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Alexa Guard Keeps U.S. Homes Safe From Fire, Intruders

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Alexa, is someone breaking into my house?

Amazon this week introduced Alexa Guard, a new smart home security function that notifies Echo owners when it detects nefarious sounds.

U.S. users can set up the free feature from a mobile device: Open the latest version of the Alexa app, navigate to the settings menu, and select “Guard.”

Then, the next time you exit the house, simply say, “Alexa, I’m leaving,” to set Guard to Away mode.

The digital assistant listens for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms or the sound of breaking glass—which wake the system in the same way as calling its name.

“Alexa is always getting smarter, and her ability to accurately detect specific sounds will improve the more you use Guard,” Amazon explained in a product FAQ.

If an Echo device detects an acoustic pattern matching the selected sound, it automatically sends the homeowner a Smart Alert with a 10-second audio clip of the event.

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Those folks with professional monitoring from ADT or Ring Protect Plus can choose to forward the recording so the company can take action. The truly brave can even drop in on your Echo to remotely investigate.

“When you receive a Smart Alert from Alexa, it is up to you to decide what action, if any, to take,” according to Amazon.

And while programmable timers make it easy to turn on and off lights to simulate activity inside the house, Alexa Guard takes the idea further with connected smart lights, plugs, and switches—for the ultimate Home Alone experience. (Micro Machines, Michael Jordan cardboard cutout, and tar-covered stairs not included.)

“Alexa uses machine learning to determine the right lighting activity for your home based on lighting usage across customers,” according to Amazon. “Just set Guard to Away mode and Alexa will do the rest.”

The new defense system is compatible with the entire family of Echo devices. Amazon recommends placing at least one speaker in each space you want to monitor—as close as possible to the smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, or window.

Created with the best of intentions, I’m sure, Alexa Guard seems ripe for false alarms. Like when your cat accidentally knocks that beautiful antique vase off the counter. Or you forget to disable the system and set off the smoke alarm with a smoldering batch of fajitas.

God help the user whose affair is exposed over a broken wine glass…

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Un-Fur-Tunate Cat Filter Ruins Double-Homicide Police Presser

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It’s hard to take anyone seriously when they have digital cat ears and whiskers superimposed onto their face.

A lesson Canadian police learned the hard way.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia have apologized after livestreaming a press conference detailing a double homicide—with an augmented reality “cat filter” turned on.

Chynna Noelle Deese, 24, of North Carolina, and Lucas Robertson Fowler, 23, of Australia, were found Monday morning alongside Highway 97 in British Columbia.

A blue 1986 Chevrolet van with Alberta license plates was also at the scene.

The couple, as reported by CBS17, were on a road trip through Canada; after visiting national parks, they planned to end the journey in Alaska.

It remains unclear whether the duo were specifically targeted or the victims of a random act of violence.

“Early in the investigation, the deaths were deemed suspicious and investigators from the North District and BC RCMP Major Crimes Units were called to assist the investigation,” Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said at a Friday press conference.

Unfortunately, the somber announcement was marred by a pair of pink cartoon cat ears and animated whiskers on Shoihet’s otherwise earnest face.

Police said they were aware of the “technical difficulties,” and have since uploaded a new, feline-free video of the press conference to their Facebook page.

Investigators are asking to speak with anyone traveling in the area of Liard Hot Springs and on the Alaska Highway 97 between 4 p.m. July 14 and 8 a.m. July 15—especially those with dashcam footage.

Anyone with information relating to the blue van or the deaths of Deese and Fowler should contact the Northern Rockies RCMP at 250-774-2700.

The same furry filter recently turned Pakistani politician Shaukat Yousafzai’s live-streamed press conference into an unintended farce.

According to the BBC, Yousafzai was unaware of the digital distraction, but later said it was a “mistake” and should not be taken “so seriously.”

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FaceApp Responds to (Mostly Unfounded) Privacy Concerns

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Appearance-altering platform FaceApp has, once again, come under fire—this time from privacy advocates.

The AI-powered selfie editor from Russian company Wireless Lab uses neural network technology to generate highly realistic transformation of faces in photographs.

Launched in early 2017, FaceApp almost immediately faced criticism over its “ethnicity filters” and, later, the “hot” transformation feature that reportedly lightened skin color.

Both options have since been removed.

Curious about what you’d look like with a different hair or eye color? Want to virtually test out bangs before making the cut? Wonder what you’d look like as a Hollywood star or someone of the opposite gender?

The face-morphing app does it all.

It even bends time to reveal what you might look like in the future.

“Through we might not be able to influence your wisdom, we can certainly add some wrinkles to your face,” the FaceApp website said.

The new “time travel” filter has garnered attention around the world: Check out what the Jonas Brothers, Terry Crews, Sam Smith, Drake, and Zachary Levi look like as old fogies.

With great virality comes great responsibility, though. And some believe FaceApp isn’t taking that responsibility seriously.

Concerns have been raised about whether the application uploads users’ camera roll in the background (of which there is seemingly no evidence), and how it allows you to pick photos without allowing access.

“We are receiving a lot of inquiries regarding our privacy policy and therefore, would like to provide a few points that explain the basics,” the Russian startup told TechCrunch.

For starters, FaceApp performs “most” of its photo processing in the cloud (Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, specifically), uploading only those pictures selected by a user.

“We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud,” the statement said. “Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date.”

FaceApp also claims that no user data is “transferred to Russia,” where its core R&D team is located.

“We don’t have access to any data that could identify a person [and] we don’t sell or share any user data with any third parties,” it added.

But that’s not enough for some U.S. policymakers.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has asked the FBI and FTC to look into FaceApp’s data handling practices.

“I have serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it,” Schumer wrote in a letter to the government agencies.

“In the age of facial recognition technology as both a surveillance and security use,” he continued, “it is essential that users have the information they need to ensure their personal and biometric data remains secure, including from hostile foreign nations.”

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Ford Secretly Designed a Pickup Truck Emoji (And It’s Been Shortlisted By Unicode)

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There are at least 10 different emojis to represent trains, but none that denote a pickup truck.

Ford Motor Company wants to change that.

“When customers started demanding a truck emoji, we knew we had to help make it happen,” Joe Hinrichs, president of Ford automotive, said in a statement. “Given the popularity of Ford trucks globally, there’s no one better than Ford to help bring an all-new pickup truck emoji to hard-working texters around the globe.”

Last year, the automaker submitted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium—judge, jury, and executioner of new emoji—to add a truck icon to keyboards.

The character—a simple blue pickup—has since been short-listed for inclusion in a future version of Unicode.

“Our team spent a lot of time digging through message boards, texting influencers, and watching social media feeds to really understand our customers’ needs,” according to Craig Metros, Ford North America design director.

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“People want a truck emoji that’s fresh, stylish, carries their ideas, and ‘tows’ the line on what a truck means,” he said. “The end result is a modern icon that should give all truck fans a smiley face emoji.”

Ford is no stranger to “innovations”: This is the same company, remember, that brought you a noise-cancelling kennel, lane-keeping bed, and self-braking trolley. (All, unfortunately, still in the prototype stage.)

Now, following months of top-secret development and testing, the company is making waves again with its new pickup truck emoji.

If approved, the design will be customized for all mobile platforms and could start driving onto digital screens as early as next year.

In the meantime, iOS and Android users can look forward to a slew of new food, animal, activity, and smiley face characters—including more diverse and inclusive icons—set to hit keyboards this fall.

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