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TECH FIRMS VIE TO PROTECT PERSONAL DATA, PROFITS

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 07:40 Published in National News

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Even as Silicon Valley speaks out against the U.S. government's surveillance methods, technology companies are turning a handsome profit by mining personal data and peering into people's online habits.

The industry's profit machine has become tarnished by revelations that the National Security Agency trolls deep into the everyday lives of Web surfers. As a result, companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are becoming more aggressive in their attempts to counter any perception that they voluntarily give the government access to users' email and other sensitive information.

Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, warned in a blog post last week that the U.S. government's online surveillance efforts "threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications."

"Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an 'advanced persistent threat,' alongside sophisticated malware and cyber-attacks," Smith wrote.

The industry's latest salvo came Monday with the release of an open letter to President Barack Obama and the introduction of a new website calling for more stringent controls on electronic espionage.

The public relations maneuver escalates a battle that Silicon Valley has waged since early June, when media reports based on internal documents revealed the NSA had fashioned an elaborate system to vacuum up some of the user data that U.S. technology companies collect.

"The entire tech industry has been implicated and is now facing a global backlash," says Daniel Castro, a senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank.

As part of the tech industry's crusade, companies are also going to court and to Congress in an effort to force the government to de-classify details of its online investigations. They believe data will show that, in the past five years, information turned over to the government under court order has only affected a small fraction of the more than 1 billion people who use their products.

At stake is the trust of massive online audiences that attract digital advertising. As companies collect personal data and learn more about each user's interests and habits, advertising becomes easier to sell. The marketing campaigns are particularly important to Google, Yahoo and Facebook, all of which make most of their money from ads. And although Microsoft and Apple make billions from the sale of software and devices, the two companies are also hitching their fortunes to Internet services.

"We are now entering a new phase of the Internet that I call 'data wars,'" says Ethan Oberman, CEO of Internet privacy specialist SpiderOak. "It's all about who can amass the most personal data because that data has become so valuable that whoever accumulates the most is going to win. If these companies are going to engage in these data wars, the security and privacy of this data becomes of critical significance."

The battle pits U.S. national security agencies against an industry that has been a bright spot in the country's dreary economy. More than $1.3 trillion in shareholder wealth is tied up in Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo alone, and the companies collectively employ more than 243,000 people while running services that create thousands of other jobs.

In a study for his think tank, Castro predicted that the U.S. government's online surveillance will divert $21.5 billion to $35 billion in revenue from U.S. technology companies that host services over the Internet and sell remote data storage — a concept broadly known as "cloud computing." The estimate, which covers the next three years, is based on the assumption that many companies outside the U.S. will buy services in other countries rather than risk copies of their data being turned over to the U.S. government. The prediction doesn't include possible losses in online ad revenue.

Without quantifying the company's potential losses, a Google lawyer recently warned a Senate subcommittee that the government's online espionage could have "severe unintended consequences," including increased business costs, less data security and alienated Web surfers.

"The impact on U.S. companies, and the broader U.S. economy, could be significant," said Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, during a Nov. 13 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

In a worst case scenario, Forrester's James Staten initially theorized that global cloud computing services could lose as much as $180 billion over the next three years if corporate customers become worried about their crucial data falling into the hands of any government.

That dire figure has been widely circulated by media outlets, but Staten told The Associated Press he now believes chances are remote that losses will surpass $20 billion. That's because he is convinced most companies around the world are already encrypting the vital information they store on the computers of outside vendors.

"The reality is no enterprise is going to be naive," Staten says. "They are going to take the security into their own hands because they realize we live in a regulated world where every government is watching."

Wary of the U.S. government's electronic espionage, Brazil's president ordered a series of measures aimed at greater online independence and security for a country that boasts Latin America's largest economy. Other countries and international regulators are considering strict rules for data-handling by U.S. tech companies. If that were to happen, it could cripple the companies' crucial drive to grow in overseas markets, and could fracture the Internet's seamless inner-workings.

"Try and compete in Europe when the Europeans think that their data is not secure with you," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who is a key standard bearer for Silicon Valley in Congress.

The NSA says it only retrieves online data tied to people outside the U.S., a limitation that is of little solace to companies such as Google and Facebook that generate most of their revenue overseas and see the ripest opportunities for growth in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

"Wonderful. That's really helpful to companies that are trying to serve people around the world and really inspire confidence in American Internet companies," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a San Francisco technology conference in September.

While Zuckerberg and other executives protest government's intrusions on privacy, industry critics point out that technology companies continue to store and analyze troves of personal information in pursuit of more profit. That is raising questions about the motives of their crusade to curb the government's Internet surveillance.

Google and its rivals "just want to be the exclusive spying source for their customers' data," said American Civil Liberties Union senior analyst Christopher Soghoian in a tweet last week.

Crisis communications expert Gene Grabowski believes the companies clearly regret their initial decision to cooperate with the government's personal data demands, rather than picking a legal fight. "It appears to more than a few people that they betrayed their customers," said Grabowski, an executive vice president for the public relations firm Levick.

PA. STUDENTS' ROBOTIC ARM CAN MAKE YOU STRONGER

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 07:38 Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Need a hand lifting something? A robotic device invented by University of Pennsylvania engineering students can help its wearer carry an additional 40 pounds.

Titan Arm looks and sounds like part of a superhero's costume. But its creators say it's designed for ordinary people - those who need either physical rehabilitation or a little extra muscle for their job.

In technical terms, the apparatus is an untethered, upper-body exoskeleton; to the layman, it's essentially a battery-powered arm brace attached to a backpack. Either way, Titan Arm's cost-efficient design has won the team accolades and at least $75,000 in prize money.

"They built something that people can relate to," said Robert Carpick, chairman of Penn's mechanical engineering department. "And of course it appeals clearly to what we've all seen in so many science-fiction movies of superhuman strength being endowed by an exoskeleton."

The project builds on existing studies of such body equipment, sometimes called "wearable robots." Research companies have built lower-body exoskeletons that help paralyzed people walk, though current models aren't approved for retail and can cost $50,000 to $100,000.

The Penn students were moved by the power of that concept - restoring mobility to those who have suffered traumas - as well as the idea of preventing injuries in those who perform repetitive heavy-lifting tasks, team member Nick Parrotta said.

"When we started talking to physical therapists and prospective users, or people who have gone through these types of injuries, we just kept on getting more and more motivated," said Parrotta, now in graduate school at the university.

So for their senior capstone project last year, Parrotta and classmates Elizabeth Beattie, Nick McGill and Niko Vladimirov set out to develop an affordable, lightweight suit for the right arm. They modeled pieces using 3-D printers and computer design programs, eventually making most components out of aluminum, Beattie said.

The final product cost less than $2,000 and weighs 18 pounds - less than the backpack that Beattie usually carries. A handheld joystick controls motorized cables that raise and lower the arm; sensors measure the wearer's range of motion to help track rehab progress.

Since its unveiling, Titan Arm has won the $10,000 Intel Cornell Cup USA and the $65,000 James Dyson Award. The resulting publicity generated a slew of interest from potential users, including grandparents who find it hard to lift their grandchildren.

"We found out that some people can't even lift a cast-iron pan to cook dinner," McGill said.

Experts say the aging population represents a potentially big customer base for exoskeletons, which originally were researched for military applications.

"There is certainly a market, but it's slowly emerging because the systems are not perfect as yet," said Paolo Bonato, director of the Motion Analysis Lab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

Titan Arm's design impressed Yong-Lae Park, an assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who watched a video demonstration. He noted, though, that its low cost represent parts only, not the salaries or marketing built into the price of other products.

Park's research is focused on making exoskeletons less noticeable - "more like a Spider-Man suit than an Iron Man suit," he said.

The Titan team hopes to refine its prototype, although three members are now busy with graduate studies at Penn and one is working on the West Coast.

Among the considerations, Parrotta said, are different control strategies and more innovative materials and manufacturing.

And, of course, a second arm.

EUROPE: DIET SWEETENER ASPARTAME IS SAFE IN COLA

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 07:36 Published in Health & Fitness

AMSTERDAM (AP) -- The European Food Safety Authority has found that the artificial sweetener aspartame is safe for people to consume at the levels currently used in diet soft drinks.

After conducting a major review of evidence, the agency said Tuesday it has ruled out any "potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer."

The finding will be welcome news to Coca Cola Co., which recently launched an advertising campaign to dispel fears about Diet Coke after other studies showed that aspartame might be dangerous, leading to a fall in sales.

Aspartame, the sweetener used in Diet Coke, is also known under the brand name NutraSweet.

The ESFA, the European Union's food risk assessment agency, is based in Parma, Italy.

 

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