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China launches gigantic telescope in hunt for life beyond earth
11 January 2020, 4:01 PM

China on Saturday officially opened operations of the world’s largest radio telescope, which it will use for space research and help in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is the size of 30 football fields and has been hewed out of a mountain in the southwestern province of Guizhou. It is also known by the name “Sky Eye” in China.

Xinhua reported that the telescope had received national approval to start operations. It finished construction in 2016 and has been undergoing debugging and tests in the years since.

FAST’s Chief Engineer Jiang Peng told Xinhua that the telescope’s trial operations had so far been reliable and stable, and that its sensitivity was more than 2.5 times that of the world’s second-largest telescope.

The project has also obtained some valuable scientific data over that time and is expected to help lead to some breakthroughs in areas such as low-frequency gravitational wave detection and interstellar molecules in the next three to five years, Xinhua said.

Advancing China’s space program is a priority for Beijing, and the country has set a target to catch up with Russia and the United States and become a major space power by 2030.

Beijing plans to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.

Ukraine airline says plane had no warning of threat before Iran crash
11 January 2020, 3:50 PM

Ukraine International Airlines said on Saturday that its plane that crashed in Iran this week had received no warning from Tehran airport about a possible threat to its safety before it took off en route for Kiev.

At a briefing by its president and vice president, the airline also denied the aircraft veered off its normal course after an Iranian military statement said the plane flew close to a sensitive military site of the elite Revolutionary Guards.

The airline officials bristled at what they said were hints from Iran that the crew had not acted properly. Iran said earlier that its military mistakenly shot down the plane, saying air defences were fired in error while on high alert in the tense aftermath of Iranian missile strikes on US targets in Iraq.

All 176 people on board were killed. The airline officials called on Iran to take full responsibility for the crash and said the Iranian authorities should have closed the airport. “If you play at war, you play as much as you want, but there are normal people around who you had to protect,” Vice President Ihor Sosnovsky said. “If they are shooting from somewhere to somewhere, they were obliged to close the airport. Obliged. And then shoot as much as you want.”

He added that the plane had turned 15 degrees to the right after it had reached 6 000 feet, in accordance with the instructions of the airport dispatcher. Eleven Ukrainians, including nine crew, died in the crash, according to Ukrainian government figures. Yevhenii Dykhne, the president and chief executive of the airline, made an emotional opening statement to reporters saying the airline had not done anything wrong in terms of following security procedures.

“At the time of departure from (Kiev’s) Boryspil airport, the airline had no information about possible threats,” he said. “At the time of departure from Tehran airport, it was exactly the same.” The airline said Tehran airport was operating normally at the time its aircraft took off. Asked why there had been a delay in take-off, Dykhne said the captain had decided to offload some luggage because the plane was too heavily loaded.

SA military plane crash lands in DRC
9 January 2020, 4:05 PM

A South African C130 military transport plane has crash-landed at Goma airport in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Videos on social media show smoke rising from the four-engined aircraft.

However, two sources at the airport, speaking on condition of anonymity, say there did not appear to be major damage to the plane.

The plane was returning from the city of Beni.

It was carrying soldiers. We’ll have more details as they become available.

A woman looks at the Facebook logo on an iPad in this photo illustration.
Facebook separates security tool from friend suggestions
20 December 2019, 9:17 AM

Facebook Inc will no longer feed user phone numbers provided to it for two-factor authentication into its “people you may know” feature, as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of its privacy practices, the company told Reuters.

Revelations last year that Facebook was using personal data obtained for two-factor authentication to serve advertisements enraged privacy advocates, who called the practice deceptive and said it eroded trust in an essential digital security tool.

It had already stopped allowing those phone numbers to be used for advertising purposes in June, the company said, and is now beginning to extend that separation to friend suggestions.

Facebook initiated the updates in connection with its $5 billion settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission, which required it to boost safeguards on user data to resolve a government probe into its privacy practices.

The FTC order, which is still pending approval in court, said Facebook failed to disclose that the phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication also would be used for advertising, and specifically barred that approach to security tools.

Michel Protti, a long-time Facebook executive who took over as chief privacy officer for product this summer and is leading the overhaul, told Reuters the two-factor authentication update was an example of the company’s new privacy model at work.

The change – which is happening in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Libya and Cambodia this week and will be introduced globally early next year – will prevent any phone numbers provided during sign-up for two-factor authentication from being used to make friend suggestions.

Existing users of the tool will not be affected, but can de-link their two-factor authentication numbers from the friend suggestion feature by deleting them and adding them again.

The separation of two-factor authentication from advertising this summer applied to both new and existing users, a company spokeswoman said.

Before the latest change, Facebook conducted a review to ensure “the system updates supporting our privacy statements were done correctly,” said Protti, which “adds more layers of process and rigor to the vetting of our technical work to make sure our public statements match our operations.”

The beefed-up reviews of new products aim to minimize any data collected, document where the data goes and provide sufficient transparency around how products work, he said.

That process led to changes in the phrasing Facebook used to inform people of the update, the spokeswoman added, although Facebook declined to specify how the disclosures were altered.

Protti, who along with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg will sign quarterly privacy certifications to the FTC, said his team has completed an assessment begun in August of Facebook’s privacy risks and started cataloguing protections in place to mitigate those risks.

Protti declined to share the assessment’s findings, but said examples included areas where Facebook should make its policies clearer, invest in training and institute “stronger technical controls over how the data flows through our pipes.”

Gennie Gebhart, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who gave feedback to Facebook on its two-factor authentication updates, said she welcomed those changes as well as the new privacy protocols, but found them “incomplete.”

She cited other examples of “phone number abuse,” such as the ability to find users by uploading their two-factor authentication phone numbers, and called for public disclosure around the review process and any certifications Facebook submits to the FTC.

“It’s not enough for only Facebook and the government to have this information,” said Gebhart. “Does Facebook really expect us to take it at its word?”

Prompts on how to use Amazon's Alexa personal assistant are seen as a wifi-equipped Roomba begins cleaning a room in an Amazon ‘experience center’ in Vallejo, California.
Tech giants partner to make smart home devices more compatible
19 December 2019, 7:34 AM

Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google are partnering to lay the groundwork for better compatibility among their smart home products, the companies said on Wednesday.

Zigbee Alliance, whose members include IKEA and NXP Semiconductors among others, will also contribute to the project, titled “Connected Home over IP”.

The rare partnership comes against the backdrop of an intensified competition among global technology companies to dominate the market for voice assistants and other smart devices.

The group aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build products that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.

Earlier this year, another consortium led by Amazon had launched an initiative to let users access Alexa, Microsoft Corp’s Cortana and other voice-controlled virtual assistant services from a single device.

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