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Week Ending: August 16th - A Roundup in I.T. & Tech News

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If you have been feeling like your every move is being tracked, you may not be far wrong! The roundup this week brings you news on Facebook listening to our audio messages, companies using face recognition tech and hackers using malware in our speakers. While it sounds like the plot of a Halloween-worthy horror movie, you haven’t been asleep for two months it is still summer (honestly).

Big tech is listening

Facebook has been paying outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to some the company’s staff. The contract employees who are understandably rattled by this, were not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained, they were told only to transcribe it. These contactors are hearing Facebook users’ conversations – sometimes with unsavoury content – but don’t know why the social media giant needs them transcribed.

This week, the Irish Data Protection Commission, which takes the lead in overseeing Facebook in Europe, said it was examining the activity for possible violations of GDPR. Facebook claims that it halted manual transcriptions over a week ago following scrutiny into Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft. The company did say affected users opted [in] to have their voice chats transcribed on the Facebook Messenger app.

Big tech companies including Amazon, Apple and Google have come under fire for collecting this audio from consumers’ devices and subjecting those clips to human review, a practice that critics say invades privacy. Whether this practice is a breach of GDPR remains to be seen, however the fact that these companies have now suspended this activity suggests it may have been. Read more here.

1984 is upon us

The horror of living in an Orwellian society is coming ever closer a BBC report revealed earlier this week. Developer Argent has confirmed it is using facial recognition technology to "ensure public safety" at a 64-acre site near Kings Cross station, but was unwilling to reveal any details, raising the issue of how private land used by the public is monitored. The privately-owned land is widely used by the public and is home to a number of shops, cafes and restaurants, as well as office space with tenants including Google.

UK biometrics commissioner, Prof Paul Wiles, has called for the government to take action over the use of facial recognition technology by the private sector as well as by law enforcement. While facial recognition does not fall under his remit – current legislation only recognises DNA and fingerprints as biometrics – Professor Wiles believes legislation should be updated to include this and any new forms of biometrics in the future.

Argent has defended its use of the technology; however, it has repeatedly declined to explain what the system is, how it is used or how long it has been in operation.

Speakers repurposed as acoustic weapons

A new investigation has found that speakers on phones, computers and other internet-connected devices could be hacked and used to wreak havoc on eardrums. A cybersecurity expert claims to have conducted a malware test on certain devices and has found that everyday items like headphones could be turned into so called “acoustic weapons.” The test has demonstrated that the speakers on our devices can be infected with malware, which makes them emit dangerously high or low frequencies.

Blasting music at high volumes can cause conditions like tinnitus, psychological issues or even deafness. Matt Wixey, conducted an experiment whereby he installed the malware on a number of devices and then placed them in soundproof containers with sound level and temperature measures. This test found that a smart speaker, a headphone or parametric speaker could be forced to emit abnormally high frequencies. A Bluetooth speaker, noise-cancelling headphones, and a smart speaker could emit abnormally low frequencies.

It was also noted that in hacking people’s devices and making them emit frequencies, this malware could be used to track an individual’s movements. Wixey said; “The upshot of it is that the minority of the devices we tested could in theory be attacked and repurposed as acoustic weapons causing serious concerns around the safety of the public.”


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