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Your phone could be giving hackers all of the info they need

(TECH NEWS) A study in Newcastle UK has found that your phone data maybe be what sells you out to hackers.

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How do you hold your phone?

Hackers can get hold of your cell phone pin numbers and other passwords just from the tilt of the device when you type it in, a new research study shows.

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The culprit: your smartphone’s motion sensors.

Newcastle’s new discovery

The study, by computer scientists and security experts at United Kingdom’s Newcastle University, is causing an uproar in the entire tech community for its alarming findings.

In a report released this week, the study found that hackers can analyze your motion sensors and figure out your four-digit PIN with very high accuracy.

Researchers could correctly guess the pin 74% of the time on their first attempt, which increased to 94% accuracy after three tries. With only five attempts, the accuracy of the team was 100%.

Hackers love loopholes

This theoretical hack is possible because of a loophole in how web browsers share data between smartphones and websites. While highly sensitive information, such as location require explicit user permission, other data, such as device orientation, or size of the device screen (not seen as sensitive information) is shared with websites freely so that webpages can be responsive and interactive.

As shown by the researchers, such information is enough for a malicious website to hack into your device and decode your PIN.

Of the 25 sensors found to be playing a part in this issue, only a few require user permission before activating for certain apps. The rest are always on by default.

The devices

Dr Maryam Mehrnezhad, a research fellow in the School of Computing Science, said: “On some browsers, we found that if you open a page on your phone or tablet which hosts of these malicious codes and then open [another one], then they can spy on every personal detail you eventually enter.”

“And worse still, in some cases, unless you close them down completely, they can even spy on you when your phone is locked.”

Not practical

The public need not worry too much about this latest news, however. It seems that the methods used by the experts in the study itself faces many significant hindrances “in real life,” that would make the hack unlikely to be successful in the real world.

For example, the researchers needed a lot of data to train its hacking system, an artificial neural network, to acceptable accuracy levels.

Each user had to type 50 known pin numbers in, five times over, before the system learned enough about how users hold their phones to guess a hidden pin with 70% accuracy—a very unlikely scenario in the real world.

Stopping hackers early

Research studies like these are usually welcome by the tech world, as loopholes can easily be fixed before malicious parties can take advantage of such web weaknesses.

In 2014, for instance, hackers at the Hamburg Chaos Communications Congress demonstrated how pin codes could be extracted by simply taking a video of the user’s cornea movements, dubbed the “corneal keylogger,” as they entered data. Similarly, Firefox had loopholes that allowed hackers to track user activities via their battery status.

The latest sensors scare, although overhyped, shall need a sophisticated solution.

There seems to be no practical solution readily available. Apple and Google have been contacted about the issues by the university researchers, but there has been no official statements from either company.

#Sensorscare

Barnil is a Staff Writer at The American Genius. With a Master's Degree in International Relations, Barnil is a Research Assistant at UT, Austin. When he hikes, he falls. When he swims, he sinks. When he drives, others honk. But when he writes, people read.

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Tired of Zoom? NVIDIA announces AI-powered contender

(TECH NEWS) NVIDIA’s AI-based video technology offers helpful features like face alignment, gaze correction, and noise cancellation to optimize video calls.

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Woman on video call with coffee, NVIDIA video conference tech coming soon

For the most part, Zoom has dominated video conferencing, but it might soon face competition thanks to NVIDIA. Recently, NVIDIA announced its new GPU-Accelerated AI Platform, NVIDIA Maxine, that it says will “vastly improve streaming quality” and offer incredible AI-powered features.

NVIDIA Maxine is a cloud-native video-streaming AI platform so data doesn’t need to be processed on local servers. Instead, NVIDIA’s servers process the information so users can use the cool AI features without having to purchase any new specialized hardware.

“NVIDIA Maxine integrates our most advanced video, audio, and conversational AI capabilities to bring breakthrough efficiency and new capabilities to the platforms that are keeping us all connected,” said Ian Buck, vice president and general manager of Accelerated Computing at NVIDIA, in a press release.

Maxine’s “breakthrough efficiency” can be seen in its AI-based video compression technology. The AI tech reduces the bandwidth used on a call to one-tenth of the H.264 video compression standard without compromising video quality. In doing so, less data is transmitted back and forth so slow internet connection and limited bandwidth won’t be a problem anymore. Hopefully, this helps bring an end to the dreaded “you have a poor connection, blah, blah, blah” message.

Some of the features that make NVIDIA Maxine standout are face alignment and gaze correction. These two features allow for a better face-to-face conversation. For instance, people will no longer appear to be staring off into outer space. With face alignment, the software will automatically adjust people so it looks like they are facing each other. And, with gaze correction, it will help simulate eye contact. According to NVIDIA, “These features help people stay engaged in the conversation rather than looking at their camera.”

Also, if developers choose to do so, they can allow users to choose an animated avatar. These avatars offer a realistic feel because they are driven by a person’s “voice and emotional tone in real-time.” Plus, the auto frame feature automatically follows the person in the frame so they are always in view. This is great when you’re doing a presentation or demo.

The feature that stands out to me is the noise cancellation filter that removes background noise. Anyone with a toddler or dog will be a big fan of that one! Continually pressing the mute and unmute button could finally become a thing of the past.

Maxine also has a “conversational AI”. With NVIDIA Jarvis (not to be confused with Iron Man’s Just A Rather Very Intelligent System), developers can integrate virtual assistants to take notes, set action items, and answer questions in human-like voices. Additionally, this AI offers translations and closed captions all in real-time.

By taking a look at what NVIDIA Maxine has to offer, there is no denying Zoom has a lot of work to do if it wants to stay on top. Although it did dabble with real-time captioning back in June, Zoom’s offering was very limited. And, Maxine is on its way up.

Early access to the NVIDIA Maxine platform is available to Computer vision AI developers, software partners, startups, and computer manufacturers creating audio and video apps and services.

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How psychologists are using VR to profile your personality

(TECH NEWS) VR isn’t just for gamers. Psychologists are using it to research how people emotionally respond to threats. But does it come at the cost of privacy?

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Man using VR in personality test.

When you put on a VR headset for the first time, most people have that ‘whoa’ moment. You’ve entered an enchanting otherworldly place that seems real, but you know it isn’t. You slowly tilt your head up to see a nicely lit blue sky. You turn your head around to see mountains and trees that weren’t there before. And, you finally look down to stare at your hands. Replaced by bright-colored gloves, you flex your hands to form a fist, then jazz hands, and back.

Playing VR games is exciting and interesting for a lot of gamers, and you would (or maybe wouldn’t) be surprised to know that psychologists think so, too. According to The Conversation, psychologists have started researching how people emotionally respond to potential threats using VR.

Do you think this is weird or cool? I’ll let the following help you decide.

So, why did psychologists think using VR would help them in their research?

In earlier studies, psychologists tested “human approach-avoidance behavior”. By mixing real and virtual world elements, they “observed participants’ anxiety on a behavioral, physiological, and subjective level.” Through their research, they found that anxiety could be measured, and “VR provokes strong feelings of fear and anxiety”.

In this case, how did they test emotional responses to potential threats?

For the study, 34 participants were recruited to assess how people have a “tendency to respond strongly to negative stimuli.” Using a room-scaled virtual environment, participants were asked to walk across a grid of translucent ice blocks suspended 200 meters above the ground. Participants wore head-mounted VR displays and used handheld controllers.

Also, sensors placed on the participants’ feet would allow them to interact with the ice blocks in 2 ways. By using one foot, they could test the block and decide if they wanted to step on it. This tested risk assessment. By using both feet, the participants would commit to standing on that block. This tested the risk decision.

The study used 3 types of ice blocks. Solid blocks could support the participant’s weight and would not change in appearance. Crack blocks could also support the participant’s weight, but interacting with it would change its color. Lastly, Fall blocks would behave like Crack blocks, but would shatter completely when stepped on with 2 feet. And, it would lead to a “virtual fall”.

So what did they find?

After looking at the data, researchers found out that by increasing how likely an ice block would disintegrate, the “threat” for the participant also increased. And, of course, participants’ behavior was more calculated as more cracks appeared along the way. As a result, participants opted to test more blocks before stepping on the next block completely.

But, what else did they find?

They found that data about a person’s personality trait could also be determined. Before the study, each participant completed a personality questionnaire. Based on the questionnaire and the participants’ behavior displayed in the study researchers were able to profile personality.

During the study, their main focus was neuroticism. And, neuroticism is one of the five major personality traits used to profile people. In other words, someone’s personality could now also be profiled in a virtual world.

So, it all comes down to data and privacy. And yes, this isn’t anything new. Data collection through VR has been a concern for a long while. Starting this month, Facebook is requiring all new Oculus VR owners to link their Facebook account to the hardware. Existing users will be grandfathered in until 2023.

All in all, VR in the medical field isn’t new, and it has come a long way. The question is whether the risk of our personality privacy is worth the cost.

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Failure to launch: Quibi’s short-form platform is short-lived

(TECH NEWS) Despite receiving major funding from big players, Quibi is shutting down only 6 months after launch. What led to their downfall?

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A mobile phone open to Quibi in feminine hands with decorated nails.

Only 6 short months after launching its platform, Quibi has decided to pull the plug.

The mobile-only streaming service’s vision was to create short-form videos with higher production value than that of competitors like YouTube or TikTok. Having enlisted big names such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Jennifer Lopez, and Lebron James, Quibi had high hopes for what the service could accomplish. In an open letter posted to Medium, founding company executives Jeffery Katzenberg and Meg Whitman cited timing and the idea of mobile-first premium storytelling not being strong enough as the primary reasons for shuttering.

“As entrepreneurs our instinct is to always pivot, to leave no stone unturned — especially when there is some cash runway left — but we feel that we’ve exhausted all our options.” The letter stated, “As a result we have reluctantly come to the difficult decision to wind down the business, return cash to our shareholders, and say goodbye to our colleagues with grace. We want you to know we did not give up on this idea without a fight.”

The move is somewhat surprising considering that back in March the service managed to raise an additional $750 million in funding, bringing its total fundraising to $1.75 billion. At the time, Quibi CFO Ambereen Toubassy had touted that the second-round of cash had provided the organization with “a strong cash runway,” that would give Quibi “the financial wherewithal to build content and technology that consumers embrace.”

Originally called “New TV”, the initial investors of the service included Hollywood titans Disney, NBCUniversal, and Sony Pictures Entertainment just to name a few. While the amount of money raised was minuscule compared to services like Netflix, it was still an impressive start for an untested idea.

The service did itself no favors, however, in trying to gain new subscribers. Along with being mobile-only, the service started at $4.99 per month for an ad-supported subscription, only slightly cheaper from more robust offerings like Hulu and ESPN+. While you could pay $7.99 per month to get rid of ads, you were also forbidden from taking screenshots, limiting the ability of content on the service to go viral.

Quibi was also financing content, meaning that ownership would revert back to creators after just a few short years. This means building a growing library of content owned by the service was an uphill battle from the start.

“This was flawed from the start, down to the idea of financing content and then giving it back to the creators after a few years.” Said a veteran producer who refused to work with the company, “There is anger in town right now, because it just makes it harder to raise money.”

Quibi is set to be inaccessible starting around the beginning of December, according to a post on the company’s support site. While much of the service’s content will not be missed, one still wonders what might have been had the company managed to gain some traction, or the COVID-19 pandemic had not come to pass. Either way, Quibi’s business partners may want to read up on some of these tips as they discuss where things should go from here.

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