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Battle To The Death – Three Virtual Assistants Enter; Only One Will Survive

First, there was Siri, then Cortana, and then Alexa. Each virtual assistant comes equipped with a rich package of features and capabilities, but who is the best in the business?

Virtual Administrator

Every April, organizations big and small all over celebrate Administrative Assistants Day as a show of gratitude for the staff that carries out the day-to-day administrative operations. These are the individuals that make sure communications reach the proper contacts, that calendars are maintained, and appointments are kept. Good administrative assistants are indispensable to an enterprise, and truly deserve recognition more than one day each year.

The job of an administrative assistant — or any assistant — is to support the position they assist; Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Typing, faxing, emailing, answering calls, scheduling appointments, and all duties that fall under this umbrella require great organization and attention to detail. Duties don’t always stay within the 8-5 workday, and responsiveness is key.

When the Palm Pilot launched as one of the earlier electronic mobile devices for mobile communication with features for schedules and task organization, followed by BlackBerry models, and then the iPod Touch among many others, artificial intelligence emerged as an economical option and valuable tool for consumers. These devices at the time were just an extension of administrative assistants, though.

Enter the virtual assistant. Artificial intelligence (AI) has truly enabled technology to support human activity. From machines helping build machines — think automobile manufacturing lines – to machines helping people fix people — think 3D printers creating a replica of a heart or other organ to assist surgeons in planning an operation – the common thread is that artificial intelligence enables us to improve the world through the use of machines. Do you wear a Fitbit or another activity tracker? From counting your steps to telling time to monitor your heart rate to tracking your exercise route with built-in GPS capabilities, the little machine on your wrist is pretty incredible. Virtual assistants offer support on a basic level, but with more sophisticated capabilities, like voice-enabled operations and support.

Apple launched Siri, the built-in intelligent personal assistant, in 2011. Siri was designed to answer questions and perform basic actions using Apple apps on the iPhone. Apple worked with voice actors from British, Australian and American backgrounds to offer support in native “accents” given the global use of Apple products.

Both Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana followed in 2014, bolstering an AI competition that is most beneficial to the consumer. A common misperception is that Amazon’s Alexa is tethered to devices used only in a home, enabling home automation services. Alexa is designed to work with several Acer, Lenovo, and HP desktop and laptop computers as well as the Fire tablet line-up and a handful of mobile devices – though none carry the mobile market presence as the iPhone.

  • For decades, roles in the administrative assistant capacity were relegated to females – perhaps this is why the default voice in the virtual assistant market is female?

Each of the virtual assistants offers an assortment of the same type of features: set alarms, provide weather reports, sports scores, Internet search results, and other real-time options like news, driving directions, and traffic alerts. But with so many AI virtual assistants on the market and consumers have more options, which brings the most bang for the buck? Which offers the most robust features? Which has the coolest capabilities? We break down the “Big Three” and let you decide.

Siri

Siri was the first and is thereby the model for all others that come after. Siri was the first voice-activated, voice-controlled virtual assistant, and dominated the market for three years before her first true competitor came along. With a quick “Hey, Siri!”, she was eager and waiting to help you out! Siri’s user interface was pretty basic initially, but considering the innovative concept of a responsive virtual assistant in your pocket, consumers were happy with basic. Siri has evolved into a much more robust and astute virtual assistant, though she still prefers to look things up on the Internet and just give you her search results. This is reported because of Apple’s dedication to user privacy, and a commitment to not collecting data from browser history or emails – like Google does – for Internet search results.

Siri’s lack of integration with non-native apps is rather frustrating. Some partner apps will offer more complex functionality, but with most apps, users are limited to basic “open” commands and exclude secondary commands – think “open Facebook and create new status update” or something along those lines. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not something Siri can help you with – yet.

Cortana

Cortana had a built-in cult following even before she was a reality! “Cortana” was the code name for the AI virtual assistant project from Microsoft, but once leaked Cortana was a wildly popular name in user forums and users initiated a petition to Microsoft to keep the name upon release – and we now know how that turned out! The code name was a reference to a synthetic intelligence character in Microsoft’s Halo video game, and the same voice actress lent her voice to the virtual assistant.

One area Cortana has others beat is language support. Rather than just English, Cortana also supports Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese.

The downside of Cortana? Depending on your browser preference, Cortana may offer limitation in this aspect, only offering Internet search results in Bing (not Google). But Bing offers users rewards based on search activity volume, so perhaps this default is beneficial. Side by side, Bing and Google search results can differ, which is why we consider this a ‘downside’. An interesting note for Cortana, too, is that it offers a built-in music recognition capability. Could Cortana have plans to take on fan-favorite music discovery app Shazam? In case you weren’t paying attention, Shazam was recently acquired by Apple (iTunes springboard, anyone?).

  • Microsoft, lover of all things collaborative and integration, has plans for integrating Cortana into Skype, and we can’t wait to see how that pans out.

Alexa

Amazon’s Alexa is the exception to the rule in more than one way. Unique to the virtual assistant market, Alexa is standard on Amazon Echo devices – which are not smartphones but rather designed to primarily support home automation. This is rather genius in that Alexa supports orders and shopping through a user’s Amazon account with stored payment and shipping details, conveniently offering a built-in way for Amazon to monetize their virtual assistant.

Alexa is an audio-only voice-activated AI virtual assistant. She has to read all results out loud to you – but more importantly, interact directly with you. She is the foundation of a smart home rather than confined to a smartphone.

Alexa is also designed to work with third-party apps. Want to play a Spotify playlist? Alexa’s got you covered. Need a ride? Alexa can now order you an Uber. Alexa can help you order dinner due to integration with Pizza Hut and Domino’s, among others. Can Siri or Cortana do that? They can help you track down the phone number or website, but that’s the extent of their help. Alexa will also get you in (quick) shape — body or mind — with a daily 7-minute workout and a Jeopardy game.

  • Amazon wants Alexa to be essential to your home environment. Many households are already Amazon Prime members, relishing unlimited two-day shipping for a meager $99/year. This packages nicely with the Amazon Echo product line-up, each designed to work seamlessly with each other and integrate with your Amazon account while supporting home automation. Consumers notice weekly emails from Amazon with helpful tips on “what Alexa can do for you” details.

What’s the verdict?

Alexa is nice in your home or office, but for the power of the virtual assistant in your pocket and on the go, Siri was the first and is still the best! Setting up a to-do list, scheduling meetings and reminders, sending emails – it’s all pretty crucial for day-to-day mobile operations, and “mobile” is the keyword. Amazon is expanding what Alexa can do, but for now, it’s still second to Siri.

What will the rest of 2018 hold for the AI virtual assistant future? We can’t wait to see!

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Vanilla Ice Was Right – “Stop. Collaborate and listen!”

Microsoft Teams provides a rich environment with a wealth of apps and features, including a customizable user experience. Here are tips for making the most of Microsoft Teams.

In 1989, Robert Van Winkle (better known by his stage name, Vanilla Ice) gave the world some valuable advice –  “Stop. Collaborate and listen!

He raised a valid point nearly 30 years ago that professionals are shifting the focus to today; listening is a critical component of collaboration. Listening is one of the primary steps in the communication process, and communication is the foundation of collaboration. Pretty deep insight for a decades-old pop culture song that wasn’t meant to provoke deep thought!

What the song did not focus on was how collaborations relate in today’s tech-savvy world – understandable since cellphones had extending antennae and weighed about four pounds in 1989. In 2018, the goal of any collaborative environment is to merge team members, conversations, and content in an easily accessible location. For example, the team behind Slack – the widely-used collaborative platform after which all other collaborative platforms are now modeled – took what they didn’t like about various solutions already on the market, made vast improvements and then married these improvements with what features they did like. The result was a freemium platform made available for everyone to enjoy. Millions of users later, Slack seems to be doing something right.

The team over at Microsoft agrees, which is why the buzz was in overdrive recently with the tech world in full gossip mode about hints that Microsoft was in talks to acquire Slack. No matter how little truth there may be to these rumors, the fact is Microsoft did not acquire Slack, and instead released their solution for an Internet-relay chat (IRC) program: Microsoft Teams.

You might say Microsoft did the same thing Slack did, in that the developers over at Microsoft picked apart Slack, categorized what they liked and what they didn’t like in terms of features and functionality, and made their solutions with their version of improvements. Rather than come up with a catchy name, they stuck to the basics and called the program after the users it was designed to support: Teams. Built-in branding, right? The definition of a team is “a group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport”. Taking this definition one step further, a team is a group of individuals that share a goal and works together toward this common goal (or goals). Each member of a team has individual strengths they contribute, together supporting the collective achievement of the goal.

  • Microsoft Teams itself is a collaborative effort: users can submit feedback for features they would like to see added to improve the overall end-user experience. Microsoft has already included a few added features post-launch based on user-submitted requests.

This entire concept is the fundamental spirit of collaboration. What is most important in any collaborative effort is the community, communication, and information. This spirit is clear in Microsoft Teams, with the combination of workplace chat, meeting space, notes forums, and file sharing. The focus on user experience in the design of Microsoft teams is significant and obvious from the start. Users can see the variety of integrated apps in the tab gallery accessed in the user main navigation menu at the center of the top section of your screen, or in the Store experience found in the left navigation menu, at the bottom. Team admins are able to customize the user experience to cater to team requirements.

Microsoft Teams supports a host of third-party integrations, with Team admins having control of settings for what apps are available to their respective users. Do you need help with adjusting this feature? Here are the steps you’ll need to follow:

  • A Team admin needs to login to the Office 365 Admin Center (or “dashboard”): https://portal.office.com
  • In the left navigation menu, expand Settings and select “Service & Add-ins.”
  • Scroll and select Microsoft Teams.
  • In the pop-up menu that opens, you’ll see several Settings options. Choose “Apps”. These settings are divided into two groups:
    • The first group, “Default Apps”, are premier apps that are part of Office 365, like Flow or OneNote. These are toggled on and enabled.
    • “External Apps” are applications created by partner developers and are not necessarily associated with Microsoft other than these developers publish apps to the Microsoft environment. Adobe Creative Cloud is an example of an application in this group.
    • Click “Save” and changes are deployed immediately.

Team admins have control over what apps are available to – and seen by – your users, to maximize productivity through user experience. Microsoft Teams suggests turning off apps for which you don’t use or plan to grant user access.

Other settings Team admins can adjust for users in the Settings menu include allowing of sideloading external apps; apps you might develop yourself fall into this category. There is also an option to allow Microsoft to automatically update with apps they add and integrate. Apps are often added, and enabling automatic inclusion is one less “update” a Team admin needs to consider.

  • “Apps” is one of the big buzzwords of the year. Apps are software applications designed to simplify a process. Of the thousands of apps available, only a select few are chosen by an organization for regular use, with the intention of improving productivity, thereby increasing revenue.

Partner apps add significant value to the Microsoft Teams environment, contributing to the collaborative environment. Recent partner apps added to Microsoft Teams include News, Weather, and Wikipedia Search. An example here is the recent announcement of expanded Education partner apps to be included in Microsoft Teams, helping educators and students with a tailored experience for learning environments.

On that note, Microsoft has heard user requests to be able to manage apps by security group, and this is a feature Microsoft plans to launch in the coming months. In the meantime, make the most of Microsoft Teams by studying all apps that can be integrated at the user level, reviewing your settings for managing apps for your users, and customize your Team’s user experience. Remove apps that are unnecessary.

The ultimate goal of Microsoft Teams is to provide a completely customizable experience that can be managed by an admin and drilled down to users based on the needs of the organization – and its users – providing a priceless and indispensable tool for teams and organizations.

How can Microsoft Teams help you make 2018 your best year yet? Find out which new and exciting apps are waiting for you – and your team – today!

Microsoft Teams

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Tired Of Replacing Tech Every Year And A Half?

How often do you buy a new laptop, tablet or mobile phone? Does it seem like there’s an internal alarm clock that predicts the time of your next purchase? We can help you hit the “snooze” button and save more money.

Investing in new tech

Apple made news recently with an admission of its practice to release updates that would slow performance of older phones as a byproduct, indirectly increasing frustration and thereby prompting consumers to “need” to upgrade their phone. It’s been a long-running joke that, with two-year contracts with mobile service providers, consumers could count on increased frustrations near the 18-month mark to build anticipation for the next smartphone iteration.

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of consumer goods relies on the basic elements of supply and demand. While consumers maintain the mentality of “upgrade every two years”, manufacturers released new products on a set timetable, and subsidized costs helped to feed our appetite for the newest, fastest tech with the coolest features. Who doesn’t love a built-in schedule feeding supply and demand? Desktop computing systems experience the effect, as well, though the phenomenon doesn’t receive the same coverage, perhaps because these systems have been around for longer than mobile devices and consumers have just come to accept the situation.

Now that the days of service contracts and subsidized phone costs are over, consumers hold more control over their technology – and their wallets.  With the barrier to entry centering on higher costs — that are no longer subsidized — consumers are looking for ways to make all types of tech last longer. This is especially helpful given that the cost of tablets, most notably the iPad, continues to inch higher as our dependency on mobile technology increases. How can we make our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop tech last longer and run more smoothly?

Desktops and Laptops

Review your system using these guidelines as a checklist, and see how some light housekeeping may help:

  • Is your system freezing or crashing more often?
    • Crashes and freezing can be a reminder to reboot, allow your applications to restart and reset, clear your memory cache and cookies, and just give your machine the chance to let go of anything it’s been unnecessarily holding onto in temporary files.
    • These can also be a sign of something more serious, and it may be a good idea to run an antivirus program, like Avast, to make sure you’re not a victim of malware, viruses, or ransomware attacks.
  • Is your storage nearly full?
    • When a hard drive fills over 75% capacity, the effect on a system is an overall slow-down. Consider moving to a free cloud-based storage solution, like Dropbox or Google Drive. If you’re an Amazon Prime user, take advantage of your benefit of unlimited photo storage that also offers you the ability to organize photos into albums that you can share with friends and family with just a click.
  • When was the last time you checked for and installed system updates?
    • Outdated operating systems can significantly decrease a system’s performance. Check for updates and install them, since these almost always contain updates that improve performance and maintain security.
  • Is your computer clean?
    • We don’t mean viruses here – we mean “clean”. Dust and particles can get down into crevices and gunk up innards. This can impede airflow, causing a system to overheat, and make your system work harder than it needs to operate effectively. A can of compressed air can do wonders with hidden dust particles in the tiniest of spaces.

Smartphones and Devices

Much like with any computer, smartphones and tablets need routine maintenance to perform at their best. Sluggish and slow speeds hinder your ability to get things done. Never is the phrase “time is money” truer than when trying to send an email or make a call, in attempt to conduct business and finalize a transaction.

Keep your mobile devices operating at their peak efficiency by regularly checking through the following areas:

  • Photo storage
    • Ever wondered why smartphones still offer the option of the shutter sound when taking pictures? The sound is both nostalgic and satisfying. We take photos of moments to help us remember – but we take more photos now compared to the days of film.
    • Our digital memories are eating up our digital storage. Cloud storage is an easy solution, but few take advantage of the opportunity. As we mentioned earlier, Amazon Prime users can take advantage of free unlimited photo storage and create shareable albums. This is a safer option than Facebook, given it’s a service you pay for, and you retain control of the account!
  • Email Inbox(es)
    • A single email message has an almost undetectable impact on your phone’s operation, but how many emails do you get in one day? A hundred? More likely a few thousand messages or more come to you throughout the average work week, and that fills space quickly in your device’s memory. De-clutter your inbox, and start seeing a difference.
  • How many applications do you have installed that you don’t use?
    • Applications can take up a lot of memory space. You can see which applications have the greatest impact on your phone’s settings, and eliminate applications that you haven’t used. Regain screen real estate, too!
  • How many applications are running?
    • Not only can applications take up space, but they can also drain your battery faster. Over time, this can wear down your battery which means it will just drain faster and faster, regardless of how many applications are running at any one time.
  • Internet windows
    • Much like on a desktop where you may have more than a dozen tabs open and running in a single Internet browser session, your phone will open a new window as many times as you like. Again, much like with your desktop browser that stores cookies and browser history that takes up RAM, your phone keeps this data stored, as well, slowing down operations.
  • When in doubt, restart
    • The occasional restart can act as a “reset” for your phone, and you may see an improvement in performance after rebooting.
  • Are there updates available?
    • Whether for an application or your operating system, there are reasons that updates are made available to consumers. Updates are intended to improve the overall operation of your mobile device, and it’s recommended that you keep your phone’s operating system and applications up to date.
  • Is your device clean?
    • Keep your screen wiped, your speakers clear of debris, and your camera lens and charging port clean. Dust and grime can creep into the tiniest of crevices and build up, affecting the interior workings of your phone.

Keeping your technology operating efficiently takes effort on your part, but the return on your time investment will extend their lifespan and decrease the long-term maintenance costs you would need to spend otherwise. Following these basic preventive maintenance tips will make your tech last longer and save you time – and money.

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Shining A Light On The Dark Web: How Much Is Your Personal Information Selling For?

The dark web is a busy illegal market. To best protect yourself you need to know what items are in high demand, how much they go for, and how to best protect your information so that you don’t fall victim to this type of crime.

Dark Web

The Internet is a scary place – a black market web of illicit and illegal acts. The old saying that the best offense is a good defense applies to the Internet as well – to protect yourself you must know what is out there.

How often is it that portions of our identities are bought and sold on the web? What is secure and what isn’t? How much are people paying for personal information on the dark web? These are the questions you should be asking yourself.

What information is sold on the dark web Price
Social Security $1
General Non-financial institution logins $1
Subscription services $1-$10
Credit Debit card numbers without the CVV $5-$110
Credit Debit card numbers with CVV $10-$115
Loyalty accounts $20
Driver’s License $20
Online Payment Services $20-$200
Fullz info $30
Diplomas $100-$400
Passport $1000-$2000
Medical Records $1-$1000

When it comes to protecting your personal information, often the first thing you think about is your Social Security number. Many believe it’s the only thing that gets routinely sold on the dark web. Surprisingly, the data shows that this is not in the least bit true.

Social Security numbers are only valued at $1. For less than the cost of a candy bar, you can buy a Social Security number, general non-financial institution logins, or subscription service logins such as Netflix or Hulu. Forbes magazine reported that in December of 2017 a file with 1.4 billion hacked and leaked passwords was found on the dark web. A bulk of these passwords and logins were for subscription accounts on Netflix, Last.FM, LinkedIn, MySpace, dating site Zoosk, adult website YouPorn, as well as for favorite games like Minecraft and Runescape.

Beyond subscriptions to streaming services, hackers gain make real money off of your personal information. For example, with just $5 you can afford to buy credits card numbers. If you want credit card numbers with the CVV number, it will cost you only an additionally $5. One of the more surprising items is that the dark web wants are loyalty accounts. For the cost of a typical gym membership, you can have a person’s loyalty account number or their Driver’s License number.

For about the cost of a dozen roses ($30), you can find all kinds of Online Payment services or “Fullz” info. Fullz information is an information bundle that includes a name, SSN, birthday, account number, and other data. This cost has gone down since 2015; in just two years’ time, Fullz information has dropped from $15-$65 to just $10-$30.

On the more expensive end of the dark web, you can find items from diplomas and passports, to even medical records. These can run you $100-$400 and $1000-$2000 respectively. These items being on the black market have their own repercussions. It begs the question of why medical records were worth so much more, in comparison to spending $1 for a Social Security number.

Jean-Frederic Karcher, the head of security at communications provider Maintel explains that “The main reason medical institutions and the NHS are targeted is that they have vast amounts of patient data at their disposal. Hackers can sell large batches of this personal data for profit on the black market”.

What causes the difference in cost for personal information on the dark web?

There are four main factors that impact the price of personal information. The first two elements are a fundamental economics equation where cost is dependent on the supply and demand. Another factor is the balance of the account – if the credit card has significant available credit, it will cost more. Same with loyalty cards that have a high stability of points. Lastly, the cost of personal data can be dependent on the ability to reuse the data. For example, a person would pay more for a credit card that they can use multiple times, as compared to a gift card they could use only once.

How are they getting this information and what can you do to protect yourself?

“According to the ITRC, data breaches in the United States during 2016 hit an all-time high of 1,093, which represents a 40% increase over the previous year.” Weak passwords and unmonitored accounts are the leading causes of identity theft.

Weak passwords

Often cybercriminals can gain access to this information from simple things such as poor password choices or weak antivirus software. Overlooking small vulnerabilities such as these gives opportunities for your information to be sold on the dark web.

Unmonitored financial accounts

To best protect yourself, you should monitor your accounts and statements for anything that looks suspicious. Hackers usually target people that they know they could get a good lead on. For example, an elderly lady, that can’t see that well, won’t be tracking her account like a younger person would be on a smaller budget.

Unmonitored credit reports

Thirdly, remember to check your credit report often. If you are subscribed to a credit report service, remember to keep copies of your report anytime they are requested. For example, if you buy a vehicle, or open a credit card, you should have a copy of the report sent to you as well. That way you can look for any discrepancies on your report and identify them right away.

Not reporting suspicious activity

Hackers also know that often their crimes won’t be reported. If you note something suspicious and don’t report it, you are giving them another leg up on you. The more time that goes by, the less likely it is that you will be able to recover. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tracks identity theft statistics, helps victims, and coordinates responses by various governmental agencies. The average company offers employees an average of 10 days of leave per year, which equals out to 80 paid hours of leave. The FTC reports that recovering from identity theft takes an average of six months and 200 hours of work. That would be over two years’ worth of leave accrual.

Knowing what is on the dark web is only half the battle – you should also know what is valuable on the dark web and what isn’t. You should know how these items are getting into the wrong hands so that you can best protect yourself and your information. Remember to use strong passwords and monitor your accounts and credit cards for any discrepancies. If you notice anything out of the ordinary you should report it right away. Don’t let your information end up on the dark web. Get a few steps ahead of these hackers today.

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Businesses Can Now Schedule Instagram Posts

Following in the footsteps of other social media giants, Instagram is now trying to add flexibility to their platform in order to attract more business owners. Since their inception in 2010, Instagram has had no way to allow users to schedule posts. Posting manually can be time-consuming for businesses that want to send out posts daily at certain times. Savvy business owners are well-versed on the best days of the week and the most optimal times for post scheduling.

Instagram

This type of scheduling feature is already available on many platforms including WordPress and is considered indispensable, allowing users to schedule a post for whenever they like. Research shows that there are better times and days of the week to post content.

What days and times are best for your posts?

One study claims that videos that get posted to Instagram at 9:00 PM get 34 percent more action. Regular content will get more attention if posted on Monday or Thursday between 3:00 – 4:00 PM. Instagram traffic decreases on Sundays. All these little facts can help users reap a big reward in engagement from their audience, which is why business owners are taking the time to learn all the nuances of optimizing traffic on their favorite social media platforms.

A few drawbacks

Instagram will add support to its API, then use the functionality of applications like SocialFlow, Sprout Social, and HootSuite to support the feature. Eventually, they do believe that post-scheduling will be added to the product itself. At the moment, the post-scheduling feature doesn’t include ads, but that could change as well.

“The scheduling and publishing of Instagram content has been the number one request for our 16 million customers,” said Ryan Holmes, HootSuite CEO. “Now, they (business owners) can manage large volumes of content, multiple team members and multiple Instagram accounts with ease and security. HootSuite is excited to partner with Instagram to make this happen.”

The major drawback is that most regular users will not be able to take advantage of post scheduling. Only larger companies that use third-party software programs with Instagram will be able to use the new feature. Industry experts do believe that it’s only a matter of time before post scheduling will be free and available to everyone.

SocialFlow CEO Jim Anderson commented that, “It’s always been very time-consuming to create Instagram posts. That’s not necessarily a problem for individual consumers, but when you’re a media company that creates more than 100,000 posts a month, it’s simply impossible to do everything manually”.

Instagram replacing older API platforms

Instagram has plans to phase out their older API Platform during the next two years. The older API will be replaced with a newer Graph API. This will give users the ability to analyze metrics on their company’s performance. By allowing business owners to gain insights and analyze metrics, Instagram believes it can better compete with giants like Facebook and Twitter. The new API will also allow users to moderate comments and respond to them. These changes are set to take place on July 31, 2018.

Ingenious new features in the works for Instagram

Other features aimed at attracting more businesses to its platform are being considered by Instagram. These include a feature called business discovery, which, similar to LinkedIn, will give Instagram users the ability to check out other business profiles. The company notes that it will eventually roll out these cool features to all its regular users, and not just business owners.

Post images directly to Instagram with HootSuite
One of the more popular software platforms that integrates with Instagram is HootSuite. Posts can be scheduled from the HootSuite dashboard or the mobile app. As previously stated, only business accounts are eligible for this service at this time. Using HootSuite, customers can schedule their posts so that they are published on a specific day and timed. HootSuite also allows companies to run analytics to discover information that can help them reach a broader audience.

Other new features

The early results are in and the majority of business owners are reporting better conversion rates and more traffic with these new Instagram features. This success has spawned a new revolution for Instagram, a platform that has always been about photos and videos. Now, using a feature called “Type Mode”, users can type words that can be placed on colorful backgrounds (e.g., many users enjoy sharing the lyrics to their favorite song). Users can add fancy font styles, photos or videos to enhance the post. Instagram users are traditionally very imaginative people so this offers them an innovative outlet for their creativity.

From January 2013 to September 2017, the number of active Instagram users has risen from 90 million to 800 million. Though this does seem like a huge number of people interacting on their platform each week, for context, Facebook has over 2 billion users worldwide. Social media platforms with this type of potential exposure represent an unprecedented advertising market for companies of all sizes and types.

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Microsoft Teams: Business Without Boundaries

Where you work is no longer defined by four walls and a door – not even by cubicle walls. Gone are the days where productivity requires a set geographical location, at least for some roles, anyway.

Recent years have seen the rise of the remote workforce that can effectively collaborate on projects from across the globe. Organizations can cut costs and increase productivity using various platforms that facilitate communication and collaboration, and it’s only becoming more popular.

Revolution or Evolution?

Major metropolitan cities from New York to Los Angeles are filled with your classic skyscrapers, and every town and suburb in between is dotted with professional office parks. However, are these buildings, once filled to the brim with bustling businesses, still relevant?

They’re no longer the norm – but why? Even with the periodic recession, the overall post-WWII American economy didn’t just emerge with success – it exploded! The “four walls and a door” was waiting for every entry-level candidate until the late 1980’s when the cubicle first gained popularity.

Fast-forward to today, and the latest concept to revolutionize the workforce isn’t revolutionary at all. Telecommuters now represent a significant portion of the global workforce, and do so quite ably. To say the idea of the office has evolved is quite the understatement: now, an office can be anywhere. From your desk at home to your local coffee shop, from the waiting room at your car dealership to Row 6 Seat B on your flight, telecommuting facilitates progress so long as you can access your files, email, and anything else you need to get the job done.

  • Did you know that telecommuting has increased by more than 300% in the past 20 years? Technology has made telecommuting easier and more effective and has helped organizations retain quality staff longer.

No longer is the stereotypical full-time staffer a given when organizations look to fill a role, either. People are now demanding flexibility in a job description, and what was once a 9-to-5 position is becoming obsolete. For more than a decade, flexibility has evolved into an expectation over a fringe benefit, and with good reason. A global remote workforce offers business without boundaries and productivity that never stops.

A Collaborative Culture

The evolving business culture demands evolving means by which to collaborate and connect. Digital platforms are plentiful, with features that cater to your business’ specific needs. Platforms like Basecamp and Trello are beloved by project managers, Salesforce.com and Microsoft Sharepoint offer great sales team support, and technology teams rely on tools like Microsoft Team Foundation Server – often shortened to TFS. Organization is critical to any company, especially when teams are separated by time zones.

Where would we be today without Microsoft? Microsoft and Windows have remained the primary professional computing mainstays for about 30 years. Microsoft Office remains the fundamental application suite on which companies rely for day-to-day operations, even when office space is nonexistent. The irony of the name is not lost on us, either!

Microsoft recognized an opportunity in the permanence of telecommuting. Never one to shy away from innovation, Microsoft launched a suite of applications catering to the “digital” crowd in 2011, under its Office 365 brand. If Microsoft Office is a basic tool for the 9-to-5 professional, the subscription-based Office 365 is a fundamental lifeline of the telecommuter. Office 365 allows the use of applications across a multitude of devices, as well as file hosting, email, and a range of other networking tools designed to feed our daily addiction to all things Microsoft.

Rumors began swirling in 2016 of a Microsoft acquisition bid for the cloud-based Slack collaboration tool, a darling of the technology industry – but why buy when you can create and customize? Microsoft’s Skype for Business product offered similar basic functionalities and was already installed on the digital desktops of millions of professional customers. In early 2017, Microsoft released what it believed to be the next-level professional platform: Microsoft Teams.

  • Slack offers itself as a “freemium” product, a marketing and pricing strategy where the base model of a product or service is widely available free of charge, but premium features are available for those willing to pay the added cost.

Making the Most of Your Microsoft

Microsoft didn’t face a great hurdle in convincing customers to “buy in” to Microsoft Teams, given its position as a new-and-improved version of anything currently on the market. If Microsoft Office was the predecessor to Office 365 and Skype for Business, Teams is the logical next generation.

Why is the next generation so important? Microsoft realizes that the workplace is evolving and that more businesses are hiring independent contractors, freelancers, consultants, and other external resources to support permanent staff – all of which work together toward one common goal. Microsoft Teams refers to these external resources as “Guests.” If collaboration is the cornerstone of professional success, then communication is the foundation upon which that stone is laid, and Guests don’t need to be granted full access to proprietary information.

The solution is Guest Access, and it’s a new feature in Teams, which customers have been requesting for some time. Aside from the previously mentioned independent contractors, etc., Guests may also include vendors, suppliers, or even interns. Guest Access is available to users who have an email address that corresponds to an Azure Active Directory or Office 365 work or school account.

Organizations can provide external access to their teams for applications to partners, resources, chat communication, and documents in channels while maintaining control and protection.

In Microsoft Teams, Guest Access is a tenant-level setting that’s turned off by default. Do you need help turning on this new feature? Follow these steps:

  1. The global admin needs to login to the dashboard: https://portal.office.com/adminportal/home
  2. In the left navigation menu, expand Settings and select “Service and Admin.”
  3. Scroll and select Office 365 Group settings.
  4. In the menu that opens, toggle the bottom option to “On,” giving Group Owners the ability to add Guests from outside the organization, and click “Save.”
  • This setting needs to be enabled because Team permissions are based on Groups.
  1. Next, scroll through the list to select Microsoft Teams
  2. In the left navigation menu, find the “Settings by user/license type” and select “Guest” in the drop-down menu and toggle setting to “On.”
  3. Click “Save.”

After changing these settings, Team Owners can add and manage Guest Access within their Team.

Microsoft Teams

Whether you include mostly in-house staff, a team of telecommuters, or a range of every type of resource at your organization, we can help you make 2018 the best year yet – as a team!

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BYOD in the Workplace: Pros vs. Cons

Many modern companies are now implementing BYOD policies that permit employees to work with their personal laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

BYOD in the Workplace

Bring your own device (BYOD) to work. Who would have thought, even twenty short years ago, that you could use a little phone to do business instead of a big clunky computer? That’s today’s reality and tomorrow’s norm. However, with this new wave of change in the workplace, there comes many risks and rewards to both employers and employees.

Bring your own device programs can be broken down into three important areas of review.

  1. Determining which software applications are required to manage devices connecting to the network.
  2. Preparing a written policy outlining the responsibilities of both the employer and users.
  3. Ensuring users sign an agreement acknowledging that they read and understand the policy.

This is where things get tricky. You can create all the policies you want. Write them up and discuss them until you’re blue in the face, but how do you truly enforce them? The answer is that you can’t. You can’t control what employees do even if they sign an agreement on usage. So, it stands to reason that you must be very careful when hiring employees. Trust is crucial. You must be able to count on your staff to do the right thing all the time.

Asking people to use their own devices certainly offers several advantages. It can lower company costs and improve efficiency and effectiveness. Mark Coates, a VP at Good Technology notes that “By enabling employees to securely and easily access corporate data on their own device, productivity levels will naturally increase. In terms of cost savings, there are huge benefits, since SMBs will not have to manage and fund a second device for employees”.

Tony Bradley of PC World states that “when companies embrace BYOD policies, they have advantages over competitors. Some of these advantages being lower costs to the company since employees already own these devices and employee satisfaction and familiarity with the devices. Obviously, they’d rather use the devices they love rather than being stuck with laptops and mobile devices that are selected and issued by the IT department”.

On the other hand, the obvious cons are trying to control private and sensitive information. Data breaches can and have occurred. Software and hardware are replaceable, but company data is not. In a BYOD workplace, organizations lose much of the control over the equipment and how it’s used. After all, how do you tell an employee what they can and can’t do with their own laptop or smartphone? Company-issued devices, on the other hand, are protected by company-issued security that is controlled by the IT department.

Advice is being offered to companies considering a BYOD policy via government guidelines. The US Department of Commerce’s NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology, has the following to say.

Teleworkers who use a BYOD desktop or laptop (PC) for telework should secure their operating system and primary applications.

Securing a BYOD PC includes the following actions:

  1. Using a combination of security software, such as antivirus software, personal firewalls, spam and web-content filtering, and popup blocking, to stop most attacks, particularly malware.
  2. Restricting who can use the PC by having a separate standard user account for each person, assigning a password to each user account, using the standard user accounts for daily use, and protecting user sessions from unauthorized physical access.
  3. Ensuring that updates are regularly applied to the operating system and primary applications, such as web browsers, email clients, instant-messaging clients, and security software.
  4. Disabling unneeded networking features on the PC and configuring wireless networking securely.
  5. Configuring primary applications to filter content and stop other activity that is likely to be malicious.
  6. Installing and using only known and trusted software.
  7. Configuring remote access software based on the organization’s requirements and recommendations.
  8. Maintaining the PC’s security on an ongoing basis, such as changing passwords regularly and checking the status of security software periodically.

Teleworkers who use a BYOD mobile device for telework should secure it based on the security recommendations from the device’s manufacturer.

  1. Limit access to the device, such as setting a unique personal identification number (PIN) or password not used elsewhere, and automatically lock a device after an idle period.
  2. Disable networking capabilities, such as Bluetooth and Near Field Communication (NFC), except when they are needed.
  3. Ensure that security updates, if available, are acquired and installed at least weekly, preferably daily.
  4. Configure applications to support security (e.g., blocking activity that is likely to be malicious).
  5. Download and run apps only from authorized apps stores.
  6. Do not jailbreak or root the device.
  7. Do not connect the device to an unknown charging station.
  8. Use an isolated, protected, and encrypted environment that is supported and managed by the organization to access data and services.

They go on to say, “Sensitive information, such as personally identifiable information (PII) (e.g., personnel records, medical records, financial records), that is stored on or sent to or from telework devices needs to be protected so that malicious parties cannot access or alter it. An unauthorized release of sensitive information could damage the public’s trust in an organization, jeopardize the organization’s mission, or harm individuals if their personal information has been released”.

As you can see, a lot of thought needs to go into deciding whether this practice is right for your workplace. If you’re still not sure, check out the link below for a detailed graphic checklist.

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6 Ways to Prevent Cybersecurity Breaches

It is becoming commonplace to hear of big security breaches. Consumers wonder how this keeps happening. It would seem like every company should be taking their data security very seriously. After all, a data breach typically costs millions of dollars and tarnishes the company’s reputation.

Cybersecurity Breaches

After the Target data breach of 2013, shoppers were wary about returning to the retail giant to shop. To date, the breach has cost Target over $90 million, and there’s no way to measure the damage to their reputation. Target stores, like many other brick and mortar stores, are already suffering from the consumer trend to buy everything online. Numerous surveys confirm that patrons are reluctant to shop online at smaller stores. The overall belief is that larger stores have better cybersecurity.

This theory was certainly questioned when the nation’s largest banker, JP Morgan Chase, lost the names, addresses and personal information of 76 million of its customers. Breaches like this erode the public trust and cause consumers to back away from doing business online altogether.

So how can you stop this from happening to your company? Is anyone really safe nowadays? Below, we discuss six solidly proven ways to prevent cyber security breaches from occurring at your company.

1. Limit access to your most valuable data.

In the old days, every employee had access to all the files on their computer. These days, companies are learning the hard way, to limit access to their more critical data. After all, there’s no reason for a mailroom employee to view customer financial information. When you limit who is allowed to view certain documents, you narrow the pool of employees who might accidentally click on a harmful link. As corporations move into the future, expect to see all records partitioned off so that only those who specifically need access will have it. This is one of those common-sense solutions that companies probably should have been doing all along.

2. Third-party vendors must comply.

Every company does business with a wide array of third-party vendors. It’s more important than ever to know who these people are. Companies can even open themselves up to lawsuits by allowing strangers to enter their premises. What if the guy who delivers office supplies just got out of prison? It’s something to think about. In addition, be sure to limit the types of documents these vendors can view.

Though precautions like this can be a hassle for the IT department, the alternative could be a multi-million-dollar data breach.  For those companies that are allowed to view your important data, demand transparency. Make sure they are complying with privacy laws; don’t just assume. Ask for background checks for third-party vendors who must enter your company on a regular basis. CEO’s need to get tougher on security if they really want to instigate change.

3. Conduct employee security awareness training.

According to recent surveys, employees are the weakest link in the data security chain. In spite of training, employees open suspicious emails every day that have the potential to download viruses. One mistake that employers make is thinking that one training class about cybersecurity is enough. If you’re serious about safeguarding your important data, schedule regular classes each quarter or even monthly.

Believe it or not, employees have been known to leave those classes, return to their desks and open suspicious emails without even thinking twice. Marketing studies show that most people need to hear the same message at least seven times before it begins to change their behavior.

4. Update software regularly.

Professionals recommend keeping all application software and operating systems updated regularly. Install patches whenever available. Your network is vulnerable when programs aren’t patched and updated regularly. Microsoft now has a product called Baseline Security Analyzer that can regularly check to ensure all programs are patched and up to date. This is a fairly easy and cost-effective way to strengthen your network and stop attacks before they happen.

5. Develop a cyber breach response plan.

What would you do if you went to work tomorrow and learned that a data breach had occurred? Surprisingly few companies have a sound breach response plan in place. It either hasn’t occurred to them that they may need one someday soon, or they feel they can handle the response as necessary. There’s a significant fallacy in this thinking. In the past, large companies that had cybercriminals break in and steal records were slow to make this public. They were also reluctant to share the truth about how much data and what type of data was stolen.

The government’s OPM break-in was handled very poorly. It was months after the breach before FEMA made a public announcement. When they did announce that a data breach had occurred, they downplayed how serious it was, issuing incorrect information about exactly how many records had been compromised. It was several years before the true nature of the breach was exposed.

For consumers, this is unacceptable. People feel they have a right to know exactly when the breach occurred and what was lost. Though it took several years to learn this, government employees were finally told the truth: over 21 million records were stolen. Most of them contained names, addresses, social security numbers, and fingerprints.

Developing a comprehensive breach preparedness plan enables both the employees and the employer to understand the potential damages that could occur. An employer should be very transparent concerning the scope of the breach; employees want to know the truth. A good response plan can limit lost productivity and prevent negative publicity. Employees feel angry when they find out that the company they work for had a data breach six months ago and told no one told them about it.

Your response plan should begin with an evaluation of exactly what was lost and when. Find out who is responsible whenever possible. By taking swift, decisive action, you can limit damages and restore public and employee trust.

6. Difficult to decipher passwords

In the past, businesses rarely got involved with how often employees had to change their passwords. Recent cyber breaches have changed all that. When security experts come to your company to educate your employees, one thing they will stress is the need to regularly change all passwords. Most of the public has discovered the importance of making passwords difficult to decipher. Even on our home computers, we’ve learned to use upper case letters, numbers and special characters when formulating passwords. Make it as difficult as possible for thieves to break in and steal your stuff.

Reassure your customers.

Online shopping now represents over $80 billion in sales for American businesses. People seem to love to shop online. It’s so easy and convenient. The future looked bright for online sales until data breaches at stores like eBay and Amazon occurred. Recent surveys of consumers across America show that 56% have cut back on their internet purchases due to fear of their personal info being stolen. This equates to lost sales in the millions of dollars.

This has now become such a prevalent problem that companies create marketing campaigns to reassure shoppers that it’s safe to shop online again. But, it can take years to restore the public’s trust once it’s lost. If customers see that your company is doing its best to prevent cyber theft, they may feel better about buying from you.

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Beware of This Ransomware Strain and Its Dangers for Cloud E-mail.

We recently came across some chilling news. A white hat hacker developed a working “Ransomcloud” strain, that encrypts cloud e-mail accounts like those in Office 365, and it does this in real time. This strain uses a smart social engineering tactic to trick you into giving the bad guys access to your cloud e-mail account. This means that if you open your e-mail in a browser, it can encrypt the whole lot right in front of your eyes. Thankfully, Ransomcloud hasn’t hit the wild yet. With that said, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t, especially because it’s not all that hard to do.

Ransomware is a term that you should be aware of. There are 3 types of ransomware: File- Scareware, Screen Locker, and File-Encrypting Ransomware.

  • Scareware is malware that works for both security software and tech support. It can be recognized by its notification telling you that your computer is plagued with a specific bug or virus. In order to remove it, you need to pay a fee to the hacker.
  • Screen Locker uses an official-looking seal from government programs such as the FBI or Department of Defense. It locks your computer screen and requests that you pay a fine to unlock it and retrieve your data.
  • File-Encrypting Ransomware is a type of malware that tricks you into clicking on a suspicious link or opening a phishing e-mail. Ransomcloud is the newest variant of file-encrypting ransomware and is incredibly dangerous. In the Ransomcloud Demo Video, Kevin Mitnick, KnowBe4’s Chief Hacking Officer, shows us the dangers of this new variant and what it means for our cloud-based emails. Once the Ransomcloud is initiated, either by clicking on the link or opening the e-mail, it immediately begins encrypting or scrambling e-mails. This is especially dangerous if you are connected to a corporate network that shares access to files, such as a shared cloud. Any files you have access to can be encrypted.

Often the malware is represented as something else. For example, the e-mail can come through as an update or program that is beneficial to you. For example in the demo video, the e-mail looks like it was from Microsoft. The e-mail may appear to come from a large company such as Microsoft–even using authentic logos–It’s important to look for anything suspicious before opening it or clicking on it. If you see that the e-mail says that Microsoft is launching a new anti-spam pro product, without taking a deeper look, you could easily shrug it off as authentic.  (Keep in mind, that while this specific example uses the ruse of a “new Microsoft anti-spam service” it could be anything from any company as long as it helps the hacker reach their goal.) Since the e-mail stated that this new program will keep spam from your Outlook 365 inbox it wouldn’t be suspicious if it asked you to stay logged in and provide access to your data.

Ransomware Cloud

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As soon as you accept these terms, the fatal mistake is made. You are essentially providing an “OAuth token,” which gives the hacker complete control. Once that OAuth Token is given up, all of your e-mails and attachments are encrypted real-time! The horrifying thought is that a Ransomcloud attack will work for any cloud e-mail provider that allows an application to give control through e-mail. It will also work for Google. After the link is clicked, and you go back to your e-mail, at first, it looks perfectly fine; then you’ll see changes moving swiftly throughout each and every e-mail in your inbox. All of your e-mails are quickly encrypted, leaving only the header readable.

Ransomware earns its name for what it does next.

Next, you’ll be notified that to decrypt your data you must pay a ransom. The hacker will explain how to do this.

The ransom is typically requested in the form of bitcoins. Bitcoins were created in 2009, as a new form of currency. When using this currency, there’s no need for banks or other middlemen, to intervene. The transaction is just between you, your bitcoins and your supplier. So why would bitcoins be a common currency for ransomware attacks? Because Bitcoins can be used without the name and paper trails (which can be limiting to criminals). Additionally, Bitcoins don’t use credit reports, or fees, and can work internationally without the regulations that other currencies are subjected to.

Using bitcoins gives this crime another shade of elusiveness. In the KnowBe4 Ransomcloud Demo video the hacker’s ransom e-mail states that the cloud e-mails have been encrypted and if the user wants the decryption code, they must pay a fee of $300 bitcoins to be sent to a specific bitcoin address. The video ends with the user paying the hypothetical $300 bitcoins and receiving the decryption code. Just as quickly as it started, it’s over, and the e-mails all return to their readable status.

The dangers of this are especially pertinent if you and your employees are working in a cloud-based environment. This is why it’s especially important to train your employees to be vigilant to secure your business data. They should carefully look at each e-mail prior to opening it or clicking on links. One small click of the mouse can turn into a world of trouble for your business.

The Take-Home Message

Simple training can help secure your company and your data. Training staff to spend a little more time when sorting through e-mails could save your business from a ransomware attack. This is where the importance of the training comes in. Employees should be trained to recognize ransomware emails and constantly look for ones that are suspicious, such as those containing simple grammatical mistakes or excessive punctuation. You should have a policy in place that tells them how to flag suspicious e-mail. Additionally, employees should all be trained on the importance of not opening or clicking on suspicious e-mails or links.

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Data Security for Beginners: 6 Tips to Maintain Information Privacy Online

January 28th, 2018 is Data Privacy Day, an international effort led by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) annually for the purpose of raising awareness about the importance of safeguarding data. Data Privacy Day commemorates the signing of Convention 108, which took place on January 28th, 1981 as the first legally binding international treaty regarding data protection.

Data Privacy Day

Your data is your most important business asset, and when it’s lost or stolen, your company faces serious direct financial losses – from legal fines to decreased productivity to lost sales and a damaged reputation. You simply can’t afford to leave your data vulnerable to the sophisticated cybercriminals out there patiently waiting to get their hands on it. Paradigm Network Solutions has always put data security first and foremost – helping our clients stay as secure as possible.

Data security is becoming more important than ever before as we bank, shop, and communicate online…

That’s why we’ve compiled 6 great tips to help you better protect the privacy of your data online:

  1. Encrypt as much and as often as possible: Encryption acts as an extra layer of security; scrambling sensitive information so it’s unreadable to anyone who doesn’t have the authorization to read it. There are tons of tools available to encrypt your sensitive information at rest and in transit.
  2. Keep your operating system up-to-date: You’ll hear this tip time and time again because it’s so important. Those operating system and software updates might be annoying, but they’re absolutely vital to ensure you have the latest security updates and vulnerability patches installed.
  3. Run anti-virus software periodically: There’s a wide range of dangerous threats out there waiting to attack your system at any given moment. As a result, it’s crucial for you to install a reliable anti-virus software and make sure you’re performing scans on a periodic basis.
  4. Use unique, complex passwords for accounts: Reusing passwords on accounts and/or services is a huge risk. You need to ensure you’re using a unique, complex password for every account and/or service you own. Your passwords need a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters for optimal protection.
  5. Keep up with managing your privacy settings: While it’s daunting to look into the privacy settings of every application and account you have, it’s important to ensure you’re not providing anyone with access to sensitive information you’d rather keep private.
  6. Avoid using free Wi-Fi networks: Almost every restaurant or shopping center offers free Wi-Fi access nowadays, but it’s not entirely safe, especially when you’re doing online banking. At an absolute minimum, never check your bank account on a free Wi-Fi network, but it’s preferable to avoid them altogether.

Need help implementing the 6 tips listed above? Paradigm Network Solutions is your trusted team of IT security experts in Toronto and The Greater Toronto Area. We put data security first and foremost on our priority list – helping our clients stay as secure as possible. Call (416) 490-9019 or email us at sales@ittoronto.com.

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