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Updates to Horizon Europe include more supports for Ukraine academics

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The European Commission has updated this year’s Horizon Europe programme to provide financial and career supports for researchers fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The European Commission has increased the budget for its Horizon Europe Work Programme 2021-2022 by almost €562m to support the region’s innovation ecosystem in areas like digital, green and health.

The total budget for the programme now stands at almost €16bn. As well as the budget increase, the EU has also made several other adjustments to the programme, chief among them new measures to support researchers affected by the war in Ukraine.

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A new scheme called MSCA4Ukraine has been allocated a budget of €25m to support displaced academics from Ukraine. The programme is part of the existing Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, which already supports researchers at risk.

It will enable Ukrainians to continue their work in academic or non-academic organisations in Europe. The scheme will allow them to re-establish themselves in Ukraine to rebuild the country’s research and innovation capacity.

MSCA4Ukraine will also provide fellowships for doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers to continue their research at academic and non-academic organisations in EU member states and countries associated with Horizon Europe. Researchers’ families will be supported in line with other MSCA programmes.

In March, the Commission launched a dedicated portal for Ukraine-based researchers fleeing the country, called the European Research Area for Ukraine portal. The portal provides information on initiatives at EU level to help affected researchers.

“Ukrainian excellence in research deserves our support in these extremely difficult times. With MSCA4Ukraine, we will further strengthen the solidarity and scientific cooperation between the EU and Ukraine, and make sure Ukrainian researchers can continue their work, said Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel.

As part of the amendment, legal entities established in Russia, Belarus, or in non-government controlled territories of Ukraine are not eligible to participate in actions supported by Horizon Europe.

In addition to the supports for Ukrainian academics, the updated Horizon Europe for this year includes the continuation of WomenTechEU. The programme will see its budget tripled to support more than 100 women-led start-ups. It offers coaching and mentorship opportunities to women deep tech founders to help them overcome industry bias. Three Irish start-ups were picked to take part in the pilot in March of this year. They are: Xtremedy Medical, Kids Speech Labs and Konree Innovation.

The European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have also signed a guarantee agreement. The agreement will see the Commission will support up to €26.7bn of EIB financial operations to enable public investments in sectors such as clean energy, digital and transport infrastructure, health and education over the next seven years.

The guarantee will finance investment in the western Balkans and EU neighbourhood countries, as well as contributing to Ukraine’s post-war rebuilding.

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Sony shifts focus to PC gamers with new Inzone monitors and headsets

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Sony aims to boost the ‘growth of gaming culture’ with two 27-inch monitors and three headsets, designed for both PC and Playstation gamers.

Sony has announced a batch of new monitors and headsets with a focus on PC gamers, as the company looks to reach out to more than its core Playstation audience.

The Inzone range consists of two 27-inch monitors and three headsets, which are all designed to enhance a gamer’s experience. While the main target appears to be PC gamers, the products have features that suit PS5 users.

Sony said its Inzone M9 monitor has 4K resolution and a high contrast with full array local dimming, designed to boost the detail of gaming scenes in deep black and brightness. The monitor also has a 144Hz refresh rate, an IPS display and a 1ms response time. Sony said the monitor will help lead to quicker reactions, which is a clear benefit for competitive PC gamers.

Meanwhile, the M3 monitor will have a 240Hz refresh rate, along with variable refresh rate technology to help gamers “capture movements of rivals in shooter games”.

To go with the monitors, Sony is releasing two wireless headsets, along with the wired Inzone H3 model. The Inzone H9 will have 32 hours of battery life, while the H7 model will have 40 hours.

Speaking on the products, Sony’s head of game business and marketing office Yukihiro Kitajima said there has been a higher interest in gaming with the spread of e-sports tournaments and the advancement of gaming entertainment.

“With Sony’s strong history of high-end audio and visual technology products, we believe this new line will offer even more options for those looking to upgrade their current gaming systems,” Kitajima said.

“We are committed to contributing to the growth of gaming culture by providing PC and PlayStation gamers with a wider range of options to enrich lives through gaming.”

The Inzone headsets range from €300 to €100 and are expected to launch in July, while the M9 monitor is due to launch in the Summer at a cost of €1099. Sony said the pricing and availability of the M3 monitor is expected to be revealed sometime this year.

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Why US women are deleting their period tracking apps | Privacy

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Many American women in recent days have deleted period tracking apps from their cellphones, amid fears the data collected by the apps could be used against them in future criminal cases in states where abortion has become illegal.

The trend already started last month when a draft supreme court opinion that suggested the court was set to overturn Roe v Wade was leaked, and has only intensified since the court on Friday revoked the federal right to abortion.

These concerns are not baseless. As with various other apps, cycle trackers collect, retain and at times share some of their users’ data. In a state where abortion is a crime, prosecutors could request information collected by these apps when building a case against someone. “If they are trying to prosecute a woman for getting an illegal abortion, they can subpoena any app on their device, including period trackers,” said Sara Spector, a Texas-based criminal defense attorney, and ex-prosecutor.

“But every company has their individual storage and privacy policy about how they use and how long they store data,” Spector added.

Cycle trackers are popular for a reason. Nearly a third of American women have been using them, according to a 2019 survey published by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They have helped make women’s lives easier in many ways, from family planning and detecting early signs of health issues to choosing the perfect time for a holiday.

A 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that 79% of health apps available through the Google Play store that were related to medicine, including apps that help manage drugs, adherence, medicines, or prescribing information, regularly shared user data and were “far from transparent”. But many of the big players have made progress over the past years.

A smartphone sits on a light wooden table showing the period tracker app Clue in the Google Play store.
The Berlin-based period tracker app Clue says it does not store sensitive personal data without the user’s explicit permission. Photograph: Piotr Swat/Alamy

Two of the most popular period trackers in the US, Flo and Clue, have more than 55 million users combined. The Berlin-based app Clue said it was “committed to protecting” users’ private health data and that it was operating under strict European GDPR laws. The company’s website says the app collects device data, event and usage data, in addition to a user’s IP address, health and sensitive data it may use for the purpose of improving the app, the services, and preventing abusive use of its service. But Clue does not track users’ precise location, and says it does not store sensitive personal data without a user’s explicit permission. The company also tweeted that it would have a “primary legal duty under European law” not to disclose any private health data and it would “not respond to any disclosure request or attempted subpoena of their users’ health data by US authorities”.

But just because data is being processed by a European company, doesn’t mean that it is entirely immune from US prosecution, said Lucie Audibert, a lawyer at Privacy International, a global NGO that researches, litigates and advocates against abuses of technology and data by governments and corporations.

“The fact that GDPR applies is not that relevant in this case. When it comes to a legitimate legal request from US authorities European companies usually comply. Also, a European company may be hosting data outside the EU, making it subject to different legal frameworks and cross-border agreements,” Audibert added. She also stressed that using a Europe-based app won’t protect women from the courts requesting data from them directly. But it can be a slightly better option than using a US-based one because US companies are more easily compelled to comply with American authorities and courts’ requests. Enforcement is more difficult against European ones.

Flo has come under fire for sharing its users’ data before. The company says on its website it only uses data “for research activities” and that it only uses “de-identified or aggregated data, which cannot be associated” with specific users. But an investigative piece by the Wall Street Journal has found that the app informed Facebook when a user was on their period or if they intended to get pregnant. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a settlement with Flo. Under the settlement, Flo must undergo an independent review of its privacy policy and obtain user permissions before sharing personal health information. Flo did not admit any wrongdoing.

On Friday, Flo announced that it will soon be launching an “Anonymous mode” that can help keep users’ data safe in any circumstances.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

A relatively new, astrology-focused period tracker, Stardust, became the most downloaded free app on iOS in the days after the supreme court’s decision. Stardust’s Twitter bio says it is a “privacy first period tracking app”. But as Vice News reported, the company stated in its privacy policy that if authorities ask for user data, it will comply, whether legally required to or not. It said that the data was “anonymized” and “encrypted”.

“We may disclose your anonymized, encrypted information to third parties in order to protect the legal rights, safety and security of the company and the users of our services; enforce our terms of service; prevent fraud; and comply with or respond to law enforcement or a legal process or a request for cooperation by a government or other entity, whether or not legally required,” their privacy policy stated as of Monday.

Following Vice’s request for comment, Stardust changed its privacy policy to omit the phrase about cooperating with law enforcement “whether or not legally required” to “when legally required”.

Stardust did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Planned Parenthood encourages people to use their app Spot On. “People who want to track their periods and birth control always have the option to remain anonymous by using the Spot On app without creating an account,” the organization said in a statement. “This way, period or birth control data is only saved locally to a person’s phone and can be deleted at any time by deleting the app.”

Third-party apps are not the only option when it comes to period trackers. Apple has a built-in cycle tracker in its Health app that offers more privacy than most external apps. With just a few steps, one can turn off the storing of their health data in iCloud, and it also has the option to store the encrypted data on their computer or phone.

Evan Greer, deputy director of the non-profit advocacy group Fight for the Future, said the best way to protect sensitive health data was to only use apps that store data locally rather than in the cloud. “Because any app where a company [that could receive a subpoena] has access to their users’ data could make it vulnerable for a legal request.”

An image of an Apple iPhone screen shows app icons, including the Health app.
Apple’s Health app has a built-in cycle tracker that offers users privacy. Photograph: Richard Sheppard/Alamy

Eva Blum-Dumontet, a tech policy consultant, said, “It is normal that in times of concern, people are looking differently at technology and apps that we trusted.

“I think when there is a discourse around whether women should delete these apps, we have to think about why they use them in the first place,” Blum-Dumontet said. “These trackers help them manage menstrual cycle when they are experiencing pain.”

Blum-Dumontet stressed that instead of asking users to change their behaviors, “it is period trackers that should change their practices”.

“They should never have owned so much data in the first place. If they adopted practices like storing data locally and minimizing the data to what’s strictly necessary we wouldn’t be having this debate now. It’s not too late for them to do the right thing,” she said.

“The companies that have been making a profit out of women’s bodies need to think very carefully about how they will protect their users,” she continued.They haven’t all been the best in the past when it comes to data sharing. The only way they can survive in this market, the only way they can make themselves trustworthy is by improving their privacy policy and giving users more control over their data,” she said. “If any of these apps will be used in court against their users, it will not be good PR for them.”

Melissa, a 27-year-old mother from Texas who is goingby only her first name to not jeopardize her employment, said she deleted the app because she fears that when she travels, her state could use her missed period data against her.

“I will miss using the app so much. I have used it for so many things, like tracking my ovulation or predicting my mood changes. Sometimes I wake up feeling irritable, and I don’t know why until my app tells me that this could be normal at this point of my cycle,” she added. Melissa also says she would have loved to use it for future conceptions, but now she can’t.

Although much of the warnings on Friday were focused on just period trackers these are not the only apps that can be used against users when it comes to criminal prosecution, experts warned.

“Google Maps or a random game on your phone could just as easily be weaponized against someone as a menstrual tracking app,” Greer said. “While we need to educate each other and take precautions, it’s not OK to put the responsibility solely on individuals. Companies and lawmakers need to act immediately to protect people.”

The concerns over period tracking data are part of a broader conversation about the amount of personal information smartphones collect. Women’s rights organizations all over the world are warning users to be more mindful of their digital presence, not just when it comes to period trackers.

Cycle tracking apps can be hugely useful for many women, said Jonathan Lord, UK medical director for MSI Reproductive Choices. “But all data can be used against you.”

According to Lord, this danger will remain until “we treat abortion like all other healthcare – regulated like all other medical procedures, but not criminalized”.



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Google reportedly hopes to keep political emails out of spam • The Register

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Google has reportedly asked the US Federal Election Commission for its blessing to exempt political campaign solicitations from spam filtering.

The elections watchdog declined to confirm receiving the supposed Google filing, obtained by Axios, though a spokesperson said the FEC can be expected to publish an advisory opinion upon review if Google made such a submission.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. If the web giant’s alleged plan gets approved, political campaign emails that aren’t deemed malicious or illegal will arrive in Gmail users’ inboxes with a notice asking recipients to approve continued delivery.

The reason Google appears to have done so is that earlier this month, 27 Republicans introduced a bill called the Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting (BIAS) Emails Act.

The proposed law aims to “hold Big Tech platforms accountable for using biased algorithms that take control away from consumers and alter the way users are able to see emails from political campaigns,” as US Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) put it.

This draft legislation, as it stands, would make it illegal for an email service provider to apply a filtering algorithm to email messages from an account from a political campaign unless the email recipient took action to apply the filter.

It would also require email service providers (cough, cough, Google) to provide quarterly transparency reports revealing details about filtering applied to Republican and Democratic campaign emails.

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The Republican-backed bill follows the release of a North Carolina State University research paper that found email service providers’ spam filters exhibited political bias toward one party or another.

The report [PDF] – titled, A Peek into the Political Biases in Email Spam Filtering Algorithms During US Election 2020 – stated that Gmail marked more right-leaning messages as spam while Outlook and Yahoo marked more left-leaning messages as spam.

“Gmail marks a significantly higher percentage (67.6 percent) of emails from the right as spam compared to the emails from left (just 8.2 percent),” the report stated. “Outlook is unfriendly to all campaign emails, more unfriendly to the left than to the right. It marks a higher percentage of left (95.8%) emails as spam than those of right (75.4 percent). Yahoo marks 14.2 percent more left emails as spam than the right emails.”

The academics said there’s no reason to believe these biases have been introduced deliberately. Rather, they’re the product of the design of spam filtering algorithms and feedback mechanisms used to adjust filtering decisions.

Their report does not address whether Gmail or other email services consider content quality (eg, excessive capitalization, divisive terminology, etc) in their spam determination calculations.

The authors argue that it’s important for spam filtering mechanisms to be fair while conceding it’s not an easy problem. Attempted adjustments, they say, may degrade filter efficacy and result in more unwanted emails.

Letting every single first-time campaign email through is certain to do that. ®

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