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The Tech That Was Fixed in 2018 and the Tech That Still Needs Fixing

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Personal technology was so awful this year that nobody would think you were paranoid if you dug a hole and buried your computer, phone and smart speaker under six feet of earth.

Facebook made headlines week after week for failing to protect our privacy and for spreading misinformation. Juul, the e-cigarette company under investigation for marketing products to teenagers, emerged as the Joe Camel of the digital era. And don’t get me started on just how intrusive online advertising has become.

On the other hand, there was good technology this year that improved how we live, like parental controls to curb smartphone addiction and a web browser with built-in privacy protections.

For the last two years, I’ve reviewed the tech that needed the most fixing and the tech that was fixed for the first time. This year, I’m repeating the tradition in hopes that the list of lows gets shorter and the list of highs gets longer over time.

Facebook this year was analogous to a cheating romantic partner who was caught betraying us and apologizing — only to be caught again weeks later.

The social network admitted that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, improperly gained access to the data of millions. Later, the company confessed that a security breach exposed the data of 30 million accounts. This month, a New York Times investigation revealed that Facebook gave tech giants like Netflix and Spotify special access to user data, including private messages.

Other social media companies also stumbled. Twitter came under fire for being slow to react to Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who regularly spread misinformation, including that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. Even after Facebook, Apple, YouTube and others took down Mr. Jones’s content in early August, Twitter said his posts had not violated the company’s policies. After several more weeks, Twitter banned Mr. Jones in response to reports of abusive behavior.

Google’s YouTube, long adored as a venue for people to share music videos, food recipes and D.I.Y. home improvement projects, also had a tough year. The video-sharing site said it removed 39 channels that were linked to an Iranian disinformation campaign.

The bottom line: Social media companies demonstrated they could barely be trusted with our data and were still trying to get a handle on all of their issues. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution for problems like hate speech and misinformation. And keeping our information private is not really in the interest of many of these companies, which use our data to target us with digital advertising.

Speaking of which: Online ads became so intrusive in 2018 that they increasingly ruined people’s web-browsing experiences and raised more hackles about privacy.

The online ads industry became so good at tracking our web browsing activities that they increasingly knew precisely what we were thinking about buying. If you did a web search for a blender, for example, you could be certain that a digital ad for that blender would follow you around. In addition, the autoplay videos embedded on many news sites were ruthless about shouting for our attention while draining our batteries and burning through data plans.

Fortunately, there are solutions for this, which I outlined in several articles this year about how the web is breaking. They included installing ad and tracker blockers, downloading add-ons that stop auto-play videos from loading and changing some browser settings.

These fixes are not ideal because they take a long time to put in place, and blocking ads hurts media businesses. That means there’s work to do on this yet.

E-cigarettes, or vape devices like Juul, have been a useful aid for adult smokers to give up cigarettes. But for teenagers, vapes have replaced cigarettes as a gateway to addictive substances. According to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 3.6 million middle and high school students currently vape, up from 280,000 in 2011.

The Food and Drug Administration this year announced restrictions that allowed stores to sell most flavored e-cigarettes only in areas where minors were not permitted. The agency also said it was investigating whether Juul, which accounts for more than 70 percent of e-cigarette sales, intentionally marketed its products to youth. Juul has since suspended its social media promotions.

But the damage has been done. While e-cigarettes don’t produce the carcinogenic smoke that cigarettes do, they deliver lots of nicotine and harmful chemicals. Parents are reeling over the effect on teenage brains.

E-cigarettes notwithstanding, at least parents can worry less about their children’s addiction to smartphones. This year, Apple released Screen Time, a feature for people to set restrictions on the amount of time they spend on their iPhones. The software includes the ability for parents to remotely monitor and limit their children’s iPhone use.

I tested Screen Time for three weeks with a colleague’s daughter and was thrilled to see that the curbs helped the screenager cut iPhone use down to about three hours a day from roughly six hours. (The constraints I set on myself were not as effective because I could easily override them as a parent.)

There’s still room for smartphone parental controls to improve. Google offers Family Link, a comprehensive parental controls tool for Android phones. Yet the software has major limitations, as children can turn off the features once they turn 13 — which seems like precisely the time when you would want to be monitoring your child’s phone.

Remember Firefox? Over the last decade, the once prominent web browser became irrelevant after Google released Chrome, a speedier and more secure web browser. Then late last year, Mozilla released a redesign of Firefox with thoughtful privacy features and much faster browsing speeds.

This year, Mozilla kept polishing and expanding on Firefox’s capabilities. It released a “container” that can be installed to prevent Facebook from tracking your activities across the web. In August, Mozilla also said that it would, by default, turn on anti-tracking features to prevent third parties, including advertisers, from snooping.

Firefox could still be better. Chrome, for instance, is still faster at loading some web pages. But after a harsh year where consumers lost faith in how companies like Facebook managed their data, it feels heartening to know that someone in the tech industry is making a browser for the people.

So did we get to a shorter list of personal tech lows and a longer list of highs? Not quite. I guess there’s always next year.

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

This patent-pending technology uses clinical samples from patients and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The test is considered extremely accurate, scalable, saliva-based, affordable, and provides results in under 10 minutes.

Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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