Tech Roundup: The Best Smartphone(s), TrueCaller & More

[A recurring feature on the latest in Science & Technology.]

The best smartphone(s) of 2013?
We are on the cusp of another new year approaching us; and what's better than cobbling together a list of the most notable phones that released in 2013. Bear in mind that there can be no single winner, for each phone comes with its own set of pros and cons, and there is nothing like a 'perfect phone' yet! 2013 didn't see a game-changing device in terms of mobile technology revolution, like the iPhone way back in 2007, but that hasn't stopped companies from experimenting in a myriad different ways. Phones with curved displays, touchless controls, fingerprint sensors and bigger and better displays became the norm and they each give us a glimpse of what's in store for us in the future.

When it comes to Android, the choices are always aplenty. But If I were to lay my finger on a couple, they would be the HTC One, Moto G, Nexus 5 and Sony Xperia Z Ultra. I can't imagine any other gorgeously crafted phone as the HTC One in recent times (of course with the exception of iPhone!), and while the Moto G and Nexus 5 gain brownie points for offering the best for value, the stunningly sleek Xperia Z Ultra, its Google Play Edition aside, (along with Xperia Z and Z1) marks the return of Sony to form. But make no mistake, others like the Samsung Galaxy S4, Note 3 and LG G2 are equally good, if not better. It's just a matter of preference and overall appeal, both aesthetically and functionally.

Entering the world of Apple, the choice is as clear as broad daylight. The iPhone 5s may look exactly the same as its predecessor, but a slew of hardware (64-bit A7 processor, M7 motion coprocessor, fingerprint sensor etc.) and software (iOS 7) improvements made it one of the top contenders for the best smartphone. Not only is it an extremely easy device to use, the iPhone still gives others a run for their money with its top-notch quality.

Elsewhere, Microsoft's Windows Phone got a new lease of life with the Nokia Lumia 520 and 1020. The impressive PureView camera on the 1020 made its successful transition from Symbian to Windows Phone, and the Lumia 520 turned out to be a great budget handset offering an all-round smartphone experience at a compelling price point. BlackBerry, despite its mounting troubles, launched Z10 and Z30 handsets only to face vigorous competition from its rivals in an increasingly crowded market that's expected to intensify with the arrival of Jolla and Ubuntu smartphones next year.

First cases of Chikungunya fever reported in the Caribbean; health officials issue travel advisory:
Blame it on my increased interest in zoonoses after reading David Quammen's Spillover; US health officials have issued a travel advisory to the Caribbean island of St. Martin after first cases of mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus surfaced among residents of the island. "Chikungunya virus was first isolated from the blood of a febrile patient in Tanzania in 1953, and has since been cited as the cause of numerous human epidemics in many areas of Africa and Asia and most recently in limited areas of Europe. Chikungunya virus is not currently found in the United States," writes Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The ramifications of rampant NSA surveillance - American companies losing revenues:
One big offshoot of the NSA revelations has been that the tech titans - Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and others - have put aside their sparring to stand united and call for a sweeping reform to help preserve the public's "trust in the internet". While all this is in good faith, what's immediately apparent is the resulting threat to their business interests and their revenues. "People won't use technology they don't trust," says Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

Edward Snowden's disclosures have rightly stoked concerns about how US tech companies handle their vast amount of user data, and recent revelations that NSA directly taps into Google and Yahoo!'s communication networks even without their knowledge have triggered widespread outrage. Writing for the Time magazine, Sam Gustin says "the National Security Agency spying scandal could cost the top U.S. tech companies billions of dollars over the next several years, according to industry experts. In addition to consumer Internet companies, hardware and cloud-storage giants like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle could suffer billions of dollars in losses if international clients take their business elsewhere."

In fact this seems to be already happening. Networking giant Cisco reported declines in product orders in China, and has shifted a part of the blame on NSA's infiltration of Chinese network infrastructure. Robert Lloyd, Cisco's president of sales, said that the leaks have "caused a number of customers to pause and re-evaluate." More recent is the case of Boeing, which lost a Brazilian fighter-jet deal worth $4.5 billion to Sweden based Saab. Some have seen the government's decision as a payback for the indiscriminate snooping tactics employed by the United States.

Isn't TrueCaller an outright privacy breach?
Popular phone directory app TrueCaller has gained so much prominence for its reverse phone number lookups that Google baked this feature straight into Android 4.4 KitKat. Getting to know the names of unknown callers might sound like a good thing, but the way TrueCaller works is an outright breach of user privacy. Once downloaded and installed on the phone, the app (available on all platforms) requests for users' permission to access the contacts, the way any instant messaging app like WhatsApp, Viber and others work, and uploads the entire phonebook with the phone numbers and their corresponding names to its servers for posterity.

My concern here is simple. All it takes is a friend (or anyone who has stored my phone number in his contacts) to install the app and get my name added to their ever-growing database while I have absolutely no control over this (Facebook's photo tagging comes to my mind!). In addition, it also serves as a global caller ID and displays details even for the numbers that are not in your phonebook. I was surprised (shocked would be more appropriate) to see my name when I tried a casual search on their website, and soon enough I found the option to get my number unlisted from the directory. The question that remains to be answered is whether does this operation really erase my info off their database, or is it just a case of not appearing in the search results.

In other news:
  • Codebreaker and father of modern computing Alan Turing, chemically castrated for homosexual activity, receives a royal pardon nearly 60 years after his death.
  • Californian man, facing up to 15 years in prison, pleads guilty for using Facebook to offer weapons training for the terrorist outfit Al-Qaeda.
  • China lunar rover Jade Rabbit touches down on the moon; becomes the third country to land a spacecraft on Earth's natural satellite after the USA and erstwhile Soviet Union.
  • Cats have been domesticated as early as 5300 years ago in China to control rat plagues, new evidence reveals.
  • China reports first human case of H10N8 avian flu as Hong Kong confirms first death from H7N9.
  • NSA reportedly spying on online games such as World of Warcraft.
  • Facebook is exploring a 'sympathize' button; redesigns Facebook Home launcher for Android (but does any body care?).
  • Google rolls out Android 4.4.2 with further security enhancements and bug fixes; removes Apps Ops that let users control individual app permissions claiming it was 'accidental'.
  • Popular instant messaging service WhatsApp reveals it has 400 million monthly active users.
  • Yahoo! brings tabs tabs to its email service after having dropped it in its recent design revamp.
  • Sony launches PlayStation 4 console in India for Rs. 39,990.
  • Influential computer security firm RSA refutes allegations that it accepted $10 million from NSA to let the latter have backdoor access.
  • LG to bundle BlackBerry Messenger in its upcoming smartphones (enough bloatware already!).
  • Twitter shares tumble after weeks of 'confounding' gains as analysts warn of declining ad revenues.
  • Instagram debuts private messaging Instagram Direct as rival Snapchat trades ephemerality for one-time message replay.
  • Google updates Gmail for Android to finally let you attach any file; allows EPUB file uploads to Google Play Books from the phone.
  • Windows Phone 8.1 to get Notification Center and Siri-like personal voice assistant.
  • Cryptolocker ransomware has infected over 250,000 Windows PC's since September.