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You Know Your Smartphone is Spying on You, But It’s Worse Than You Think

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Is your phone surreptitiously monitoring you?

Yes. Of course, it is. You knew that, I knew that, it’s just a given these days. But, it’d also perhaps quite a bit worse than you may have suspected. Many top apps, for instance, are secretly taking screenshots and videos and sending them to other people, according to a new study.

That means, of course, anything that shows up on your screen could be digital fodder.

“We found that thousands of popular apps have the ability to record your screen and anything you type,” said David Choffnes told Techxplore. “That includes your username and password, because it can record the characters you type before they turn into those little black dots.”

So much is worse than we first think — especially in cybersecurity. But damn, this is bottom barrel. I’m no slouch when it comes to security, but this trumps even my memorized 28 character iPhone passphrase.  

The study started because a pair of students — Elleen Pan and Jingjing Ren — wanted to investigate the common urban legend that phones are listening in conversations and shooting out adverts based on that. I think we’ve all had that feeling when a friend tells us about a new thing and then suddenly that’s your top suggested item on Amazon. And that is the absolute worst feeling of deja vu. Unfortunately, while that isn’t exactly what’s happening, the reality is quite a bit worse.

“We knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Choffnes, “and we were surprised to find several needles.”

“This opening will almost certainly be used for malicious purposes,” said Christo Wilson, another professor who supervised the students. “It’s simple to install and collect this information. And what’s most disturbing is that this occurs with no notification to or permission by users. In the case we caught, the information sent to a third party was zip codes, but it could just as easily have been credit card numbers.”

The fact that there were “no audio leaks at all,” according to Wilson leaves me with a bizarre feeling of unease though. Because we all know that happens, but, then again, if Target can figure out you’re pregnant like two months in, maybe we really are that predictable.  

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AI Experts Stand Up to Lethal Autonomous Weapons

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More than 2,500 AI researchers have vowed to steer clear of lethal autonomous weapons.

Google DeepMind and resident robot pessimist Elon Musk are among the organizations and individuals who pledged to neither participate in nor support the manufacture of artificially intelligent armaments.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to play an increasing role in military systems,” according to the letter published by the Future of Life Institute. “There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI.”

The pledge comes less than a year after the Institute released a short film, appropriately titled “Slaughterbots,” as part of its Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Designed to resemble actual events, the video highlights a future (or, more likely, a present) in which palm-sized drones can take out a single human with “surgical precision.”

A world where weapons, not people, make the decisions, and a $25 million order gets you enough killer bots to take out half a city—”the bad half,” of course.

“We would really like to ensure that the overall impact of the technology is positive and not leading to a terrible arms race, or a dystopian future with robots flying around killing everybody,” signatory Anthony Aguirre, a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, told CNN.

The threat, however, isn’t limited to walking, talking androids. A recent report from Undark revealed the everyday dangers of cyber weaponry—high-tech howitzers that have been in service for decades.

“In this light, we, the undersigned, agree that the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine,” according to the pledge.

“There is a moral component to this position, that we should not allow machines to make life-taking decisions for which others—or nobody—will be culpable,” it said. “There is also a powerful pragmatic argument: Lethal autonomous weapons, selecting and engaging targets without human intervention, would be dangerously destabilizing for every country and individual.”

AI researchers agree that lethal autonomous weapons could become “powerful instruments of violence and oppression, especially when linked to surveillance and data systems.”

While most folks still carry physical firearms, some advanced armies are dropping cyber cannons, which can cause damage well beyond battle zones.

The Stuxnet virus, for example, emerged in 2010 as a cyber weapon jointly developed by U.S. and Israeli officials in an effort to shut down the develop of Iran’s nuclear program.

To combat future risks, pledge participants are calling on government officials to “create a future with strong international norms, regulations, and laws against lethal autonomous weapons.”

Independent of this promise, 26 countries in the United Nations have explicitly endorsed the call for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, Holy See, Iraq, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, Zimbabwe.

For more, check out Geek’s lineup of 11 real-life sci-fi weapons that are the future of war.

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Sprawling Robot Climbs Walls, Crawls Like a Turtle

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If James Bond were a robot, he’d be the Rising STAR.

An upgrade to David Zarrouk’s original sprawl-tuned autonomous robot (STAR), RSTAR has an added degree of freedom: its body can move separately from its legs.

It sounds crazy, I know; humans can’t separate their torso from their limbs without suffering long-term health issues. But this wee bot can do things people only dream of.

The latest in a series of sprawling robots from Zarrouk, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, RSTAR’s new functionality alters its center of mass, enabling advanced behaviors.

“Not only can the robot climb over larger obstacles without flipping over, but it can also climb vertically up closely spaced walls and ‘crawl’ through narrow gaps by adopting a legged walking gait,” according to a report by IEEE Spectrum.

See for yourself in Zarrouk’s video, which highlights RSTAR’s abilities (none of which are autonomous—yet).

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As director of Ben-Gurion’s Bioinspired and Medical Robotics Laboratory, Zarrouk has led the creation of several unique designs, including a single-motor steerable android and a multi-joined cyborg arm, powered by a traveling motor.

In May, he presented Rising STAR at the 2018 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Brisbane.

“We were looking to increase the capabilities of STAR in overcoming obstacles by adding a simple mechanism with one motor,” Zarrouk wrote in an email to IEEE Spectrum. “We quickly converged to the concept of extending the distance between the wheels to the body.”

That so-called “sprawl” allows for the robot’s legs to be angled (adjustably) downward and outward from the body—a simple yet highly effective change.

Just two months after unveiling their next-gen machine, the team is already eyeing additional upgrades, including the use of machine learning algorithms to teach simple maneuvers.

In the future, Zarrouk hopes to put the STAR family of bots to work, performing search and rescue operations, “especially in unstructured environments such as collapsed buildings or flooded areas,” he said.

“We built RSTAR having in mind that it should be simple, reliable,” Zarrouk continued. “And that it should be able to overcome multiple commonly available obstacles without any external mechanical intervention.”

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This 21-Year-Old 3D Printed a Working Underwater Jetpack

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Most people leave college with a diploma and a dream. Archie O’Brien is not most people.

As a product design student at Loughborough University—and a self-proclaimed adrenalin junkie—O’Brien dreamt of flying weightlessly through water.

But, discouraged by the cost and capability of existing underwater jet drives, he took matters into his own hands.

Enter CUDA.

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The 3D-printed alternative is worn like a backpack, offering users a hands-free experience “of ultimate freedom, whether it be gliding through the converging tectonic plates in the crystal-clear waters of Iceland, or off the coast of Bora Bora, being accepted into a pod of wild dolphins,” according to O’Brien.

Inspired by a love for exploration and nature, the recent graduate buried himself in research, design, and construction, creating a predominantly 3D-printed prototype.

“I want this to be something so cool that you’re wearing it when you’re not even using it,” O’Brien told Digital Trends. “You feel like James Bond.”

CUDA is made of roughly 45 printed parts—including a hand-held trigger that controls speed—and can be assembled in fewer than 10 minutes. Rechargeable batteries promise quick replacement and continuous use in remote locations.

What began as a student project only a year ago is expected to go into production in 2019; possible future applications include water rescue, videography, and commercial use.

3D-printed CUDA is worn like a backpack (via 3D Hubs)

O’Brien hopes to sell his device for an as-yet-unconfirmed price of about $6,000.

“By this time next year, I’m planning on having the production model. I’ll be going around doing promo videos around the world,” he said, vying for sponsorships from GoPro and Red Bull.

“The idea is to be able to produce this one, get enough funding to reinvest it in the company, and try and make a much cheaper model,” Digital Trends reported. “That’s almost working it like Tesla did, with something that really grabs people’s attention, and then bringing that price down to something people can afford more.”

Oh, honey, you might not want to base your life goals on this guy

Already well on his way to becoming the Elon Musk of watersports propulsion, O’Brien is just getting started.

“I’ve got many more ideas I’m not working on at the moment, but I’ve got draft drawings [to] expand this brand,” he told Digital Trends. “I’ve got a very clear vision of where this can go. The plan is to be the market leader.”

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