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Celebrate World Rhino Day By Playing With This 3D Model

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Happy (belated) World Rhino Day!

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Perth Zoo in Australia teamed up to produce the world’s first accurate, publicly available 3D model of the rare southern white rhino.

Few rhinos survive outside national parks and reserves due to poaching and habitat loss; not yet extinct, the animals are vulnerable to climate change and illegal hunting.

So, while they still have a chance*, the Digital Life team at UMass traveled Down Under to photo-capture southern white rhino Bakari in his full three-dimensional glory.

They released the image on Sunday, September 22: World Rhino Day.

“Perth Zoo shares our vision about how public outreach and the scientific data gained from this model can benefit society,” UMass evolutionary biologist Duncan Irschick said in a statement.

Though fun to look at, a 3D picture of a rhinoceros doesn’t seem like the best use of researchers’ time and money.

But for some conservationists, this type of model is useful for reconstructing body composition and assessing an animal’s physical condition.

“You can’t just walk up to a rhino in the field, but using a variation of these methods … one could recreate the body shapes of such animals,” Irschick explained. “We believe it is a powerful tool with many applications beneficial to wildlife.”

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The project follows other work by Irschick & Co., who have created several “Beastcam” rigs to quickly and conveniently capture 3D animals—including live sharks underwater.

“We’ve done a fair number of frogs, lizards, and sea turtles,” Irschick said. “This rhino represents our first foray into megafauna.”

The team set up 20 cameras to take photos of Bakari in 360 degrees—from a safe, non-invasive distance, allowing the animal to remain comfortable and follow its daily routine.

CGI artist Jer Bot was then brought in to recreate and animate the rhino (“like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again,” according to Irschick). Once finished, the researchers placed the 3D image on the Sketchfab website for free, non-profit dissemination.

“It is exciting for Perth Zoo to participating in creating 3D models that can be used for wildlife conservation and education,” interpretation officer Alan Gill said.

“Our animals are ambassadors for their species,” he continued, “and we’re thrilled that Bakari can continue to advocate for southern white rhinoceros conservation programs right around the world.”

* Much like I am anxious to visit Venice before the entire city is under water.

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Facebook ‘Exempts’ Politicians From Fact Checking

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Facebook relies on third-party fact checkers to curb the spread of fake news and viral misinformation.

But not all users are subject to the social network’s reviews.

Speaking at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg revealed that politicians are “exempt” from inspection.

“We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise break our normal content rules,” according to Clegg.

“We don’t believe,” he wrote in an accompanying blog post, “that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”

The policy—”on the books for over a year now”—means Facebook does not send organic content or ads from politicians to partners for review.

If a lawmaker shares previously debunked material (links, photos, videos), however, that content is demoted, replaced with related information from fact checkers, and rejected from adverts.

This is in keeping with Facebook’s newsworthiness exemption, introduced in 2016, which allows posts that break community standards “if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm,” Clegg said.

Moving forward, the popular platform will treat speech from politicians as “newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard.”

There are two exceptions: when speech endangers people, and when Facebook takes money (in which case posted ads must comply with community standards and advertising policies).

Clegg’s speech also covered:

  • Calls for the break-up of big tech: “Pulling apart globally successful American businesses won’t actually do anything to solve the big issues we are all grappling with—privacy, the use of data, [and] harmful content”
  • Election integrity: “It is no secret that Facebook made mistakes in 2016”
  • Deepfake videos: “We must and we will get better at identifying lightly manipulated content before it goes viral”

Twitter recently took its own stance on political speech, introducing a new notice meant to provide clarity about certain tweets that violate company rules but remain on the platform.

The feature—a sort of warning screen users must click through before seeing a tweet—applies only to verified government officials with more than 100,000 followers.

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Hacker Takes Over Smart Home Devices, Plays ‘Vulgar’ Music in Couple’s House

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A Wisconsin couple is warning smart-home owners about security issues after their in-house video system was recently disrupted by an unidentified hacker.

Lamont and Samantha Westmoreland noticed something wasn’t right when a random voice took over their Google Nest system on September 17, Newsweek reported. The pair started hearing noisy music echoing throughout their home and they realized that the thermostat was cranked all the way up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

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“My heart was racing,” Samantha told Fox 6 News in an interview. “I felt so violated at that point.”

The couple installed a Nest camera, thermostat, and doorbell in their home last year and didn’t have any problems until last week’s incident. Samantha initially thought the wonky thermostat reading was a glitch and switched it back to room temperature. The next 24 hours were about to get more interesting for the pair, who had no idea what they were about to experience.

The thermostat continued to rise in temperature and then a strange voice started speaking from a camera in their kitchen. The device then started playing “vulgar” songs, prompting Samantha and her husband to immediately change their passwords.

However, the hacker’s activity continued and eventually, the pair asked their internet carrier for assistance and changed their network ID. The Westmorelands believe that an individual hacked into their internet and then their Nest devices.

Fox 6 News received a statement from a Google spokesperson on the incident, which indicated that “Nest was not breached.”

“These reports are based on customers using compromised passwords (exposed through breaches on other websites),” the Google spokesperson said. “In nearly all cases, two-factor verification eliminates this type of security risk.”

They continued, “Nest users have the option to migrate to a Google Account, giving them access to additional tools and automatic security protections such as Suspicious activity detection, 2-Step Verification, and Security Checkup. Millions of users have signed up for two-factor verification.”

Lamont and Samantha wanted to share their story with other homeowners, so they can prevent hackers from taking over their smart home setups.

“People need to be educated and know that this is real, and this is happening, and it is super scary, and you don’t realize it until it’s actually happening to you,” Samantha added.

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Novel Biometric Tool Unlocks Smartphone Using Earbuds

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Fingerprints aren’t the only unique human identifier: The ear canal produces a particular signature based on how sounds echo or are absorbed inside it.

But that auditory John Hancock has largely been overlooked—until now.

Inspired by the pervasiveness of earbuds on college campuses, University at Buffalo computer scientist Zhanpeng Jin developed a novel way of unlocking your phone.

“We have so many students walking around with speakers in their ears,” the associate professor said in a statement. “It led me to wonder what else we could do with them.”

The answer: EarEcho, a biometric tool that uses modified wireless earbuds to authenticate smartphone users via the individual geometry of their ear canal.

A team of researchers led by Jin built their prototype from off-the-shelf products—including a pair of in-ear buds and a tiny microphone.

Scientifically speaking, when a sound is played into someone’s ear, it propagates through and is reflected and absorbed by the ear canal. This process produces a unique signature that can be recorded by a microphone.

“It doesn’t matter what the sound is, everyone’s ears are different and we can show that in the audio recording,” according to Jin. “This uniqueness can lead to a new way of confirming the identity of the user, equivalent to fingerprinting.”

The information is gathered by a built-in microphone and sent via Bluetooth to a connected smartphone, where it is analyzed.

To test their tech, Jin & Co. streamed audio samples—speech, music, etc.—to 20 people in different environmental settings (on the street, in a shopping mall) in different positions (sitting, standing, head tilted).

The model, as described in this month’s Proceedings of the ACM journal, proved roughly 95 percent effective when given one second to authenticate the listener.

That score improved to 97.5 percent during a three-second window.

EarEcho’s most obvious application is unlocking smartphones, making passcodes, fingerprints, facial recognition, and other biometrics moot.

“Think about that,” Jin said. “Just by wearing the earphones, which many people already do, you wouldn’t have to do anything to unlock your phone.”

But the computer scientist has loftier plans for the continuous monitoring of smartphone users: The passive system, he said, is ideal for situations where folks are required to verify their identity—like making mobile payments.

UB’s Technology Transfer office has filed a provisional patent application for the mechanic.

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