YourABA: November 2012
YourABA October 2012 Masthead

Your questions about nagging technology nuisances answered

By Joshua Poje
ABA Legal Technology Resource Center

Technology challenges come in all shapes and sizes. While we concentrate primarily on the “big” challenges — like what software and hardware to invest in or how to handle serious security threats — some of the smaller questions can be genuine nuisances. This month, we’ve decided to focus on three common, nagging technology mysteries that leave many people scratching their heads in frustration or confusion.

How did my hard drive shrink?

You buy a new 2 TB external hard drive at the store, plug it into your computer and notice that the hard drive properties list the size not as 2 TB but as something a bit less — 1.9 TB. There are two reasons that this happens: pre-installed software and marketing.

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Some hard drives today, particularly external drives marketed as backup devices, ship pre-loaded with special software ostensibly designed to make backing up your computer easier. Depending on your practice and your level of technological sophistication, this may be a boon — no need to mess around with complicated third party software to make sure your data is properly backing up.

If you already have backup software, or if you plan to use the drive for something other than backup, the pre-installed software is simply wasted space. You can reclaim that space by reformatting the drive and starting fresh.

What about marketing? Historically, computers count storage using base 2 rather than base 10: That means a kilobyte is 1,024 bytes rather than 1,000, a megabyte is 1,024 kilobytes, and so forth. Hard drive manufacturers, on the other hand, have long used base 10 to market the capacity of their devices. So the 2 TB drive you buy off the shelf actually has a capacity of 2,000 gigabytes rather than the 2,048 your computer expects. There’s good news for Mac users: Apple started using base 10 to measure storage as of OS 10.6, so what you see on the box is what you’ll get on your device (pre-installed software aside).

Why can’t my smartphone keep a charge?

Using your smartphone heavily for either voice or data functions will obviously drain the battery, but why do smartphones sometimes drain their batteries even when they aren’t being actively used? The answer, usually, is that some quiet but resource-intensive function is running in the background even when the phone is buried in your pocket.

The most common process is retrieving email. If you have “push” email enabled, your smartphone will periodically check the mail server for new messages. While this generally won’t put a huge dent in your phone’s battery, a particularly slow mail server can force your smartphone to spend more time actively attempting to pull the messages down to the device. If you encounter that problem, or if you simply want to prolong battery life, you can switch to “pull” mode so that your phone only checks email when you specifically tell it to do so.

The more common battery-drain culprit is the GPS, or “location services.” Numerous apps rely on GPS — shopping apps that detect when you enter a store, task apps that fire off reminders when you enter certain locations, social networking apps that allow friends and family to locate and message you. To function properly, these apps need to frequently, if not constantly, activate your phone’s GPS. Each activation eats away at your battery.

How do you manage location services? On most devices, you should be able to find a list of apps that have permission to access location data in the device’s settings. In some cases, you’ll even see an indication mark that tells you how recently the device has accessed the GPS. Consider deleting apps that regularly access location data if they aren’t useful enough to justify the battery drain. Also, try to keep your apps updated; changes in device software or bugs in an app can make GPS access skyrocket and battery life plummet until the appropriate fix is applied.

How did my computer know …?

We’ve all had the how did it know?! moment when using technology. Perhaps you opened a restaurant review website and it listed restaurants near your office without asking for an address. Or maybe you spent a few minutes shopping online for a new coffee table, and now every site you visit seems to have advertisements for coffee tables.

Much of this can be attributed to a single source: Google. As a company that derives the vast majority of its revenue from advertising, Google has a vested interest in collecting, tracking and analyzing as much information as possible about you and the world around you. Users provide most of this information willingly, if not eagerly, by using Google’s email services, document tools, search engine, RSS feed reader, apps and much more.

Google combines this information with other readily available data, like IP addresses and Wi-Fi network statistics, to craft advertisements and services geared specifically to you. While Google is the best-known company doing this, it certainly isn’t alone.

Many of the sites you visit every day track your activities and the information you enter.

How do you prevent it? Disabling “cookies” in your browser will help, as many websites use cookies to track their visitors. Unfortunately, disabling cookies may mean losing some functionality. If you’re a heavy Google user, take some time to review Google’s privacy policies so you understand exactly what information it collects and how the data will be used. You can also access your personal Google Dashboard to make some direct adjustments to your privacy settings. The same can be said of all sites that request your personal information: Always review the privacy policies and take the time to adjust privacy settings as appropriate.

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