Data broker slayer. The best days are snowy. The best music is from the 70s.
A Marriage And A Funeral: My friend Jane heard of mylife.com when her friend’s father died. They did a Google search of his name and in the results was mylife.com; his picture and a list of his prior home addresses. With one visit to the site, they had access to his date of birth, location of death, siblings, children, spouse, net worth, and finally, a big red reputation score, a 3.6 out of 5.
Jane was creeped out. Her friend was offended. Really, a reputation score?
Jane looked up herself. She looked up her parents. She scrolled through similar details pausing at ‘marital status: divorced’ listed under her father’s name. Her parents had been together since she was born and still lived in her childhood home. She wasn’t surprised that a shady site like mylife.com would have some errors.
Then she showed her mom. And when Jane pointed out the divorce error, her mom hesitated then said they needed to talk. Jane’s parents were indeed divorced. They’d been since she was in middle school. They didn’t tell the family and continued to live together to avoid disruptions. But after waiting years, the timing never felt right to share the news. From mylife.com, Jane learned that her parents had been divorced for 5 years.
Jane told me this story when I let her know about Kanary, the project I started to track down and stop sites collecting and selling personal information without consent. After years of working in political analytics, I saw how the sausage was made and wanted to restore the privacy we’d lost. She immediately understood why the project was important and why more people needed to find out what was going on with their personal information.
The Data Tracking Ecosystem
MyLife is a class of website called a data broker. The definition of a broker is, “a person who buys and sells goods or assets for others.” Real estate brokers sell real estate that’s not theirs. Stock brokers sell stock that’s not theirs. A data broker sells data that’s not theirs.
In the data broker taxonomy, MyLife is in a subclass called people search sites. They don’t just sell information, they post it publicly. Anyone can look up someone by name, email, phone number, or address and purchase their full profile including reputation score.
There are thousands of data brokers like mylife.com. Their only purpose is to compile social and behavioral data about as many people as possible. They’re creating hireability scores, reputation scores, social scores, and persuadability scores. They call these scores data enhancements and tell brands that they’ll save a lot of money if they use them to target the right people with ads. “Find out who doesn’t like you, then don’t waste money sending advertisements to them,” they claim. For companies, it makes sense. Why would an engagement ring company send an ad to someone who isn’t interested in buying an engagement ring?
On an individual level, it feels pretty harmless. You might not care if an engagement ring company knows you’re not interested in buying an engagement ring. You might be grateful to not get ads about stuff you don’t want.
But you should care about who knows this information about you and how they know it.
How They Profit Off You
If you had to make your best prediction about whether someone was going to get engaged in the next 6-12 months, what would you want to know? You might want to know how old they are, their gender, their sexual orientation, their relationship status, the length of their current relationship, how many relationships they’ve had in the past, if their parents or siblings are married, if they’ve ever been divorced, how much of The Bachelor they’ve watched… feeling invasive yet?
Data brokers keep digging to make the perfect prediction. They find out where you live, the marriage rate in your zip code, the marriage rate across your social network, if you’ve recently been laid off, your criminal record, your alcohol and drug consumption, how much money you make, how much debt you have, if you have children, if you still have accounts on dating apps, your political affiliation, your credit score, and maybe even your workout schedule.
Data brokers acquire this information through data partnerships, contracts, and website scraping. They pay state governments for voter records. They pay the DMV for your age and driving records. They purchase census data to understand marriage rates and income levels in your zip code. They find your family information through online phone books and ancestry lists. They pay court houses to pull marriage and divorce records. They pay streaming services to find out what shows you watch. In a couple lines of python, they scrape the relationship statuses of you and your friends from Facebook or Instagram. They purchase your stock buying history from Robinhood and your debt levels from the credit bureaus. They buy leaked databases of employment records or simply scrape your LinkedIn profile. They partner with mobile apps to scan your phone for active Tinder or Grindr or Feeld accounts. They partner with free VPNs to collect every website you visit. The most advanced brokers will mine photos of your face to determine your agreeability, likability, or attractiveness.
With this raw information, why would they stop at engagement predictions? They can predict other valuable outcomes like who you’ll vote for, how you’ll respond to a payday loan offer, or what price you’ll be willing to pay for your next rideshare. All these predictions become profiles and scores sold to advertisers, employers, or random people looking you up on the internet.
The Ones You Should Know About And How To Stop Them
I started working on tracking down these sites and removing information from them about a year ago. Since starting I’ve built a small team and a software platform that tracks over 2,500 websites that share and sell personal information without consent. You could manually go through and remove yourself from each one. But 2,500 sites x 5 minutes per site to find and remove your info = 208 hours. Doing this at least 2 times a year as data pops up and recirculates would take 408 hours or 51 eight-hour work days. Keeping up is an inhumane task. This is why we’re automating the removal processes so all it takes to remove yourself is one click.
But if this is your first introduction to who these companies are, what they know about you, and why this puts your privacy, security, and safety at risk, you might want to see it for yourself. I recommend starting with the following 8 sites that have fairly straight forward opt outs and track a lot of information about you. It takes about 30 minutes to submit the removal requests and opt outs across these sites, and 2-3 weeks to receive confirmation they’ve removed you from their systems.
Why: They boast having 11,000 attributes about over 2.5 billion people. This means you’re likely in their database and they’ve collected or predicted 11,000 things about you. They also make ~$900,000,000 each year selling personal information and predictions.
How To Opt Out: Go to https://isapps.acxiom.com/optout/optout.aspx, fill out the information you’d like to remove from their databases, enter an email you can use to confirm the request (ideally use an alias email, not your primary email), complete a captcha, submit the request, then click the confirmation link they send to your email, and complete another captcha. They claim they will not use any new information used to submit the opt out in their terms and conditions.
Why: On their site they highlight offering scores that show the best way to collect debt from people. They also claim their socioeconomic health attributes help insurance companies forecast potential risks (aka high costs associated with certain patients).
How To Opt Out: Note: this one requires a California address* and proof of ID like drivers license # or SSN. Go to https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/request#california, fill out the form, (share your driver’s license, not SSN, if possible), select both the ‘do not sell’ and ‘delete my information’ options. Complete the captcha and submit the request. In about 2 weeks they will send a letter to the address you entered confirming they’ve removed you from their database. If they can’t confirm your identity from the info you submit, you won’t receive anything.
If you don’t have a California address, you can still bug them to remove your information by emailing a removal request to consumer.documents@LexisNexis.com or calling them at 1-888-497-0011, but no guarantee they’ll respond.
*This is why we need comprehensive Federal Data Privacy Regulation in the United States.
Why: They aggregate information across social media sites and make it publicly searchable by name, address, phone number, and email. One of their testimonials is from someone who claims BeenVerified helped them snoop on their significant other to find out they were a liar. Great relationship goals.
How To Opt Out: Go to https://www.beenverified.com/app/optout/search, fill out your name and state, click submit. Go through the results to find the records that look like you or family. Click one, fill out the captcha, submit a unique email or email alias, go to your email and click the confirmation link. They’ll require a unique email for each request you submit. They’ll email you again once the request has been received and once the information has been taken off their site.
Why: Their information is publicly searchable by name, email, phone number, or address. They sell premium subscriptions to access additional information like criminal records and reputation scores. They’ve been sued by the FTC for misleading practices and false claims.
How To Opt Out: Go to www.mylife.com, search for your information. Click the results that match and you want removed. Email the links to your information to email@example.com with a subject and message saying “delete my information and remove me from your site immediately”. They’ll respond within 2-3 weeks and confirm the removal.
Why: They’ve also been sued by the FTC. They claim to have 6,000,000,000 consumer records publicly searchable so your information is likely on their site. They have the ‘Forbes’ logo listed but immediately have a disclaimer saying that Forbes hasn’t endorsed or sponsored them for anything.
How To Opt Out: Go to www.spokeo.com, search for your information, copy each link to your results individually and paste them on this page https://www.spokeo.com/optout. Add an alias email to the form, solve the captcha, and press submit. Go to your email and click the confirmation link they send you. They’ll email you in 2 weeks confirming the removal.
Note: They don’t remove address information, but they will remove your name from an address listing.
Why: They are one of the source systems for many little data brokers and people search sites. Removing your information from Radaris is like pulling a weed out by the roots.
How To Opt Out: Go to https://radaris.com/, search for your information, copy each link to your results individually and paste them on this page https://radaris.com/control/privacy; make up a username, don’t use your real name. Add an alias email to the form, solve the captcha, and press submit. Go to your email and click the confirmation link they send you. They’ll email you in 2 weeks confirming the removal or telling you they can’t find your information. Another alternative is to email them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with the links and personal information you want removed. Again, use an alias where possible.
Why: They are owned by a personal data broker monolith called People Connect. They’ve been recently hit with a class action lawsuit for charging people without letting them know. Unfortunately, People Connect is unresponsive to removal requests, so removing yourself from Intelius is the next best thing. (Feel free to try bugging email@example.com, but it’s unlikely they’ll respond)
How To Opt Out: Go to https://www.intelius.com/opt-out/submit/, search your name and state. Enter an alias email. Review the results and click to remove a result that matches your information. Complete the captcha and click on the confirmation link they send to the email you first entered. You can submit multiple removal requests with multiple unique alias emails. They will send you an email once your information has been opted out successfully.
Why: They make hundreds of thousands of personal records searchable by name, email, phone number, residential address, vehicle id number, and ip address. They post this information for free and do not offer any paid subscriptions. In addition to contact information, they’ve created wealth, travel, tech, shopping, and green scores.
How To Opt Out: They offer an opt out form, but it’s easiest if you go to https://thatsthem.com/people-search, search for your information, copy the links to the pages about you, and send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org listing the page links you want removed. Once again, send the email from an alias if possible.
The Right To Be Forgotten
Blocking these sites from selling and sharing your information and limiting the information you share to begin with can have both personal and societal impacts. On the personal level, it can reduce the amount of spam you get, your risk of harassment or stalking, the specificity of a targeted phishing attempt or hack. It can help you keep personal information private (even if it’s technically public), like marital status, sexual preference, religion, or divorce. It can also protect your family members from being targeted by someone using your information.
On the larger scale, it can impact the progression and acceptance of surveillance across our society. We can accept the terms and conditions offered by governments and corporations in exchange for ultimate convenience. Or we can actively demand rights to be forgotten, rights to privacy, and rights to control our information.
To learn more about Kanary and try it for free, check out our website.
I’d love to hear from you if you have questions, suggestions, or feedback. Send me a note – email@example.com.
Designer DNA molecule helps hunt down cancer stem cells in blood
Like weeds that grow back if you don’t remove the roots, cancer can keep returning thanks to lurking stem cells. Now, researchers have developed a “designer” DNA segment that can eradicate these cancer stem cells, with tests in mice showing promising early results in preventing the return of cancer.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the blood plasma cells, where abnormal antibodies are produced and build up in the body, eventually damaging the bones and kidneys and affecting the body’s ability to fight infection. Unfortunately, patients usually relapse after treatment, and worse still the cancer often becomes resistant to previously successful therapies. This is chalked up, at least in part, to the proliferation of myeloma stem cells, which can produce new cancer cells after the old ones are destroyed in treatment.
In previous studies, overexpression of a protein called IRF4 has been linked to lower survival rates for multiple myeloma patients, because it expands myeloma stem cell proliferation. So in the new study, researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and Ionis Pharmaceuticals set out to silence the gene that encodes for that protein.
To do so, they developed what’s called an antisense oligonucleotide, an engineered piece of DNA that binds to a specific gene. This particular oligonucleotide is called ION251, and it’s designed to target the IRF4 gene. That helps it eradicate not just the malignant plasma cells, but also the myeloma stem cells to prevent the disease returning.
The team tested ION251 in engineered mice with transplanted human myeloma cells. Each group involved 10 mice, which received doses of either the drug or a placebo every day for the first week, then three doses per week for the rest of the study.
And sure enough, after between two and six weeks of the therapy, the treated mice had far fewer myeloma cells than the control group. Between 70 and 100 percent of mice in treated groups survived, while all of the control groups succumbed to the disease.
“The results of these preclinical studies were so striking that half the microscopy images we took to compare bone marrow samples between treated and untreated mice kept coming back blank – in the treated mice, we couldn’t find any myeloma cells left for us to study,” says Leslie Crews, co-senior author of the study. “It makes the science more difficult, but it gives me hope for patients.”
The team also says that ION251 could be used in conjunction with more traditional cancer therapies, making the tumors more sensitive to them and hopefully preventing relapse.
A Phase I clinical trial is already underway to assess the safety and efficacy of ION251 in humans.
The research was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
Unique magic mushroom microdosing study to begin in Australia
A novel Australian trial is set to investigate the popular yet still deeply unproven practice of microdosing psychedelics. The research promises to be the first exploration of naturalistic psilocybin microdosing in a lab-setting using a cutting-edge neuroimaging technique and a unique kind of trial protocol.
The idea underpinning the phenomenon of psychedelic microdosing is that tiny doses of psychoactive drugs, such as psilocybin or LSD, can deliver subtle enhancements to productivity, creativity, mental well-being and energy. The key to microdosing is that doses must be so small that the user feels no acute hallucinogenic effects. Basically, if you feel something acute after taking a dose you have had too much.
While the practice is not particularly new, it has risen in popularity dramatically over the past decade, inspired by highly active internet communities and large volumes of positive anecdotal reports. Despite the flurry of popular reporting there is still a dearth of robust empirical data on the true efficacy of microdosing. Only in the last few years have scientists been able to begin exploring the subject through clinical trials, so the jury is still out over whether this practice is an effective phenomenon or simply a glorified placebo effect.
Vince Polito, from Macquarie University, has been researching naturalistic microdosing behaviors for several years. In 2019 he published a compelling, and unique, longitudinal study that tracked the experiences of nearly 100 microdosing subjects over six weeks. His latest project, sponsored by life sciences company Mydecine Innovations Group, is another novel investigation of “real-world” microdosers.
“Our focus of the study is exploring whether microdosing leads to changes in novelty perception or pattern recognition,” says Polito. “In exploring the experiences of genuine microdosers from multiple angles, looking at behavioral, neuroimaging and biomarker data, we want to discover what actually happens when people microdose ‘in the wild’ and whether we can find objective indicators of some of the benefits that microdosers claim.”
Instead of using a traditional study protocol, where researchers themselves would administer doses of a drug to participants in controlled environments, this new research is deploying a very unique method to investigate the acute effects of a mushroom microdose.
“We are going to ask people already microdosing to come into the lab on two occasions,” Polito explains to New Atlas in an email. “We will be using a simplified version of the self-blinding protocol developed by researchers at ICL [Imperial College London], meaning that participants will prepare a placebo and a genuine microdose. They will take one of these on each testing day (but will not know which one they have taken). So the study will use a within-subjects design, comparing the performance of people on days when they are and are not microdosing.”
The self-blinding microdose protocol Polito is referring to was developed by a team of UK researchers and involves the participant placing either microdoses or placebos into envelopes that are only marked with QR codes. The participant shuffles the envelopes, losing track of which ones contain microdoses and which contain placebos. This essentially serves to blind the participant from what they are taking, and then at the end of the study the researchers can track, via the QR codes, when each participant was taking either a microdose or placebo.
The UK study employing this novel protocol hopes to have the first phase of its results published very soon. A second phase is set to commence later in 2021 and it will potentially look at incorporating lab-based measurements into the data it is gathering.
The upcoming Australian study is a little simpler and more focused than its UK counterpart. While it will look at subjects who self-report ongoing microdosing practices, it is primarily interested in the immediate after-effects of taking a microdose.
“The study will be open to people microdosing with psilocybin only,” says Polito. “We don’t require people to follow a specific dosing regime. We don’t want to influence people’s microdosing behaviors in any way, we want to explore the experiences of people microdosing according to their existing practices. We are mainly interested in the immediate or state-based effects of microdosing so our measures will focus on markers of any psychological or physiological changes that occur while a person is microdosing (rather than cumulative or longterm effects).”
Alongside a variety of cognitive and biometric measures, the study will be the first to explore the microdosing brain using a cutting-edge neuroimaging method called magnetoencephalography (MEG). While the idea of MEG has been around for decades, recent technological advances have allowed this novel form of neuroimaging to be optimized.
MEG scans allow researchers incredibly detailed insights into real-time electrical activity in the brain. Unlike fMRI, which tracks neuronal activation by imaging blood flow changes, MEG tracks electrical activity in ways similar to an EEG but with profoundly greater resolution.
“There have been very few imaging studies of microdosing so far and I think that this will be the first MEG investigation,” says Polito. “This will allow to explore more precisely changes that occur in neural networks on dosing days, and to identify very subtle changes that may occur in response to our experimental stimuli.”
The study is currently recruiting subjects and Polito asks any interested volunteers in the Sydney area to contact his research team at this email address.
Computer algorithm spots endangered wildlife in satellite images
Satellites have offered scientists a powerful new tool when it comes to tracking endangered wildlife, with the movements of tagged animals able to be monitored with great precision. A new technology promises to expand the possibilities even further, with scientists demonstrating a new computer algorithm that can be used to track untagged animals in complex landscapes via satellite imagery for the first time.
The breakthrough is the result of a collaboration between scientists at the University of Bath, the University of Oxford and the University of Twente, with the team using the largest land animals on Earth as their starting point, endangered African elephants. These creatures can meander through exposed grasslands, covered woodlands and anything in between, so using satellite imagery to spot them from space presented some unique challenges.
“This type of work has been done before with whales, but of course the ocean is all blue, so counting is a lot less challenging,” says Dr Isupova. “As you can imagine, a heterogeneous landscape makes it much hard to identify animals.”
Computer scientists at the University of Bath created a deep learning algorithm that can scan satellite images of vast areas of land in minutes, detecting the elephants with the same accuracy as human observers in low-flying aircraft. The team says this is the first technology to reliably monitor animals moving through a heterogenous landscape using satellite imagery, which could prove valuable to conservationists in a number of ways.
Not needing to tag the animals first means that the creatures don’t need to be disturbed and humans don’t need to be placed in danger. It also makes it easier for endangered populations to be monitored as they migrate across international borders, circumventing issues like border controls or conflict between countries.
Wildlife numbers are declining at an alarming rate, with as much as two thirds of wildlife populations of the Earth’s vertebrate species lost since 1970 as a result of human activity. Suffice to say, conservationists need all the help they can get when it comes to reversing this trend and preserving the world’s endangered animals. While elephants were used in these initial phases of the research, the scientists hope that as the technology improves, it can be leveraged to monitor animals much smaller in size.
“Satellite imagery resolution increases every couple of years, and with every increase we will be able to see smaller things in greater detail,” says Dr Olga Isupova from the University of Bath. “Other researchers have managed to detect black albatross nests against snow. No doubt the contrast of black and white made it easier, but that doesn’t change the fact that an albatross nest is one-eleventh the size of an elephant.”
The research was published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.
Source: University of Bath
88-megawatt Canadian hydro-to-hydrogen plant to open in 2023
German multinational Thysenkrupp has won the contract to build and operate a huge hydro-electrolysis facility in Quebec, which will use one of the world’s most powerful electrolyzers to produce some 11,100 metric tons of green hydrogen annually.
Canada’s mountainous terrain offers exceptional opportunities for clean hydroelectricity generation, and the country has worked to maximize its advantages. Some 61 percent of the country’s total electricity generation comes from hydro plants totaling some 82 GW of production capacity, and this country of just 37.5 million people ranks fourth in the world in total hydro production, trailing only the USA, Brazil and China.
Now, it’s looking toward hydrogen. Government-owned power company Hydro-Quebec, the biggest energy producer in the country, has commissioned a CAD200 million (US$159 million) electrolysis plant in Varennes, near Montreal, which will use hydroelectricity to power a giant electrolyzer, converting water into 11,100 metric tons of green hydrogen and 88,000 metric tons of oxygen a year.
This will not initially be for export; the 88-MW plant’s output will supply clean energy and oxygen to a nearby recycling plant, where it’ll be used to convert non-recyclable waste into biofuels instead of sending it to landfill.
But eventually, Canada hopes plants like this can convert its enormous hydro potential into a clean energy export business, powering tomorrow’s fuel cell vehicles and aircraft, feeding into more integrated hydrogen economies and industrial use cases, and selling as a feed stock from which carbon-neutral synthetic fuels can be manufactured.
Hydro-Quebec says it’s also looking into green H2 as a potential bulk energy storage medium, although that’ll present some challenges – we wonder if it’d be more efficient to simply plonk the water back up the hill with a pumped hydro energy storage system.
The new hydro-electrolysis plant is due to be commissioned in 2023.
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