Microsoft To Pay $20 Million Settlement For Illegally Collecting Children's Personal Data (techcrunch.com) 2

Microsoft has agreed to pay $20 million to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it illegally collected personal information from children without parental consent and retained it for extended periods. TechCrunch reports: The federal consumer watchdog said Microsoft violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the federal law that governs the online privacy protections for children under the age of 13, which requires companies notify parents about the data they collect, obtain parental consent and delete the data when it's no longer necessary. The FTC said children signing up to Microsoft's Xbox gaming service were asked to provide their personal information -- including their name, email address, phone number and date of birth -- which until 2019 included a pre-filled check box allowing Microsoft to share user information with advertisers. The FTC said Microsoft collected this data before asking for the parent to complete the account setup, but held onto children's data even if the parent abandoned the sign-up process.

"Only after gathering that raft of personal data from children did Microsoft get parents involved in the process," said FTC's Lesley Fair in a corresponding blog post. As a result, the FTC will require Microsoft to notify parents and obtain consent for accounts created before May 2021. Microsoft will also have to establish new systems to delete children's personal information if it hasn't obtained parental consent, and to ensure the data is deleted when it's no longer needed.


Redditor Creates Working Anime QR Codes Using Stable Diffusion (arstechnica.com) 12

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: On Tuesday, a Reddit user named "nhciao" posted a series of artistic QR codes created using the Stable Diffusion AI image-synthesis model that can still be read as functional QR codes by smartphone camera apps. The functional pieces reflect artistic styles in anime and Asian art. [...] In this case, despite the presence of intricate AI-generated designs and patterns in the images created by nhciao, we've found that smartphone camera apps on both iPhone and Android are still able to read these as functional QR codes. If you have trouble reading them, try backing your camera farther away from the images.

Stable Diffusion is an AI-powered image-synthesis model released last year that can generate images based on text descriptions. It can also transform existing images using a technique called "img2img." The creator did not detail the exact technique used to create the novel codes in English, but based on this blog post and the title of the Reddit post ("ControlNet for QR Code"), they apparently trained several custom Stable Diffusion ControlNet models (plus LoRA fine tunings) that have been conditioned to create different-styled results. Next, they fed existing QR codes into the Stable Diffusion AI image generator and used ControlNet to maintain the QR code's data positioning despite synthesizing an image around it, likely using a written prompt. Other techniques exist to make artistic-looking QR codes by manipulating the positions of dots within the codes to make meaningful patterns that can still be read. In this case, Stable Diffusion is not only controlling dot positions but also blending picture details to match the QR code.

This interesting use of Stable Diffusion is possible because of the innate error correction feature built into QR codes. This error correction capability allows a certain percentage of the QR code's data to be restored if it's damaged or obscured, permitting a level of modification without making the code unreadable. In typical QR codes, this error correction feature serves to recover information if part of the code is damaged or dirty. But in nhciao's case, it has been leveraged to blend creativity with utility. Stable Diffusion added unique artistic touches to the QR codes without compromising their functionality. [...] This discovery opens up new possibilities for both digital art and marketing. Ordinary black-and-white QR codes could be turned into unique pieces of art, enhancing their aesthetic appeal. The positive reaction to nhciao's experiment on social media may spark a new era in which QR codes are not just tools of convenience but also interesting and complex works of art.


Reddit Laying Off Employees and Slowing Hiring Amid Restructuring 12

Social-media company Reddit is laying off roughly 90 employees and slowing hiring as it restructures key parts of its business. From a report: Reddit is making the moves to address priorities, including funding projects and achieving its goal of breaking even next year, Chief Executive Steve Huffman told employees in an email seen by The Wall Street Journal. The job cuts amount to around 5% of Reddit's workforce of approximately 2,000 people.

"We've had a solid first half of the year, and this restructuring will position us to carry that momentum into the second half and beyond," Huffman said in the email. He added that the company would reduce its hiring for the rest of the year to about 100 people from an early plan to hire 300.

First Steps Agreed on Plastics Treaty After Breakthrough at Paris Talks (theguardian.com) 9

Nation-state representatives have taken the first concrete step toward a legally binding treaty to regulate plastic, described as the most important green deal since the 2015 international climate agreement. From a report: The banging of a recycled-plastic gavel, on Friday night at Unesco headquarters in Paris, signalled the end of a fraught process, marked by accusations of exclusion and industrial lobbying. Talks threatened to fall apart, but in the end delegates were able to broadly agree on key elements that the treaty should contain, laying the groundwork for the future agreement.

Attended by delegates from 180 nations and dozens of stakeholders including civil society groups, waste pickers and a coalition of scientists, the talks were the second of five meetings to thrash out the wording of the new treaty, which could come into force in 2025. The world produces almost 400m tonnes of plastic every year; an estimated 14m tonnes escape into the ocean annually. There is a growing recognition that this vast international problem requires a harmonised global response.

While plastic has historically been viewed as an environmental waste problem, critics now emphasise the array of harms this fossil-fuel-derived and chemical-rich product causes to the environment and human health across its entire lifecycle. The production of plastic has been shown to worsen air pollution, while its material waste intensifies flooding and starves wildlife. Plastic particles are now found in the air, in drinking water and in human blood.

It's funny.  Laugh.

Excel Spreadsheet Error Leads Austrian Party To Announce Wrong Leader (washingtonpost.com) 29

A major Austrian opposition political party on Monday corrected the results of a closely contested leadership election after it announced the wrong winner over the weekend due to a "technical" error: Someone had messed up an Excel spreadsheet. From a report: At a convention on Saturday, Austria's Social Democrats (SPO) declared that Hans Peter Doskozil, governor of the eastern Burgenland province, was the new leader of the center-left party. But on Monday, the party said Andreas Babler, a small-town mayor and lesser-known figure, had actually won, with about 52 percent of the votes. "Unfortunately, the paper ballots did not match the result that was announced digitally," Michaela Grubesa, head of the SPÃ- electoral commission, said a news conference. "Due to a colleague's technical error in the Excel list, the result was mixed up."

Those familiar with Microsoft's spreadsheet program, which is used by millions around the world, were quick to crack jokes, bringing wider attention to the error and ensuing chaos. Babler said at a news conference after his belated apparent victory that the commission should count the vote again for accuracy's sake, local media reported, adding that the debacle was "painful for everyone involved" and bad for the party's image.


Apple Buys AR Headset Startup Mira (theverge.com) 46

Apple has acquired Mira, a Los Angeles-based AR startup that makes headsets for other companies and the US military, according to a post from the CEO's private Instagram account yesterday seen by The Verge and a person familiar with the matter. Apple confirmed the acquisition. From a report: The news comes just one day after Apple unveiled the Vision Pro, a $3,499 mixed reality headset that the company has billed as a new spatial computing platform. It's unclear how much Apple paid for Mira, which raised about $17 million in funding to date. Jony Ive, Apple's former design chief, was an advisor to the startup at one point, according to two former employees who requested anonymity to speak without the company's permission.
Data Storage

Why Millions of Usable Hard Drives Are Being Destroyed (bbc.com) 91

Millions of storage devices are being shredded each year, even though they could be reused. "You don't need an engineering degree to understand that's a bad thing," says Jonmichael Hands. From a report: He is the secretary and treasurer of the Circular Drive Initiative (CDI), a partnership of technology companies promoting the secure reuse of storage hardware. He also works at Chia Network, which provides a blockchain technology. Chia Network could easily reuse storage devices that large data centres have decided they no longer need. In 2021, the company approached IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) firms, who dispose of old technology for businesses that no longer need it. The answer came back: "Sorry, we have to shred old drives."

"What do you mean, you destroy them?" says Mr Hands, relating the story. "Just erase the data, and then sell them! They said the customers wouldn't let them do that. One ITAD provider said they were shredding five million drives for a single customer." Storage devices are typically sold with a five-year warranty, and large data centres retire them when the warranty expires. Drives that store less sensitive data are spared, but the CDI estimates that 90% of hard drives are destroyed when they are removed. The reason? "The cloud service providers we spoke to said security, but what they actually meant was risk management," says Mr Hands. "They have a zero-risk policy. It can't be one in a million drives, one in 10 million drives, one in 100 million drives that leaks. It has to be zero."


White House Quiet on National Cyber Director Choice, Senator Says (axios.com) 8

The White House has not shared much of anything with lawmakers about who the administration thinks should be the next national cyber director, a top cyber-minded senator told Axios. From the report: It's been nearly four months since Chris Inglis stepped down as the first national cyber director inside the White House, and lawmakers and policy experts have been putting pressure on President Joe Biden in recent weeks to name a replacement.

Last month, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) sent a letter to Biden questioning the delay in picking a nominee and encouraging the president to nominate current acting director Kemba Walden to the post. Yet in the three weeks since the lawmakers sent their letter, they haven't heard anything from the White House, King told Axios in a recent interview. What they're saying: "I'm really puzzled; I just don't know what's going on," King told Axios. "This is an important job, and it's an important moment and they have a highly qualified, able acting director." Congress created the Office of the National Cyber Director (ONCD) as the Biden administration was taking office in early 2021.


Japan Earmarks $107 Billion for Developing Hydrogen Energy To Cut Emissions, Stabilize Supplies (apnews.com) 55

Japan's government on Tuesday adopted a revision to the country's plans to use more hydrogen as fuel as part of the effort to reduce carbon emissions. From a report: The plan sets an ambitious target to increase the annual supply by six times from the current level to 12 million tons by 2040. It also pledges 15 trillion yen ($107 billion) in funding from both private and public sources to build up hydrogen-related supply chains over the next 15 years.

Japan's decarbonization strategy centers on using so-called clean coal, hydrogen and nuclear energy to bridge its transition to renewable energy. Russia's war on Ukraine has deepened concerns over energy security and complicated that effort, but other advanced Western nations are pushing for faster adoption of renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal. So far, Japan is relying on hydrogen mainly produced using fossil fuels.


Apple Accidentally Releases iOS 17 Developer Beta To the Public (engadget.com) 10

Apple is supposed to release an iOS 17 public beta in July, but the company inadvertently gave users an early peek. From a report: As AppleInsider explains, Connor Jewiss and other users have noticed that the iOS 17 developer beta was available to install in the Beta Updates section of Settings whether or not you paid for the necessary account. The macOS Sonoma and watchOS 10 previews have been available this way, too.

We wouldn't count on any of the developer betas being available as we write this. As it is, you likely won't want to install them. These are the first pre-release versions available to people outside of Apple, and they're the most likely to include bugs and app compatibility issues. That could cause problems if you install them on must-have devices. Unless you're a developer who wants to start preparing app updates, you're probably better off waiting until either the public beta or the finished version releases this fall.


CNET is Overhauling Its AI Policy and Updating Past Stories (theverge.com) 7

Months after news broke that tech outlet CNET had quietly begun producing articles with generative AI systems, the site is clarifying how it will -- and won't -- use the tools in the future. From a report: Among its promises: stories will not be written entirely using an AI tool, and hands-on reviews and testing of products will be done by humans. CNET will also not publish images and videos generated using AI "as of now." But the outlet says it will "explore leveraging" AI tools to sort and analyze data and to create outlines for stories, analyze existing text, and generate explanatory content. The in-house tool CNET is using is called Responsible AI Machine Partner, or RAMP, according to the memo.

CNET has also gone back and updated the dozens of previously published stories generated using AI systems that triggered backlash in January. Of the more than 70 stories published over the course of several months, CNET eventually issued corrections on more than half. Some contained factual errors, while others were updated to replace "phrases that were not entirely original," suggesting they may have contained plagiarized material. Stories now include an editor's note reading, "An earlier version of this article was assisted by an AI engine. This version has been substantially updated by a staff writer."


Blatant Tech Frauds Run Amok on the Biggest Online Marketplaces (arstechnica.com) 44

Online retailers that host third-party sellers, like Amazon and Walmart, have extensive, competitively priced electronics selections. But for years, they have also served as playgrounds for fraudulent sellers, who list products with inflated or deceptive performance claims. Worse, some of these products pose a physical threat to customers. ArsTechnica: The problem has become so widespread that by the end of this month, the federal government will require online retailers to do a much better job of vetting seller credentials, courtesy of the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers (INFORM Consumers) Act. But scammers are persistent, and workarounds seem inevitable. So what more should we demand from these giant retailers, and what can shoppers, including the less tech-savvy, do to take matters into their own hands? To paint a picture of how prominent scammy tech is online, imagine you're in the market for a roomy portable SSD. You eventually land at Walmart.com, where there's a 60TB drive selling for under $39. The only downside? It's obviously not a real 60TB SSD. In reality, even a 2TB portable SSD will run you three figures. But for years, this scam has run amok on popular online marketplaces.

Review Geek recently showed that the scheme includes selling a much lower-capacity microSD card instead of a large-capacity SSD (the site received a 64GB card instead of the advertised 16TB SSD). Fake SSDs are just one example of counterfeit tech scams on huge online retailers, though. Consumers also have to look out for fake Apple chargers, cables that don't meet the advertised specs, and counterfeit batteries that threaten serious physical harm. Despite their considerable resources, these marketplaces have failed to properly vet sellers and their products. Without outside pressure, shoppers will continue to pay the price.

Social Networks

Reddit on New Pricing Plan: Company 'Needs To Be Fairly Paid' (bloomberg.com) 116

A number of Reddit forums plan to go dark for two days later this month to protest the company's decision to increase prices for third-party app developers. From a report: One developer, who makes a Reddit app called Apollo, said that under the new pricing policy he would have to pay Reddit $20 million a year to continue running the app as-is. Reddit's move comes after Twitter announced in February that the company would no longer support free access to its application programming interface, or API. Twitter instead now offers pricing tiers based on usage. Reddit spokesman Tim Rathschmidt said the company is trying to clear up confusion about the change on the platform, and stressed that Reddit spends millions on hosting. "Reddit needs to be fairly paid to continue supporting high-usage third-party apps," Rathschmidt said. "Our pricing is based on usage levels that we measure to be comparable to our own costs." The company said it is committed to supporting a developer ecosystem. In a post on its platform, Reddit laid out some of its pricing plans for businesses and said the changes would begin July 1.
The Courts

SEC Sues Coinbase Over Exchange and Staking Programs (cnbc.com) 27

The Securities and Exchange Commission sued crypto exchange Coinbase in New York federal court on Tuesday morning, alleging that the company was acting as an unregistered broker and exchange and demanding that the company be "permanently restrained and enjoined" from continuing to do so. From a report: Coinbase's flagship prime brokerage, exchange and staking programs violate securities laws, the regulator alleged in its complaint. The company "has for years defied the regulatory structures and evaded the disclosure requirements" of U.S. securities law. The SEC has alleged that at least 13 crypto assets available to Coinbase customers were considered "crypto asset securities" by the regulator. Those assets include Solana's SOL token, Cardano's token and Protocol Labs' Filecoin token. "We allege that Coinbase, despite being subject to the securities laws, commingled and unlawfully offered exchange, broker-dealer, and clearinghouse functions," said SEC chair Gary Gensler said in a statement.

More Than 2,000 Families Suing Social Media Companies Over Kids' Mental Health (cbsnews.com) 76

schwit1 shares a report from CBS News: When whistleblower Frances Haugen pulled back the curtain on Facebook in the fall of 2021, thousands of pages of internal documents showed troubling signs that the social media giant knew its platforms could be negatively impacting youth, and were doing little to effectively change it. With around 21 million American adolescents on social media, parents took note. Now, families are suing social media. Since we first reported this story last December, the number of families pursuing lawsuits has grown to over 2,000. More than 350 lawsuits are expected to move forward this year against TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, Roblox and Meta -- the parent company to Instagram and Facebook.

Kathleen Spence: They're holding our children hostage and they're seeking and preying on them. Sharyn Alfonsi: Preying on them? Kathleen Spence: Yes. The Spence family is suing social media giant Meta. Kathleen and Jeff Spence say Instagram led their daughter Alexis into depression and to an eating disorder at the age of 12. [...] Attorney Matt Bergman represents the Spence family. He started the Social Media Victims Law Center after reading the Facebook papers and is now working with more than 1,800 families who are pursuing lawsuits against social media companies like Meta. Matt Bergman: Time and time again, when they have an opportunity to choose between safety of our kids and profits, they always choose profits.

This summer, Bergman and his team plan on starting the discovery process for the federal case against Meta and other social media companies, a multi-million dollar suit that he says is more about changing policy than financial compensation. This summer, Bergman and his team plan on starting the discovery process for the federal case against Meta and other social media companies, a multi-million dollar suit that he says is more about changing policy than financial compensation. Matt Bergman: They have intentionally designed a product that is addictive. They understand that if children stay online, they make more money. It doesn't matter how harmful the material is.

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