Lawnmower prompts Northern Lights alert

The Northern LightsImage copyright

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The aurora is caused by the interaction of charged particles from the Sun with the Earth’s magnetic field

A lawnmower has been blamed for wrongly triggering sensors that predict when the Northern Lights will be visible in the UK.

A red alert issued via the Aurora Watch mailing list was withdrawn after sensor readings were found to be “spurious”.

An investigation revealed a lawnmower had got too close to one sensor, triggering a “massive spike” in data.

Aurora Watch said it was looking into ways to avoid the incident being repeated.

The bogus alert was issued during the afternoon of 23 August, after a magnetometer at the University of Lancaster recorded a surge in geomagnetic activity.

Trim grass

Aurora Watch is run by scientists at the university and takes readings from lots of magnetometers to work out when the aurora borealis will be visible across Britain.

The project draws on magnetometers in Lancaster, Aberdeen, the Faroe Islands and further field.

The alert was withdrawn four hours after being released as it emerged only one sensor had recorded the spike in activity.

A later update posted to the Aurora Watch webpage said an investigation had revealed that a groundskeeper using a “sit-on mower” to trim grass had been driving too close to the sensor, prompting the spike.

“We’ll work with the facilities team to try and avoid an incident such as this occurring in the future,” said the scientists.

They explained any metal placed on the instrument or machinery operating nearby could trick it into recording more activity than was actually present.

Readings from the Lancaster sensor were not typically used to trigger alerts, they said, but problems with the main sensor in Aberdeen on 23 August meant it had become the lead monitor.

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Microsoft Excel blamed for gene study errors

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Microsoft’s Excel has been blamed for errors in academic papers on genomics.

Researchers trying to raise awareness of the issue claim that the spreadsheet software automatically converts the names of certain genes into dates.

Gene symbols like SEPT2 (Septin 2) were found to be altered to “September 2″.

However, Microsoft, which released the first version of Excel in 1985, said the gene renaming errors can be overcome if users make alterations in the application settings.

“Excel is able to display data and text in many different ways. Default settings are intended to work in most day-to-day scenarios,” a spokeswoman for the corporation told the BBC.

“Excel offers a wide range of options, which customers with specific needs can use to change the way their data is represented.”

The study also claimed that the Excel conversion problem was present in other spreadsheet software, such as Apache OpenOffice Calc.

The systemic error was not, however, present in Google Sheets.


The researchers claimed the problem is present in “approximately one-fifth of papers” that collated data in Excel documents.

The trio, writing for the Melbourne-based academic institute Baker IDI, scanned 3,597 published scientific papers to conduct their study.

They found 704 of those papers contained gene name errors created by Excel.

Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, does not blame Excel and told the BBC: “What frustrates me is researchers are relying on Excel spreadsheets for clinical trials.”

The Excel gene renaming issue has been known among the scientific community for more than a decade, Birney added.

He recommended that the program should only be considered for “lightweight scientific analysis”.


One of the paper’s three researchers, Assam El-Osta, said the errors were found specifically on the supplemental data sheets of academic studies.

He told the BBC that supplemental pages contained “important supporting data, rich with information,” and added that resolving these errors was “time-consuming”.

Excel’s automatic renaming of certain genes was first cited by the scientific community back in 2004, the Baker IDI study claims. Since then the problem has “increased at an annual rate of 15%” over the past five years.

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WhatsApp to give Facebook more data

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WhatsApp says it will begin sharing more data with Facebook and will start letting some companies send messages to users.

It is the first time the company has changed its privacy policy since the firm was bought by Facebook in 2014.

WhatsApp will now share users’ phone numbers with the social network, which it will use to provide “more relevant” friend suggestions and advertisements.

One analyst said some people might feel “betrayed” by the move.

Data sharing

WhatsApp said sharing users’ phone numbers with Facebook would help tackle spam and abuse, as well as offer people “better friend suggestions and more relevant ads”.

Using the data, Facebook will be able to match people who have exchanged phone numbers, but have not added one another as “friends” on the social network.

WhatsApp will also share information about when people last used the service, but said it would not share the contents of messages, which are encrypted.

“Your encrypted messages stay private and no-one else can read them. Not WhatsApp, not Facebook, nor anyone else,” the company said in a blogpost.

The company said users would be able to opt out of sharing information with Facebook by following the steps outlined on its website.

How can I opt out of data sharing?

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The box to opt out of data sharing is tucked away in the app’s terms and conditions

  • When prompted to accept the updated terms and conditions, tap Read to expand the full text
  • A check box at the bottom of the new privacy policy will let you opt out of the data sharing
  • WhatsApp states Facebook will still receive data in some situations

“When WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook it was able to reassure users that it would remain independent,” said Pamela Clark-Dickson, principal analyst at Ovum.

“Now it’s giving Facebook phone numbers – some might say that’s a betrayal of trust. In a small way, it has gone back on what it said it wouldn’t do.”

Business messaging

The updated privacy policy also paves the way for businesses to send messages to WhatsApp users.

The company suggested messages typically sent via SMS text message – such as airline flight alerts or bank balance updates – could be sent via WhatsApp instead.

It said that in addition to appointment information and delivery notifications, it would also allow “marketing” messages.

“Messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you,” the company said.

Ms Clark-Dickson said users may not mind the service “if they can opt in and the messages are useful”.

“It will help them generate revenue if they charge businesses a fee to send messages,” she told the BBC.

“But WhatsApp needs to be careful, a lot of people use it because they don’t get advertising there.”

The company said it would test such messaging features in the coming months, but promised to avoid a “spammy experience” where people are inundated with ads.

Other messaging apps such as China’s WeChat have already enabled business-to-consumer communication to great success, but Ms Clark-Dickson suggested WhatsApp would take a different approach.

“WeChat is a content-driven platform,” she told the BBC.

“It opened up its platform to third parties, letting people make payments, book taxis. That seems to be the direction Facebook is taking Messenger.

“WhatsApp has the potential to be a great communication facility, if it concentrates on a solid user experience as its differential.”

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Facebook launches Lifestage app for school teens

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Facebook / Lifestage

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Users upload video and images which are then turned in to a video profile.

Facebook has launched a new social media app aimed at school teenagers.

Members of Lifestage, currently only available on Apple devices in the US, upload pictures and videos based around feelings, likes and dislikes. These are then turned into video profiles.

All posts are public and there are no options to restrict viewing. The idea is to connect members of the same school, its creator said.

One expert told the BBC the lack of privacy settings was a concern.

School members can view each other’s profiles once the individual school has registered 20 members or more.

Users aged more than 21 are only able to view their own profiles, reports the Tech Crunch website.

However the app warns that it cannot guarantee whether all its users are genuine.

“We can’t confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school. All videos you upload to your profile are fully public content,” it says.

Lifestage has no messaging functionality but users can display contact details from other sites such as Snapchat and Instagram.

The app currently has a 2.5 star rating on the iTunes store with comments describing it as “kinda sorta creepy” and “confusing”.

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Lifestage encourages members to share lots of information about their lives.

According to statistics website Statista only 8% of Facebook’s US users are aged 13-19.

It has been designed by Facebook product manager Michael Sayman, who is 19 years old.

In a Facebook post he wrote that the app was based around the original social network’s early days.

“Back in 2004, Facebook was all about ‘who I am’. I could post my relationship status. I could share what my favourite music was. And it was all about expressing myself,” he said.

“Today as Facebook has grown into so much more, we see the opportunity to explore that concept of ‘who I am’ once again, but for Generation Z in 2016.”

Pushing boundaries

Dr Bernie Hogan from the Oxford Internet Institute told the BBC the app’s lack of privacy settings could prove unpopular.

“The lack of privacy settings on this app in its current state is indicative of Facebook ideology – which is to stay open and connected as much as possible,” he said.

“From their point of view that’s a great idea but sometimes being so open can get in the way of getting connected. They already know this as people become reluctant to share things online if they have to share them with everyone.

“It seems yet again that they are trying to push the boundaries of what we think is appropriate to share online and then walking back when they face public criticism.”

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Poor security ‘aided’ Ashley Madison hack

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Ashley Madison used fake icons to make people think it was more secure, said the report

The Ashley Madison dating site had “inadequate” security systems and used fake icons to make people think it was safe, reveals a report.

The Toronto-based firm’s security systems were investigated by privacy watchdogs in Canada and Australia.

The attack on Ashley Madison in July 2015 took data on millions of users.

Avid Life Media, which owns Ashley Madison, has already said it will abide by the report’s findings to improve the way it handles data.

Absent security

Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner (COPC) and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner started an investigation into how Avid Life Media handled customer data soon after the attack.

The report released this week revealed that Avid Life violated privacy laws in both countries thanks to the lax way it oversaw data that users surrendered to it when they signed up.

“Privacy breaches are a core risk for any organisation with a business model based on the collection and use of personal information,” said Daniel Therrien, Canada’s privacy commissioner, in a statement.

He said that although the site billed itself as “100% discreet” it did not do enough to protect personal data because well-known security safeguards were “insufficient or absent”.

“Handling huge amounts of this kind of personal information without a comprehensive information security plan is unacceptable,” added Mr Therrien.

The failings found in the report included system passwords being held in plain text on easy-to-access internal servers and in emails and text files that were regularly passed around within the company. Avid also did little to properly authenticate who was accessing its systems remotely, said the report.

“Ashley Madison’s shortcomings were generally avoidable through relatively straightforward measures,” said Marc Dautlich, an information law expert at Pinsent Masons. “And the cost of the consequences which it has now incurred are far greater than the cost of prevention would have been.”

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Wikileaks criticised on sensitive data

Wikileaks founder Julian AssangeImage copyright

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Julian Assange founded Wikileaks and remains its spokesman and figurehead

Whistle-blowing site Wikileaks has been criticised for not doing enough to screen sensitive information found in documents released via the site.

An investigation by the Associated Press has found the names and addresses of teenage rape victims, people who have suffered sexual abuse, and information about individuals suffering mental illness in documents on Wikileaks.

Now some are questioning whether the site should be more careful with the information it publishes.

What is Wikileaks?

The website was set up in 2006 by Julian Assange to help whistle-blowers publish secret information, classified documents as well as stolen and leaked data. In early interviews, Mr Assange said it was intended to be a “giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents”.

It has now published more than 10 million documents including:

  • US military logs and field reports from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • US State Department diplomatic cables
  • Official messages sent between the Saudi government and its embassies
  • Millions of emails from intelligence firm Stratfor
  • Files and messages from the Democratic National Committee

What has AP found?

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AP found sensitive medical information in documents shared by Wikileaks

The news organisation combed through the site and found many instances where sensitive personal information was easily viewable in documents and files.

In the worst cases the information revealed could put lives at risk or lead to people being jailed or harassed, it said.

It is not the only risk involved with information on the site. Security researcher Vesselin Bontchev found more than 3,000 links to files that contained malware. The links were in a dump of emails from Turkey’s ruling political party, the AKP.

Wikileaks responded in a tweet calling the report “ridiculous” and said the information dated from 2015.

However, it has taken some action to make it harder to fall victim to malware in the AKP files – though the dangerous links have not been completely removed.

Is Wikileaks the only source for these files?

Not always. Sometimes the original whistle-blower publishes the files themselves in other places.

In some cases more information is released via that route than is available via Wikileaks. However, in most cases the majority of files are accessible via Wikileaks, and its decision to publish information can mean they get more publicity.

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Wikileaks published membership lists of the British National Party

Is harm being done?

Human rights groups have asked Wikileaks many times to do more to censor information found in documents. They fear reprisals against aid workers, activists and civilians named in the leaked data.

In addition, AP said it had evidence that fraudsters had used credit card numbers and other personal details revealed in some documents. Other leaks have lead to people losing their jobs, or have ended relationships.

The US government has condemned Wikileaks several times, saying its work has harmed diplomatic relations and put the lives of staff in sensitive positions at risk.

Direct evidence of harm has been hard to find, but in 2010 Julian Assange told the Guardian that Wikileaks’ 2007 exposure of widespread corruption in Kenya influenced violence during national elections that lead to 1,300 deaths. He justified the release of the information saying Kenyans had a right to know the information.

Has it done any good?

“Yes,” says Prof Christian Christensen, from the University of Stockholm who studies media and communication. “In the long run they have done a lot of good.”

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Whistle-blower Edward Snowden worked directly with journalists rather than using Wikileaks

The early leaks it oversaw gave insights into corporate and official abuse on a scale never seen before, he said, adding that it also made it much easier for whistle-blowers and activists to get information into the public domain.

He said the organisation was now operating in a very different world than it did a decade ago when it was set up. To begin with, he said, there was much more competition for Wikileaks.

Publishing quickly and doing less to curate documents was one way for Wikileaks to remain relevant, he said.

However, he added, there had been a shift in the information it released. Now, the information was less about clear cases of harm or the abuse of power, and more to do with subjects that were much less black and white.

There was a danger, he said, that Wikileaks was now part of the story rather than just the route through which information is released.

“When that happens it really starts to muddy the waters,” he said.

Why doesn’t it censor documents?

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US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning is serving a 35 year sentence for leaking information

In the early days of Wikileaks, it took more care – thanks to working with newspapers that did the job of removing sensitive information from documents about the Afghan and Iraq wars.

Spokesman Julian Assange has often said that the sheer amount of documents Wikileaks handles makes it all but impossible to censor or edit them if they are to be released in a timely fashion.

In some cases it has no way to contact whoever handed over documents, making it difficult to find out what information might prove damaging.

The lack of oversight has led to criticism about the release of almost 300,000 emails from Turkey’s AKP, with some saying they contained more trivia than treasure.

Wikileaks practices what it calls “radical transparency”, said Prof Christensen, which leads it to believe that exposing corruption, malfeasance and abuse of power trumps the damage it might do to individuals.

Many other whistle-blowing sites take greater care with documents they are passed to ensure that no more information than necessary is released.

Is it connected to Wikipedia?

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Wikileaks published messages taken from the US Democratic National Committee

No. The “wiki” part of the name simply refers to its aim of letting people collaborate to edit documents and releases. The original idea was for Wikileaks to build up a large group of helpers that would censor and prepare information before publication. This changed in 2010 when the organisation became more centralised.

The change in structure led to a split that saw some of its original co-founders leave and others ended their association with it.

Ironically, for an organisation that preaches “radical transparency” it has never revealed how many people work for it, or who oversees the release of information.

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Gun crime tech ‘failed to save lives’ in Chicago

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Chicago suffered more recorded homicides than any other US city last year

An attempt to use software to help prevent gun crime in Chicago did not save lives, according to a study.

In 2013, the city’s police began using algorithms to create a list of people deemed to be most at risk of being shot dead.

But the effort had no impact on homicide rates, the report said. Rather, those on the list were more likely to face arrest themselves.

The police defended the tech saying its predictive power has since improved.

The report was carried out by the Rand Corporation, a public policy-focused research body, and was published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.

Both the police and the software’s developer – the Illinois Institute of Technology – co-operated with Rand’s evaluation.

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Being placed on the high-risk list appears to have increased people’s chances of being arrested themselves

‘No benefit’

The so-called “predictive policing” initiative was based on the idea that potential victims of gun crime could be identified by building a social network model.

Specifically, the software calculated a person’s risk factor on the basis of two variables:

  • how many times they had been arrested with others who had later themselves become gun crime victims
  • the number of relationships they had to intermediaries who had been arrested with people who had become homicide victims

This resulted in a total of 426 people being identified as “high risk” in March 2013. They were placed on a register called the Strategic Subjects List (SSL).

The researchers said their analysis of the gun crime that followed indicated that being on the list made no difference to people’s chances of being shot or killed. Neither was there any impact on overall homicide levels, they added.

But they said the SSL’s members became more likely to be arrested for the shootings of others.

“The effect size was rather large… 2.88 times more likely than their matched counterparts,” the study said.

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The predictive policing initiative was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice

The report’s authors said officers had received “no practical direction” about what to do with the list, and, in some cases, had decided to use it as a way to identify possible subjects.

The danger, they warned, was that use of the list could lead to civil rights and privacy abuses. This might ultimately backfire, they said, if people felt they were being unfairly treated, although they added they had seen no evidence of this themselves.

Backfire risk

The Chicago Police Department has issued a press release in which it said the findings were “no longer relevant”.

The force said it now used a more elaborate model that takes account of additional factors, such as how many times an individual has recently been arrested for violent offences.

And it said it now used the technique to arrange visits to members of the list, their families and friends to explain what preventative steps they could take.

Even so, one privacy rights group said the affair served as a warning.

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Chicago’s police continue to use software to try to reduce the number of gun-related killings

“Using predictive policing might seem like an ingenious solution to fighting crime, but predictions from data algorithms can often draw inaccurate conclusions,” Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, told the BBC,

“The police must exercise caution when using data to target people and be sure that they adhere to the rule of innocent until proven guilty.”

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North Korea ‘Netflix’ device unveiled

Kim Jong-Un on TV in North Korea restaurantImage copyright
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A set-top box offering video-on-demand services has been unveiled by the state broadcaster KCTV in North Korea, according to local reports.

The box, called Manbang, has been dubbed the country’s version of Netflix in some reports.

It connects to the state-controlled intranet and is said to enable viewers to search for and replay documentaries and watch five TV channels.

KCTV said consumer demand for the device was high.

However experts say that most North Koreans have no connectivity.

“If a viewer wants to watch, for instance, an animal movie and sends a request to the equipment, it will show the relevant video to the viewer…this is two-way communications,” said Kim Jong Min, head of the centre in charge of providing information and technology, according to NK News.

The news site also reports that the on-demand content includes English and Russian language learning material.

In May security researcher Doug Madory discovered a social network – resembling a crude clone of Facebook – on a North Korean internet address.

It was not online for very long, especially once people started setting up spoof profiles, including one of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

“I don’t believe it was intended to be accessible from outside North Korea,” Mr Madory told the BBC.

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Windows 10 update stops webcams working

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The glitch has hit many popular webcams that connect to a computer via USB

A Windows 10 update has stopped many popular webcams from working.

The update, released earlier this month, stops many cameras being used for Skype or to broadcast and stream footage.

The cause seems to be a change in the way Windows 10 handles video so it can be used by more than one program at a time.

Microsoft said it was working on a fix but has not given any date for when the patch will be available.

‘Poor job’

Soon after Windows Update 1607 was distributed in early August, many people started reporting webcam problems to Microsoft via its support site. The trouble affected both webcams connected via USB cables or on the same network and meant either that footage could not be streamed, or that images froze after a while.

The problems even affected webcams working with Skype and Lync – both companies owned by Microsoft.

Comments on the support thread suggest millions of people have been inconvenienced by the bug. Some companies said customers who used webcams for internet banking had complained because they could no longer verify transactions.

Analysis put the blame on changes to the video encoding systems with which Windows 10 works. The update ends support for two widely used encoding systems so it became possible for more than one application to use video as it is being shot. Prior to the update Windows 10 only allowed one application access to a stream.

A Microsoft camera engineer who responded to complaints on the support thread said the company had done “a poor job” of letting people know about the change.

“We dropped the ball on that front, so I’d like to offer my apologies to you all,” he said.

He added that Microsoft was working on a way to fix the problem and get webcams working again. The fix is likely to be released in September.

Microsoft has yet to officially comment on the problem.

Changes to the way Microsoft handles updates also seem to have made the problem harder to fix. Prior to update 1607, Windows 10 users could roll-back to a previous version within 30 days of it being installed. The update cut that to 10 days giving people little chance to switch back to the earlier version of Windows 10 under which their webcams worked.

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Spyware maker faces legal battle over alleged affair

Awareness TechnologiesImage copyright

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An advert for WebWatcher features a protective mother installing the software on her daughter’s phone

A spyware company faces legal action after a US court ruled that its software was used unlawfully to intercept an unwitting man’s messages.

Javier Luis started an online friendship with Catherine Zang in 2009.

Her husband used WebWatcher spyware to track the pair’s private emails and online chats over several months, as evidence for divorce proceedings.

The US appeal court has now ruled 2-1 that Mr Luis can sue the software firm Awareness Technologies.

Mr Luis claims the software, which logged web history, searches, chat logs and email threads, illegally intercepted his communications with Ms Zang.

Legal action by Mr Luis against Mr Zang and other unnamed parties has been settled.

But Mr Luis pursued his case against Awareness after a district court initially dismissed his claims against the company.

A caring relationship

While the two never met in person, Mr Luis said he developed “a caring relationship” with Ms Zang.

Mr Zang grew suspicious that his wife was conversing with other men, and installed the WebWatcher software on a shared computer to intercept her messages in real time.

He read copies of the messages on the WebWatcher servers, and used the information to divorce Ms Zang on terms favourable to him in 2010.

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Information from WebWatcher’s website on how to install the software

WebWatcher is marketed as parental monitoring software for ensuring children are using technology appropriately.

Its terms of use require that the software is only installed on devices belonging to the purchaser or with permission to monitor a phone or computer belonging to someone else.

Awareness Technologies denied Mr Luis’ assertions that it intercepted the communications – illegal under the US Wiretap Act – arguing it merely stored them as data.

It claimed that the term intercept applied only to situations in which a device captures a communication “either before [it] reaches the intended recipient or contemporaneous with the transmission not after it reaches the destination where it is placed in electronic storage.”

The court of appeals disagreed. It concluded that Mr Luis “has indeed alleged enough facts to reasonably infer that Awareness intercepted his communications”.

Awareness has been contacted for comment.

The case has now been sent back to the lower court for it to continue.

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