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Why the F.T.C. Is Taking a New Look at Facebook Privacy

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After a yearlong string of news reports that have called Facebook’s data-sharing practices into question, federal regulators are taking a hard look at how the social media company handles the personal information of its users.

It is not the first time Facebook has drawn government scrutiny. About seven years ago, after charges were leveled by the Federal Trade Commission, the company made an agreement with the agency to overhaul its privacy practices.

That agreement, called a consent decree, provides a road map for how the F.T.C. is likely to scrutinize Facebook over the coming months.

In 2007, Facebook introduced Facebook Beacon, a program that broadcast details on users’ online purchases to their friends, initially allowing users to opt out of sharing their purchases only on a case-by-case basis.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, apologized with what an article in The New York Times described as a “symphony of contrition.” In a Facebook post that year, Mr. Zuckerberg wrote: “I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation and I know we can do better.”

At the end of 2009, a coalition of nonprofit consumer and privacy groups, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook’s handling of user data.

The groups filed a complaint saying that Facebook had repeatedly disregarded users’ expectations and diminished their privacy. The complaint argued that the company had violated a federal law prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices.

In 2011, the F.T.C. filed charges against Facebook that said the company had deceived consumers about their privacy.

The F.T.C.’s complaint charged Facebook with a number of deceptive privacy practices. Among them:

■ Facebook shared users’ personal details with advertisers even though the company had promised not to do so, the agency said.

■ Facebook allowed third-party apps that users had installed to have access to nearly all of their personal data — even though Facebook had stated the apps could obtain only the personal information they needed to operate, the agency said.

■ In 2009, the agency said, Facebook changed its information-handling practices, making certain personal details — like users’ friends lists — public, overriding the choices of people who wanted to keep that data private. The policy change, the F.T.C.’s complaint said, exposed users’ profile information, including “potentially controversial political views or other sensitive information,” to third parties.

■ The agency said Facebook claimed it certified the security practices of apps participating in its “Verified Apps program,” but the company did not do so.

In November 2011, Facebook agreed to settle complaints that it had deceived consumers by “telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public,” the F.T.C. said in a statement at the time.

The agreement, which became final in 2012, prohibited Facebook from misleading consumers about their data privacy and security. The social network committed to getting the explicit consent of users before making changes that overrode their privacy preferences.

The agency ordered Facebook to put a comprehensive privacy program in place to protect the privacy and confidentiality of users’ information and to manage the risks of existing and new products.

It also required Facebook over the next 20 years to undergo biennial audits by an independent third party to certify that the privacy program was properly protecting the information of the company’s users.

In March 2018, The New York Times reported that a voter-profiling company, Cambridge Analytica, had harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or permission.

The voter-profiling company obtained the data from a researcher who had offered a personality survey app on Facebook. Although only about 270,000 Facebook users agreed to share their data to participate in the survey, the Facebook platform enabled the app to improperly harvest the personal details of millions of those users’ friends — consumers who had not agreed to share their information with the survey app, The Times reported.

Privacy experts, law professors and at least one former F.T.C. official have argued that Facebook’s failure to prevent the survey app from obtaining the data of users’ friends violated the federal consent agreement. So did Facebook’s failure to prevent the app developer from sharing both users’ data and the data of users’ friends with Cambridge Analytica, these critics said.

They said the Cambridge Analytica episode suggested that Facebook had failed to adequately conduct the risk assessments the agreement required it to do. It also failed to obtain required, explicit consent from users’ friends for the sharing of their data with third parties, the privacy experts said.

They also argued that Facebook had failed to operate a comprehensive privacy protection program and take reasonable precautions — steps the company was obligated to take under the consent decree.

“The consent decree requires Facebook to always be vigilant to possible privacy problems and try to solve them,” said David C. Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown Law and a former director of consumer protection at the F.T.C. who oversaw the investigation that led to the consent decree. “Cambridge Analytica made clear that Facebook was not auditing third-party apps.”

On March 26, the F.T.C. said it was conducting an investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment last week on the progress of the investigation.

Since then, Facebook has made other admissions about privacy problems that experts said could potentially violate the consent agreement or trigger new federal charges of deceptive privacy practices.

■ In June, the company said a software bug made public the posts of up to 14 million users who thought the posts were private.

Also in June, The New York Times reported that Facebook had allowed device makers like Amazon, Apple, Blackberry, Microsoft and Samsung access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent, even after the company said that it would no longer share such information with outsiders.

■ In September, the company said a security breach had exposed the personal data of nearly 50 million users.

■ In October, Facebook said Russian firms had scraped user data, including “matching photos from individuals’ personal social media accounts in order to identify them.”

■ In December, Facebook said a software bug had given apps access to a larger set of users’ photos than usual.

■ Also in December, The New York Times reported that Facebook had shared user data with Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and other companies without users’ knowledge or permission.

In addition to the F.T.C., Facebook is under investigation by the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and several government agencies in Europe over Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of user data.

Facebook said it had developed a privacy program as required by federal regulators and it had not violated the consent decree.

“We are transparent with people about how we use their information and respect people’s privacy settings,” said Sally Aldous, a Facebook spokeswoman. “We have a privacy program, which ensures we protect people’s information, which we continuously evolve to address the privacy risks of our products and services.”

Ms. Aldous said the company’s privacy program involved more than three dozen control mechanisms — including a privacy governance team and security teams that “ensure privacy risks for product launches and major changes are identified, discussed, and escalated for decisions when necessary.”

Facebook said it disagreed with The Times’s characterization of its sharing of user data with Amazon, Apple, Blackberry, Microsoft, Samsung, Yahoo and other companies.

The social network said device makers used information from Facebook to integrate certain Facebook features on their platforms and agreed not to use that information for their own purposes. The company also said Spotify and other third-party apps had access to users’ Facebook data only after users signed in with their Facebook account in the third-party apps.

“None of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission, nor did they violate our 2012 settlement with the F.TC.,” Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, director of developer platforms and programs at Facebook, wrote in a company news release last week.

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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