, like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, are getting “smarter” every day. Part of this is machine learning. Part of this is AI. But there’s also a part that most of us don’t think about: the human part.

According to a recent report by Bloomberg, Amazon employees “thousands” of workers to listen to Alexa recordings, transcribe them and pushed back into software to help the AI get better at understanding people and what they want.

The recording of audio is pretty standard practice when it comes to digital assistants—requests aren’t processed locally in real-time, after all—as much of the processing work is done in the cloud. So your request is recorded, uploaded, then processed server-side. That’s how Amazon and Google both do it. Both Amazon and Google make these recordings available to users, too.

Bloomberg’s report, which gets its claims from “seven people who have worked on the program,” states that thousands of people listen to recordings for nine hours per day—sometimes up to 1,000 recordings per person per shift. They use internal chats to share recordings of people who are hard to understand, but also “amusing recordings.”

If you have a smart speaker, I’m sure it’s detected a false positive hotword before. It “wakes up,” listens briefly, then realizes that you’re not speaking to it. Or maybe you’re not speaking at all. Either way, a recording happens during that moment, and given the number of false positives my Homes have every day, it’s a bit unsettling to think that someone may be listening to these recordings.

On the upside, Amazon gave a rather detailed statement to Bloomberg, not only confirming the practice but also offering a bit of comfort to those who are understandably concerned about someone listening to their private conversations that were accidentally recorded:

We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.

We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.

That last bit is crucial here—the data is supposedly anonymous, so it can’t be tied back to you. Bloomberg claims the opposite, however, stating that it saw a screenshot that “shows that the recordings sent to the Alexa auditors don’t provide a user’s full name and address but are associated with an account number, as well as the user’s first name and the device’s serial number.” If true, that sounds pretty identifying to me.

Either way, the thought of someone listening to conversations that happen inside your home, things that are meant to be kept behind closed doors, is enough to make your skin crawl, anonymous or not.

Cameron Summerson Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and serves on the Editorial Board for How-to Geek and LifeSavvy. He’s been covering technology for nearly a decade and has written over 4,000 articles and hundreds of product reviews in that time. He’s been published in print magazines and quoted as a smartphone expert in the New York Times.
Read Full Bio »