Two Factor Authentication a Pain

An example of two factor authorization. You login on a computer but have to complete an additional step when sent a passcode on your phone.
Two Factor Authentication, a Pain or Necessary?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I took your class and try to be mindful about using my phone, so I often choose to work on my laptop computer. And I try to keep it secure. The problem is that many of the web sites I go to on my laptop require two-factor authentication and it’s a pain. So, I need my phone nearby in order to get this login code. Seems like I am back to keeping my phone right by my side and don’t have deep work time away from it.  Pete, San Rafael

Dear Pete: Yes! Both security and mindfulness need to work side by side when we use technology. Sometimes they gently compete with each other. It’s particularly hard to avoid that with two-factor authentication (2FA). Secure organizations used to give their employees and interns fobs that contained an unique signature. Others required those annoying ‘captchas.’  Now that smartphones are ubiquitous the six digit authentication code seems here to stay, at least for a while. Two factor authenticiation is a pain, but a necessary one.

The external fob and its alternative, sending you an authentication code, describe two of the four ways that a web site can vet you. The first is to require something you know (your login name and password) and second, something you have (the fob or an one-time number code). Other  ways to authenticate you are with biometrics (e.g., an iris scan, a fingerprint) or by exact location (through GPS). Things may change in a few years, but for now most banks and secure sites rely today on the 2FA code.

7 Plus or Minus 2!

Perhaps you occasionally receive five digit codes, and occasionally a seven digit one. Never longer. There is a science behind this. Before the computer age in 1956, a psychologist called George Miller wrote a seminal paper called “ The Magic Number of Seven Plus or Minus Two.”  Through extensive testing he discovered that humans could facilely remember just 5 to 9 numbers at a time. His discovery focused on two conditions: how the brain responds to multiple stimuli at the same time, and on the capacity of working memory. In the same paper Miller writes about overcoming bottlenecks by chunking data. Seven, plus or minus two, is the magic number.

Here’s a ‘Smartphone’ aside: It’s a nice coincidence that Bell telephone numbers in the nineteen fifties were just seven digits long. People didn’t need to add the three digit area code to their local calls. For long distance calls they looked up the area code. Perhaps that explains why we can’t remember our own phone number, or anyone elses today!  Adding the three digit area code (7+3) stresses our working memory! 

Not Counting:

In the future, the authentication code you receive on your phone will probably be replaced by more modern tech, for example, biometrics that recognize your speech patterns, or say the way you text and use the keyboard.  I have always been intrigued by whether the bad guys in movies who want to get access to a sizeable bank account or a golden safe deposit box just need to possess the good guy’s phone to gain entry. Again- this is Hollywood- they kidnap the wealthy victim, cut off the index finger, possess the phone, and gain the authentication codes to swipe into the financial system. While there is mention of a fairly wicked plot in 2017 in which a German company, Telefonica, was spoofed you will be glad to know that finger cutting is a dead-end (literally). The finger must show a pulse and other activity to pass through the biometric measures. 

For the time being, there is not a clear way to get around  two-factor authentication, unless you “trust” the site, as you mentioned. That could open up other vulnerabilities. So, if you are doing deep work and trying to concentrate, perhaps rearrange your work time so that you request these two factor authentications at a certain time of the day. And, after they are received, turn off notifications on your phone. Otherwise, the mere presence of the phone may distract you, remind you of outside things, and cut into the quality of your worktime.

Vintage Ipods Have Value?

This old Ipod. Is it about liking vintage or something more?

Eight different Ipod nano devices, from different type periods. Picture is from Ebay. Do these vintage ipods have value?
Do Vintage Ipods Have Value? Image: Ebay

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When my husband heard last week that Apple was discontinuing the Ipod he went out and bought 2 more of them. When I asked why he needed more Ipods he was sort of vague. He said he wanted them for parts, and etcetera. It’s the etcetera that I do not understand. Do vintage ipods have value? Zoe, Mill Valley

Dear Zoe: You didn’t mention whether your husband still uses the Ipods to play music and video games or whether he is betting that the prices will increase as the devices become scarce! But you have to respect his love affair with this device. Perhaps it’s the remembrance of those dancing silhouettes! In many ways, not just financial ones, these vintage ipods have value.

Beware… Swiss Army Knives

Like your husband, I see a need for these devices, or similar ones. Today’s  smartphones are  Swiss Army Knives and that’s all good, until it is not (for example, taking them on airplanes)! Phone features range from picture-taking to the digital measuring tape. That’s useful, particularly if you have small pockets but we all need a degree of separation. For young kids getting online I advocate a provisional phone- one that has stripped down features so that they do not spend excess time on it and shun other activities. As for adults, it’s still a good idea to keep a flashlight in your car, a notebook by your bed table, and a clip-on pedometer for exercise. 

If you don’t seek out this degree of separation, you will not be able to turn your phone off, literally.  It’s now a  throwback to watch a yoga routine or listen to an album without extra technology. Or, take a long hike. The presence of a phone is a constant reminder that we are interruptible.  

Valued Past…

But, here is the etcetera. For your husband, it might be an appreciation for  Apple  technology and how far it has come. Steve Jobs wanted the Ipod, which he introduced in 2001, to propel his company in two ways. He needed to sell computers. Microsoft had a 90 percent market share but they did not have music.  Customers wanted a MacIntosh computer to browse the music library, create a playlist and transfer songs. Meanwhile, Apple was already working on the smartphone, and the architecture for it evolved from the polished, well packaged,  pocket-sized IPod. 

If your husband is collecting Ipods because he is sentimental about the technology, there are fans that plan to keep the technology alive and move it one-step further. They swap out the hard drives and use a Sim card to load more music. And, yes, vintage Ipods are collectibles. As of today, there were several posted on Ebay in the four to five hundred dollar range, and one brand new 5GB first generation model with a $23,000 sticker!

More Value Propositions…

But, if your husband is either a lawyer, or a musician, perhaps there is a different reason for his collection. The Ipod upended the music industry, much as the Beatles upended 60’s music.  When the Ipod began subscribers could download a single song for 99 cents, or they could copy it from elsewhere. The commercial slogan approved by Steve Jobs “Rip, Mix, Burn” –seemed to endorse the free, pirating of music. What personally struck me is how the iPod changed music connoisseurship, in the name of portability. Before the device, afficiendos preferred the expansive, refined sound-quality of hand-hone speakers, not  small, tinny ones.

Today, music fans might listen over Apple’s smart speakers. And, many subscribe to a subscription service, like Spotify, instead of buying individual tracks from the Apple store.  On the road, they use the smartphone, linking it to Apple CarPlay. The music has changed but it has not stopped.  Perhaps the et cetera you mention is indeed that vintage Ipods have $$ value. Or, it might be nostalgia for how we used to download our playlists, an appreciation for functional purity, as well as the bet that this tiny device is a big collectible.

Emergency Alerts on Phone: Nixle

An image from the App store with the official download site for Nixle. What are emergency alerts on the phone from Nixle? Carefully read the app reviews.
Emergency Alerts on Phone: Nixle

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am going with my Mom next week to a local class for emergency and disaster planning. I thought I would get ahead of it by downloading some apps for our phones. She lives in a dry area of Sonoma that was badly hit in two fires. I would like to get emergency alerts on my phone in case she does not have a strong signal out there and has to evacuate. Doria, W. Marin

Dear Doria: You are to be congratulated for being so proactive. It’s great to take that class with Mom and plan ahead for those emergency alerts on your phone. I hope these alerts will stay in the background and you won’t need to use them.

I ran your question by my local police and fire departments and they had a few suggestions for apps you could download. They recommend that you begin with your county’s official website, and within it, search for ” emergency preparedness.” There can be an information overload there so be prepared to scroll around until you get to the section to sign up for alerts. In your upcoming class they will probably remind you that it’s vital that you enter your credentials  now so that your name and number are active.

The Sonoma gov web site recommends a primary app, SoCoAlert, and also a secondary one called Nixle. By the way,  all counties rely on more than the Internet or apps  for notifications. There’s the old fashioned, but effective,  siren or bull horn. There are also emergency broadcast radio stations to tune into.  These are not old fashioned at all. You need them in case the cell towers are knocked out and you can’t use your phone. Which reminds me, make sure your Mom’s backup phone is a landline, not a VOIP phone.

NixLE the App:

Public agencies, especially fire departments, are now recommending the Nixle app for community wide notifications and messaging. But full disclosure: DearSmartphone did not download the app after she learned so much from reading the reviews.

The app goes under the names Nixle and Everbridge. The names are interchanged on occasion. Nexbridge (!), has the advantage that you can be tracked in two or more zip codes- say where you live, and your Mom’s place. They also said they do not sell your data, that’s a plus.

That said, the reviews for this app, on a five point scale, were but ‘2.1’. Equally offsetting was the positioning of Everbridge on the App store. As you can see from the image, the app store classified it as a ‘lifetsyle’ download and sandwiched it between a Beauty App for hair color, and an Everbridge spin-off for corporate messaging.

Here’s the description on the app page: “ Nixle works in partnership with thousands of public safety agencies. Everbridge offers the most trust information available at a neighborhood level to keep residents informed- all delivery directly to your mobile device. Messages range from emergencies and crime advisories to important announcements, reminders, and community updates.”

State of Emergency:

Reading further, I learned that important announcements can include work place violence, active shooters, terrorism, IT and power outages, environmental discharges, critical equipment failures, medical emergencies, and social media attacks. 

In the app reviews, users  said that they had difficulty turning off the notifications for these myriad alerts.Some  got pinged during the night for emergencies that were hundreds of miles away. Others complained that when there was a need, specifically a fire warning, they did not get pinged at all. The app stayed tragically silent but the ‘gov’ one worked. They are probably pulling down information from the same central dispatch.

A Battery of concern:

 A further concern users expressed, my biggest worry for your Mom, is that the app stays open with  the GPS turned on, so that it sends out those real time notifications. That might drain the battery and defeat the emergency planning. If you rely on your phone for directions when you evacuate and also expect calls and messages, it’s essential that you have a device that is fully charged. It’s a good time to add an auxiliary battery extender, fully charged, to the emergency planning kit. 

Perhaps the class you attend will offer a different take on the Nixle app, and a link specifically for fire conditions.  if so, please update me. Just keep in mind that if you do choose to download the app,  then show the controls to your Mom so that she understands them and does not get confused.