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One creepy way law enforcement might have your private data

(TECH NEWS) Wait, geofences do what? Law enforcement can pull your private data if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Man walking on crosswalk with phone, but his private data could be vulnerable.

By now, it’s pretty common knowledge that our smartphones are tracking us, but what you might not be aware of is just how much law enforcement is taking advantage of our private data. Now, the good news is that some places have gotten wise to this breach of privacy and are banning certain tactics. The bad news is: If you were ever in the vicinity of a recent crime scene, it’s quite possible your privacy has already been invaded.

How are law enforcement doing this? Well, it starts with a geofence.

At its core, a geofence is a virtual border around a real geographic location. This can serve many purposes, from creating marketing opportunities for targeted ads to tracking shipping packages. In the case of law enforcement, though, geofences are often used in something called a geofence warrant.

Traditionally, warrants identify a subject first, then retrieve their electronic records. A geofence warrant, on the other hand, identifies a time and place and pulls electronic data from that area. If you’re thinking “hey, that sounds sketchy,” you are–forgive the pun–completely warranted.

With a geofence, law enforcement can dig through your private data, not because they have proof you were involved in a crime, but because you happened to be nearby.

This practice, though relatively new, is on the rise: Google reported a 15-fold increase in geofence warrant requests between 2017 and 2018. As well as invading privacy, these warrants have led to false arrests and can be used against peaceful protesters. Not to mention, in many cases, geofence warrants can be extremely easy to acquire. One report in Minnesota found judges signed off on these cases in under 4 minutes.

Thankfully, there have been signs of people pushing back against the use of geofence warrants. In fact, there have been multiple federal court rulings that find the practice in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including your electronic data.

If you’re still worried about your privacy, there are ways to keep your electronic data on lock. For example, turn off your location services when you’re traveling, and avoid connecting to open Wi-Fi networks. You can also work to limit location sharing with apps and websites.

These and other tips can be a great way to help you avoid not just geofence warrants, but others who want to use your electronic information for their own gain.

Brittany is a Staff Writer for The American Genius with a Master's in Media Studies under her belt. When she's not writing or analyzing the educational potential of video games, she's probably baking.

Tech News

3 awesome ways bug sized robots are changing the world

(TECH NEWS) Robots are at the forefront of tech advancements. But why should we care? Here are some noticeable ways robots are changing the world.

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Bits of robots and microchips changing the world.

When we envision the robots that will (and already are) transforming our world, we’re most likely thinking of something human- or dog-sized. So why are scientists hyper-focusing on developing bug-sized (or even smaller!) robots?

Medical advances

Tiny robots could assist in better drug delivery, as well as conduct minor internal surgeries that wouldn’t otherwise require incisions.

Rescue operations

We’ve all heard about the robot dogs that can rescue people who’ve been buried beneath rubble or sheets of snow. However, in some circumstances these machines are too bulky to do the job safely. Bug-sized robots are a less invasive savior in high-intensity environments, such as mine fields, that larger robots would not be able to navigate without causing disruption.

Exploration

Much like the insects after which these robots were designed, they can be programmed to work together (think: ants building a bridge using their own bodies). This could be key in exploring surfaces like Mars, which are not safe for humans to explore freely. Additionally, tiny robots that can be set to construct and then deconstruct themselves could help astronauts in landings and other endeavors in space.

Why insects?

Well, perhaps the most important reason is that insects have “nature’s optimized design”. They can jump vast distances (fleas), hold items ten times the weight of their own bodies (ants) and perform tasks with the highest efficiency (bees) – all qualities that, if utilized correctly, would be extremely beneficial to humans. Furthermore, a bug-sized bot is economical. If one short-circuits or gets lost, it won’t totally break the bank.

What’s next?

Something scientists have yet to replicate in robotics is the material elements that make insects so unique and powerful, such as tiny claws or sticky pads. What if a robot could produce excrement that could build something, the way bees do in their hives, or spiders do with their webs? While replicating these materials is often difficult and costly, it is undoubtedly the next frontier in bug-inspired robotics – and it will likely open doors for humans that we never imaged possible.

This is all to say that in the pursuit of creating strong, powerful robots, they need not always be big in stature – sometimes, the tiniest robots are just the best for the task.

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Tech News

Extend your smart home to the mailbox with the Ring Mailbox Sensor

(TECH NEWS) With the rise of the smart home and mail theft, Amazon’s new Ring product is the perfect addition to protect your letters and packages.

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Ring Mailbox Sensor on the inside of a mailbox door with hand delivering letters.

Smart home enthusiasts worried about the increasing problem of mail theft are getting a new piece of security technology: The new Ring Mailbox Sensor.

Pop the wireless, battery-powered motion sensor in your mailbox, and it will alert you when someone opens the lid or door. You can get a notification in the Ring app on your smartphone and, because Ring is an Amazon company, through any Alexa-enabled device. (So your Ecobee thermostat can tell you you’ve got mail. Cool.)

The sensor’s biggest benefit: You can immediately collect your mail when you get an alert that it’s been delivered. If you’re home.

There’s no camera with live view or speaker for yelling at the thief to drop your stuff, although you can do that with any microphone-enabled cameras near your mailbox.

But if you’ve ringed your home with Ring products, you can set the sensor to turn on Smart Lights or to make the video doorbell or security cameras start recording. If your mailbox is near your front door, however, that will probably already be happening after those devices detect motion. The sensor could be very useful for mailboxes at the end of a long driveway and out of sight of any cameras.

You can preorder the Mailbox Sensor ($29.99) at Ring.com and Amazon.com starting on Oct. 8. To connect the sensor with the doorbell, smart lights, and Alexa devices, you’ll need the Ring Bridge ($49.99).

You may want to keep an eye on Amazon’s new Sidewalk technology, however. Sidewalk is designed to extend the range of your Wi-Fi network. It siphons off a small part of your bandwidth, and that of your neighbors with Amazon-related devices, to create a crowd-sourced neighborhood network.

Amazon has released a list of devices – mostly Echoes and cameras – that will act as bridges themselves, and it’s not yet clear how the Mailbox Sensor will interact with all of that in the future. By the way, if privacy concerns were the first thing that popped into your head when you read that, check out Amazon’s Sidewalk white paper on privacy.

FYI: If your mail is stolen, You should report to the USPS, using their online form. You could report to the police via 311 but know that it’s unlikely officers will pursue the crime.

The best defense against thieves is still a locked mailbox. It’s not fool-proof, of course, but it can make thieves take longer to get at your mail. But if they take the sensor with your mail, or even your whole mailbox, Ring will replace the Mailbox Sensor for free.

You can find out more about the Mailbox Sensor in Ring’s support FAQ.

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Degree holders are shifting tech hubs and affordability

(TECH NEWS) Tech hubs are shifting as degree holders move, but it’s causing some other issues and raising some interesting questions about the future of jobs.

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degree city

Bloomberg recently announced their annual “Brain” Indexes. The indexes are an annual reckoning of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs and degree holders. The “Brain Concentration Index” approximates the number of people working full time in computer, engineering, and science jobs (including math and architecture.) It measures the median earnings for people in those jobs. It also counts how many people have a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, or an advanced degree of any kind. It blends those things together to determine how “brainy” a city is.

Since they started in 2016, Boulder, CO has been at the top of the list. This year it’s followed by San Jose, CA, which many people might expect to be at the top. Many of the more surprising cities, like Ann Arbor, MI, Ithaca, NY, and even Lawrence, KS, are bolstered by the presence of a strong university.

It’s an interesting methodology. It’s worth noting that anyone with an advanced degree, whether it’s an MBA, a law degree, or a Ph.D. in literature, contributes to which city is a “tech hub.” It’s also worth noting how expensive many of these places are to live.

If you follow this kind of national data collection at all, you may also know that Boulder is one of the least-affordable cities in the country. So is the San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara metro area, with a median home price of 1.25 million dollars and a median household income of $117,474. (That means that the average mortgage is more than half of the average paycheck). However many people tech hubs like San Jose and San Francisco attract, they’re also hemorrhaging talent. Every day, 8 Californians move to Austin. Of the people who stay, more than half are thinking of moving.

They aren’t doing that for fun. As much flak as Californians get for gentrifying places like Austin, they’re being megagentrified out of their own homes. As salaries rise and CEO gigs attract the wealthy (and turn them into the Uberwealthy), the people who wait on tables or teach their children can’t afford to stay there anymore.

Speaking of people leaving, Bloomberg also measured what they call “brain drain,” the flow of advanced degree holders out of cities. They pair that with a decline in white-collar jobs and a decline in STEM pay to come up with their annual list. It includes places like Lebanon, PA and Kahului, HI.

All in all, it’s interesting information. But there are other factors at work that it can’t speak to. What does wage stagnation in the U.S. mean for the flow of education workers? If San Jose and San Francisco can be tech hubs based on the number of people with degrees, but people are still fleeing, what does that say about rankings like these? What human stories get lost in the shuffle? And is “tech hub” even something a city wants to be if that means running out of teachers (or making them sleep in garages)? Where does the next generation of tech hub workers come from?

Knowing the people behind the numbers makes it clear just what a mixed bag this is. Maybe we need more tech hubs like Lawrence, Kansas. Or maybe we need rent control. Or maybe we need to embrace remote work. Maybe there are no answers. As interesting as data like this is, there’s something sort of wistful about it, too.

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