Apple, Firefox tools aim to thwart Facebook, Google tracking
By ANICK JESDANUN
AP Technology Writer
Friday, September 14
NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook and other companies routinely track your online surfing habits to better target ads at you. Two web browsers now want to help you fight back in what’s becoming an escalating privacy arms race.
New protections in Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers aim to prevent companies from turning “cookie” data files used to store sign-in details and preferences into broader trackers that take note of what you read, watch and research on other sites.
Lance Cottrell, creator of the privacy service Anonymizer, said Apple’s effort was particularly significant, as it takes aim as a technique developed by tracking companies to override users’ attempts to delete their cookies.
Unlike Firefox, Safari makes these protections automatic in updates coming Tuesday to iPhones and iPads and a week later to Mac computers.
To get the protections, you’ll have to break your habit of using Google’s Chrome browser, which by some estimates has more than half of the worldwide browser usage. Safari and Firefox have less than 20 percent combined.
Even then, Safari and Firefox can’t entirely stop tracking. For starters, they won’t block tracking when you’re using Facebook or Google itself. Nor can they help much when you use phone or tablet apps, unless the app happens to embed Safari, as Twitter’s iPhone app does.
But Will Strafach, a mobile security expert who is designing data security tools for phones, said imperfect protection is better than no protection. He notes that burglars can still break down a door, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother locking it.
Cookies and other trackers can be used by companies to keep track of who you are as you move from website to website. The companies can build a digital profile as you, say, read about Democratic or Republican viewpoints, buy a particular brand of pet food or indulge in the entire season of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
News, video and other third-party sites use Google and Facebook cookies to customize ads to your hobbies and interests, rather than hawking products you might never buy. That’s why you might see an ad for shoes soon after searching for them elsewhere.
Apple says its tests show that some popular websites are embedded with more than 70 such trackers. Many of these are from Facebook and Google, which are expected to command a combined 57 percent of the $107 billion U.S. digital advertising market this year, the research group eMarketer estimates.
Though general awareness of data collection has grown in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal , how trackers work behind the scenes remains a mystery to many people.
Ghostery and other products have long offered tracking protection. The browsers are now trying to incorporate that directly so you don’t have to go looking for browser add-ons.
Safari will try to automatically distinguish cookies that are useful from ones that are there just to track you. Apple notes that cookies can appear in unexpected places, such as sites that embed “like” and “share” buttons. Now, those cookies will be blocked until you click on one of those buttons, in which case you’ll be prompted for permission to allow the tracking. If you don’t, your “like” won’t register.
Safari is also attacking a technique developed to circumvent cookie deletions. Through “fingerprinting,” a company can identify you through your computer’s characteristics, such as browser type and fonts installed. Your new cookie can then be tied to your old profile. Safari will now limit the technical details it sends.
Firefox has an anti-tracking feature that also tries to distinguish tracking cookies from useful ones. But it’s on by default only on Apple’s mobile devices. Otherwise, you need to turn it on or use a private-browsing mode, which gets more aggressive at killing cookies, including useful ones.
For personal computers, Firefox also has an optional add-on, called Facebook Container, to segregate your Facebook activity from everything else. Think of it as a wall that prevents Facebook from accessing its data cookie as you surf elsewhere. A version is available for other trackers, too, but requires configuration on your part.
None of the Firefox tools, though, address fingerprinting.
Unsurprisingly, advertisers aren’t happy.
In a statement, Interactive Advertising Bureau executive Dennis Buchheim said that even as browsers makers feel pressured to deliver privacy-centric features, they should consider the importance of advertising in enabling free services.
The new Safari and Firefox tools don’t block ads. But without cookies, websites might get paid a lot less for them, said Jed Williams, chief innovation officer at the Local Media Association, an industry group for news publishers.
Apple and Mozilla are able to push the boundaries on privacy because neither depends on advertising. Google makes most of its money from selling ads.
Facebook and Google declined comment on the Safari and Firefox tools. But Google said its Chrome browser offers tools to control and delete cookies and set preferences for certain websites. Google says users can also decline personalization and get generic ads instead, though tracking continues in the background while using the company’s services.
Opinion: Rural Americans Need Broadband and Here’s How Government Can Help
By Liam Sigaud
Twenty-four million Americans — many of whom live in rural areas — don’t have access to high-speed, broadband internet in their homes. But a new study says that next generation wireless broadband, 5G, may be within reach for many rural Americans, if only state and local governments reduce fees that discourage private-sector investment.
While there’s little doubt that a multi-pronged approach will be necessary to bring broadband connectivity to every American, the next generation of wireless technology, 5G, is one of the most promising developments to date.
5G networks are a significant improvement over the 4G networks most smartphones rely on today, offering faster speeds, lower latency and better signal strength. In fact, 5G is so fast that waiting for websites to load or videos to buffer may become things of the past — imagine downloading a high-definition feature film in mere seconds.
5G will open exciting new opportunities with huge economic and social benefits. Remote precision medicine, self-driving cars, virtual reality and Internet of Things- connected devices will improve our lives in a multitude of ways.
Analyses by the American Consumer Institute and other policy groups indicate that the deployment of 5G technology in the United States could produce more than a trillion dollars in savings, on top of hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits from new technologies like improved health applications.
Despite these benefits, 5G deployment is advancing slowly, largely due to hostile government regulations that raise costs and impose lengthy delays on service providers. Meanwhile, other countries, especially China, are racing to develop their 5G infrastructure and are gaining the upper-hand in the global technological competition.
With so much at stake, the United States can’t afford to fall behind.
Some of the biggest hurdles to rapid 5G deployment in the U.S. have been local permitting rules and fees that raise development costs. Unlike previous wireless technologies that were based around large cellular towers, 5G relies on millions of small cells spread in neighborhoods throughout the country. Many states or localities charge companies high fees for each small cell installed.
A new study reveals that limiting local fees on 5G small cells could dramatically expand investment and spur faster deployment, especially in rural and suburban areas that need it most.
The study looked at two particular types of fees: annual attachment fees (which developers pay to install small cells on municipally owned poles) and application fees. The authors found that different states impose vastly different costs on developers. Annual attachment fees, for example, range from $40 to $270 per small cell. Application fees can be as low as $50 or as high as $350. Given these wide discrepancies, it’s doubtful that the prices reflect actual costs to local governments.
The study found that imposing a nationwide cap on small cell attachment and application fees (using the median cost of each — $150 and $100, respectively) would have a dramatic effect on private sector incentives to invest in 5G deployment.
The authors estimate that the cap would unleash an additional $2.6 billion to build small cells in areas that were previously not economically viable. Crucially, the study indicates that 97 percent of the additional investment would flow into rural and suburban areas that would otherwise be economically unattractive, benefitting 1.9 million premises.
It’s a simple formula: Reducing the costs of broadband infrastructure means more investment and, ultimately, better internet for consumers.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Liam Sigaud writes for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
If you shelter in place during a disaster, be ready for challenges after the storm
August 24, 2018 6.42am EDT Updated September 11, 2018
Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University
Ali Mostafavi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Texas A&M University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Many people will likely decide to stay put despite evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Florence. And if history is any guide, they may not be fully thinking through the problems they’ll face in the aftermath.
I conducted a research survey in Harris County, Texas, which contains much of metro Houston, after the city was flooded by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, and found a common thread. Few respondents who stayed in place during the storm planned in advance for coping with extended service interruptions, such as road closures, power and water outages and communications interruptions.
I am a civil engineer and study interactions between people and infrastructure in disasters. In this survey I wanted to understand how different sub-populations prepare for and adjust to service disruptions during these events.
Hurricanes don’t always prompt mandatory evacuations, and even when they do, many people choose not to go. My results show that planning for losing key services, potentially for days or weeks, should be part of preparing to weather storms in place. And cities should keep their most vulnerable residents in mind as they make decisions about storm-proofing critical infrastructure systems, such as power and water.
No electricity, no phone, no toilet
Harvey flooded sewers, closed roads, downed power lines and interrupted telecommunications services across southeast Texas. Unlike tornadoes, which can selectively level one neighborhood and leave another unscathed, hurricanes are perversely egalitarian. In Houston, tony and disadvantaged neighborhoods alike bore the brunt of Harvey.
Most residents in hurricane-prone areas know to store food, stock up on water, check their flashlights and radios and plan for evacuations. But I found that relatively few Houstonians were ready for infrastructure service disruptions.
Self-reported hardships due to power outages during Harvey.
My survey was conducted three month after Harvey and included 750 Harris County residents. They rated sewer, water, electricity and communications as the most important household services, and found sewage backing up into homes from overwhelmed public water systems to be the most onerous disruption. Even households with individual on-site septic systems experienced septic tank overflow due to flooding.
Loss of potable water, which affected hygiene, drinking and food preparation, was the next greatest hardship. Electricity and telecommunications outages tied for third place, followed by road closures due to fallen trees, debris and flooding.
My students and I found that 53 percent of the people we surveyed were not well prepared for service disruption. Even the 47 percent who had laid in provisions to weather the storm had not thought specifically about service outages. Most people who self-identified as prepared underestimated the extent and length of service disruptions, and many ran out of stored food and water. A whopping 80 percent of households who were without power after the storm had not even considered the possibility of extended outages.
Most affected: Low-income and minority households, families with young children
Regardless of how well cities harden their infrastructure, service disruptions are inevitable during and after major hurricanes. Once residents accept that fact, they can adopt practical strategies for weathering storms in place.
Families that live outside of hurricane paths or flood plains can still experience extended disruptions – for example, if high winds damage power distribution networks, or local roads are blocked by downed trees. It is critical for households to understand the likelihood of service disruptions, assess their basic needs objectively and prepare for possible extended outages.
Our research showed that some population groups were especially vulnerable to losing specific services. Households with children 10 and younger self-reported that losing electricity was the most onerous hardship for them, since it made it impossible for them to refrigerate and prepare food. On the other hand, respondents age 65 and older reported that road closures were their greatest burden because they could not drive to work, grocery stores, health care facilities or pharmacies.
We also found that low-income residents and racial and ethnic minorities were less prepared overall and experienced greater hardship during post-Harvey service losses. Disaster researchers widely view these groups as vulnerable populations, since they have fewer resources to prepare or adapt to disruptions.
Interestingly, we found that seniors over 65 were better prepared to endure sewer, water and telecommunications losses after Harvey. For many of them prior experience with storms had instilled the value of preparation, and on the whole they were ready for the impending storm.
Some people choose to shelter in place during disasters because they cannot afford to leave their homes for unknown destinations.
Hardening infrastructure with people in mind
Houston is investing in a swath of flood control and flood risk reduction projects. Notably, on Aug. 25 the city adopted a $2.5 billion bond measure to overhaul the region’s flood-protection system..
Protecting homes is important, but cities should also invest in hardening infrastructure systems, such as power and water lines, to support residents who shelter in place during storms. Local communities can handle some of these upgrades. For instance, some Houston neighborhoods lost internet connectivity for as long as six weeks due to submerged utility boxes housing network electronics. This problem could be solved by raising the boxes above potential flood levels.
Identifying and hardening infrastructure components, such as power sub-stations and wastewater treatment plants, that are highly vulnerable to future storms is a critical task for utilities and city planners. Also, recognizing and protecting vulnerable sub-populations who are most affected by service outages should be a priority.
As households prepare for an storm, consideration of possible power outages, sewer backup, and road closures should factor into their decisions about evacuating or sheltering in place. If they stay, they should not underestimate the likelihood of service disruptions. No one likes to lose power or internet, but imagining the possibility of extended service outages and the resulting hardship can help households prepare and cope with the disruptions.
Ph.D. student Amir Esmalian and technical writer Jan Gerston contributed to this article.
Comment: Karen Clark
It doesn’t seem that city planners or the State of Texas are any better at planning for disasters. The unregulated development and destruction of wetland barriers demonstrate that planners and state representatives are short-term thinkers that seek to benefit profiteers. It also seems that the people of Harris County and the State of Texas feel entitled to federal dollars to repair their short-sighted governing strategies. Let’s hope federal dollars are not wasted in rebuilding in flood regions that will invariably flood again and just as severely. Thanks to the author for this informative article.
Gene-editing technique CRISPR identifies dangerous breast cancer mutations
September 12, 2018
Professor of Genome Sciences, University of Washington
M.D.-Ph.D. Student in Genome Sciences, University of Washington
Research Assistant Professor of Genome Sciences, University of Washington
Jay Shendure receives funding from Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Allen Frontiers Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Group. The authors are co-inventors on a patent application related to the saturation genome editing method, and the scores described here require a license from the University of Washington for for-profit or commercial use.
Lea Starita is employed by the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine.
Greg Findlay does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Washington provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
More than 1 million women have had genetic testing of BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes in which mutations can dramatically increase the risk for early onset breast and ovarian cancer. But for many women the test results have been ambiguous. That’s because it’s not clear where certain genetic variations are harmless or cause cancer.
BRCA1 was amongst the first cancer predisposition genes discovered, and it has been studied for over 20 years. The gene produces a protein that repairs DNA damage, which might otherwise lead to the formation of tumors. Since its discovery, researchers and clinicians have identified many genetic variations in BRCA1, but for most of these, we are unable to tell whether they impair function of the gene – raising the risk of cancer – or whether they are perfectly harmless.
Our research team works in the emerging field of genomic medicine, which uses an individual’s genetic information to prescribe care. We recognized that such “variants of uncertain significance” limited the utility of genetic testing and the prospects for genomic medicine. We know that problem is likely to get worse, as the number of uncertain variants in BRCA1 and other “medically actionable” genes is expected to grow exponentially as genetic testing is expanded to entire populations.
In a study, we set out to apply CRISPR genome editing to solve the challenge posed by these variants of uncertain significance. CRISPR has tremendous potential because the technology allows researchers like us to tinker with human genes. CRISPR allows us to make very specific changes, “edits” to our DNA – thus the phrase, “genome editing.”
Although there are many studies that are attempting to use CRISPR to treat disease, it can also be used to introduce specific mutations into human cells that grow in a dish, for the purposes of studying what effects these mutations have on the cell – for instance, whether or not they cause a gene to malfunction.
In our study, we used CRISPR genome editing to deliberately engineer some 4,000 different variants of the BRCA1 gene in human cells, nearly all possible variants in the most important regions of this gene. Importantly, the survival of the human cells that we used is dependent on intact function of the BRCA1 gene. As a consequence, the cells containing mutations that disrupted the function of the BRCA1 gene were unable to survive. On the other hand, the cell containing mutations that had no effect on the function of the BRCA1 gene were just fine. Using DNA sequencing, we tracked which mutations were associated with cell death versus cell survival.
When we compared the mutations that caused cell death to variants that are known to increase cancer risk, we noticed that they were the same. This gave us the confidence to say that the behavior of these variants in the cells in the dish was predictive of cancer risk in humans.
The research team first grew human cells in culture. We then used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to create variations in particular regions of the BRCA1 gene. We grew these edited cells for 11 days and then determined which variants had no effect; which ones damaged the BRCA1 protein, making it nonfunctional and resulting in the cells dying; and which ones were intermediate – only moderately impacting cell survival. When we compared these results with clinical data, our laboratory-based measurements matched the effects of the mutations in the patients. Findlay, et al., Nature., CC BY-ND
Although scientists have used laboratory assays to test variants in BRCA1 for many years, our work is different for three reasons.
First, we tested many more variants than have ever been tested, including thousands that have never been observed before but almost certainly exist in at least hundreds of living humans.
Second, historically BRCA1 variants have been tested in genes taken “out of context” – specifically, studying only the DNA sequences that encode the BRCA1 protein, rather than the surrounding sequences that regulate how it is expressed. CRISPR allows us, for the first time, to create and test the mutations in the human genome itself.
Finally, for the hundreds of BRCA1 variants seen in patients where we do have a good sense of whether or not they increase risk of breast and ovarian cancer, our predictions based on our CRISPR studies are nearly perfectly accurate. That is, the variants compatible with cell survival in our assay are benign in patients, while the variants that impair cell survival in our assay cause cancer risk. This gives us confidence in our predictions for other variants that have never before been observed but inevitably will be, particularly as more and more women are screened for mutations in this gene.
Because of this strong agreement with “gold standard” data derived from human studies, we predict our results can be used to provide better answers to women with challenging-to-interpret variants in BRCA1. This includes many women that have an elevated risk of cancer, but would previously have been missed by genetic testing. To these women, this knowledge of what their mutations mean may critically inform the medical care that they receive.