Senators launch query on Trump’s smartphone security

Two US Senators say they are concerned by reports that US President Donald Trump is still using an Android device that may be several years old for his frequent personal Twitter messages

Two US senators have requested details on President Donald Trump’s smartphone security, saying he could jeopardize national secrets if he is still using his old handset, as some reports say.

“Did Trump receive a secured, encrypted smartphone for his personal use on or before Jan. 20? If so, is he using it?,” said a tweet Tuesday by Senator Tom Carper, who along with fellow Democrat Claire McCaskill released a letter to the administration requesting information on the president’s device.

“Trump should be well aware by now of the appropriate and necessary protocol to safeguard our nation’s secrets.”

The letter from the two lawmakers, dated February 9, was sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis along with Homeland Security chief John Kelly and the National Security Agency director Michael Rogers. The senators released the letter late Monday.

The lawmakers said they were concerned by reports that Trump was still using an Android device that may be several years old for his frequent personal Twitter messages.

“While it is important for the president to have the ability to communicate electronically, it is equally important that he does so in a manner that is secure and that ensures the preservation of presidential records,” the letter said.

“The national security risks of compromising a smartphone used by a senior government official, such as the president of the United States, are considerable.”

The New York Times reported last month that while Trump had received a new, secure device after his inauguration, he still relied on his older device despite protests from aides.

That report prompted a flurry of comments from security experts who argued that the president would be inviting danger by using his old personal phone.

Trump’s smartphone “would probably be the most widely prized device on the internet for hackers—and top of the target list for intelligence agencies around the world,” said independent security researcher Graham Cluley in a blog post Tuesday.

Last month, Nicholas Weaver of the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California, warned that “Trump’s continued use of a dangerously insecure, out-of-date Android device should cause real panic.”

Writing on the Lawfare blog, Weaver noted that hackers could gain access to the phone’s location as well as its microphone and camera and that “the working assumption should be that Trump’s phone is compromised by at least one—probably multiple—hostile foreign intelligence services and is actively being exploited.”

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Building a home that helps residents stay healthy

Credit: University of Kansas

What if your house could help keep you healthy?

That’s the notion that University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design & Planning Associate Professor Joe Colistra and his students will explore this semester through a couple of grants that aim to incorporate big data and sensing technology into the warp and woof of homes of the future.

In October, the American Institute of Architects awarded Colistra a $30,000 Upjohn Research Initiative grant. In December, Colistra received word that Mozilla’s Gigabit Community Fund had given him an additional $21,000 grant. He is pooling those grant funds to build a housing unit – or at least part of one – that will feature embedded sensors to collect residents’ biometric data, with the goal of monitoring their health. The project will be executed by fifth-year students in the school’s East Hills Design-Build Center.

“With Kansas City having Google Fiber, you ask yourself: What would you do with unlimited bandwidth? So we proceed to the question of big data collected through the built environment,” Colistra said. “What if your house could capture your heel strike, the number of times you left your apartment, the number of times you go to the bathroom, how much sleep you got last night? The idea with connectivity and the Internet of Things is to link all that data together.”

Colistra explained that the idea of a floor that could monitor heel strikes “can tell if someone has fallen, if there is a stutter in their step that is a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease. These are not your normal sensors, but ones sensitive enough to use predictive algorithms on. They would be most useful to seniors, so we are working with scientists at the Landon Center on Aging at the (University of Kansas) Medical Center who work on Alzheimer’s disease. They can already do gait analysis with a device like a Fitbit, but this would be in the background. You would not have to turn it on. The monitor would be in the floor. It’s an accelerometer, linked to GPS. There could be smart mirrors, smart toilets …”

Smart mirrors, he explained, look for changes in the skin – moles, lesions, the effects of stroke. Smart toilets monitor hydration and evacuation.

“We are looking at the possibility of taking hydration readings that might lead to adjusting your diuretic or heart medication on the fly,” Colistra said. “It could revolutionize geriatric medicine. Your housing unit could be like a medical device; it takes care of you.”

Colistra said the project will be done with an eye toward creating a smart house with prefabricated components (e.g., walls, floor panels) so that such items become economically viable if implemented on a large scale.

Colistra said the project will be completed by the end of the school year – with as many rooms as the funding will allow. The results will then be displayed at conferences, including Maker Faire Kansas City June 24-25 at Union Station.

“It grows out of the New Cities research initiative,” Colistra said. “The question there is, ‘How do we make lifelong neighborhoods?’ That includes daycare, jobs, walkable streets, and, for seniors, rehab clinics and doctors.”

Colistra said working with health insurance companies on creating such dwellings would be ideal. They might be motivated to do so with the idea of bringing down their own costs, he said.

“It’s a possible new way to make smart cities,” Colistra said. “We know all this stuff is coming. The question is how to build architecture to use it. It’s all existing technology. It just hasn’t been put together yet.”

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Amazon launches videoconferencing for cloud customers

The cloud computing unit of Amazon is among the fastest growing segments for the US tech giant

US online giant Amazon on Tuesday announced the launch of a “unified communications service” which offers video and audio conferencing through its cloud computing service.

The new service called Amazon Chime from Amazon Web Services—which provides the online computing power for thousands of businesses—enables customers to have conversations and videoconferences whether they are using desktop computers, Apple iPhones or Android devices.

“Most meeting applications or services are hard to use, deliver bad audio and video, require constant switching between multiple tools to do everything they want, and are way too expensive,” said Amazon vice president Gene Farrell.

“Amazon Chime delivers frustration-free meetings, allowing users to be productive from anywhere. And with no ongoing maintenance or management fees, Amazon Chime is a great choice for companies that are looking for a solution to meetings that their employees will love to use.”

The cloud computing unit of Amazon is among the fastest growing segments for the US tech giant, which has expanded from its roots as an online retailer into fields such as streaming video, music and artificial intelligence.

Chime was developed with telecom partners Level 3 and Vonage and is expected to be available in the second quarter of this year.

Amazon said its first customers for the new platform would include US apparel retailer Brooks Brothers, ecommerce group Connexity and the LED lighting maker Soraa.

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Accelerating low-carbon innovation through policy

Adaptive Solar Facade. Credit: Chair for Architecture and Building Systems, Institute of Technology in Architecture, ETH Zurich

Global climate change is affecting our planet and mankind; climate science is thus instrumental in informing policy makers about its dangers, and in suggesting emission limits. Science also shows that staying within limits, while meeting the aspirations of a growing global population requires fundamental changes in energy conversion and storage. The majority of low-carbon technology innovation observed in the last decades, such as the 85% cost reduction in photovoltaic cell production since 2000, was driven by largely uncoordinated national policies. These included research incentives in Japan and the U.S., feed-in tariffs in Germany, and tax breaks in the U.S.

During the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting in Boston, Tobias Schmidt, ETH Zurich – The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, Jessika Trancik, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, U.S.A., and Masaru Yarime, City University of Hong Kong, will review the successes and failures of policies for low-carbon technology innovation and show how characteristics of both the technologies and the policy instruments themselves helped and, in some ways, hindered technological progress. In addition, they will demonstrate how research by the innovative science community can inform policy decisions in the future to accelerate low-carbon innovation and affect the livelihood of our planet in the long-term, despite limited resources.

Modelling Technology Innovation to Accelerate Clean Energy Development

Wind and solar energy installations have grown rapidly in recent decades as their costs have fallen. It remains unclear; however, whether these trends will continue, allowing the technologies to measurably contribute to climate change mitigation. Jessika Trancik, Associate Professor of Energy Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, uses the case example of photovoltaic technology to uncover the key determinants of innovation from the formulation of policy to the design of technologies. She explains the feedback of emission reduction and the practical lessons that emerge for engineers and policy makers alike.

Considering Different Types of Learning in Low-Carbon Innovation Policy

Recent empirical studies demonstrate that innovation patterns and technological learning can differ strongly between energy technologies. Fostering low-carbon innovation may thus require technology-specific policy interventions. Tobias Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Energy Politics at ETH Zurich, Switzerland compares photovoltaics (PV), wind and lithium-ion battery storage technologies in relation to the locus of innovation in the industry value chain, learning feedback, and type of innovation. He relates his observations to technology architecture and production processes deriving implications for other energy technologies. Based on these analyses, Schmidt makes recommendations for the design of policy portfolios to accelerate innovation in clean energy.

Encouraging Stakeholder Collaboration for Smart City Innovation

Masaru Yarime, Associate Professor at the School of Energy and Environment, City University in Hong Kong presents case studies from Japan and the U.S. on how low-carbon energy technologies can be implemented within the larger systems of smart cities. Their implementation calls for the promotion and integration of a variety of innovations in the electronic, housing, automotive, and infrastructure sectors. This requires collaboration and coordination with relevant stakeholders in academia, industry, government, and civil society. Yarime examines smart city projects with policy implications for platform creation, technological development, and end-user engagement.

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Diesel Cruze tops all gas or diesel cars at 52 mpg highway

General Motors says its new Chevrolet Cruze diesel compact sedan will get up to 52 miles per gallon on the highway, the best mileage of any car that isn’t a hybrid or electric vehicle.

The 2017 diesel with a six-speed manual transmission and 1.6-liter diesel engine also gets 30 mpg in the city and a combined city-highway mileage of 37, according to government estimates.

Diesel engines have gotten a lot of bad publicity of late with the Volkswagen emissions scandal. But GM says the Cruze complies with all U.S. pollution standards.

The Cruze still is bested by many plug-in electric vehicles and two gas-electric hybrids. The Toyota Prius Eco gets 53 mpg on the highway and the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid gets 59.

The Cruze diesel starts at just under $24,000.

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Verizon pulled back into unlimited data game

This Monday, July 25, 2016, file photo shows signage in a Verizon store in North Andover, Mass. Verizon is the latest mobile carrier to bring back unlimited plans, but its version is pricier than offerings from rivals T-Mobile and Sprint. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Verizon, a longtime holdout, has joined other carriers in offering an unlimited data plan.

AT&T only lets customers sign up for unlimited plans when they also subscribe to DirecTV, which AT&T owns. But its prices are similar to Verizon’s for a family; Verizon is cheaper for an individual.

As recently as January, the company’s CFO said unlimited plans were “not something we feel the need to do” even though rivals had made inroads against Verizon by offering them. It has been trying to push longtime customers off its old unlimited plans, which it killed in 2012, with rate hikes.

The arrival of the iPhone and other smartphones made unlimited plans more of a rarity as carriers switched to bigger data plans with bigger price tags.

But Sprint and T-Mobile recognized in unlimited data an opportunity to snare customers from heavyweights Verizon and AT&T. Because carriers must poach each other’s customers to grow, the competition has intensified.

Verizon’s new unlimited plan replaces several higher-data plans and starts at $80 for one person, not counting fees and taxes. (Existing customers can keep their plans.) For a family of four, unlimited costs $180. To compare, Sprint just launched a new promotion for new customers that costs $90 a month for four lines, and T-Mobile, which includes taxes and fees in its total price, is $160. AT&T costs $180 for four but also requires a TV subscription.

Verizon is trying to differentiate itself by letting customers watch high-definition video with the unlimited plan, while competitors run streaming video at DVD-level quality.

Of course, like all so-called unlimited plans, Verizon’s is not really unlimited. If customers use more than 22 gigabytes of data in a month, their speeds may be slowed if the network is busy.

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Tesla takes on Gulf gas guzzlers

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (right) with Mohammad al-Gergawi, UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs and Future, at the World Government Summit 2017 in Dubai on February 13, 2017

Electric carmaker Tesla announced the opening of a new Gulf headquarters Monday in Dubai, aiming to conquer an oil-rich region better known for gas guzzlers than environmentally friendly motoring.

Elon Musk, the co-founder and chief executive of the American firm seeking to revolutionise the electric car market, was in the affluent city state to oversee the launch of the Gulf sales push.

“The time seems to be good to really make a significant debut in this region starting from Dubai,” Musk told the World Government Summit under way in the emirate.

Dubai’s official Media Office said that Musk met UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who welcomed Tesla’s decision to set up its regional headquarters in the city state.

Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the ruler of Dubai, instructed local authorities to provide Tesla “with the services and logistic support” it needs, said the Media Office.

Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.

Once a sleepy fishing town, it has evolved into a regional business hub and a tourist magnet, thanks to huge investments in luxury resorts and shopping malls.

The emirate, seen as the most diversified in the Gulf, has a population of 2.5 million people, most of them expatriates.

Electric carmaker Tesla announced the opening of a new Gulf headquarters in Dubai
Electric carmaker Tesla announced the opening of a new Gulf headquarters in Dubai

Despite a state-of-the art metro, many people in Dubai and across the energy-rich Gulf region prefer to get around in SUVs or other luxury cars known to burn a lot of petrol.

Official figures released by Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority in 2015 showed that the number of vehicles in Dubai had doubled over the past eight years, leaving the Gulf emirate with more cars per person than New York or London.

If that trend continues, the number of vehicles registered could reach 2.2 million by 2020, when the emirate is due to host the Expo international trade fair.

Tesla announced last year plans to build self-driving technology into all its electric cars.

“My guess is probably that in 10 years it will be very unusual for cars to be built that are not fully autonomous,” Musk told the Dubai summit on Monday.

“I think almost all cars built will be capable of full autonomy in about 10 years.”

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Now you can ‘build your own’ bio-bot

Schematic of a bio-bot: Engineered skeletal muscle tissue is coupled to a 3-D printed flexible skeleton. Optical stimulation of the muscle tissue, which is genetically engineered to contract in response to blue light, makes the bio-bot walk across a surface in the direction of the light. Credit: Janet Sinn-Hanlon, University of Illinois

I’ll bet you don’t have one of these at home.

For the past several years, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been developing a class of walking “bio-bots” powered by muscle cells and controlled with electrical and optical pulses. Now, Rashid Bashir’s research group is sharing the recipe for the current generation of bio-bots. Their how-to paper is the cover article in Nature Protocols.

“The protocol teaches every step of building a bio-bot, from 3D printing the skeleton to tissue engineering the skeletal muscle actuator, including manufacturers and part numbers for every single thing we use in the lab,” explained Ritu Raman, now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Bioengineering and first author of the paper, “A modular approach to the design, fabrication, and characterization of muscle-powered biological machines.”

“This protocol is essentially intended to be a one-stop reference for any scientist around the world who wants to replicate the results we showed in our PNAS 2016 and PNAS 2014 papers, and give them a framework for building their own bio-bots for a variety of applications,” Raman said.

As stated in the paper, “Biological machines consisting of cells and biomaterials have the potential to dynamically sense, process, respond, and adapt to environmental signals in real time.” This can result in exciting possibilities where these “systems could one day demonstrate complex behaviors including self-assembly, self-organization, self-healing, and adaptation of composition and functionality to best suit their environment.”

Bashir’s group has been a pioneer in designing and building bio-bots, less than a centimeter in size, made of flexible 3D printed hydrogels and living cells. In 2012, the group demonstrated bio-bots that could “walk” on their own, powered by beating heart cells from rats. However, heart cells constantly contract, denying researchers control over the bot’s motion.

“The purpose of the paper was to provide the detailed recipes and protocols so that others can easily duplicate the work and help to further permeate the idea of ‘building with biology’—so that other researchers and educators can have the tools and the knowledge to build these bio-hybrid systems and attempt to address challenges in health, medicine, and environment that we face as a society,” stated Rashid Bashir, a Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and head of the Department of Bioengineering at Illinois.

“The 3D printing revolution has given us the tools required to ‘build with biology’ in this way.” Raman said. “We re-designed the 3D-printed injection mold to produce skeletal muscle ‘rings’ that could be manually transferred to any of a wide variety of bio-bot skeletons. These rings were shown to produce passive and active tension forces similar to those generated by muscle strips.

“Using optogenetics techniques, we worked with collaborators at MIT to genetically engineer a light-responsive skeletal muscle cell line that could be stimulated to contract by pulses of 470-nm blue light,” Raman added. “The resultant optogenetic muscle rings were coupled to multi-legged bio-bot skeletons with symmetric geometric designs. Localized stimulation of contraction, rendered possible by the greater spatiotemporal control of light stimuli over electrical stimuli, was used to drive directional locomotion and 2D rotational steering.”

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More information:
Ritu Raman et al, A modular approach to the design, fabrication, and characterization of muscle-powered biological machines, Nature Protocols (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nprot.2016.185

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Senators try to speed up deployment of self-driving cars

In this Dec. 13, 2016 file photo, an Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco. In the first major congressional attempt to address the advent of self-driving cars, two key senators said Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, they’re launching a bipartisan effort to help to speed up the deployment of the vehicles on the nation’s roads. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

In the first major congressional attempt to address the advent of self-driving cars, two senators said Monday they’re launching a bipartisan effort to help to speed up the deployment of the vehicles on the nation’s roads.

Republican John Thune of South Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan, said they’re exploring legislation that “clears hurdles and advances innovation in self-driving vehicle technology.”

The senators’ counterparts in the House are also gearing up to address the new technology, with a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

Automakers cite federal requirements that all vehicles must have steering wheels and brake pedals as examples of regulations that presume there will be a human driver and might inhibit the introduction of self-driving cars. Congressional action may be needed to make changes.

“Without changes to those regulations, it may be years before the promise of today’s technology can be realized and thousands of preventable deaths that could have been avoided will happen,” Michael Ableson, General Motors’ vice president of global strategy, plans to tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to prepared testimony.

Proponents of self-driving cars say they hold the potential to dramatically reduce traffic deaths by eliminating human error, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says is a factor in 94 percent of all fatal crashes. More than 35,000 people were killed on the nation’s roads in 2015, up over 7 percent from the previous year. Traffic deaths surged an additional 8 percent in the first nine months of last year.

Automakers also complain that states are moving ahead with their own regulations, creating the potential for a confusing “patchwork” of laws.

“Our effort will also include a discussion on the existing patchwork of laws and regulations and the traditional roles of federal and state regulators,” Thune and Peters said in a joint statement.

Safety advocates have urged the government to set standards that specifically address the safety of self-driving cars. The Obama administration last year issued a voluntary set of safety goals for makers of self-driving cars to meet with the understanding that enforceable regulations could follow.

The Trump administration hasn’t yet indicated what approach it will take to the technology.

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Uber vows to fight in Denmark after law tightened

The Danish branch of the ride-sharing service Uber says it will stay in Denmark to “fight” after the government proposed toughening standards for cabs.

Uber’s spokesman in Denmark, Kristian Agerbo, said Friday the proposal demanding cabs and cars for hire must have seat occupancy sensors and meters, was a blow “not only for Uber but also Denmark as a whole.”

The proposal was backed by a majority in Parliament and presented Thursday. No date for the vote was announced.

Danish prosecutors say Uber—banned in several countries and cities in Europe—is akin to an illegal taxi service and a court ruling is pending on the company’s services. According to Agerbo, some 2,000 people are “active drivers” with Uber and some 300,000 people have downloaded the app.

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