Technology Spring/Summer 2017

1. NEW YORK The Smartest Ways to Use Your Smartphone in the Car - Wall Street Journal - The best dashboard solutions are Apple ’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. Plug in your phone via USB and the core apps pop up on the car’s screen and can be controlled with familiar voice assistants. But they’re in only a limited number of car models. (The bigger, more-expensive Volvo XC90 is one of them—and this fall’s update of my XC60 will be, too.)

Most car interfaces are still stuck in the slow lane compared with the computers in our pockets. And so, like far too many drivers out there, I use my phone to get around.
Mounting the Phone

“How do we drive safely using our smartphones? We don’t,” says Debbie Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit that works to eliminate preventable deaths. Ms. Hersman says the safest way to drive with your phone is to put it in the trunk.
This is how not to drive with your smartphone.
This is how not to drive with your smartphone. Photo: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal

But using voice control and other hands-free solutions is the lesser evil when compared with fiddling with a phone in your hands, lap or cup holder. That’s why it’s so important that you mount your phone where you won’t have to look down—yes, like an Uber driver.

I tested 15 different mount options in three categories. What works best will likely depend on the interior design of your car.

Vent mount. The $20 Insignia Vehicle Mount is my top pick. With plastic brackets that latch to the inside of the vent, it’s harder to install than some, but it tightly gripped even a phablet. The downside of vent mounts? They block vents.

Dashboard/windshield mount. A suction-cup mount may be the easiest to glance at, but it could also obstruct your vision. The high-tech (and pricey) $80 Logitech ZeroTouch stuck to my dash best and was the most inconspicuous, but it does require you to attach magnets to your phone or case.

CD slot mount. The CD slot hasn’t seen this much excitement since 2001. If your car has a disc player that’s relatively close to the top of your main console, try Anker’s $13 CD Slot Magnetic Car Mount (it too uses magnets to hold your phone in place) or the non-magnetic version.
The Insignia Vehicle smartphone mount for vents, at left; the Anker CD Slot mount, right'''''Android Phones

One of the best reasons to switch to Android these days is superior in-car apps. Google’s own Android Auto app has exactly what I want in the car. Launch the app, and a big-buttoned interface takes over your phone, with access to Google Maps, phone calls and music—Spotify, Google Play Music and Pandora. The app also shows notifications, though I suggest turning them off.

The best part is the Google Assistant. Wake it by saying, “OK, Google,” then ask it to play George Michael, call Mom, repeat the last navigation prompt—even report who won the Super Bowl.

The voice recognition works great… when it’s quiet. Because the app relies on the phone’s microphone, it can struggle to hear over loud music.

Logitech’s ZeroTouch app for Android gets around that. When you put your phone on the required ZeroTouch mount, the app launches in the background. Hold your hand in front of the phone to wake Logitech’s voice assistant. ....


The iPhone is a disappointment in the car. There’s no Android Auto app equivalent, and Logitech doesn’t yet have an iOS ZeroTouch app. The best thing iPhone owners can do is rig Siri to work in the car.

Some cars, like BMWs, may allow you to use the steering wheel’s voice control button to summon Siri. My car won’t, and Bluetooth Siri button accessories don’t work with iOS 10.

The “Hey Siri” function on recent iPhones is fine for controlling music and maps, but because of Apple’s iron grip, you have to use Apple Maps and Music (I still prefer Spotify and Google Maps).

And Siri also had a hard time hearing me over loud music. A trick for AirPod owners: Wear one wireless earbud and tap the side to wake Siri; it also puts the microphone closer to your mouth.

2. SAN FRANCISCO—Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel’s premise for reinventing social media in 2011 was simple: create an app to send disappearing pictures.

Now, on the cusp of going public, Snapchat parent company Snap Inc. is reinventing itself. The hottest new social network in years, with 158 million daily active users, wants to be known as a camera company.

To that end, Snap has acquired a series of companies that specialize in computer vision and augmented reality. And in November, it introduced its first physical camera, embedded in sunglasses called Spectacles.

Snap’s metamorphosis reflects a growing need among social-media firms to be more than just networks of friends. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook Inc., Snap’s biggest competitor, last week outlined in a 6,000-word manifesto his ambition to turn the 13-year-old social network into the backbone of a new “social infrastructure” so it can address some of the world’s biggest problems, like terrorism, disease and climate change. Facebook has also invested in virtual reality, betting it will be the next major computing platform.
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Twitter Inc. has broader ambitions too. This month, Chief Executive Jack Dorsey said the social-media platform, known for its brief messages, has been trying to refocus itself as the world’s fastest place to get news.

For Snap, articulating a different vision helps differentiate the company from Facebook, which has a larger user network than Snapchat, and Twitter. Facebook has mimicked several Snapchat features in the past year, including Stories, a collection of images that disappear, on its photo-sharing app Instagram.
A monitor at a store in New York shows customers how they will look in Snap’s Spectacles.
A monitor at a store in New York shows customers how they will look in Snap’s Spectacles. Photo: Saul Martinez/Bloomberg News

Mr. Spiegel is also wary of being overly dependent on Apple Inc. and Google’s Android, whose phones, with their built-in cameras, are the primary tool for using Snapchat, according to a former Snap employee.

Even though the first line of Snap’s initial public offering document claims “Snap Inc. is a camera company,” investors say they are evaluating Snap through a media and entertainment lens. The valuation that Snap is seeking in its IPO—between $19.5 billion and $22.2 billion—reflects a sales multiple similar to Facebook and Twitter when they went public.

“Snap isn’t a camera company,” says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “Camera companies sell cameras. Snap sells the ability to connect with people.”
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Snap’s new definition for itself is a metaphor for how the camera is the central tool of the app, according to two Snap investors. It doesn't envision itself as a hardware maker, along the lines of GoPro Inc. or other camera makers that have gone bankrupt. Snap declined to comment.

“Cameras have evolved from being just a piece of hardware, like a chip, to software that is connected to the internet,” Mr. Spiegel said in a video that Snap published a week ago for its roadshow. “With Snapchat, the camera has become the primary input for the phone.”
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   The ephemerality at Snapchat’s core when it launched in 2011 as a messaging platform for disappearing photos established a new way of digital social interaction. In the past, content on the internet such as emails and photos was considered permanent, and people didn’t know who was seeing it, Mr. Spiegel said in the roadshow video.

Two years later, Snap updated its app with Stories, the feature for collections of pictures and videos that disappear in 24 hours. This made the short-lived messages available for anyone to see, beyond people’s networks of friends.

Karen North, director of the social media program at the University of Southern California, described this as Snapchat’s “genius pivot,” because it took the carefree feeling that Snapchat had created and broadened it beyond messaging.

“Before, Snaps were just messages to people,” Ms. North says. “Then they gave people an opportunity to tell a story.”
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Snap then focused on making photos or videos on its platform interactive, which was one of the first introductions of augmented reality to a mainstream audience. In 2015, Snap launched Lenses—filters that blend computer images into real photos—that packaged augmented reality into tools that added bunny faces, talking tacos, monsters and vomiting rainbows onto regular selfies. The Lenses also created a lucrative advertising opportunity, allowing brands to buy a presence on Snapchat.

While Snap was rolling out these enhancements to its social media tool, Mr. Spiegel had something bigger in mind. Worried about being so dependent on smartphones made by other companies, Mr. Spiegel wanted to migrate the app onto other devices. He began hinting at his interest in cameras, expressing admiration for Polaroid founder Edwin Land at a technology conference in 2015.

Snap launched Spectacles, its first gadget, in November, slightly more than a year after the failure of Alphabet Inc.’s Google Glass. Google’s head-mounted device drew ridicule and raised privacy concerns for its ability to surreptitiously record video. Snap, on the other hand, devised a circular light to indicate when the Spectacles are recording.

“Snap is the first company that has gotten people to wear a camera on their face and made it cool,” says Matt Miesnieks, a partner at venture-capital firm Super Ventures, which hasn't invested in Snap.

Still, good looks may not be enough to convince investors Snap has a vision beyond social messaging. In its public filing document, Snap cautioned that it could be hard to justify its spending if new products fail to engage users.

“There is no guarantee that investing in new lines of business, new products, and other initiatives will succeed,” the company said.

Corrections & Amplifications
Snap and Twitter release different metrics about the sizes of their networks. Snap discloses daily users, while Twitter discloses monthly users. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Twitter has a larger user network than Snap. (Feb. 26)

Write to Georgia Wells at and Betsy Morris at

3. NEW YORK - Wall STreet Journal - Is Your Stuff Safe in the Cloud?
Storing documents in a private cloud that you access from home is one way to minimize risk of hacking can—and do—hand over data when compelled by a court order. (The most responsible, like Google, Apple and Dropbox, report how often it happens.Have you seen the headlines lately? Hacking and surveillance are bigger news than the next iPhone. Yet companies like Google, Apple and Dropbox have been urging us to load all our photos, and sometimes even more precious documents, in an online vault called the cloud. It’s actually huge racks of servers, in locations all over the world.
What could possibly go wrong with hundreds of millions of people storing personal data in a centralized warehouse?
In August, Dropbox reset the passwords for 68 million accounts in response to a 2012 breach. Anyone with an email address is at perpetual war with phishers, who were behind a big celebrity photo iCloud leak in 2014. Is anything safe from hackers?
A lesser-known cloud alternative is gaining traction: Store stuff on a hard drive at home, but access it online from anywhere. Known as “personal cloud” storage, some products from Western Digital WDC 0.83% and Seagate STX -1.35% use your own internet connection and are known only to you and the drive maker, so your files are less of a honeypot for hackers. You can get gobs of space for under $200—and no monthly fees. Two newcomers I’ve also been testing, Lima Ultra and Apollo, are even simpler and work more like Dropbox.
Yet a private cloud has problems, too: Without 24/7 security from Google or Apple, you are solely responsible for keeping hackers out. And you have to keep that drive from failing, or risk losing important data.

I asked hackers and security pros where they store their most precious documents—tax files—and got different answers from nearly all of them. Some said they would trust the public cloud, while others said they would keep files far away from the internet (making them difficult to share with an accountant). “There is no really perfect advice right now,” said Matthew Green, a cryptographer and professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute.

Security and privacy involve choices we all need to make for ourselves—and are worth at least as much consideration as the color of your phone. If that sounds like too much work, I’ve prepared a study guide:
Cloud storage may seem invisible, but your files are sent to data centers like this Google facility in Groningen, Netherlands.
Cloud storage may seem invisible, but your files are sent to data centers like this Google facility in Groningen, Netherlands. Photo: VINCENT JANNINK/Agence France Presse/Getty Images
The Public Cloud

Pro: For reliable access to your stuff from any connected device, it’s hard to beat the convenience of the largest cloud services. Dropbox, which charges $100 to store a terabyte of data for one year, perfected the magically-in-sync folder of stuff. Google and Apple offer the hands-down easiest way to manage photos and videos, shifting them off your phone or laptop before out-of-space alerts pop up.

These services make compelling arguments that they are best prepared to fight hackers. They not only encrypt our data on their servers, but also constantly look for suspicious patterns, scanning the dark web for chatter and even paying hackers to identify vulnerabilities. Case in point: Dropbox says it thinks users lost no data from the 2012 hack because of the way it stored passwords. Security is “about long-term protection against constantly evolving threats,” said Mark Crosbie, the company’s head of trust and security.

Con: The public cloud turns you into a perpetual renter, where you get hooked into a service that could cost you more than a drive within two years. It doesn’t happen often, but cloud services can also go down temporarily.

The public cloud is scariest for people concerned about privacy and the threat of government surveillance. Your personal data is out of your own control. Apple promises not to examine your data, while Google paints analyzing and sorting your photos as a selling point. But because they hold keys to decrypt at least some of your files, they can—and do—hand over data when compelled by a court order. (The most responsible, like Google, Apple and Dropbox, report how often it happens.) Who knows what could happen if laws change?

How to be safer: Way too many of us leave our stuff at risk in the cloud by re-using passwords and not turning on an extra layer of security called two-factor authentication (a.k.a. 2FA, two-step verification, or login approval). Once you turn it on in cloud settings, it typically sends you a secondary passcode via text message or app. It isn’t foolproof, but it could keep a hacker out of your stuff if they get your password.

For supersensitive files like tax documents, consider encrypting them with a separate password before storing them in the cloud. On a Mac, use FileVault in the Disk Utility; on a Windows PC, use Microsoft BitLocker.
The Private Cloud

Pro: Your data is in your own hands. And running your own cloud provides you a useful defense: obscurity. Hackers motivated by money tend to go after the biggest targets and lowest hanging fruit. Chances are they won’t be homing in on your network in search of a cloud server. Also, you are the only one who knows the password.

Personal cloud drives might cost more up front, but with no monthly fees, you could even save money. My favorite, Promise Technology’s Apollo, comes with 4TB for $300. The $130 Lima attaches to a USB drive you may already own. Many let you share storage with family or colleagues, who all get their own logins and space. They can also back up the photos on your phone over Wi-Fi.

Con: So you want to be in the server business? While all four of the private cloud devices I tested were easy to set up, it’s on you to keep them running. If your home Internet or power goes out, you lose access to your stuff. And you have to trust these companies to keep updating software to address new threats.

While they are improving in simplicity, none is as simple as Dropbox or as tightly integrated as Apple’s iCloud. When you need to get data off them, you may be limited by the upload speed of your internet connection, which is often much slower than the download speed.

How to be safer: A personal cloud, like any other connected device in the house, is at risk if you don’t secure your home Wi-Fi with a password and keep your router software up to date.

And beware: Hard drives often fail at the worst possible moments. Apollo and Lima have a solution, but it’ll cost you: If you buy a second unit, you can keep a copy of your drive—constantly updated over the internet—in a different location in case of theft, fire or failure.

Corrections & Amplifications
Mark Crosbie is the head of trust and security at Dropbox. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled his surname as Crosby. (March 14)

Appeared in the March 16, 2017, print edition as 'Protect Your Cloud Data From Capture.'