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This Week in Tech: Apr 14 – Apr 20, 2018

Posted: 21 Apr 2018 04:00 AM PDT

Regulators Told Facebook Its Use of Data Was A-OK At A Time It Definitely Was Not

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 03:12 PM PDT

You know what’s not a thing you expect to learn about a company whose CEO just spent two days in front of Congress justifying how his company uses data?

That federal regulators said its data practices were A-OK during the same period it was doing its shady business. 

That company is, of course, Facebook, and that “shady business” is the now-infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal. Based on a 2011 agreement, Facebook is subject to an audit of its privacy practices to square with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) every two years. On behalf of the FTC, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) audited Facebook’s practices between February 12, 2015 and February 11, 2017 — exactly the time when Facebook learned of Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of data.

Documentation of the audit, heavily redacted but available now on the FTC’s web site, shows that PwC was satisfied with what Facebook was doing to protect user data. The report reads: “…The privacy controls were operating with sufficient effectiveness to provide reasonable assurance to protect the privacy of covered information and that the controls have so operated throughout the Reporting Period.” It’s not clear whether Facebook told regulators about the Cambridge Analytica abuses.

“We remain strongly committed to protecting people's information, "Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman, said in a statement reported by multiple outlets. “We appreciate the opportunity to answer questions the FTC may have.”

So why was Facebook’s privacy standard OK then but now we’re all upset about it? Well, as it turns out, these audits tend to be pretty broad and, in the end, don’t do much to protect consumers.

“The agency [FTC] regularly touts its important and extensive work as the chief consumer privacy ‘cop on the beat.’ But this chest-thumping can backfire — consumers may more readily share personal information via online platforms based on a belief that the FTC is guarding against misuse,” Megan Gray, a fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, wrote in a whitepaper published this week.

During an audit, evaluators don’t peer into companies’ servers — they’re mostly based on interviews with employees and executives. "That is completely useless. It's not just toothless, it's worse than toothless," Nate Cardozo, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that defends citizens’ digital rights, told Gizmodo. "It's asking the fox to guard the henhouse. If the FTC had chosen an auditor and required Facebook to open its servers to any question the auditor had, maybe we wouldn't have gotten to Cambridge Analytica."

Change is in the air. Many, including Zuckerberg himself, are calling for Facebook to be regulated. Maybe some of the hammer of reform will fall on the FTC, too.

The post Regulators Told Facebook Its Use of Data Was A-OK At A Time It Definitely Was Not appeared first on Futurism.

Surprise! Reddit Is Actually Helping People Battle Mental Illness

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 02:30 PM PDT

Reddit doesn’t have the best reputation. Between the sexismracism, and general harassment levied by and toward users daily, the internet’s “front page” might also be its most toxic.

However, Reddit does have at least one positive trait: It can help people cope with mental disorders.

A quick primer on Reddit: The site is made up of thousands of communities called subreddits, each centered on a specific topic — music, sports, news, cute animals, whatever — each with its own rules, moderators, and subscribers. Among these, some subreddits function sort of like virtual, text-based support groups. Subscribers to those subreddits might share personal stories, seek out advice, or simply commiserate with one another.

In 2017, University of Utah researchers set out to determine whether or not frequenting one such subreddit, r/depression, actually improved the mental state of subscribers.

For that study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), the researchers analyzed the language used by subscribers on the subreddit over time, looking at such linguistic dimensions as "positive emotion," "negative emotion," and "sadness." They concluded that users’ language improved in nine of 10 categories, suggesting r/depression prompted a “positive emotion change” in users.

On April 10, the researchers published a follow-up paper in JMIR. This time, they focused on the readability of the posts submitted by regular users (people with four or more posts) in a trio of mental health subreddits — r/depression, r/bipolar, and r/schizophrenia. They wanted to see if participation helped those users communicate more clearly over time.

Using three other subreddits — r/happy, r/bodybuilding, and r/loseit — as their control group, the researchers determined that contributors to the mental health subreddits appeared to have trouble clearly communicating initially. However, over time, those users showed “statistically significant improvement” in both their lexical diversity and readability.

"I started to notice that as they come in more, and they participate more, they're more calmed down, and they're articulating a little bit better,” study author Albert Park told Healthcare Analytics News.

As the researchers note in their paper, the impact of mental health disorders on written communication is a little-studied aspect of mental health. The next step is figuring out how to build on the knowledge gleaned from their study. They suggest implementing automated systems that analyze language and alert moderators if a subscriber’s writing is getting less readable as that could be a sign that their mental health is worsening.

While even Park notes in an interview with Gizmodo that the people who use Reddit aren’t representative of all people with mental health issues, his study does illustrate the usefulness of the platform.

"I can't speak for my coauthors, but I want to stress the value of emotional and information support that are provided by your peers through social media platforms like Reddit," he told Gizmodo. "Social media may not be perfect, but it has its value in helping people in the context of health."

If Reddit can help people cope with mental illness, maybe it’s worth having to deal with r/the_donald. Maybe.

The post Surprise! Reddit Is Actually Helping People Battle Mental Illness appeared first on Futurism.

The World’s Rivers Are All Backed Up, Leaving Fish With No Place To Go

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 02:14 PM PDT

Imagine you're heading out for a dinner date. You're hungry and left enough time to get there and not be late, but when you step outside you find that conditions aren’t quite what you expected — you run into a 30-foot wall every few steps. What would you do? If you're anything like me, you would probably just give up — stymied, hungry, un-romanced.

This is what’s happening for fish and aquatic wildlife in Europe: according to new research, there is a dam or other manmade obstruction blocking the continent's rivers and streams every kilometer. The researchers figured this out by scraping whatever information they could find online, then went out and confirmed it for a total 1,000 kilometers. And, notably, the number of barriers they found was about thirty times larger than the number reported in existing (and outdated) databases.

Those researchers are launching an app that will allow people update the status of river and stream barriers as they come across them.

But, ultimately, a better database doesn't help the trapped fish (that is, unless someone does something about it). What’s more, that project would create a database that is far from comprehensive, since this problem goes beyond Europe.

Look at the Amazon River, for example. As of February, there were 142 hydroelectric dams that were at least partially constructed and another 160 proposed across the mighty river; as a result, migratory fish like the migratory dorado catfish have already begun to disappear. And in the Pacific Northwest, salmon are being blocked by dams and need to be transported upstream so they can spawn.

This is not a new problem. Back in 2001, computer models already showed how river fragmentation directly lead to extinction. And yet the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy's best solution is — no seriously — a literal goddamn Salmon Cannon.

Yes, interventions like this can help some fish survive, as long as people are there to place them on their personal waterslide. But it doesn't address the other problems caused by river fragmentation, like the changes to the Amazon's floodplains and other areas around dams. And even when people build dams that have bypass channels specifically intended to help fish get through, large populations of fish simply don’t go into them.

An obvious solution: stop building so many dams. But the hydroelectric power the structures generate can be a crucial source of emission-free energy for industrializing nations that were left with very little room to industrialize under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

The better answer seems to be to drain the dams we no longer need. That research into European river barriers also found that a number of the dams and other blocks out there are totally obsolete. These, like many other dams around the world, are still physically in place. Local governments have slowly made efforts to do this, but those are isolated cases.

So if you're hiking a river trail and documenting barriers for that new app, we're not saying you should knock over a barrier or two, but we'll understand why you did it.

The post The World's Rivers Are All Backed Up, Leaving Fish With No Place To Go appeared first on Futurism.

Hollywood is Wrong: Netflix is the Future of Film

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 12:19 PM PDT

The film industry has sent a clear message to Netflix: You can’t sit with us.

Industry insiders clearly think Netflix’s films are somehow “less than” those released in theaters. Steven Spielberg told ITV News the streaming service’s releases shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars. Christopher Nolan told IndieWire he would never work with the company. Cannes banned Netflix’s films from competition, prompting Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos to pull all of the service’s films from the festival, even the ones that weren’t eligible to win anything.

"We want our films to be on fair ground with every other filmmaker," Sarandos told Variety. And why shouldn’t they be? They star A-list actors (Will Smith, Adam Sandler). They’re helmed by respected directors (Martin ScorseseNoah Baumbach). And they truly do compete with movie-theater films, scoring Oscar nominations and winning other prestigious awards.

Film industry haters should really reconsider.

Even the snobbiest film buffs can’t deny that Netflix is bringing something positive to the world of cinema.

Instead of lashing out against Netflix, the industry could benefit by embracing some of what Netflix is doing right.

First, the film industry might want to take more risks. “Studios are lagging behind for the very simple reason that they are relying on retreads and reboots, and most of those aren’t being well received,” Jeff Bock, an expert on film industry trends at Exhibitor Relations, told Business Insider.

Sure, for every unicorn like Beasts of No Nation, Netflix releases a dozen films that fall flat. But giving lesser-known filmmakers or outside-the-box story ideas a chance has paid off for Netflix. Plus it’s helping establish an audience for the Spielbergs and Nolans of tomorrow. How could that possibly be bad for cinema?

The industry might also want to rethink its pricing model. The average cost of a movie theater ticket in 2017 was $8.97. In major cities like New York or Los Angeles, that can be much higher. For comparison, an entire month of Netflix costs between $7.99 and $13.99.

Yes, the theater has overhead to pay, but according to Variety, most of the blame for rising ticket prices belongs to the increase in IMAX and 3D screenings. In other words: it’s because of the dang screens. If Netflix’s success means anything, it’s that (screen) size really doesn’t matter.

Instead of putting money into more of these premium screenings, the industry might want to make movies more affordable. One way to do that would be by following Netflix’s subscription model.

And oh look! Such a service already exists: MoviePass.

MoviePass subscribers pay $9.95 for the ability to see up to four 2D-movies in the theater per month. MoviePass then pays the theater for every ticket, with the hope that, eventually, they’ll be able to earn a profit by selling site advertisements or partnering with theaters on special screenings.

And guess what: MoviePass now has 2 million subscribers. People want this service. The bad news is that the company is simply bleeding money.

If theaters wanted to get more butts in seats, they could consider partnering with MoviePass or creating a similar subscription service.

Ultimately, if movie theaters want to compete with Netflix, they need to look at what Netflix offers — more options, more affordably — and figure out how to apply that to the theater experience. After all, turning away the cool new kid isn’t going to suddenly make everyone else want to sit at your table.

The post Hollywood is Wrong: Netflix is the Future of Film appeared first on Futurism.

Scientists Just Stored The Hottest Album From 1998 In Literal DNA

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 11:30 AM PDT

A, T, G, and C are the 0s and 1s of living things. Unlike the code stored in silicon, data stored in DNA won’t degrade for thousands of years. And DNA can just hold a lot more data— one gram of DNA can store one billion terabytes of data (approximately a kajillion iPods).

Now scientists at ETH Zurich have figured out how to store one of humanity’s great works in the inalterable medium of DNA: Massive Attack’s epic album Mezzanine, which came out on this date 20 years ago. The British trip hop duo’s masterpiece now lives inside 5,000 tiny glass beads, spread out over almost a million short DNA strands.

To squeeze data on DNA strands, it first has to be translated from binary (0s and 1s) to DNA’s four nucleotide bases (A, T, G, C). Then, researchers have to synthesize DNA molecules (a very complex process) that preserve that sequence perfectly. The sequences are then written onto those molecules. Once it’s dehydrated and stored under the right conditions, the molecules can last for thousands of years.

This isn’t the first time researchers have stored digital files in DNA; the Swiss scientists’ work comes in second place spot for the largest files stored in DNA (first place goes to Microsoft, after researchers managed to cram 200 megabytes — including a video from the band OK Go!, in HD — onto DNA).

Unfortunately, the process so far is very slow, and very expensive. But having Massive Attack’s masterpiece fully encoded in DNA will ensure that the future generations of cyber humanoids have some fresh 1998 beats to shimmy their appendages to.

The post Scientists Just Stored The Hottest Album From 1998 In Literal DNA appeared first on Futurism.