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Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Withheld Russia Data, Reports Say

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SAN FRANCISCO — When lawmakers asked YouTube, a unit of Google, to provide information about Russian manipulation efforts, it did not disclose how many people watched the videos on its site that were created by Russian trolls.

Facebook did not release the comments that its users made when they viewed Russian-generated content. And Twitter gave only scattered details about the Russian-controlled accounts that spread propaganda there.

The tech companies’ foot-dragging was described in a pair of reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee published on Monday, in what were the most detailed accounts to date about how Russian agents have wielded social media against Americans in recent years.

In the reports, Google, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram) were described by researchers as having “evaded” and “misrepresented” themselves and the extent of Russian activity on their sites. The companies were also criticized for not turning over complete sets of data about Russian manipulation to the Senate.

The data they did provide “lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture,” said one of the reports, which was written by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research. The report added: “Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress.”

The studies renewed questions about whether social media companies have withheld data on Russian activity and how willing they really are to address the issue. After facing scrutiny over the past two years for distributing inflammatory Russian-made propaganda to Americans, some of the companies — such as Facebook — have pledged more transparency.

Yet Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge, said that while cooperation with tech companies had improved over the last three years, there was still much more that the Silicon Valley giants could do to help researchers study Russian interference.

“Everyone wants to qualify the impact of the 2016 presidential election. They want to understand, did it swing the election?” she said. “None of the data sets we were given gives us that answer.”

The reports were especially critical of Google, whose YouTube site hosted 1,100 videos made by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency. The reports said Google had not only provided incomplete information about these videos, but one report accused Kent Walker, the company’s chief legal officer, of giving misleading testimony to Congress this year about whether those videos were targeted at a particular audience.

When compared with Facebook and Twitter, “Google’s data contribution was by far the most limited in context and least comprehensive of the three,” said one of the reports, by researchers at Oxford University and Graphika.

Of the information that the companies did hand over, some came in formats that were difficult to analyze. Researchers said that in many cases, information was provided in duplicate and triplicate, or was incomplete or corrupted. That meant it took months just to catalog and clean up before it could be studied.

In a statement, Nu Wexler, a Google spokesman, said, “We conducted an in-depth investigation across multiple product areas, and provided a detailed and thorough report to investigators.” He added that neither YouTube nor Google allowed people to target an audience by race.

Twitter said it was committed to transparency and had improved its work with researchers. “Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform,” said Katie Rosborough, a spokeswoman.

A spokesman for Facebook, Matt Steinfeld, said it “provided thousands of ads and pieces of content to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for review and shared information with the public about what we found.”

On Monday in Washington, lawmakers lashed out at the tech companies for hiding the ball.

“For many months we urged the social media companies to undertake such a crosscutting analysis without success, even as we made as much of their data as public as possible,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California. He said the companies’ reluctance to look deeply at Russian interference “made our task far more difficult than it should have been.”

Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “These reports are proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information-sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”

Social media companies have been under fire for helping spread Russian disinformation. Facebook, Google and Twitter all initially played down or denied the Russian activity on their platforms. But over time, it became clear that Russia had used them to try to influence American voters.

By October 2017, Facebook, Google and Twitter executives were testifying before Congress on the extent of Russian election interference. This April, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, testified, followed months later by his company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, as well as the Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, was grilled on Capitol Hill last week.

All three companies have since acknowledged that the scope of Russian interference was broader than what they originally disclosed.

The Senate Intelligence Committee first asked the companies to provide data on Russian manipulation in October 2017. In the year that followed, the committee repeated the request several times. Six months ago, after accumulating dribs and drabs of data from the tech companies, the committee gave the material to the independent researchers.

The reports noted how the incomplete information had caused problems. Because Google did not provide any data on how many times Russian-created videos were watched or shared on YouTube, researchers were forced to search for the videos through alternative websites to re-create how widely the propaganda had been shared.

Google’s data from 2014 to 2018 was “remarkably scarce,” the report from researchers at Oxford and Graphika said.

Facebook’s failure to provide comments that users made about divisive Russian-created posts also made it difficult to gauge how the propaganda was received, the reports said. The company also had once said it received just “a few hundred thousand dollars of ads” from Russian actors, which the reports said was too dismissive. In fact, Russian agents spent “far more than the only $100,000 of Facebook ads,” said one report, and their impact was far greater.

The top Facebook and Instagram accounts made by the Internet Research Agency ultimately gained hundreds of thousands of followers and generated millions of interactions. One Instagram account, @blackstagram_, published posts that were regularly liked by more than 10,000 people by 2017.

Twitter provided the most extensive data, the researchers said, covering 2009 through 2018. That included account names and information that is not visible to other users, such as the internet protocol addresses, login dates and locations for 3,841 accounts, which produced more than eight million tweets. Four of the five most popular Russian-made Twitter accounts posted messages targeting African-Americans.

“Twitter provided a vast corpus of detailed account information on the Twitter accounts the company knew were managed by I.R.A. staff,” the researchers wrote.

Yet the Twitter data was also disorganized. The researchers said the company made it difficult for them to collect their own data through its site, and repeatedly failed to work with them to track Russian influence operations over the last two years.

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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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