Privacy, Please: Latest Gadgets Want Greater Peek into Lives

The latest gadgets want even greater access to your lives.

This week’s CES tech show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that can livestream the living room, a bathroom mirror that captures your face to offer beauty tips and a gizmo that tracks the heartbeat of an unborn child.

These features can be useful — or at least fun — but they all open the door for companies and people working for them to peek into your private lives. Just this week, The Intercept reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave employees access to some customer video footage.

You’ll have to weigh whether the gadgets are useful enough to give up some privacy. First, you have to trust that companies making these devices are protecting your information and aren’t doing more than what they say they’re doing with data. Even if a company has your privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access sensitive data. Or an ex might retain access to a video feed long after a breakup.

“It’s not like all these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University of Washington professor who researches computer security and privacy.

But she said the industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process

Amazon’s video feeds

As with other security cameras, Ring’s can be mounted outside the front door or inside the home to give you a peek, through an app, of who’s there. But the Intercept said the Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S. to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could view and download any customer video file.

In a statement, Ring said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video from users who consent to such sharing.

At CES, Ring announced an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into peepholes for apartment dwellers or college students who can’t install one next to their doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, records show that Amazon recently filed a patent application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.

Living room livestream

It’s one thing to put cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other people’s houses.

Alarm’s Wellcam is for caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in” anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products. 

The notion of placing a camera in someone else’s living room might feel icky. 

Wellcam says video isn’t recorded until someone activates it from a phone and video is deleted as soon as the stream stops. Chazin says such cameras are “becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they care about are safe.”

Just be sure you trust whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera, unless you unplug it or cover it up with something. 

Bathroom cameras 

French company CareOS showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with animation on how you might look.

CareOS expects hotels and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror — making it more important that personal data is protected. 

“We know we don’t want the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder Chloe Szulzinger said.

The mirror doesn’t need internet to work, she said. Even if it is connected, all data is stored on a local network. The company says it will abide by Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.

The same applies for the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to share some information — such as photos of the hair cut they got last time they visited a salon — but the businesses can’t access anything stored in user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.

Bodily data

Some gadgets, meanwhile, are gathering intimate information. 

Yo Sperm sells an iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app, though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.

Owlet, meanwhile, plans to sell a wearable device that sits over a pregnant belly and tracks the heartbeat. The company’s privacy policy says personal data gets collected. And you can choose to share heartbeat information with researchers studying stillbirths.

Though such data can be useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance, that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy — potentially raising health risks and hence premiums.

Technology Opening New Worlds for Disabled at CES

Proponents of Big Tech say the march of technology into our daily lives is designed to make our lives easier. For some, it’s arguable if a smart refrigerator can actually make life easier. But for the disabled community, technological advances can make a huge difference. Some of that new technology was on display this week at the Consumer Electronics’ show. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Robots Walk, Talk, Brew Beer and Take Over CES Tech Show

Robots that walk, talk, brew beer and play pingpong have taken over the CES gadget show in Las Vegas again. Just don’t expect to find one in your home any time soon.

Most home robot ventures have failed, in part because they’re so difficult and expensive to design to a level of intelligence that consumers will find useful, says Bilal Zuberi, a robotics-oriented venture capitalist at Lux Capital. But that doesn’t keep companies from trying.

“Roboticists, I guess, will never give up their dream to build Rosie,” says Zuberi, referring to the humanoid maid from “The Jetsons.”

But there’s some hope for others. Frank Gillett, a tech analyst at Forrester, says robots with more focused missions such as mowing the lawn or delivering cheeseburgers stand a better shot at finding a useful niche.

ROBOTS THAT DELIVER

There are so many delivery robots at CES that it’s easy to imagine that we’ll all be stumbling over them on the sidewalk — or in the elevator — before long. Zuberi says they’re among the new robot trends with the most promise because the field is drawing on some of the same advances that power self-driving cars.

But it’s hard to tell which — if any — will still be around in a few years.

Segway Robotics, part of the same company that makes electric rental scooters for Lime, Jump and Bird, is the latest to get into the delivery game with a new machine it calls Loomo. The wheeled office robot can avoid obstacles, board elevators and deliver documents to another floor.

A similar office courier called the Holabot was unveiled by Chinese startup Shenzhen Pudu Technology. CEO Felix Zhang says his company already has a track record in China, where its Pudubot robot — which looks like shelves on wheels — navigates busy restaurants as a kind of robotic waiter.

Nearly all of these robots use a technology called visual SLAM, short for simultaneous localization and mapping. Most are wheeled, though there are outliers — such as one from German automotive company Continental, which wants to deploy walking robotic dogs to carry packages from self-driving delivery vans to residential front doors.

A delivery robot will need both sophisticated autonomy and a focused mission to stand out from the pack, says Saumil Nanavati, head of business development for Robby Technology. His company’s namesake robot travels down sidewalks as a “store on wheels.” The company recently partnered with PepsiCo to deliver snacks around a California university campus.

ROBOTS FOR DOGS

Does man’s best friend need a robotic pal of its own? Some startups think so.

“There’s a big problem with separation anxiety, obesity and depression in pets,” says Bee-oh Kim, a marketing manager for robotics firm Varram.

The company’s $99 robot is essentially a moving treat dispenser that motivates pets to chase it around. A herd of the small, dumbbell-shaped robots zoomed around a pen at the show — though there were no canine or feline conference attendees to show how the machines really work.

Varram’s robot takes two hours to charge and can run for 10 hours — just enough time to allow a pet’s guilt-ridden human companion to get home from work.

ROBOTS ON GRANDPARENT WATCH

Samsung is coming out with a robot that can keep its eye on grandparents.

The rolling robot can talk and has two digital eyes on a black screen. It’s designed to track the medicines seniors take, measure blood pressure and call 911 if it detects a fall.

The company didn’t say when Samsung Bot Care would be available. Samsung says it’s also working on a robot for retail shops and another for testing and purifying the air in homes.

ROBOT FRIENDS

Lovot is a simple robot with just one aim — to make its owner happy.

It can’t carry on long conversations, but it’s still social — approaching people so they can interact, moving around a space to create a digital map, responding to being embraced.

Lovot’s horn-shaped antenna — featuring a 360-degree camera — recognizes its surroundings and detects the direction of sound and voices.

Lovot is the brainchild of Groove X CEO Kaname Hayashi, who previously worked on SoftBank’s Pepper, a humanoid robot that briefly appeared in a few U.S. shopping malls two years ago. Hayashi wanted to create a real connection between people and robots.

“This is just supporting your heart, our motivation,” he says.

Deere Puts Spotlight on High-tech Farming 

It has GPS, lasers, computer vision, and uses machine learning and sensors to be more efficient. This is the new high-tech farm equipment from John Deere, which made its first Consumer Electronics Show appearance this week to highlight the importance of tech in farming. 

 

Deere brought its massive agricultural combine and GPS-guided tractor to the Las Vegas technology event, making the point that farming is more than sticking a finger up in the air to gauge the weather. 

 

The machines are guided by enhanced GPS data that, according to the company, is accurate to 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) — compared with 3 meters (10 feet) for conventional GPS. 

 

As they work the fields, the machines gather data about soil conditions and monitor how corn and other crops are being harvested to reduce waste and improve efficiency. 

 

“We want consumers to understand how food is grown,” said Deere marketing executive Deanna Kovar. “Not only is this machine harvesting the grain, it’s harvesting the data, which helps farmers make decisions for next year.” 

 

Kovar said the extra electronics add about $10,000 to the cost of the combine, which sells for close to $500,000, and that most buyers take the option. 

 

“You can get a savings of about one to three bushels per acre, so it pays for itself very quickly,” she said.

Study: Elderly, Conservatives Shared More Facebook Fakery in 2016 

People over 65 and ultraconservatives shared about seven times more fake information masquerading as news on Facebook than younger adults, moderates and super liberals during the 2016 election season, a new study found. 

 

The first major study to look at who is sharing links from debunked sites found that not many people were doing it. On average, only 8.5 percent of those studied — about 1 person out of 12 — shared false information during the 2016 campaign, according to the study in Wednesday’s issue of the journal Science Advances. But those doing it tended to be older and more conservative.

“For something to be viral, you’ve got to know who shares it,” said study co-author Jonathan Nagler, a politics professor and co-director of the Social Media and Political Participation Lab at New York University.  “Wow, old people are much more likely than young people to do this.” 

 

Battling back

Facebook and other social media companies were caught off guard in 2016 when Russian agents exploited their platforms to meddle with the U.S. presidential election by spreading fake news, impersonating Americans and running targeted advertisements to try to sway votes. Since then, the companies have thrown millions of dollars and thousands of people into fighting false information. 

 

Researchers at Princeton University and NYU in 2016 interviewed 2,711 people who used Facebook. Of those, nearly half agreed to share all their postings with the professors.  

The researchers used three different lists of false information sites — one compiled by BuzzFeed and two others from academic research teams — and counted how often people shared from those sites. Then to double check, they looked at 897 specific articles that had been found false by fact checkers and saw how often those were spread. 

 

All those lists showed similar trends. 

 

When other demographic factors and overall posting tendencies are factored in, the average person older than 65 shared seven times more false information than those between 18 and 29. The seniors shared more than twice as many fake stories as people between 45 and 64 and more than three times that of people in the 30-to-44-year-old range, said lead study author Andrew Guess, a politics professor at Princeton. 

 

The simplest theory for why older people share more false information is a lack of “digital literacy,” said study co-author Joshua Tucker, also co-director of the NYU social media political lab. Senior citizens may not tell truth from lies on social networks as easily as others, the researchers said. 

Signaling identity

 

Harvard public policy and communication professor Matthew Baum, who was not part of the study but praised it, said he thought sharing false information was “less about beliefs in the facts of a story than about signaling one’s partisan identity.” That’s why efforts to correct fakery don’t really change attitudes and one reason why few people share false information, he said. 

 

When other demographics and posting practices are factored in, people who called themselves very conservative shared the most false information, a bit more than those who identified themselves as conservative. The very conservatives shared misinformation 6.8 times more often than the very liberals and 6.7 times more than moderates. People who called themselves liberals essentially shared no fake stories, Guess said.  

Nagler said he was not surprised that conservatives in 2016 shared more fake information, but he and his colleagues said that did not necessarily mean that conservatives are by nature more gullible when it comes to false stories. It could simply reflect that there was much more pro-Donald Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton false information in circulation in 2016 that it drove the numbers for sharing, they said. 

 

However, Baum said in an email that conservatives post more false information because they tend to be more extreme, with less ideological variation than their liberal counterparts and they take their lead from Trump, who “advocates, supports, shares and produces fake news/misinformation on a regular basis.” 

 

The researchers looked at differences in gender, race and income but could not find any statistically significant differences in sharing of false information. 

 

Improvements

After much criticism, Facebook made changes to fight false information, including de-emphasizing proven false stories in people’s feeds so others were less likely to see them. It seems to be working, Guess said. Facebook officials declined to comment. 

 

“I think if we were to run this study again, we might not get the same results,” Guess said. 

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Deb Roy, a former Twitter chief media scientist, said the problem is that the American news diet is “full of balkanized narratives” with people seeking information that they agree with and calling true news that they don’t agree with fake. 

 

“What a mess,” Roy said.

Experimental App Might Spot Drug Overdoses in Time to Help

Too often people die of an opioid overdose because no one is around to notice they’re in trouble. Now scientists are creating a smartphone app that beams sound waves to measure breathing — and summon help if it stops.

The app is still experimental. But in a novel test, the Second Chance app detected early signs of overdose in the critical minutes after people injected heroin or other illegal drugs, researchers reported Wednesday.

One question is whether most drug users would pull out their phone and switch on an app before shooting up. The University of Washington research team contends it could offer a much-needed tool for people who haven’t yet found addiction treatment.

“They’re not trying to kill themselves — they’re addicted to these drugs. They have an incentive to be safe,” said Shyamnath Gollakota, an engineering and computer science associate professor whose lab turns regular cellphones into temporary sonar devices.

But an emergency room physician who regularly cares for overdose patients wonders how many people would try such a device.

“This is an innovative way to attack the problem,” said Dr. Zachary Dezman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Still, “I don’t know if many folks who use substances are going to have the forethought to prepare,” he added.

More than 47,000 people in the U.S. died of opioid overdoses in 2017. The drugs suppress breathing but a medicine called naloxone can save victims — if it reaches them in time. Usually, that means someone has to witness the collapse. Dr. Jacob Sunshine, a University of Washington anesthesiologist, notes that people have died with a relative in the next room unaware they were in trouble.

How it works

The research team settled on cellphones as potential overdose monitors because just about everyone owns one. They designed an app that measures how someone’s chest rises and falls to see if they’re slipping into the slow, shallow breaths of an overdose or stop breathing completely.

How? The software converts the phone’s built-in speaker and microphone to send out inaudible sound waves and record how they bounce back. Analyzing the signals shows specific breathing patterns.

It won’t work inside a pocket, and people would have to stay within 3 feet. The researchers are in the process of making the app capable of dialing for help if a possible overdose is detected.

Testing the device

They put the experimental gadget to the test at North America’s first supervised injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, where people are allowed to bring in illegal drugs and inject themselves under medical supervision in case of overdose. Study participants agreed to have doctoral student Rajalakshmi Nandakumar place the app-running cellphone nearby during their regularly monitored visit.

The software correctly identified breathing problems that could signal an overdose — seven or fewer breaths a minute, or pauses in breathing — 90 percent of the time, the researchers found. Most were near-misses; two of the 94 study participants had to be resuscitated.

For a bigger test, the researchers next turned to people who don’t abuse drugs but were about to receive anesthesia for elective surgery. Rendering someone unconscious for an operation mimics how an overdose shuts down breathing.

Measuring 30 seconds of slowed or absent breathing as those patients went under, the app correctly predicted 19 of 20 simulated overdoses, the researchers reported. The one missed case was a patient breathing slightly faster than the app’s cutoff.

The findings were reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The researchers have patented the invention and plan to seek Food and Drug Administration approval.