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Social Media Data Helping To Predict Violent Threats

A new study conducted by Cardiff University provides some insights about the power of social media that are both surprising and completely expected in the same moment.

The study focused on Twitter and using tweets to help identify dangerous situations, with the goal being to learn if social media trends could be used to identify potentially dangerous developing situations faster than police reports, which have been the longstanding standard.

It turns out that the answer is a resounding yes.

The researchers combined a dataset of 1.6 million tweets from the London riots in 2011 with a machine learning algorithm which automatically scans Twitter for potential threats. The three primary variables taken into account were street name, time of tweet and key words, which vary from one situation to the next, depending on what someone is looking for.

The results from the Cardiff research were confirmation that data drawn from Twitter can predict violent threats up to an hour faster than conventional methods that rely on police reports and official data sources.

The fact that social media is so much faster is a bit surprising. On the other hand, there are some companies in business today selling their ability to do that very thing, which is what makes the results less of a surprise and more of a confirmation. After all, if these companies weren’t successful at making predictions using something close to real time social media data mining, then they wouldn’t still be in business.

The lesson to be learned here is simple. We’re getting increasingly adept at handling very large datasets, and that data can be mined in real time (or close to real time) to produce actionable intelligence.

The same algorithm that can be used to predict violent outbursts in a large city can be tweaked for use by businesses to provide a variety of intelligence. If it’s not something you’ve considered before, now is the time to factor it into your thinking.

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Google Gets Huge Fine From EU For Manipulating Search Results

Google is in trouble with the EU. This is nothing new. The search engine giant has been fighting an ongoing battle with the European Union for a number of years now over a variety of claims that they’re unfairly using their dominance in search to skew results against selected competitors. What has changed is that recently, the EU handed down a staggering $2.7 billion dollar fine as evidence has surfaced that the company did indeed skew search results.

Ironically, in this particular case, the suit was brought by another American company, not a European one. It was none other than Microsoft, which has faced its share of legal challenges from across the pond.

The charge was that Google had tweaked their search engine results to promote their own shopping platform (originally billed as Froogle, and later re-branded as Google Shopping).

When Google launched their service, there were already a number of other shopping and price comparison platforms on the web, and Froogle floundered and never found an audience. In fact, a memo turned up in which a Google engineer declared that “Froogle simply doesn’t work.”

That changed in 2008 when the service started taking off, an event which coincided with Google actively pushing it in its search results. When that happened, many of its better developed rival services wound up falling to as far as page four in the search results, which is essentially the kiss of death.

Market studies have shown that products and services on page one of the search results get about 95 percent of all internet traffic. Second page results get about one percent, and anything beyond page to gets essentially zero traffic, which means that Google killed off many of its would-be rivals, simply by denying them visibility.

According to statistics presented by EU investigators, Google Shopping’s rival services lost between 80 percent and 92 percent of their normal traffic after Google began pushing its own product.

The recent announcement opens the door for those now failed rivals to sue the company, and there are two additional EU anti-trust suits pending.

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Amazon Ends Its Unlimited Cloud Storage Tier

All good things must eventually come to an end, and finally, Amazon has bowed to external pressure. The company has just announced the end of their unlimited cloud storage tier.

Users who currently enjoy unlimited storage via the Amazon Cloud will continue to enjoy those benefits until their current contract expires. At that point, they’ll be given the option of either 100GB for $11.99 a year, or 1TB for $59.99 a year. Users will also be able to acquire additional storage in 1TB increments for an additional $59.99 per year per terabyte, to a maximum of 30TB.

Note that Amazon’s “elimination” of its unlimited tier isn’t as complete as Microsoft’s was last year when they nixed it for their Office 365 users. In Amazon’s case, Prime users will still have access to unlimited storage, and users of their photo storage will similarly continue to enjoy unlimited space.

It’s not hard to understand why an increasing number of companies are moving away from unlimited plans. Storage, whether cloud-based or another variety, is cheap, but it isn’t free. Inevitably, a small segment of the user base takes undue advantage of the generosity of companies offering unlimited plans.

One of the reasons Microsoft abandoned their unlimited tier, for example, was the fact that some of its users decided to upload their entire digitized movie collection, which ran in excess of 75TB in the most extreme case. With demands like that being placed on the system, it is hard to properly support users who planned to use the unlimited space for more traditional system backups.

There aren’t many companies still offering unlimited cloud storage. If you currently have such a plan, enjoy it while you can, because in all likelihood, with two of the industry’s biggest players bowing out, it’s just a matter of time before the rest follow suit. If you’re currently using Amazon’s unlimited plan, now is the time to assess how much space you actually need so you can make a good decision about what to do with your data when your current contract expires.

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Girl Scouts Add Cybersecurity Badge

The Girl Scouts are perhaps best known for their awesome cookies, but like their brother organization, the Boy Scouts, the girls in uniform do a lot more than just that. For the past 105 years, both organizations have been issuing merit badges for camping, survival skills and a wide range of outdoor activities.

Recently, though, the Girl Scouts have taken steps to modernize their program. To accomplish that goal, they went to their 1.8 million members and asked them what sorts of new merit badges they’d like to see, and what new skills they would like to learn.

An overwhelming number of Girl Scouts responded, expressing an interest in various things relating to technology, which is how the new Cybersecurity Badge came to be.

Younger scouts will be able to earn the badge by demonstrating an understanding of cyberbullying, basic data security and protecting themselves online. Older scouts will be able to learn coding skills, create and setup firewalls, work their way around firewalls, and learn how to become White Hat hackers.

Over the next two years, a whole raft of new badges will be rolled out, most of them drawn from the suggestions given to them by the Girl Scouts themselves.

While this is an unconventional way of learning about cybersecurity, it’s a very welcome change. Too few people know enough about cybersecurity to mount a credible defense, and very few young people even give the issue much thought. If the Girl Scouts can help move the needle on this front and raise awareness, then good for them!

If we could only get more organizations across the nation to embrace the idea and start paying more attention to it, and reward those who learn about cybersecurity, imagine how much easier it would be to fend off an attack.

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MP3 To Lose License - What Does That Mean For Music?

If you’re a music fan, you’ve probably got several hundred (or more) MP3 files on your computer. It burst onto the scene while the internet was still in its formative stages and has been the defacto standard for audio codecs worldwide for more than two decades.

Yes, the codec had its problems and limitations. Yes, there were detractors who complained about the too-aggressive compression and the resulting loss of music quality. It didn’t matter.

It was first on the scene, and as such, became the standard.

Times are changing, though, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits recently announced that Technicolor, the company holding the MP3 patent, would officially cease licensing the platform.

This is the end of an era, but, in truth, it was time. As compression technologies have advanced, today’s AAC and ISO-MPEG formats offer a more robust feature-set, lower bitrates and higher sound quality than the aging MP3 codec, which has simply gotten too old to be relevant.

While the decision to end licensing is a bit sad in one respect, there are a number of groups ranging from musicians and purists who are cheering the decision.

Don’t worry. Though. If you have a large collection of MP3 files on your computer, support for the format isn’t going away. You’ll still be able to play them. It’s just that over time, as you acquire new music, it will be in one of the more modern formats, and MP3’s will slowly fade into obscurity.

The internet is growing up, and big changes like this are beginning to occur as the global communications platform matures. The PC has been knocked off its lofty perch as the king of computing devices, and now, the MP3 has fallen. Stay tuned. There are more changes to come!

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Watch Your Blog Comments, Or Risk Getting Flagged

If you participate in blog conversations, then you’ve probably heard of Disqus. It’s the largest and most well-known blog commenting software on the web today, used by a variety of news media sites and blogs of all shapes and sizes. Its user base numbers are in the hundreds of millions.

Unfortunately, since literally anyone can install Disqus commenting software on their blog, it has, in recent years, become associated with a variety of unsavory websites that make no effort to moderate their discussions or to keep a lid on trolls. This has had some effect on the company as a whole, damaging its brand as it becomes indirectly associated with hate speech and trolling on the internet.

Recently, the company has decided to take a more active stance, and is currently in the process of rolling out new tools that will allow users and moderators more control.
Users will soon be able to alert Disqus if conversations on a given blog are of a type that violate the Disqus terms of service. This flag brings the site to the attention of Disqus personnel who can then determine whether to continue to allow the blog in question to use their service.

Moderators will be able to issue “Shadow bans,” which make a poster’s comments invisible to everyone except the person he or she is responding to. They will also be able to issue “time out bans” of varying durations, depending on the nature of the infraction.

The goal here is not to limit free speech, but to ensure that hate speech is identified and dealt with in a responsible way. Kudos to the company for attempting to tackle this thorny issue, although it remains to be seen how much impact their new tools will ultimately have.

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Facial Recognition Has Major Flaw On New Samsung Phone

Samsung, the world’s largest cellphone manufacturer, has a problem with their flagship offerings, the new S8 and S8+ devices. Both were released with a new facial recognition software the company used as an advanced security measure.

The idea was a thing of beauty in its simplicity. Advanced machine learning coupled with advanced image recognition routines allowed the company to create software that would allow the phone to recognize your facial features, using your face as the means of locking and unlocking your phone.

A lot of time and money went into developing the new scheme, which was seen as being on the leading edge of a new era in biometric security. There was just one problem. It only took hackers a few days to find a way to break it, and their solution was almost shockingly simple. They used online photos of the phone’s owner to trick the “smart” software into thinking they were the actual owner.

Yes, you read that correctly. A photo pulled off the internet was all that was needed to trick the phone into unlocking for any hacker who got ahold of it.

The software is, of course, smart enough to differentiate between a still photo and a living, moving, constantly shifting human face, but it turns out that the workaround for that was pretty simple too. You need but shake or jiggle the phone in front of the picture to give the image a sense of motion, and the phone dutifully gives up its secrets.

The company is reportedly working on tightening up their algorithm to help prevent this in the future, but at this time, there’s no ETA for when it might be forthcoming.

Fortunately, the company did not enable facial recognition for its Samsung Pay feature. So, although a hacker could gain near-total control of one of those Samsung devices in this manner, at least they would not be able to access the pay function and initiate rogue transactions. Still, this finding represents a black eye, and a significant step backwards.

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Still Using Google Talk? Google To Turn Service Off

Google made a valiant effort to unify the world of internet chat with the release of Google Talk. Unfortunately, the other companies operating in that space were not interested in playing nice.

Had Google been successful in the realization of their vision, then virtually all chat software in use today would be cross-compatible. You would have been able to talk to your friends using Yahoo Messenger or FaceBook Chat from your Google Talk console.

Sadly, Google found almost no other company that wanted to collaborate to create the standards by which such a system could flourish. The result has been the utter fragmentation of the market, with each chat software being an island unto itself, with little to no contact with anyone outside of it.

It was a good vision, but Google has formally given up on it, recently announcing that support for Google Talk will end on June 26, 2017. At that point, the servers supporting it go offline, and for all intents and purposes, it ceases to exist.

Things have been trending in that direction for quite some time. In fact, in February 2015, Google shut down the majority of its desktop and mobile client, recommending that its user base migrate to the new Google Hangouts service. Hangouts is built around a proprietary framework, which was the direction most of Google’s rivals went in shortly after Google Talk was launched.

If you use Google Talk, you may have already gotten a formal communication about it. If you haven’t, you’ll be getting one soon.

If you take no action, you will automatically be transitioned to Google Hangouts unless there is some contractual obligation to keep you on Talk, in which case, you’ll get a communication from Google to that effect, discussing next steps.

Either way, though, Google Talk is soon to be a thing of the past.

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New Kirk Ransomware Uses Star Trek As Its Theme


Who says hackers don’t have a flair for style?

Security searchers at Avast, makers of a popular antivirus software, have stumbled across a new strain of ransomware that utilizes a Star Trek theme.

Although the new Python-based malware is not known to have ensnared any victims yet, the security bulletin is making the rounds to keep IT professionals informed about its potential.

It has been seen masquerading as the app “Low Orbital Ion Cannon,” which is used for stress-testing, and can, in its current iteration, target more than six hundred file types with 4096-bit encryption. Any encrypted files are renamed with the “.kirked” suffix appended to them.

The software is sophisticated, but doesn’t utilize anything to hide itself. In fact, it uses nothing but common PyCryto libraries to do what it does. Some of its more intriguing attributes are the following:

• It is an amazingly small, capable program, using an almost shockingly few lines of code. Clearly, the designers were skilled programmers
• Once files are encrypted, the hackers promise to send a “Spock Decryptor” upon receipt of payment
• Rather than demanding BitCoin in payment, the hackers demand Monero, to the tune of about a thousand bucks, at present exchange rates It is unclear why they’re using a less well-known cryptocurrency.

The discovery is interesting (and alarming) on a number of levels. Firstly, having found it so early in its development and with no known cases of infection, security researchers can chart the progress of its spread and infection.

Secondly, it underscores how quickly the malware ecosystem is changing, with new and evermore advanced versions of old software, and entirely new creations like this springing up at an accelerating pace.

Given the creativity that the hackers of the world have displayed so far, it’s anyone’s guess what will come next, but we can say with certainty that this won’t be the last new strain of malware we see this year.

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Lost Your Car? Google Maps Might Help

Google Maps has, for years now, been the savior of directionally challenged people everywhere, and it just got even better. Thanks to a new update that was made without fanfare, it will now help you remember where you parked.

When you get wherever you’re going, if you’ve got the app pulled up, you can simply tap the blue “pin” to mark your location and Google will save it, replacing the standard pin with a big red “P” on the map.

Of course, if you find yourself in a multi-level parking garage, that alone would not provide you with enough information to quickly and easily locate your vehicle again. But the change also allows you to take photos of your car or other surroundings, type notes and append these to the pin for recall later if you need a hint.

That’s huge, and it just made travel into any cityscape a whole lot easier, especially if it’s an area you’re not that familiar with in the first place.

As an added bonus, if you’ve parked somewhere and had to feed money into a parking meter, you can plug in the time on the meter as you walk away. Google Maps will offer a running countdown that shows how much time you have remaining on the meter before it needs to be fed again, which is another tremendous convenience.

For the moment, the updates are only available for Android devices and only working on Google Maps, version 9.49. However, as soon as this latest version makes its way through the iStore’s approval process, Apple users will be able to enjoy the latest benefit as well.

Business travel, especially to a city you’re not familiar with, can be a frustrating experience, but thanks to these changes, it just got a little less so!

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Your DNA May Be Next Place Your Data Is Stored

The next big thing is going to be really small, at least if Microsoft has anything to say about it.

They’ve been experimenting with storing data in what some might call the most unlikely of places…DNA.

The process is mind-bendingly complex, but the potential is simply too great to be ignored. A single gram of DNA can store 1,000,000,000 TB of data for a thousand years.
Yes, that’s a billion terrabytes. With a “T.”

Simply put, DNA is hands-down the highest density data storage device on the planet.

For the sake of comparison, if you tried to archive the entire Internet, the task would require somewhere in the neighborhood of 44 trillion gigabytes, or 44 zettabytes. But given how much data can be stored in a single gram of DNA, it would take less space than a standard hard drive with this new technology.

Last year, Microsoft purchased 10 million strands of synthetic DNA to conduct experiments with. Their latest results have been nothing short of magnificent. The company was able to store an entire operating system, a computer virus, a fifty-dollar Amazon gift card and an old movie and retrieve it later.

There is, however, a catch.

At the moment, cost is the big limiting factor. It cost $7000 to store the data, and another $2000 to retrieve it.

The reason it’s so expensive has to do with the process itself, which is called the “DNA Fountain.”

The data to be stored is archived and split into short segments, which are packaged into droplets containing a barcode with the resequencing information. The droplets are then mapped onto the four nucleotide bases in DNA: A, C, G, and T.

To recover the data, it was simply a matter of using modern sequencing technology to “read” the DNA strands, recover the compressed file and reassemble it. They did so with zero errors.

No doubt, as research continues, the process will become automated, and the price will drop. It may take as long as a decade yet, but the day’s coming when this technology will completely change the data storage game.

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