Google criticized for deceptively tracking student Web activity without permission

Chromebooks Google

Google has become the target of a complaint brought forth by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The advocacy group has requested the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the technology company claiming that Google is “collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches.”

The EFF says that it discovered that Google’s Chromebooks along with its Apps for Education are not completely protecting the privacy of students, instead collecting data and tracking their Internet browsing activity for non-advertising purposes — all without obtaining permission from the students or their parents.

“Google’s practices fly in the face of commitments made when it signed the Student Privacy Pledge, a legally enforceable document whereby companies promise to refrain from collecting, using, or sharing students’ personal information except when needed for legitimate educational purposes or if parents provide permission,” the EFF remarked.

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The Student Privacy Pledge was launched in 2014 and is meant to ensure there are safeguards to protecting the privacy of students. It dictates that service providers like Google will not sell student information, won’t use behaviorally target advertising, will only use data for authorized education purposes only, enforces strict limits on data retention and more.

Google has made it a point to tout its inclusion in the educational system. More than 40 million students, teachers, and administrators currently use its Google Apps for Education to “learn, communicate, and work together more efficiently” and countless more students around the world are using a Chromebook to accelerate their learning and improve access to knowledge.

The EFF doesn’t have a problem with this technology being used in the classroom — it would just rather Google and other companies not try and violate user privacy in doing so, especially from students.

This complaint stemmed from results uncovered during the EFF’s “Spying on Students” campaign aimed at seeing which technology is violating user privacy. The organization said it discovered that Google’s “Sync” feature within its Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks and this feature allows the company to track, store, and data mine information like which sites a student visits, ever search term they use, the results they click on, and more.

When contacted by the EFF, Google said that it would soon “disable a setting on school Chromebooks that allows Chrome Sync data…to be shared with other Google services.” But this wasn’t enough to satisfy the advocacy group as it believes that more should be done, which is why it has filed a complaint with the FTC.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will update if we hear back.

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Google adds a bookmarking system for images in search so you can ‘easily’ find them later


Google said on Monday that users in the U.S. on both iOS and Android are now able to star and bookmark images that they come across in mobile search — and then easily find them again later.

It’s trying to solve the problem of users having to screenshot or download images directly to their smartphone’s storage. It thinks a better solution is to simply store all those favorites in the Google cloud and serve them up to users on-demand through a bookmarking system that works very much in the same way as standard web page bookmarks do.

“Let’s say you’re searching for ‘bob hairstyles’ on Google and an image catches your eye,” Google software engineer Diego Accame wrote in a blog posting. “Simply select it and tap the star. Next time you’re at the stylist, you can easily access the picture without having to dig around or do another search.”

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A new small rectangular card with “view saved” and a star icon on it now floats in the bottom right-hand corner of the image search page. Clicking on it brings you into a page with two menus up top: Saved Images and Collections.

“Once you’ve starred a few images, you can keep them organized in folders: to add an image to a folder of similar items, tap the pencil shaped edit icon. Create a grouping such as ‘haircuts for the winter’ or ‘snowman ideas’ and your image will be added to a folder with similar ones,” Accame added.

It strikes me that this may could eventually help make search more efficient to users in emerging markets like India, where most cheap Android devices still ship with low internal storage but have access to WiFi and increasingly affordable data packages.

But the catch, of course, is that for now it’s only available in the U.S. — possibly as a test bed to see if it gains traction there. Not having to store favorite images from Google search on a smartphone’s internal storage to easily retrieve them later would actually make a lot of sense from the perspective of users in some of those markets.

To that end, Google also announced Monday that its new data saver mode in Chrome for Android will now save up to 70 percent of data when loading mobile web pages (up from 50 percent) — and will initially be available in India and Indonesia before rolling out to other markets.

But Google is still an advertising beast, after all. If it can understand which images from particular searches are being the most starred and added to collections, it could help it better make sense of all that big data in the back end. Clicking on an image for a few seconds is one thing. Starring it and adding it to a collection represents a whole other level of engagement.

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Google will retire Chrome support for 32-bit Linux, Ubuntu Precise, and Debian 7 in March 2016


Google today announced it is ending Chrome support for 32-bit Linux, Ubuntu Precise (12.04), and Debian 7 (wheezy) in early March 2016. The company didn’t elaborate a reason aside from saying the move would help “to provide the best experience for the most-used Linux versions.”

This means Google will provide regular Chrome updates and security patches for users on these operating systems for less than four more months. After that, the browser will still work, but it will be stuck on the last version released in March.

Earlier this month, Google announced it was dropping Chrome support for Windows XP, Windows Vista, OS X 10.6, OS X 10.7, and OS X 10.8 in April 2016. In other words, today’s news just rounds out the cleanup to Chrome’s remaining desktop platform, Linux.

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That said, if you’re a hardcore Linux user, there will be options. “We intend to continue supporting the 32-bit build configurations on Linux to support building Chromium,” Google explained. “If you are using Precise, we’d recommend that you to upgrade to Trusty.”

If Chromium, the open-source browser from which Google Chrome draws its source code, doesn’t interest you, there are plenty of other browsers for Linux. The most popular alternative is of course Mozilla’s Firefox, which is your best bet if you’re looking for a browser that support multiple platforms.

Google is of course making development of its browser easier by dropping support for older and less-popular operating systems. At the same time though, the company is also giving users of these operating systems yet another reason to upgrade.

If your hardware allows it, you should move up to a 64-bit version of Linux. Similarly, the latest release of Ubuntu is 15.10 Wily Werewolf and Debian is on version 8 codenamed Jessie.

If your hardware doesn’t allow it, you’ll simply have to upgrade if you want to keep using Chrome.

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Google’s data saver mode in Chrome for Android will now save up to 70%


Google announced on Monday that it’s updated the data saver mode in Chrome for Android to save up to 70 percent of data when browsing web pages.

Users in India and Indonesia (two huge emerging markets for mobile, and Android specifically) will be the first to receive the new feature, with it rolling out to other countries in the coming months.

Tal Oppenheimer, Google’s product manager for Chrome, explained in a blog posting that it’s doing this “by removing most images when loading a page on a slow connection.”

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“After the page has loaded, you can tap to show all images or just the individual ones you want, making the web faster and cheaper to access on slow connections.”

While it’s not entirely clear how much data Chrome was saving users before this update in data saver mode, it was certainly less than 70 percent. Some sample screenshots from the app show savings of around 30 percent.

While Apple’s mobile Safari browser for iOS can now block ads, it doesn’t yet offer a dedicated data saver mode ala Chrome.

But data saving continues to be a trend as more of the emerging world comes online through cheap Android smartphones. Last week, Opera Software rolled out an update to its data-saving Android app Opera Max to include music-streaming apps.

Oppenheimer didn’t comment on when Google will bring the 70 percent savings to Chrome for iOS.

LoFi - English - Nov 24

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The 4 things Google believes are key to the future of search

Behshad Behzadi, director of search innovation at Google's Zurich lab.

TOULOUSE, France — Before talking about the future of search, one of Google’s top researchers wants you to understand just how dramatically search has changed in the past two years.

Speaking at the Futurapolis conference in Toulouse, Behshad Behzadi, director of search innovation at Google’s Zurich lab, pointed to such developments as the majority of searches now happening on mobile devices.

And with Google’s cloud auto-tagging photos, searching images has become more effective. In addition, Google’s search will now even look into other apps on your smartphone for answers, he said, and open those apps with the best info.

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However, all of this is moving toward a larger goal.

“The future of search is to try to build the ultimate personal assistant,” he said.

To that end, there are four areas that, according to Behzadi, will continue to dramatically change and reinvent search in the coming years:

Voice: Google’s natural language processing has taken major leaps forward. Just two years ago, Google was noting a one-in-four error rate on spoken-word queries. Now that’s down to one-in-sixteen, Behzadi said. That, in turn, is driving more voice searches that can sound as natural as most conversations with other people. It’s not quite “Her”-type quality, but Behzadi said that kind of natural back-and-fourth between human and computer seen in that movie is not as far away as we might think.

Context: Increasingly, Google’s search engine is linking your searches to understand what you’re trying to find or figure out. So, if you search on the word “castle,” for instance, you could get an infinite number of hits from around the world. But if you search first for “London,” and then for “castle,” it remembers that you’re looking and London and automatically narrows the search field for you.

Also, on Android phones, if you’re looking at a Facebook post, for instance, and hold down the home button while making a voice query, Google will scan the contents of that app (or other apps) and find relevant information without you having to copy and paste things between apps to do a search.

Location: You can argue that this is also a type of context. But of course it’s also quite specific to mobile. If you’re out and about taking a hike, you can ask Google, “What’s that lake” or “What’s that store?” and it will give you results just based on knowing where you are at that point. Behzadi said this location-awareness is growing more powerful and eventually will become more proactive by alerting you to things that are nearby that might be of interest.

Personal information: Potentially transformative, but also potentially the most controversial, especially in Europe where privacy is a hot-button issue. As Google learns more about you, it continues to provide more and more reminders, or suggestions. If you’re using Gmail and Google Calendar, you’ve seen this gradually as more of this info triggers alerts. Google has been tailoring search results to users for years. But as it collects more data, expect those results to become even more specialized, Behzadi said.

Finally, here’s a short clip of Behzadi being interviewed by Le Point, the news organization that hosted Futurapolis:

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On China’s fringes, cyber spies raise their game

An employee operates a forklift to transport a pallet stacked with bundles of the Apple Daily newspaper, published by Next Media, at the company's printing facility in Hong Kong, China November 26, 2015.

(By Clare Baldwin, James Pomfret, Jeremy Wagstaff, Reuters) – Almost a year after students ended pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong, they face an online battle against what Western security experts say are China-sponsored hackers using techniques rarely seen elsewhere.

Hackers have expanded their attacks to parking malware on popular file-sharing services including Dropbox and Google Drive to trap victims into downloading infected files and compromising sensitive information. They also use more sophisticated tactics, honing in on specific targets through so-called ‘white lists’ that only infect certain visitors to compromised websites.

Security experts say such techniques are only used by sophisticated hackers from China and Russia, usually for surveillance and information extraction.

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The level of hacking is a sign, they say, of how important China views Hong Kong, where 79 days of protests late last year brought parts of the territory, a major regional financial hub, to a standstill. The scale of the protests raised concerns in Beijing about political unrest on China’s periphery.

“We’re the most co-ordinated opposition group on Chinese soil, (and) have a reasonable assumption that Beijing is behind the hacking,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, which says it has been a victim of cyber attacks on its website and some members’ email accounts.

U.S.-based Internet security company FireEye said the attacks via Dropbox were aimed at “precisely those whose networks Beijing would seek to monitor”, and could provide China with advance warning of protests and information on pro-democracy leaders. The company said half its customers in Hong Kong and Taiwan were attacked by government and professional hackers in the first half of this year – two and a half times the global average.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Public Security Bureau and the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region did not respond to requests for comment. The Defence Ministry said the issue was not part of its remit. China has previously denied accusations of hacking, calling them groundless, and saying it is a victim.

The Hong Kong police said its Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau works with other law enforcement agencies to combat cross-border crime, but did not respond to questions on how much information it shares with mainland Chinese authorities, the origin of the Hong Kong cyber attacks, or whether these might be a source of instability or concern.

Police data show a drop in reported “unauthorized access”, which includes Internet or email account abuse and hacking, over the past two years. Many of the victims Reuters spoke to said they hadn’t bothered to report being hacked.

Switching tactics

Like other groups taking on the might of Beijing – from Uighurs and exiled Tibetans to some Taiwanese – Hong Kong activists, academics and journalists have become more savvy and adopted tactics that, in turn, force hackers to get savvier still.

When Tibetan exile groups stopped clicking on files attached to emails, to avoid falling victim to a common form of ‘spear phishing’ attack, hackers switched their malware to Google Drive, hoping victims would think these files were safer, said Citizen Lab, a Canada-based research organization which works with Tibetans and other NGOs.

Hackers also recently used Dropbox to lure Chinese language journalists in Hong Kong into downloading infected files. FireEye, which discovered the attack, said it was the first time it had seen this approach.

“We don’t have any arrogance to think we can beat them,” said Mark Simon, senior executive at the parent company of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, a media group on the front line of the attacks.

Strange words

Trying to stay ahead of the hackers, activists and others use multiple mobile phones with different SIM chips, encrypted messaging apps, apps that automatically delete tweets, and code words to set up meetings. If someone thinks they may be arrested, they remove themselves from group chats.

Some things are kept offline.

“If we want to talk, we have some signal,” said Derek Lam, a member of student group Scholarism that helped organize the protests. “It’s a few words … if I say some words that are really strange it means we have to talk somewhere privately.”

Law professor and protest organizer Benny Tai stores personal data, such as names, email addresses and mobile numbers, on an external hard drive that he says he only accesses on a computer without an Internet connection.

The pro-democracy Apple Daily, which says it is hacked on an almost weekly basis, has tightened its email security software, and has its lawyers use couriers rather than email. FireEye last year connected denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Apple Daily with more professional cyber spying attacks, saying there may be a “common quartermaster”. It said China’s government would be the entity most interested in these “political objectives”.

Sophisticated hacks

Steven Adair, co-founder of U.S.-based security firm Volexity, said that code hidden on pro-democracy websites last year, including those of the Democratic Party and the Alliance for True Democracy, suggested a group he said “we strongly suspect to be Chinese… who is very well resourced.”

He said such tactics were more usually seen employed by Russian hackers, aimed at very specific targets and designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. “It’s a real evolution in targeting,” he said.

In the run-up to Hong Kong district council elections earlier this month, hackers used more basic techniques, breaking into at least 20 Gmail accounts at the Democratic Party, according to party officials and Google logs seen by Reuters.

Between April and June, many hacked accounts were forwarding emails to [email protected] An examination of the hackers’ IP addresses by the party’s IT experts found some appeared to originate in China, party officials said.

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and James Pomfret in HONG KONG and Jeremy Wagstaff in SINGAPORE, with additional reporting by Teenie Ho in HONG KONG and Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Google patents a system for removing biological tissue with a laser

Go go Google laser.

Google has applied for a patent on a surgical system for removing biological tissue with a laser that delivers electromagnetic radiation.

The patent was published yesterday. Google first applied for it in May 2014, long before Google established the umbrella company Alphabet, which includes the standalone life sciences company that was spun out of the Google X laboratory.

Here’s how the technology is described in the patent’s abstract:

An active tracking system includes an imager configured to image the temperature of a biological tissue and a heating laser configured to heat regions of the biological tissue. The imager locates high-temperature regions of the biological tissue and the heating laser is controlled to point toward target regions of the biological tissue based on the located high-temperature regions. The active tracking system can be used to control a heating laser to continuously heat a target region of a biological tissue even when the target region moves relative to the heating laser. The active tracking system could allow one or more target regions of a biological tissue to be `tagged` with heat by the heating laser and to be tracked even when the one or more target regions move relative to the heating laser. Devices and methods for operating such active tracking systems are also provided.

This type of technology certainly falls into the “bets” category far outside the classic realm of Google, which includes web search, web browsing, YouTube, and Gmail. Just like Google experiments such as Project Loon for broadcasting Internet from a balloon or the Google self-driving car, this laser surgery technology might not pay off for 10 years or longer than that.

Of course, this is no guarantee that Alphabet will ever release technology anything close to the system documented in this patent. (Remember the Google contact lens for monitoring blood glucose levels?)

Still, there aren’t many companies that can attempt to advance a category of medical devices used to rid people of cancer, among other things, as a side project. Google — well, Alphabet now — is one of them.

Google’s Plan To Accelerate The Mobile Web Will Go Live Early Next Year

google-amp-ex Google has plans to accelerate your web browsing on mobile devices, and we’ll start seeing the results of those efforts as early as next year, the company says. According to a new update regarding Google’s “AMP” project – or the “Accelerated Mobile Pages Project,” as it’s also known – thousands of publishers have expressed interest in… Read More