All posts in “Data”

I just (virtually) adopted a piece of Earth, and so can you

NASA is celebrating Earth Day with pieces of Earth instead of cake. 

But you don’t have to wait until April 22 to get your own slice. The space agency is handing out planetary adoption certificates in the days leading up to the main event.

Through their “Adopt the Planet” campaign, anyone can virtually adopt a piece of Earth as seen from space. I put my name on the coordinates for 60.72° S, 121.92° W — which was randomly assigned to me and is deep in the South Pacific Ocean, pretty much near Antarctica. 

My little slice of Earth.

My little slice of Earth.

Once you’ve adopted a location, you can learn more about your speck of the world with data from NASA satellites, including everything from cloud height and sea surface temperature to humidity and chlorophyll levels. 

You can take an even closer look at your adopted location through NASA’s Worldview. The website shows all the layers of data and let’s you get up close and personal with your new adopted section of the planet, though it gets a bit pixelated at a certain point. (Still, it’s your slice, so you love it no matter how unfocused it gets.)

You can then take photos, share social posts, and print out pictures of your location — just like any obsessed parent would do.

As of Wednesday morning, 64,000 locations were still up for adoption. So what are you waiting for?

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These pins defend scientists and science in the Trump era

The couple behind the pins that said “I love you” in American Sign Language, made for the Women’s March in January, are back with a new pin raising money for science and research.

Ahead of the “March for Science” on April 22 in Washington, D.C. and all over the world, Kate Lind and Nate Stevens of Pincause designed a new pin with illustrator Penelope Dullaghan. This one says “Science not silence,” with a rocket ship launching into space.

“This is a critical time for not just the science community, but for humanity and our planet. Staying silent is no longer an option,” Lind said in an email.

The Michigan couple has teamed up with march organizers to be the official pin of the demonstration. (Wear it on your hat.) They hope to raise $200,000 for the march and continue supporting the organization beyond the day of action. 

As of Friday afternoon, they had sold 15,765 pins for $5 a piece. From every sale, $2 goes to the March for Science.

Nate Stevens and Kate Lind from Pincause flashing their support for science.

Nate Stevens and Kate Lind from Pincause flashing their support for science.

Image: Dane Hillard

Lind added that the pins will support a teach-in and rally also planned for April 22 in D.C. Each pin order comes with a flier that says, “I believe in science not silence,” also set in outer space.

The upcoming march is volunteer-run and hopes to voice concerns about the Donald Trump administration’s policies and stance on issues like climate change and alternative energy. Decisions to cut funding, research and jobs in departments like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy are of serious concern — as are changes to federal research websites.

As march organizers have said, “Science, scientists, and evidence-based policymaking are under attack.” 

These pins are just one way to fight back.

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Trump’s election data firm doesn’t think his White House looks that fun

Even the man who helped head Donald Trump’s data operations during the 2016 election doesn’t think the White House is the place to be these days.

Speaking at an advertising event in Sydney on Monday, Cambridge Analytica’s head of product, Matt Oczkowski, was responding to an audience question about the company’s ethics when he commented, “The White House doesn’t look like the most fun place to be right now.”

“I just figure out how to help people win elections, which is a much better place to be in.”

The controversial firm, which claims to use “big data and advanced psychographics” to target voters, has been under the spotlight after allegedly being involved in the pro-Brexit campaign as well as the U.S. presidential election.

Though many have expressed skepticism about the true impact of the firm’s techniques, its ties to the White House and Republican donors, as well as its broad use of voter data in at least two countries, have kept it in the news.

Invited to speak about the mechanics of Trump’s digital campaign, the product head spun Cambridge Analytica’s tale as that of a scrappy underdog against the Hillary Clinton machine. 

The firm came aboard the president’s team in May 2016, when there was no database infrastructure “at all,” according to Oczkowski. As well as using the Republican National Committee’s voter data, the team built Trump his own data set — dubbed “Alamo” — from donations, volunteers, signups and store transactions.

“We help our clients figure out who to talk to and what to say to them,” Oczkowski said. “Our approach, roughly, is a combination of data science, behavioural science, psych-techniques, combined with big data.”

In Oczkowski’s view, the Trump campaign was more data-driven than the press gave it credit for. Despite reporting about Trump’s “erratic” travel schedule, Oczkowski said each rally location was carefully chosen after running the numbers of likely audience and enthusiasm.

“This campaign was almost entirely data driven, outside of Mr. Trump, because he does his own thing,” he said to laughter from the crowd.

Oczkowski no longer appears happy to hype the company’s much-discussed “psychological approach” to polling and analytics — contrary to quotes he’s given in the past, including to Mashable. (An interview with Oczkowski in Sydney was cancelled.)

Perhaps that’s because of pushback from the likes of Gary Coby, who handled the Trump campaign’s digital advertising. 

As BuzzFeed pointed out in a piece debunking the company’s behavioural techniques, he tweeted that a claim by the firm’s CEO Alexander Nix that it “tested more than 175,000 different Facebook ad variations based on personality types” was “complete rubbish.”

As one audience member pointed out, Oczkowski’s talk Monday did not particularly address the use of psychographic data, despite being titled “Digital human and technology — Trump’s campaign target ads based on a psychological approach.”

“I’ve said this many times,” he said. “We didn’t get the chance to use much psychographics in the Trump campaign, mostly because we built the infrastructure in five months.

“Maybe in 2020, we’ll get a chance to do a lot more on the psych side.”

Oczkowski also pushed back on accusations his firm has weaponised consumer data to manipulate voter sentiment, using it to target voters who never imagined their personal information would be used in such a way.

“Maybe in 2020, we’ll get a chance to do a lot more on the psych side.”

“Privacy is a massive concern,” he said. “There is a very fine line, but the good thing about political campaigns is all the data we use is mostly opted-in data,” he said. “People are usually self reporting this data to that end, whether it be through surveys or publicly available campaign data.

“It’s not like this is super intrusive [personally identifiable information], healthcare data we’re dealing with here.”

Showing a slide in which he claimed to have more than 1,000 data points on every U.S. adult, he said it wasn’t being pointed out “in a creepy way,” given it was mostly consumer data: “Things like purchase history, what car you own, what magazines you subscribe to,” he explained. “The younger you are, the more data is openly available.”

The company is looking to set up shop in Australia, with plans to meet with the conservative Liberal Party, according to Reuters.

Cambridge Analytica has been approached for further comment.

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Your college email account may be one of millions for sale on the dark web

If you've ever had a college email address, your information may be sitting on the dark web.
If you’ve ever had a college email address, your information may be sitting on the dark web.

Image: Rodrigo Abd/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Imagine you’re walking down a highway when you suddenly find the keys to a vault full of personal information. Now imagine you find nearly 14 million keys and vaults, all belonging to people who went to or worked at a college somewhere in the U.S. 

That would be insane — but that is, in digital form, what a March report published by Digital Citizens Alliance says the group has found on the darker side of the information highway. 

According to the report, “13,930,176 e-mail addresses and passwords belonging to faculty, staff, students, and alumni” at “higher education institutions” are available at sites on the dark web. The University of Michigan alone has 122,556 email addresses out there, and other Big Ten schools are right behind it. 

Penn State University, the University of Minnesota, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, and the University of Illinois were also singled out by the report for having huge amounts of insecure information floating around. 

“Stolen credentials can be the first step down the path to more sensitive personal information, access to valuable intellectual property, and potentially identity theft,” wrote the authors. “In other cases, individuals have no profit motive at all. Threat actors can be driven by revenge or just mayhem and destruction.”

Dark web actors can mine these accounts for any personal information their owners have divulged to the university, and sell that information along with the details of the actual account. They can also set up fake accounts at universities. 

The creators can sell these accounts to anyone trying to get student discounts or looking to run phishing scams from .edu emails — which might be more likely to generate trust than a random email from a Gmail or Yahoo account.

Digital Citizens Alliance partnered with research organizations to figure out how dark web actors use these credentials, and reached several conclusions that ought to be alarming to anyone who’s ever had a college email address. 

Groups that claim to be associated with extremist organizations were passing out credentials. Others were offering emails and passwords for no cost. Some groups had gleaned credit card information, social security numbers and more from these email accounts, and were selling that information as well. 

“We’ve shared this publicly so everyone—the schools, the faculty, the staff, and the students—can all take extra measures to protect themselves,” wrote the authors of the report. 

You can read more here

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Those GoFundMe campaigns can’t simply buy Congress’s internet history

It's not like there's a shop where you can just walk up and say, I'd like that dude's internet history.
It’s not like there’s a shop where you can just walk up and say, I’d like that dude’s internet history.

Image: RICHARD DREW/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And of course, very often these days, crowdfunding campaigns, too.

You might’ve recently come across a link or eight for two different GoFundMe campaigns bouncing around the social web. Their aim? To crowdfund the purchase of members of Congress’ internet histories. Both campaigns were inspired by Republicans in the Senate and the House, who recently voted in favor of taking away privacy protections on your internet data, which were set up by former President Barack Obama. 

Obama’s privacy measures never sprang to life, though, because of the aforementioned vote by both houses of Congress. Now internet service providers can pimp out your data for the foreseeable future (assuming President Donald Trump signs the legislation, which he’s basically expected to do).

The two GoFundMe campaigns are a sort of populist revenge pipe dream. You think you can buy our data? OK, we’ll buy yours! And then, we’ll make it searchable, so everyone will see all the weird shit you like! And so on.

The first one was launched by Adam McElhaney, who says he’s a privacy activist and engineer. As of this writing, his campaign’s raised more than $160,000 out of an initial $10,000 goal, though the campaign’s corresponding website says the fundraising goal is actually $1 million

The website says he wants to buy the internet histories of “all legislators, congressmen, executives, and their families,” and doesn’t specify where the money will go if he doesn’t get to his goal, or finds the goal unattainable in some other way. We’ve reached out via multiple mediums to ask him a few questions, but he’s yet to respond as of this writing. 

The other campaign was started by Misha Collins, the actor of Supernatural fame who lives in Los Angeles, California. His campaign’s raised around $70,000 as of this writing, out of a stated goal of $500 million. Collins’s goal is to buy the internet histories of those who voted to rescind data privacy measures, and says money will go to the ACLU if he doesn’t reach his goal. 

But some cold water’s been thrown on those campaigns by a guy who wants to do something similar. Max Temkin, a co-founder of Cards Against Humanity, recently tweeted about his plan to buy Congress’s internet data and publish it “if this shit passes.”

Temkin called McElhaney’s plan a “scam” because McElhaney “cannot possibly” make the campaign’s promise come true. And while Temkin only tweeted this and therefore did not elaborate much, that sentiment has been echoed elsewhere. 

Techdirt on Wednesday wrote that a potentially fatal flaw in the multiple GoFundMe plans to buy the internet histories of members of Congress is that nowhere is there some kind of store that sells data on, say, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in neat little packages labeled with their faces. 

Internet service providers suck up personal data so they can sell it off to whichever advertiser’s willing to pay the most to get their ads on your screen, but those service providers aren’t selling “Colin Daileda” (it me). They’re selling “a male probably in his 20s though he has gray hair so maybe 30s, likes Washington sports teams except he also likes the Dallas Cowboys for some reason, and has a habit of buying more books than can possibly fit in a New York City apartment.” And again, that data isn’t stored in a vial. It’s just sold to advertisers every time you visit a webpage with ads. 

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to figure out the internet history of Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, it’s just a far more complex process than writing a check to an ISP. Or anything some cheeky GoFundMe campaign is so easily and readily capable of shoving back in Big Internet’s face.

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