Archive for February, 2008

By Chris Vallance
Reporter, BBC iPM

Pile of newspapers, BBC

Many newspapers take text and pictures from social network sites

The use of material taken from personal profiles on social networks by newspapers is to be the subject of a major consultation undertaken by industry watchdog the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

This comes in the wake of increasingly numbers of newspaper stories that include images and text taken from sites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.

But the subjects of press reports are not always happy with the use of content they have uploaded.

Tim Toulmin, director of the PCC, in an interview with BBC Radio 4 says the organisation was getting complaints from people about material, “that is being republished when they themselves are the subject of news stories”.

Mr Toulmin says it would be useful to establish principles to guide the press in their use of social network content.

“It’s down to the PCC to set the boundaries in a common sense way about what sort of information it is acceptable to re-publish,” he says.

To that end the PCC has commissioned research by Ipsos MORI into public attitudes.

The newspaper watchdog wants to discover if people are aware that material they upload could be used in newspaper reports.

It also wants to discover if people would change their behaviour if they knew that information about them could be published in the media.

Public or private?

There has been some public resentment of the use of social networks by the press.

Woman taking photo with mobile phone, BBC

People may post less information if they knew it journalists might use it

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech school shootings some felt that journalists had invaded what were essentially private online spaces. The behaviour of a few pushy reporters gave rise to the term: “digital door-stepping”.

More recently in the UK, media interest in the spate of suspected suicides among young people in Bridgend has lead some in that community to express concern about the way social network profiles were being used by journalists.

Bridgend Welsh Assembly Member Carwyn Jones, said: “It does raise questions of the sensitivity of publishing those photographs for the world to see.”

Local MP, Madeleine Moon went further saying that some in the community had complained of reporters posing as young people on social networking sites in order to obtain quotes.

Ms Moon, who has spoken with the PCC, stressed she had no evidence to substantiate these claims, but she did feel that there was a clear need for guidelines for the press.

But the wider issue of how reporters should use information taken from social networks is far from clear-cut.

Taking a photo from a social networking site is, some argue, a less traumatic way of obtaining images and personal detail, than a reporter visiting the home of a grieving family. Digital door-stepping can be much less intrusive than the real thing.

Mr Toulmin says the matter is one of degree: journalists do have a right to use publicly accessible content and the public have responsibilities when they post it.

And many who publish to social networks, in Mr Toulmin’s view, do not regard that information as private but actively want to share the information.

He said: “Half the charm is accumulating as many people as possible to be their friends…there will then be an argument about the extent to which you yourself are concerned about people knowing that information.”

Similarly if information is already in the public domain there would be little point in denying the press access.

Clear case

Mr Toulmin also believes any new guidelines should not prevent the press reproducing content clearly in the public interest to publish.

The PCC has already ruled to this effect. It supported the right of a local newspaper to enter an online community undercover and to republish an image found there, because the complainant, a police officer, was the subject of a criminal investigation.

Memorial service at Virginia Tech, Getty

Some papers covering the Virginia Tech shootings used information from social sites

Mr Toulmin says social network sites have a duty to educate users about the implications of uploading personal information to public, or semi-private spaces.

“They will I think be forced to go further in educating people,” he says.

Guidance from the PCC will only apply to newspapers.

With the most popular blogs surpassing the circulation of many local papers, and competing effectively for advertising revenue, this is not a small concern.

Mr Toulmin acknowledges this is important, but adds: “The press do have obligations over and above those that govern the online community.”

But not everyone in the media shares that view: Bob Satchwell of the Director of the Society of Editors thinks the press should be subject to no greater regulation than the public.

Says Mr Satchwell: “Traditional media is already regulated in various ways; broadcasting by the statutory regulation, the press by the PCC, so there are far greater constraints on traditional journalists and media than there are on the wider public, so called ‘citizen journalists’ and bloggers.”

However, there are some restrictions that apply to all who use social network content.

The British Journal of Photography in a recent article concludes that publication of images on social networks does not automatically grant rights to republish photograph elsewhere.

In the end copyright law may resolve part of this issue, if the deliberations of the PCC do not.


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Increasingly autonomous, gun-totting robots developed for warfare could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and may one day unleash a robot arms race, a top expert on artificial intelligence told AFP.0227 08

“They pose a threat to humanity,” said University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey ahead of a keynote address Wednesday before Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

Intelligent machines deployed on battlefields around the world — from mobile grenade launchers to rocket-firing drones — can already identify and lock onto targets without human help.

There are more than 4,000 US military robots on the ground in Iraq, as well as unmanned aircraft that have clocked hundreds of thousands of flight hours.

The first three armed combat robots fitted with large-caliber machine guns deployed to Iraq last summer, manufactured by US arms maker Foster-Miller, proved so successful that 80 more are on order, said Sharkey.

But up to now, a human hand has always been required to push the button or pull the trigger.

It we are not careful, he said, that could change.

Military leaders “are quite clear that they want autonomous robots as soon as possible, because they are more cost-effective and give a risk-free war,” he said.

Several countries, led by the United States, have already invested heavily in robot warriors developed for use on the battlefield.

South Korea and Israel both deploy armed robot border guards, while China, India, Russia and Britain have all increased the use of military robots.

Washington plans to spend four billion dollars by 2010 on unmanned technology systems, with total spending expected rise to 24 billion, according to the Department of Defense’s Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032, released in December.

James Canton, an expert on technology innovation and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, predicts that deployment within a decade of detachments that will include 150 soldiers and 2,000 robots.

The use of such devices by terrorists should be a serious concern, said Sharkey.

Captured robots would not be difficult to reverse engineer, and could easily replace suicide bombers as the weapon-of-choice. “I don’t know why that has not happened already,” he said.

But even more worrisome, he continued, is the subtle progression from the semi-autonomous military robots deployed today to fully independent killing machines.

“I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades, and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination terrifies me,” Sharkey said.

Ronald Arkin of Georgia Institute of Technology, who has worked closely with the US military on robotics, agrees that the shift towards autonomy will be gradual.

But he is not convinced that robots don’t have a place on the front line.

“Robotics systems may have the potential to out-perform humans from a perspective of the laws of war and the rules of engagement,” he told a conference on technology in warfare at Stanford University last month.

The sensors of intelligent machines, he argued, may ultimately be better equipped to understand an environment and to process information. “And there are no emotions that can cloud judgement, such as anger,” he added.

Nor is there any inherent right to self-defence.

For now, however, there remain several barriers to the creation and deployment of Terminator-like killing machines.

Some are technical. Teaching a computer-driven machine — even an intelligent one — how to distinguish between civilians and combatants, or how to gauge a proportional response as mandated by the Geneva Conventions, is simply beyond the reach of artificial intelligence today.

But even if technical barriers are overcome, the prospect of armies increasingly dependent on remotely-controlled or autonomous robots raises a host of ethical issues that have barely been addressed.

Arkin points out that the US Department of Defense’s 230 billion dollar Future Combat Systems programme — the largest military contract in US history — provides for three classes of aerial and three land-based robotics systems.

“But nowhere is there any consideration of the ethical implications of the weaponisation of these systems,” he said.

For Sharkey, the best solution may be an outright ban on autonomous weapons systems. “We have to say where we want to draw the line and what we want to do — and then get an international agreement,” he said.

© 2008 Agence France Presse

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Shopping offline
Air was code-named “apollo” during its development

Adobe has launched software designed to make it easier for computer users to use online applications offline. Adobe Air allows developers to build tools that still have some functionality even when a computer is no longer connected to the net.

A free download will allow users of Macs, PCs and, later this year, Linux machines to run any Air applications.

The first programs that use the technology, developed by web sites such as eBay, have already been released.

“Air is going to allow applications that run on the web today – that run in the browser – to be brought down to the desktop,” Andrew Shorten, platform evangelist at Adobe told BBC News.

“It’s about taking existing web applications and adding extra functionality whether you want to work offline or whether you want to access data on your disk.”

Seamless vision

Mr Shorten said that the technology is not about replacing the web browser.


Many firms have already developed Air applications

“It’s about delivering the best experience depending on where you are and what you need to get from the application, ” he said.

“If I’m on the road with my laptop maybe I want to use the desktop version of my application. If I pop into an internet cafe I can still access it through the browser.”

The software is part of a growing number of technologies that aim to make the transition between the on and offline worlds seamless.

In 2006, Microsoft unveiled its Silverlight technology. And last year Google launched Gears.

The tool does not allow the creation of new content but does allow web applications to be used offline.

For example, the developers of the free online office package Zoho use Gears to give users similar functionality to normal desktop office programs.

The nice thing about it is that it works on all the different platforms
John O’Donovan

Similarly, Adobe is looking into provide Air versions of many of its popular programs such as Photoshop.

A host of other companies and web services have already built Air applications.

For example, Ebay has built a program that allows users to do much of the legwork required in setting up auctions offline. The next time the user connects to the internet the listing would be posted to the website.

The application also allows users to keep up to date with auctions and bids without the need to have a browser open at the eBay page.

Blurred boundary

The BBC is also building prototype applications with AIR.

“The nice thing about it is that it works on all the different platforms – Mac, PC and eventually Linux,” said John O’Donovan, chief architect in the BBC’s Future Media and Technology Journalism division.

The corporation is currently building prototype versions of several applications such as the news ticker, which displays headlines on a desktop, and mini Motty, which provides desktop football commentary.

The current versions of the programs only work on PCs.

Other programs exploit Air’s ability to access both web content and files on a computer’s disk.

For example, the web-version of Finetunes allows users to stream music over the internet

“If you install the Air version on your desktop it can also look at what you have in your iTunes library and then suggest music based on what it finds,” explained Mr Shorten.

“So it’s really taking the essence of what works on the web, brining it to the desktop and then making it more personal to you.”

Some commentators have pointed out that the ability for an application to delve between the web and a computer’s hard drive raises security implications.

“Our advice would be to only install applications from sources that you trust,” said Mr Shorten.

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Bill Gates, AFP/Getty

Vista was released to consumers on 30 January, 2007

Microsoft is warning Windows Vista users that a forthcoming service pack for the operating system may stop some third-party programs working. The software giant has released a list of programs that may be broken by the SP1 update for Vista.

Most of the software hit by the upgrade are security programs that prevent Windows users falling prey to viruses, trojans and booby-trapped webpages.

The Windows Vista update will be released to the public in mid-March.

Update loop

Service Packs are among the biggest updates Microsoft issues for its various operating systems. The software firm said SP1 makes Vista more secure and reliable and introduces some new features.

The list of programs affected by SP1 is divided into three. Some will be blocked by the update, some will not run and others will lose some of their functions.

BitDefender AV
Fujitsu Shock Sensor
Jiangmin KV Antivirus 10
Jiangmin KV Antivirus 2008
Trend Micro Internet Security
Zone Alarm Security Suite
Iron Speed Designer
Xheo Licensing
Free Allegiance
NYT Reader
Rising Personal Firewall
Novell ZCM Agent

Of the 12 programs mentioned, six block viruses or keep an eye on the places someone visits online.

Microsoft warned that its list was not “comprehensive” and asked people to get in touch with the maker of any affected software to fix problems.

Although the update will become widely available in March, Microsoft is releasing it to business customers in February.

Microsoft has also been forced to withdraw an update to Vista that was required before Service Pack 1 could be applied.

Writing on the Windows Vista blog, Nick White, Microsoft product manager, said the company had withdrawn the preparatory update while it investigated.

Isolated reports suggest that some machines on which the preliminary update has been applied go into an update loop.

He wrote: “We are working to identify possible solutions and will make the update available again shortly after we address the issue.”

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Phone makers’ own scientists discover that bedtime use can lead to headaches, confusion and depression

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

Radiation from mobile phones delays and reduces sleep, and causes headaches and confusion, according to a new study.

The research, sponsored by the mobile phone companies themselves, shows that using the handsets before bed causes people to take longer to reach the deeper stages of sleep and to spend less time in them, interfering with the body’s ability to repair damage suffered during the day.
The findings are especially alarming for children and teenagers, most of whom – surveys suggest – use their phones late at night and who especially need sleep. Their failure to get enough can lead to mood and personality changes, ADHD-like symptoms, depression, lack of concentration and poor academic performance.
The study – carried out by scientists from the blue-chip Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University in Sweden and from Wayne State University in Michigan, USA – is thought to be the most comprehensive of its kind.
Published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Progress in Electromagnetics Research Symposium and funded by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, representing the main handset companies, it has caused serious concern among top sleep experts, one of whom said that there was now “more than sufficient evidence” to show that the radiation “affects deep sleep”.
The scientists studied 35 men and 36 women aged between 18 and 45. Some were exposed to radiation that exactly mimicked what is received when using mobile phones; others were placed in precisely the same conditions, but given only “sham” exposure, receiving no radiation at all.
The people who had received the radiation took longer to enter the first of the deeper stages of sleep, and spent less time in the deepest one. The scientists concluded: “The study indicates that during laboratory exposure to 884 MHz wireless signals components of sleep believed to be important for recovery from daily wear and tear are adversely affected.”
The embarrassed Mobile Manufacturers Forum played down the results, insisting – at apparent variance with this published conclusion – that its “results were inconclusive” and that “the researchers did not claim that exposure caused sleep disturbance”.
But Professor Bengt Arnetz, who led the study, says: “We did find an effect from mobile phones from exposure scenarios that were realistic. This suggests that they have measurable effects on the brain.”
He believes that the radiation may activate the brain’s stress system, “making people more alert and more focused, and decreasing their ability to wind down and fall asleep”.
About half of the people studied believed themselves to be “electrosensitive”, reporting symptoms such as headaches and impaired cognitive function from mobile phone use. But they proved to be unable to tell if they had been exposed to the radiation in the test.
This strengthens the conclusion of the study, as it disposes of any suggestion that knowledge of exposure influenced sleeping patterns. Even more significantly, it throws into doubt the relevance of studies the industry relies on to maintain that the radiation has no measurable effects.
A series of them – most notably a recent highly publicised study at Essex University – have similarly found that people claiming to be electrosensitive could not distinguish when the radiation was turned on in laboratory conditions, suggesting that they were not affected.
Critics have attacked the studies’ methodology, but the new findings deal them a serious blow. For they show that the radiation did have an effect, even though people could not tell when they were exposed.
It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.
Dr Chris Idzikowski, the director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, says: “There is now more than sufficient evidence, from a large number of reputable investigators who are finding that mobile phone exposure an hour before sleep adversely affects deep sleep.”
Dr William Kohler of the Florida Sleep Institute added: “Anything that disrupts the integrity of your sleep will potentially have adverse consequences in functioning during the day, such as grouchiness, difficulty concentrating, and in children hyperactivity and behaviour problems.”
David Schick, the chief executive of Exradia, which manufactures protective devices against the radiation, called on ministers to conduct “a formal public inquiry” into the effects of mobile phones.

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Author:  Nick Langley What is it?

Rails is not the only framework for Ruby, and Ruby is not the only language which uses Rails. Rails has also been ported to Javascript by a team at Google (Rhino on Rails), to PHP (Akelos) and most recently, by the BBC, to Perl (Perl on Rails).

But Ruby on Rails is still the main event, and December’s release of Ruby on Rails 2.0 caused a stir, not least because of the abandonment of Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol) in favour of Rest (Representational State Transfer).

Rest is described as an architectural style, not a standard or specification. Restful web services make use of existing technologies, such as HTTP with its simple operations such as “put”, “get” and “post”, and of URLs to uniquely identify each resource. Rest is already widely used, for example, by Amazon. In fact, the Worldwide Web itself has been described as the largest Rest application. Making use of the existing common infrastructure means that Rest applications themselves are similar in structure and can more easily interact and share data.

Where did it originate?

Ruby on Rails was developed by David Heinemeier Hansson of the web-design company 37signals, and released in 2004. Rest was defined in 2000 by Roy Fielding, part of the IETF working group which specified HTTP. Fielding also co-founded the Apache HTTP Server project.

What is it for?

Rails is used to develop web applications using existing database schemas. It provides “scaffolding” – skeleton code – to simplify structuring applications. Like Struts and other web frameworks, Rails uses the Model-View-Controller (MVC) architecture, which separates different levels of the application and allows them to be worked on without having to make corresponding changes to other levels – enabling a move to Ajax in the view layer without touching the data model.

What makes it special?

Rails users claim a substantial productivity increase. More generally, Rest champions say that existing web services technologies like Soap and WSSD have become increasingly complex and bogged down by slow moving committees and industry consortia. By making use of the existing architecture and protocols of the web, Rest is a more natural fit, and free from the interference of external vested interests.

How difficult is it to master?

Rails simplifies web application building, making it easier to be productive in Ruby and other supported languages. Despite its use of familiar web technologies however, it can be difficult to get your head round Rest at first.

What systems does it run on?

Ruby on Rails.org says “just about any operating system will do, but we recommend a ‘nix-based one for deployment”.

Ruby on Rails is widely shipped and supported – by Oracle, Apple and IBM among others. IBM has released IBM Sharable Code, an online development platform for Ruby on Rails.

What’s coming up?

The forthcoming ASP.NET 3.5 Extensions use the MVC architecture and support Rest, and have been dubbed “ASP.Net on Rails”.

Rates of pay

Ruby on Rails is usually required as part of a larger portfolio and rates vary accordingly.


See Ruby on Rails and Ruby on Rails on Oracle: A Simple Tutorial. Also, An introduction to Ruby on Rails for DB2 developers and other Ruby, Rails and Rest resources on IBM’s Developerworks. There are a number of books including Agile Web Development with Rails and Restful Web Services, both from O’Reilly and Associates.

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By Iain Haddow

BBC NewsThe scientist who pioneered genetic fingerprinting says he’s concerned that the personal data of innocent people is being wrongly held by police.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys told the BBC the retention of thousands of innocent people’s DNA raised “significant ethical and social issues”.

He was speaking as the government launched an inquiry into the way the national DNA database is used.

Per capita, it is the world’s largest database and holds the DNA profiles of 4.5m people. The equivalent system in the US, known as CODIS, and run by the FBI, contains over five million DNA profiles.

When first launched in 1995, only the DNA of convicted criminals were kept by police. But following a change in the law in 2001, all DNA collected by forensics – for whatever purpose – can be stored permanently.

Innocent and guilty on database

That ranges from people who voluntarily give police a DNA swab in order to eliminate themselves from investigations – to convicted rapists and murderers.

Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales – all but the most minor offences – has remained on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted.

The database contains the DNA of criminals and a whole number of people who’ve…never even been charged with a crime.
Roger Smith, Justice

Such is the controversy surrounding the database that last September one of England’s most senior appeal court judges, Lord Justice Sedley, called for the database to be made compulsory for all UK residents as well as visitors to Britain.

At the time he said the current system was “indefensible”.

‘PR gimmick’

His call has been echoed by the law reform group Justice, which described the consultation as a “public relations gimmick”.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is found in virtually all cells
Only a tiny sample of saliva, blood, semen, etc, is needed for testing
At the molecule’s core is a long sequence of chemical units, which is checked for a gender and 10 other ‘markers’
Probability of a chance match is less than one in one billion
A match may be with a specific individual or hint at a relative
Profiles can provide indications of ethnic origin
They do not point to genetic disorders or susceptibilities

Justice’s Director, Roger Smith, said: “The national DNA database should either list those guilty of a crime or everybody in the country.

“At the moment, it contains the DNA of criminals and a whole number of other people who have attracted the interest of police officers but never been convicted – in many cases, never even charged – with a crime.”

Recently, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said the database had helped police solve as many as 20,000 crimes a year.

Institutional racism

But according to the government’s own figures, the database contains the genetics of a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities.

Forty per cent of black men in the UK have their DNA stored on the database and there are concerns that it could be open to abuse.

Black men are disproportionately targeted right across the criminal justice system where there is no evidence that they disproportionately commit crime
Ali Dizaei, National Black Police Association

The president of the National Black Police Association, Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, said, “Black men are disproportionately targeted right across the criminal justice system where there is no evidence whatsoever that they disproportionately commit crime.

“We see the current data as a classic example of institutional racism.”

Professor Sir Bob Hepple, who until December was Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: “Young black males are over-represented on the National DNA Database. This may have arisen from policing practices and the disproportionate arrest of certain ethnic groups.”

But he said: “The establishment of a population-wide forensic DNA database cannot be justified at the current time. The potential benefits would not be great enough to justify the cost and intrusion to privacy.”

A population-wide forensic DNA database cannot be justified…The potential benefits would not justify the cost and intrusion to privacy.
Sir Bob Hepple, former Chair, Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys first found a way to identify people through their DNA by accident at the University of Leicester two decades ago.

He said he welcomed an inquiry into public attitudes to the database and how it is developing.

“The national DNA database is a very powerful tool in the fight against crime,” he said.

“But recent developments such as the retention of innocent people’s DNA raises significant ethical and social issues.”

Balancing rights and safety

The government consultation will be conducted by the Human Genetics Commission advisory body.

The retention of innocent people’s DNA raises significant ethical and social issues
Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, Geneticist, University of Leicester

Over the next six weeks, it will hold sessions with dozens of members of the public in an exercise costing £75,000.

The conclusions will be fed back to the government in a report next year on the forensic use of DNA.

The man in charge of the inquiry Human Genetics Commission chairman Sir John Sulston said: “There is an important balance to be struck between individual rights and public safety and we need to know how people feel about these issues”.

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