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The assailants were pixelated, I’d know them anywhere • The Register

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Stop that uterus! It stole my wallet!

What do you mean, “Can you identify the uterus in question?” It looked like a uterus! Or, as we’ve been singing it all through Christmas, a wooooom*.

Talk about getting the new year off to a bad start – I’ve just been robbed by a delinquent reproductive organ. Yet the all signs were there: I knew 2022 would be doomed back in early December when I read that the Salzburg Schokolade company, inventors of the mighty last-minute-airport-gift-shop chocolate ball Mozartkugel, had gone bust.

No, an oversize Toblerone will not suffice. M&Ms? In the bin, pal. Mr Ambassador, you can stick your Ferrero Rochers up your arse. Mozartkugeln were my faux-posh-but-actually-quite-cheap traveller chocs of choice. And now they’re gone forever!

First Bowie, then this. The world is falling apart.

A kindly officer of the law tries to bring me back to my senses following my unexpected mugging. Yes, thank you, I would like a drink. I’ll have an Adios Motherfucker*, please.

Without batting an eyelid, the policewoman strides down the corridor to the drinks machine, taps a few buttons on the display and returns after just 30 seconds with my glass of blue liquid revival. That was quick. The drinks machine must be a Mixo Two: an ingenious local invention that claims to be able to mix any of 300 cocktails in half a minute.

I glug it down, spit out the lemon slice and cherry, and hand back the little umbrella. I decide I’m feeling particularly agitated and may well need more calming down. 299 to go.

Now that my thoughts are clearing, I admit it’s possible my assailant might not have been a uterus after all. It might have been a whole human. I tell my police interviewers that my initial impression of a uterus suggests that it may have been a woman. I am lectured for the next 10 minutes on my questionable observation with the aid of infographics and a flipchart.

Choosing my words more carefully, I try to provide a full description of the thief. It all happened so fast. The last thing I remember, I had escaped the pandemonium at home – workers fixing the WC again – and settled down in a nearby cafe for a break. Well, primarily for a pee in their restroom, then I felt obliged to order a coffee. While waiting for it to arrive, I opened my laptop and continued browsing the hundreds of images taken during Mme D’s recent MRI scan.

Here’s one.

Screenshot of MRI scan of patient's uterus

Protect the innocent: to avoid identification by a web-scraping AI, this uterus has been pixelated. [Click to enlarge]

Prior to this, my only knowledge of MRI scanning comes from British colleagues at the IEEE who are finalising the unveiling of an IEEE Milestone plaque to commemorate the development in London during the 1980s of active shielding of superconducting magnets.

Mme D had a more detailed prior knowledge of MRI scanning as the result of watching every episode of House on Netflix. She reported that her only disappointment was that the operators seemed to concentrate on the scan rather than discuss their sex lives or call each other an idiot before suddenly dashing out the room after answering a call on their cellphone.

What neither of us expected was to be handed a CD of the highlights.

It doesn’t just contain a folder of images but a Windows autoplay program to browse them in detail. My favourite feature of the CD is the Cinema View, which plays back the scans at 25 frames per second. In fact, I had settled down in the living room with a Kia-Ora and carton of popcorn to watch Mme D’s innards on the big screen when the workmen arrived and enforced an early intermission.

It was when the coffee arrived at my table that I realised my wallet was not in my usual pocket, or indeed in any of my unusual pockets either. “Robbed!” I wailed. “No tip!” wailed the waiter. The police were duly called.

What was the last thing I saw before the incident? Er… a uterus. I describe it in as much detail as possible, at 25 frames per second.

So, I ask, are you going run it through your vast, secretive photo-fit database of the population, using some whizzy AI to shortlist the candidates?

Ah no, they respond, we’re not allowed to do that. And then they wink. All of them, in sync, which is a bit creepy. Then I am sent on my way, gently steered back up the corridor in the opposite direction from the Mix Two.

This is the usual conundrum. Scraping the net for the purposes of building a database for security services is still illegal unless you have really good PR, and the use of AI to crawl around the net and randomly apply face recognition to identify ne’er-do-wells is ethically dubious. In most cases, it can’t be done at all (yet).

On the other hand, machine learning is a fabulous tool for health research, if only we can throw enough data at it. The problem is that more people would be happy to share their medical data if they thought it wouldn’t be subsequently misused. And it will always be misused: that’s what personal data is for.

The last thing I’d want is for my photo to turn up on a hit-list of Interpol’s most-wanted criminal uteruses.

Back home, I am comforted by Mme D, who had been wondering what had prompted me to leave the house while a team of plumbers, electricians, interior decorators, plasterers, architects, stone masons, ironmongers, seismologists, stage illusionists, tap dance instructors, steel drummers, and celtic swordsmen were trampling all over it to refit the toilet for the fifth time.

I mumble a reply, collect the now-soggy popcorn and drag myself back into my office.

“By the way,” she calls, “you left your wallet on the kitchen table so I locked it in the filing cabinet.”

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Back when he ran an office in London’s trendy Hoxton, he attended several cocktail workshops – an essential skill for the Silicon Roundabout crowd. The one thing he learnt was that everything is topped up with sugar water. Bleuh. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

*As an infant, I reasoned that “wooooom” was the kind of thing that a sheet-clad apparition moans while a haunting a castle. It was the holy ghost.

**Vodka, rum, tequila, gin, blue curacao, 7 Up, sweet & sour mix.



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Brace for a shock: cost-of-living crisis drives up price of electric car charging | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars

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While petrol price rises may have made the headlines, the energy crisis has also been hitting owners of electric cars in the pocket. The cost of charging at home has risen by 43% for some drivers, while the already higher cost of on-the-road recharges has gone up 25%.

As energy prices are forced up due to rising costs for suppliers, specialist charging deals for drivers have become more scarce. And now there are suggestions that people may put off the purchase of an electric car as the cost-of-living crisis takes hold.

Although demand for vehicles is high, a new report to be released this week from Volkswagen Financial Services suggests that fewer people might commit to buying electric vehicles (EVs) as belts tighten and the cost of energy increases.

“The cost-of-living squeeze will probably mean some potential EV purchasers may not commit to a switch this year, particularly as such vehicles are perceived to be more expensive in relative terms when compared to combustion engine alternatives,” says the report.

Home charging

Electric car owners who are charging their vehicle at home will usually find the most cost-efficient option is one of the specialist tariffs on offer. “Two-rate” tariffs offer one price for electricity used during the day and another for night-time use. When prices are much lower you can top up your battery cheaply.

For example, comparison site Love My EV lists the rates for EDF’s GoElectric 35 as 44.69p per kilowatt hour (p/kWh) during the day and 4.5p/kWh at night. The Octopus Go tariff costs 35.04p/kWh during the day and 7.5p/kWh at night. Both figures are based on supplying a home in south Wales.

Three electric cars charging at a roadside station with an attractive yellow zig-zag canopy sheltering the chargers
A public charging station in Sunderland: many electric vehicle owners cannot charge at home and must pay on-the-road rates. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Since energy prices have increased, the number of specialist deals on the market has dropped, says Laura Thomson, co-founder of Love My EV. While they are usually the best deals for drivers who charge overnight, the day rate and standing charge can be expensive, which consumers need to take into account when working out what is best for their situation.

“For most people who have an EV to charge at home, it does make sense, but there is a high standing charge and a high day rate to factor in,” says Thomson. If you use a lot of electricity during the day, this may not be your best option.

The site has a comparison tool for tariffs. Beware of promises of “free miles” within tariffs as these savings may be outweighed by higher charges, it says.

The rising price of EV tariffs means drivers now face paying 43% more than a year ago. This amounts to a rise of about £75 a year for an average vehicle such as a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe, says Ben Nelmes of transport research company New AutoMotive.

In 2021, the cost of recharging an EV that covered 7,400 miles a year – the average mileage – and was recharged mostly at night was £174. This was based on an overnight rate of 4p/kWh and a day rate of 18p/kWh. By last month, this same charging practice cost £249 a year, based on the best prices then available – 5p/kWh at night and 28p/kWh during the day.

“Someone driving a bigger EV, such as a Kia e-Niro or Tesla, will find that this underestimates what they’ll be paying. Similarly, someone in a Smart car will find they spend a bit less than this,” says Nelmes.

On the road

Rising costs have also become apparent at public chargers. Instavolt, which operates a charging network across Britain, has increased its prices twice so far this year, first from 45p/kWh to 50p/kWh and then to 57p/kWh. Ubitricity, one of London’s largest charging networks, increased prices from 24p/kWh to 32p/kWh last month.

Data company Zap Map, which maps public charge points, found that, on average, charging costs increased from 24p/kWh in December to 30p/kWh in February for slow and fast chargers, and from 35p/kWh to 44p/kWh for rapid and ultra-rapid chargers.

“The price of charging your EV on the public network, or at home, has risen substantially over the past few months with the general increase in electricity prices,” says Melanie Shufflebotham from Zap Map.

There are 460,000 EVs currently in the UK, according to the Volkswagen Financial Service report, and just 300,000 home charger points installed. Those who don’t have a home charger end up paying more, according to Keith Brown of Paythru, a payments technology company. “One of the big inequities of the emerging EV charging market is the price ‘premium’ electric vehicle drivers pay if they don’t or can’t have a home charge point,” he says. “Domestic supply is taxed at a VAT rate of 5% whereas public charge-point supply is taxed at a VAT rate of 20%.”

Shufflebotham has called for the rates to be made equal. “Equalising the VAT rate for both public and home charging would be a great example of levelling up, and encourage more people to make the transition to electric vehicles,” she says.

The advantages

Despite increasing prices, EV drivers still face much lower bills than those with petrol or diesel cars, using figures based on the same annual mileage for all types of vehicle.

Nelmes says that while the rises in the costs of EV charging at home are high, they are dwarfed by the costs of filling a car with fuel.

“We estimate the average UK motorist would spend £1,028 per year on petrol and £987 per year on diesel. That’s up from £796 a year on petrol and £747 a year on diesel a year ago,” he says. “That means that the fuel cost savings available to petrol and diesel drivers who switch to EVs this year are £779 for petrol drivers and £738 for diesel drivers.”

Case study: positives and negatives

Having bought a Nissan Leaf in the last few weeks, Philip Ingram looks back at the deals that were available last year with some annoyance.

He currently pays a flat rate throughout the day of 28.45p/kWh with British Gas, the best tariff available to him at home in Bordon, Hampshire. Last year, he could have taken advantage of deals of 5p/kWh overnight, he says. While there are deals with good night-time rates, now their high day rates mean they do not suit the family budget.

The annoyance is tempered by the savings from moving from a diesel VW Golf to an EV.

Ingram, who runs a cotton company called LittleLeaf Organic, used to pay nearly £90 to fill up with diesel but gets the same mileage for £20 of charging. This has to be balanced against the cost of the car: £24,000. “I wish we had done it a long time ago,” he says, “but the reason that we have been slower is … capital costs. Several times I have said to [my wife] Lisa the running costs are unbelievable, but then you look at the cost of buying this car, [which] is enormous.”

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Web ad firms scrape email addresses before you know it • The Register

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Tracking, marketing, and analytics firms have been exfiltrating the email addresses of internet users from web forms prior to submission and without user consent, according to security researchers.

Some of these firms are said to have also inadvertently grabbed passwords from these forms.

In a research paper scheduled to appear at the Usenix ’22 security conference later this year, authors Asuman Senol (imec-COSIC, KU Leuven), Gunes Acar (Radboud University), Mathias Humbert (University of Lausanne) and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, (Radboud University) describe how they measured data handling in web forms on the top 100,000 websites, as ranked by research site Tranco.

The boffins created their own software to measure email and password data gathering from web forms – structured web input boxes through which site visitors can enter data and submit it to a local or remote application.

Providing information through a web form by pressing the submit button generally indicates the user has consented to provide that information for a specific purpose. But web pages, because they run JavaScript code, can be programmed to respond to events prior to a user pressing a form’s submit button.

And many companies involved in data gathering and advertising appear to believe that they’re entitled to grab the information website visitors enter into forms with scripts before the submit button has been pressed.

“Our analyses show that users’ email addresses are exfiltrated to tracking, marketing and analytics domains before form submission and without giving consent on 1,844 websites in the EU crawl and 2,950 websites in the US crawl,” the researchers state in their paper, noting that the addresses may be unencoded, encoded, compressed, or hashed depending on the vendor involved.

Most of the email addresses grabbed were sent to known tracking domains, though the boffins say they identified 41 tracking domains that are not found on any of the popular blocklists.

“Furthermore, we find incidental password collection on 52 websites by third-party session replay scripts,” the researchers say.

Replay scripts are designed to record keystrokes, mouse movements, scrolling behavior, other forms of interaction, and webpage contents in order to send that data to marketing firms for analysis. In an adversarial context, they’d be called keyloggers or malware; but in the context of advertising, somehow it’s just session-replay scripts.

Gunes Acar, one of the report co-authors, was also the co-author of a similar research project in 2017 that looked at data gathering by session-replay companies Yandex, FullStory, Hotjar, UserReplay, Smartlook, Clicktale, and SessionCam.

Evidently, not much has changed since then, except perhaps that email addresses have become more desirable as unique identifiers now that privacy-oriented browsers like Brave, Firefox, and Safari are taking more steps to block cookies and tracking scripts.

Email addresses, the researchers observe, represent a cookie replacement because they’re unique, persistent, and can be used to track people across applications, platforms, and even offline interactions that may be tied to an email address like loyalty card transactions.

The website categories with the most leaking forms include: Fashion/Beauty (11.1 per cent, EU; 19 per cent US); Online Shopping (9.4 per cent EU; 15.1 per cent US); and General News (6.6 per cent EU; 10.2 per cent US).

Websites categorized as Pornography had the best privacy when it comes to surreptitious form data harvesting.

“A somehow surprising result was the following: despite filling email fields on hundreds of websites categorized as Pornography, we have not a single email leak,” the researchers say, noting that previous studies of adult-oriented websites have relatively fewer third-party trackers than similarly popular general interest websites.

Those pesky regulations

The report authors say that EU websites practicing email exfiltration may be in violation of at least three GDPR requirements: transparency, purpose limitation, and prior consent. Firms found to be violating these rules can be fined up to $20m euros or 4 per cent of annual revenue, per Article 83(5).

The US doesn’t have a federal data privacy law, though it’s conceivable one of the handful of US states with applicable privacy rules could take action against pre-submission form harvesting. But given the toothlessness of US privacy regulation over the past decade, don’t expect much.

The authors say they attempted to contact 58 first-parties and 28 third-parties with GDPR requests. They report receiving 30 responses from the first-parties, which varied from surprise and remediation to justifications of one sort or another.

“fivethirtyeight.com (via Walt Disney’s DPO), trello.com (Atlassian), lever.co, branch.io and cision.com were among the websites that said they had not been aware of the email collection prior to form submission on their websites and removed the behavior,” the report says.

Marriott, meanwhile, said the information collected by digital analytics firm Glassbox helps with customer care, technical support, and fraud prevention.

Third-parties Taboola, Zoominfo, and ActiveProspect defended their data collection practices.

Facebook, aka Meta, is among the third-parties involved in this. The researchers say that email addresses or their hashes were spotted being sent to facebook.com from 21 different websites in the EU.

“On 17 of these, Facebook Pixel’s Automatic Advanced Matching feature was responsible for sending the SHA-256 of the email address in a SubscribedButtonClick event, despite not clicking any submit button,” the report says.

Advanced Matching – called out recently for harvesting student loan data – is designed to collect hashed customer data, such as email addresses, phone numbers, and names from checkout, sign-in, and registration forms. The researchers speculate that on these sites, Facebook’s script treats clicks on non-submit buttons as a click event for the submit button.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The report concludes that browser vendors, regulators, and privacy tool makers need to deal with this issue because it isn’t going away. “Based on our findings, users should assume that the personal information they enter into web forms may be collected by trackers – even if the form is never submitted,” the report concludes. ®

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VC funding in Ireland rose in Q1, but not for deals under €10m

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A William Fry-commissioned report has found that funding deals under €10m have taken a big hit in the first three months of 2022.

Venture capital funding into Irish tech businesses was up by more than 50pc in the first quarter of this year, but there’s an unfortunate and potentially troubling caveat to that.

The Irish Venture Capital Association (IVCA) has published today (15 May) its latest report on VC funding into tech start-ups and SMEs in Ireland, which found that the investments increased by 52pc to €379.7m in the first three months of 2022, compared to the same period last year.

Future Human

But the report, commissioned by Dublin law firm William Fry, also found that VC funding in deals valued less than €10m have taken a hit.

IVCA chair Nicola McClafferty said that the headline figure of a funding boost conceals a “potentially worrying fall” of 30 to 50pc across all categories of deals under €10m – including seed funding.

“All the growth came from eight deals worth over €10m each, including three over €30m. While the momentum carried over from last year has continued for more established companies raising large rounds, some of that impetus seems to have stalled for earlier stage companies.”

Even the total number of deals overall fell by almost a third to 50 from 74 in the same period last year.

McClafferty said that this could be related to international trends affecting the business world right now, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“While challenging market conditions may continue, we also know that many great companies are started and built in times of downturn, so we await with interest the data in the coming quarters,” she added.

Deals in the €5m to €10m range fell in value by more than half, while those in the €1m to €5m range also halved from €70.3m last year to €34.5m in Q1 2022. The value of deals below €1m dropped by 31pc to €8.9m.

Seed funding also took a hit, falling by nearly 40pc to €22.3m from €36.5m last year.

Nearly four-fifths of all funding came from overseas sources, according to IVCA director-general Sarah-Jane Larkin.

“While this is to be welcomed and emphasises the quality of Irish tech firms and their appeal to international investors, we have expressed concern before about where any shortfall would be made up if the global economy contracts,” she said.

Wayflyer, Ireland’s latest tech unicorn, led the way in terms of total value of funding received with a $150m in Series B funding valuing the start-up at $1.6bn. Flipdish, another Irish tech start-up that became a unicorn this year, raised $100m reaching a $1.25bn valuation.

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