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Google Pauses Development of Allo Messaging App to Focus on "Chat"

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 09:29 AM PDT

Google is 'pausing investment' in Allo

If you've been using Google's messaging app, Allo, it's probably a good time to start thinking about switching to something else. The app isn't getting dropped in a Google-style "Spring Cleaning," but development on the app is being "paused." Specifically, the new head of the communications group at Google, Anil Sabharwal, has made the decision to "pause investment" in Allo and move that team over to focus on Android Messages.

As we explain in our exclusive feature, the move is necessary because Google is going all in on Rich Communication Services, or RCS. The service will be branded "Chat" once carriers launch it, and Google wants to apply as many resources as possible to make sure that this time, finally, Android has a successful messaging app.

Amnesty International has criticized the move:

Responding to Google's launch of a new messaging service for Android phones, Amnesty International's Technology and Human Rights researcher Joe Westby said:

"With its baffling decision to launch a messaging service without end-to-end encryption, Google has shown utter contempt for the privacy of Android users and handed a precious gift to cybercriminals and government spies alike, allowing them easy access to the content of Android users' communications.

Following the revelations by CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, end-to-end encryption has become recognized as an essential safeguard for protecting people's privacy when using messaging apps. With this new Chat service, Google shows a staggering failure to respect the human rights of its customers.

"Not only does this shockingly retrograde step leave Google lagging behind its closest competitors - Apple's iMessage and Facebook's WhatsApp both have end-to-end encryption in place by default - it is also a step backwards from the company's previous attempts at online messaging. Google's own app Allo has an option for end-to-end encryption but the company says it will no longer invest in it."

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Bajau People Have Evolved Bigger Spleens to Make More Oxygen Available for Diving

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 07:08 AM PDT

Bajau people, an ethnic group of "sea nomads" in Southeast Asia, have evolved bigger spleens that aid their frequent diving activity:

In a striking example of natural selection, the Bajau people of South-East Asia have developed bigger spleens for diving, a study shows. The Bajau are traditionally nomadic and seafaring, and survive by collecting shellfish from the sea floor.

Scientists studying the effect of this lifestyle on their biology found their spleens were larger than those of related people from the region. The bigger spleen makes more oxygen available in their blood for diving. The researchers have published their results in the academic journal Cell [open, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.03.054] [DX].

Located close to the stomach, the fist-sized spleen removes old cells from the blood and acts as a biological "scuba tank" during long dives.

The Bajau people live across the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and, according to rough estimates, number about one million people. "For possibly thousands of years, [they] have been living on house boats, travelling from place to place in the waters of South-East Asia and visiting land only occasionally. So everything they need, they get from the sea," first author Melissa Ilardo, from the University of Copenhagen, told the BBC's Inside Science programme.

Also at Scientific American and GEN.

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Bad Antibodies Made Good: The Immune System's Secret Weapon Uncovered

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 04:47 AM PDT


In a world first, scientists from Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research have revealed how a population of 'bad' antibodies in the immune system -- which are usually 'silenced' because they can harm the body -- can provide crucial protection against invading microbes. The research was carried out in mice.

The 'bad' antibodies are known to react against the body's own tissues and can cause autoimmune disease. For this reason, it was once thought that they were discarded by the immune system or that they were made inactive in the long term. However, the new findings show for the first time that 'bad' antibodies go through a rapid 'redemption' process and are activated when the body is faced with a disease threat that other antibodies cannot tackle.

As a result, the 'redeemed' antibodies no longer threaten the body, but instead become powerful weapons to fight disease -- and particularly diseases that evade the immune system by disguising themselves to look like normal body tissue.

DOI: 10.1126/science.aao3859 [DX]

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Unidentified Squid Species Found by NOAA Robotic Submarine

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 02:54 AM PDT

Bizarre Squid Seen Alive for First Time

In the Gulf of Mexico, a strange creature lurks in the deep: a blood-red squid with stubby arms, missing tentacles, and a knack for swimming like a nautilus.

The unusual squid, which might or might not be a new species, was filmed on April 17 by the crew of the Okeanos Explorer, a research vessel run by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Charged with exploring Earth's largely unknown deep waters, the Okeanos Explorer has captured extraordinary footage over the years. Previous expeditions have filmed strange glowing jellyfish, a ghostly octopus nicknamed "Casper," and deep-sea "krakens" fighting inside of a shipwreck. From now until May 3, 2018, the ship will be broadcasting its undersea adventures live on YouTube.

But on April 17, researchers got a surprise: Thousands of feet beneath the surface in the western Gulf of Mexico, the Okeanos Explorer's remote-controlled submarine spotted a creature that, at first, didn't resemble a squid at all.

Related: Possible New Species of Octopus Discovered Near Hawaii
Brine Lakes at the Bottom of the Gulf of Mexico Investigated with Undersea ROVs

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What It's Like to Live in America Without Broadband Internet

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 12:46 AM PDT

Here's an article:

On Thursday mornings, locals from Sharon Township, Michigan, can drive to the 100-year-old town hall and meet with their local government. The supervisor, planning chair, and zoning administrator all gather at a long wooden table, where they share a box of doughnuts and wait for the heat to kick on. On these days, the township clerk dutifully saws open envelopes containing tax payments from residents and—if it's anything like the frigid February Thursday when I visited—has to take a break to thaw her fingers, numb from the frozen mail.

The digital divide is perhaps more starkly illustrated here, in Washtenaw County, than anywhere else in the US. Sharon Township is just 30 minutes outside of Ann Arbor, and a little over an hour from Detroit, in the next county over. Its 1,700-odd residents are spitting-distance from some of the most technologically advanced areas of the state, including the University of Michigan. Yet when it comes to internet access, Sharon Township may as well be in the mountains of West Virginia.

On a map showing Michigan's internet access at the county level, the square representing Washtenaw looks like one of the best-served regions in the state. Fewer than 10 percent of residents don't have access to broadband internet. But the fact that the city centers are so well-served only makes it more difficult for communities like Sharon Township to get access. Telecom companies aren't expanding their land-based networks to reach these relatively small markets, and money for rural broadband get earmarked for areas farther away.

"It looks like we're covered," said Kathy Spiegel, the Sharon Township Planning Commission Chair. "When Peter [Psarouthakis, the township supervisor] first started going to meetings at the state level, they said Washtenaw County had full coverage and he just kept laughing."

[...] "The issue is very much like rural electrification," said Spiegel, referring to the federal subsidization of electric infrastructure in the 1930s that ensured all Americans had power. "Areas will die if they don't get internet. It's become essential, and if we want to keep a community here, you've got to have something."

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India Introduces the Death Penalty for Child Rapists

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 10:44 PM PDT

After a number of high-profile crimes that sparked outrage and protests, India will allow the death penalty for those convicted of raping girls under the age of 12:

The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It allows capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. Minimum prison sentences for rape against girls under the age of 16 and women have also been raised.

According to Reuters, which has seen a copy of the order, there was no mention of boys or men.

Two recent rape cases have shocked the nation. Protests erupted earlier this month after police released horrific details of the rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu men in Kathua, in Indian-administered Kashmir in January. Anger has also been mounting after a member of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was accused last week over the rape of a 16-year-old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

India's poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to the fore after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. This led to huge protests and changes to the country's rape laws. But sexual attacks against women and children have since continued to be reported across the country.

Some activists have criticized the application of the death penalty, saying it will deter reporting, especially given that almost all perpetrators are family members or acquaintances.

Also at Reuters and Bloomberg. Editorial at The Indian Express.

Related: Indian Government Attempts to Suppress Rape Documentary

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U.S. Justice Department Investigating AT&T, Verizon, and GSMA Over Anti-eSIM Collusion

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 08:38 PM PDT

A complaint by Apple has reportedly led to an investigation of two mobile carriers and the GSMA. AT&T and Verizon want to prevent users from using eSIM to easily switch carriers without replacing a SIM card:

The Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into potential coordination by AT&T, Verizon and a telecommunications standards organization to hinder consumers from easily switching wireless carriers, according to six people with knowledge of the inquiry.

In February, the Justice Department issued demands to AT&T, Verizon and the G.S.M.A., a mobile industry standards-setting group, for information on potential collusion to thwart a technology known as eSIM, said two of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details are confidential.

The technology lets people remotely switch wireless providers without having to insert a new SIM card into a device. AT&T and Verizon face accusations that they colluded with the G.S.M.A. to try to establish standards that would allow them to lock a device to their network even if it had eSIM technology.

The investigation was opened about five months ago after at least one device maker and one wireless carrier filed formal complaints with the Justice Department, two of the people said. The device maker was Apple, one of them said. Representatives for the Justice Department, the G.S.M.A. and Apple declined to comment.

Also at The Verge, WSJ, 9to5Mac, and AppleInsider.

Related: Infineon Demos a 1.65 mm^2 eSIM Chip
ARM Introduces "iSIM", Integrated Directly Onto Chips

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Valve To Pay Au$3 Million Fine For Misleading Australian Gamers

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 06:36 PM PDT

The Valve vs Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) saga has been long and drawn out, but today the High Court of Australia has upheld a December 2017 ruling, meaning that Valve will have to pay a AU$3 million fine for engaging in "misleading or deceptive conduct."

It's a decision years in the making. In 2014 the ACCC launched legal action against Valve. The crux of the argument: The ACCC believed that Valve (owners of Steam, the world's largest PC games online marketplace) was in breach of Australian Consumer Law.

The major issue was Valve's lack of a refund policy. Any business that sells product in Australia, digital or otherwise, is subject to Australian consumer law, and Australian consumer law demands that all companies must provide refunds on faulty goods.

Valve introduced an official refunds policy in June 2015, but in 2014 Valve explicitly did not offer refunds. There were occasions where Valve provided refunds on a case-by-case basis, but Valve's official policy was no refunds.

"As with most software products," read the policy, "unless required by local law, we do not offer refunds or exchanges on games, DLC or in-game items purchased on our website or through the Steam Client."

"Unless required by local law" was the sticking point, because in Australia Valve was required by local law to provide refunds, but didn't.

Valve's response to the lawsuit was interesting. First, it argued it technically didn't conduct business in Australia, therefore Australian Consumer Law did not apply to Valve and the games it sold through the Steam client. Secondly, Valve argued the games being sold through the Steam client didn't fit underneath the definition of "goods" as per Australian Consumer Law.

The Federal Court of Australia did not agree with those claims.

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WiFi Backscatter

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 04:24 PM PDT

RF-powered computers are small devices that compute and communicate using only the power that they harvest from RF signals. While existing technologies have harvested power from ambient RF sources (e.g., TV broadcasts), they require a dedicated gateway (like an RFID reader) for Internet connectivity. We present Wi-Fi Backscatter, a novel communication system that bridges RF-powered devices with the Internet. Specifically, we show that it is possible to reuse existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to provide Internet connectivity to RF-powered devices.

From the PDF:

[W]e seek to design RF-powered devices that communicate directly with commodity Wi-Fi devices. A positive answer would pave the way for a rapid and simple deployment of the RF-powered Internet of Things by letting these devices connect to existing mobile phones and Wi-Fi APs. It would also expand the functionality of Wi-Fi networks in a new direction: from providing connectivity to existing Wi-Fi clients to a whole new class of battery-free devices.

Achieving this capability, however, is challenging since conventional low-power Wi-Fi transceivers require much more power than is available from ambient RF signals. Thus, it is not feasible for RF-powered devices to literally speak the Wi-Fi protocol. Conversely, since existing Wi-Fi devices are specifically designed to receive Wi-Fi signals, it is unclear how they would decode other kinds of signals from RF-powered devices.

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Third-Party RSA Conference Application Leaks Conference Attendee's Data

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 03:07 PM PDT

From Ars Technica:

A mobile application built by a third party for the RSA security conference in San Francisco this week was found to have a few security issues of its own—including hard-coded security keys and passwords that allowed a researcher to extract the conference's attendee list. The conference organizers acknowledged the vulnerability on Twitter, but they say that only the first and last names of 114 attendees were exposed.

The vulnerability was discovered (at least publicly) by a security engineer who tweeted discoveries during an examination of the RSA conference mobile app, which was developed by Eventbase Technology. Within four hours of the disclosure, Eventbase had fixed the data leak—an API call that allowed anyone to download data with attendee information.

[...] This is the second time an RSA mobile application has leaked attendee data. In 2014, an application built by another developer, QuickMobile, was found by Gunter Ollmann (who was that time at IOactive) to have a SQLite database containing personal information on registered attendees.

Also at ITWire.

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Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ Lets Anyone Create Custom Alexa Skills and Responses

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 12:46 PM PDT

Submitted via IRC for fyngyrz

Amazon this morning is introducing "Alexa Blueprints," a new way for any Alexa owner to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code. The idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like "Who's the best mom in the world?," for example.

[...] "Alexa Skill Blueprints is an entirely new way for you to teach Alexa personalized skills just for you and your family," explained Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in a statement about the launch. "You don't need experience building skills or coding to get started—my family created our own jokes skill in a matter of minutes, and it's been a blast to interact with Alexa in a totally new and personal way."

[...] The feature could give Amazon an edge in selling its Echo speakers to consumers, as it's now the only platform offering this level of customization – Apple's HomePod is really designed for music lovers, and doesn't support third-party apps. Google Home also doesn't offer this type of customization.

All three are competing to be the voice assistant people use in their home, but Alexa so far is leading by a wide margin – it still has roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market.

Source: Amazon's new 'Alexa Blueprints' lets anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses

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Writing and Deleting Magnets With Lasers

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 10:25 AM PDT

Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, USA have found a way to write and delete magnets in an alloy using a laser beam - a surprising effect. The reversibility of the process opens up new possibilities in the fields of material processing, optical technology, and data storage.

Researchers of the HZDR, an independent German research laboratory, studied an alloy of iron and aluminum. It is interesting as a prototype material because subtle changes to its atomic arrangement can completely transform its magnetic behavior.

"The alloy possesses a highly ordered structure, with layers of iron atoms that are separated by aluminum atomic layers. When a laser beam destroys this order, the iron atoms are brought closer together and begin to behave like magnets," says HZDR physicist Rantej Bali.

Bali and his team prepared a thin film of the alloy on top of transparent magnesia through which a laser beam was shone on the film. When they, together with researchers of the HZB, directed a well-focused laser beam with a pulse of 100 femtoseconds (a femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second) at the alloy, a ferromagnetic area was formed. Shooting laser pulses at the same area again - this time at reduced laser intensity - was then used to delete the magnet.

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