Tech Tent: Google hardware, computer mining, scam baiting

Rory Cellan-Jones
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On Tech Tent this week, we reflect on what Google's new products say about its desire to be a hardware giant. We learn about the browser software that could mean your computer is secretly making money for someone else. And we meet the man who's turned the tables on the online scammers.

Google's hardware hopes

Google has become one of the most powerful companies in the world on the back of software - from search to Gmail, from the Chrome browser and Android operating system to YouTube.

Its attempts to become a big name in hardware have been somewhat less successful - but it keeps on trying.

This week saw the company unveil a range of new devices, including new Pixel smartphones and Google Home smart speakers. The message at the launch was that by combining its skills in artificial intelligence, software and hardware it could build compelling products.

Rick Osterloh, who heads up Google's devices division, was surely right when he says that innovation in smartphone hardware had just about reached its limits. "It's going to be tougher and tougher for people to develop exciting new products each year," he told the audience in California, insisting that software and AI were now the key differentiators.

Crispin Lowery, head of hardware for Google Europe, tells Tech Tent more about the hardware strategy: "We're building devices that lead the way in customer experience," he says, explaining that the seamless integration of Google software on its own brand products should give it an edge.

But the jury is out on whether customers are going to be so impressed by the AI services provided by the Google Assistant or its Photos app that they rush out to buy new Pixel phones or Google Home speakers.

My hunch is that right now it is a brand with a track record that really matters - and most people will think of Samsung for smartphones or Amazon for smart speakers ahead of Google.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption This week Google launched a lot of hardware harbouring smart software

Are you mining for nothing?

The boom in the value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is having all sorts of interesting knock-on effects. We report this week on the hidden software that may mean your computer or smartphone is earning money for someone else without your knowledge.

What happens is that a website wanting to earn extra cash, perhaps to find an alternative to advertising, installs a script that means visitors' computers are employed to mine cryptocurrencies - in other words, solve increasingly complex maths problems that generate new coins.

In many cases the sites are open about this, but sometimes users are left in the dark.

There is also growing evidence that criminals are infecting sites with this software and thereby capturing thousands of computers or smartphones to act as unconscious mineworkers.

"The more computing power that's out there, the better for you as a criminal," explains Rik Ferguson of the security firm Trend Micro.

It's quite hard to know if your computer has been hijacked in this way, although if the fan comes on and everything slows down that is a clue.

Look out for more on this story here on the BBC News website from Mark Ward - his investigation will be published next week.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Romance scams regularly catch people out, say campaigners

Baiting the scammers

I don't know about you but I get a lot of scam calls - people pretending my computer has a problem, or wanting to advise me on how to claim money for an accident I've apparently suffered. And quite often I take pleasure in keeping them on the phone, stringing them along as they try to defraud me.

One caller from the "Windows Computer Service Centre" was so incensed when I finally revealed that I did not have a Windows computer that he shouted: "You've been wasting my time!"

It seems I am not alone in this pursuit. There is a rebellion against these fraudsters and it is called scam-baiting, providing a valuable service by wasting their time.

Wayne - not his real name - from the website Scam Survivors tells us that he started by responding to scam emails telling him that he had won some money. Then he graduated to romance scams, where people are fooled into handing over money in the belief that they have found their true love.

Now he helps out people who come to the site to report that they or their relatives have been blackmailed, scamming the criminals into revealing more about their identity.

Wayne says thousands of people are visiting his website every day looking for help. The internet has enabled all sorts of new forms of fraud but it is also helping people to fight back against the criminals.

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