Doom in 2029?

Asteroids are one of the most serious threats to life on earth that we know of. This is not something we think about very often. It was almost certainly an asteroid that took out the dinosaurs. This is a very real threat that humanity faces. The good news is that scientists are getting better at watching out for these large rocks which whiz by our planet more often then you might think. The bad news is that, today there is very little we can do about one of these striking us. See my rant at the end of this article for more about what we can do.

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This week it was reported that a massive asteroid, called 99942 Apophis, is going to make a very close pass of Earth in 2029, and that flyby could determine the fate of our planet.

“We can rule out a collision at the next closest approach with the Earth,” Astronomer Alberto Cellino told Astrowatch. “But then the orbit will change in a way that is not fully predictable just now, so we cannot predict the behavior on a longer timescale.”

The flyby in 2029 will be very-very close, with the asteroid expected to pass within 20,000 miles of Earth’s surface. That’s a ridiculously close by space standards, and it’s such a tight squeeze that the gravity of Earth is expected to alter the path of Apophis in such a way that its future passes will become much more unpredictable until further forecasting can be accomplished.

This video from the Discovery Channel depicts that tragic events of a large asteroid striking our planet.

The threat from Apophis is particularly scary because of its size. The asteroid has a diameter of over 1,200 feet, and a collision with our planet would be a catastrophic event. Scientists have forecasted the potential impact, estimating that the rock would strike with an amazing 750 megatons of energy. By comparison, the Tunguska event — which flattened a huge forested area in Russia’s Siberia — is thought to have only been about 10 megatons of force.

My Asteroid Influenced Rant

All of this talk of potential global doom from space kind of makes you think that we should be working together as opposed to engaging in endless political arguments. Our combined energy should be used to better ourselves and collectively protect each other. The type of healthcare we have, or what political ideology we each have will help us ZERO if we can’t prevent a rock like 99942 Apophis from striking our little blue marble. Instead of engaging in endless arguments we should collectively science it up and work on preventing disasters like the one that is possible in 2029.

OK – now I need to go watch an episode of Star Trek.

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What is a Podcast?

Image result for podcastsYou’re about to see how you can find a huge variety of new and interesting content from the internet to fill your smartphone, tablet or PC for free. You can listen to what you want, when you want, and how you want.

Imagine getting new “radio”-style talk and music shows to listen to on your smartphone every day. You wake up and automatically have new shows ready to listen to while you exercise, commute to work or just while relaxing around the house. This is the podcast listening experience.

Let’s face it. Broadcast radio is getting old. The same songs get played over and over until you’re sick of them. A few large companies have control of the formats and what gets played. There is very little variety.

With podcasts you don’t have to wait to hear something that interests you. You choose what you want to listen to. There are now thousands & thousands of podcasts and the number is growing rapidly.

What is a Podcast?

The word podcast is a play on the word broadcast combined with the word iPod (one of the most popular portable MP3 players at the time podcasting became popular).

At the core a podcast is an audio file that is automatically received from the internet and then synced to your smartphone, tablet or computer. The files are received by subscribing through a podcast player app.

You do not have to have an iPod to listen to a podcast. The best podcast player is right there on your smartphone, which makes it very convenient.

What Are Podcasts So Popular?

What sets podcasts apart is that they can be automatically downloaded to your computer or smartphone and synced without you needing to do anything. You can wake up each morning with new shows (that interest you) on your smartphone, tablet or computer ready to listen to.

The ease and convenience of this automatic delivery in addition to the endless content makes it so popular.

Content! No matter what you are interested in, science, politics, technology, history and much more is all there waiting for you. Also many of the popular networks such as NPR, ESPN, CNN, BBC and many more make their on-the-air content available via podcasts as well!

Finding Content and a Podcast Player

The first thing you want to do is pick a podcast player app. I have 2 recommendations depending on what smartphone you have. There are many others – these are just my personal favorites.

Once you have a podcast player on your smartphone or tablet you can begin to search for content that interests you.

Enjoy…. and welcome to the 21st century!

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New Ransomware Threat Spreads Globally

Here is yet another security threat that only infects those who do not keep their computers up to date.

A new ransomware called Petya which is very similar to WannaCry, is using the Eternal Blue exploit developed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to spread across the world. Ukraine’s national banks, power companies, airport, metro services and several organizations are now under attack by Petya. The attack is spreading fast and security companies are seeing thousands of infection attempts at the moment. More than 80 companies in Russia and Ukraine are reportedly infected already. Even the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is now under attack and they have now switched to manual monitoring of radiation. As you can see in the image above, this ransomware demands $300 in Bitcoin similar to WannaCry to get the decryption code.

This Petya ransomware affects only old Windows PCs which are running without latest updates. If you are running latest Windows 7 SP1 or latest OS from Microsoft with recent updates, you don’t have to worry about this cyberattack.

Dedicated readers – I urge you to keep your computers up to date with patches & fixes provided by Microsoft.

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Fake News, YouTube & Aliens Collide

NASA is making great strides at learning and explaining the complexities of not just the planets in our celestial backyard, but also the makeup of our galaxy and the universe as a whole. It seems that new planets, some that can even sustain life are being discovered regularly. This is where science ends and the problem with fake news and how it can be distributed via social media begins.

About a week ago, a video surfaced on YouTube claiming that NASA was about to reveal the first hard evidence of alien life, and what happened next is probably going to make your shake your head in disbelief at the wonder of fake news and how many people continue to fall for it.

The You Tube video, which was uploaded by someone calling himself “Anonymous Global,” is just a collection of old stock footage and an (of course) obscured voice claiming that NASA has found alien life and was going to announce it soon. There is nothing here but a bunch of nonsense. In fact, the person in the video reading the paper doesn’t even appear to be speaking the words heard in the clip, and it’s likely just a looped clip of a previous video being reused for the umpteenth time.

Because this is the internet, this means someone is going to share it, others are going to watch it, and some people are going to believe it. What is amazing is that the entire thing began to snowball, hitting sites like Daily Mail and eventually even Newsweek, crediting “Anonymous” with having evidence that NASA is poised to reveal the discovery of aliens, with absolutely nothing in the realm of reality to back it up.

Setting aside the obvious issues with various news outlets referring to Anonymous as a “group” — when in reality the entire concept of Anonymous is that there is no structure or members in the traditional sense. The video is very clearly nothing more than an attempt to generate some ad revenue. Ads play in the middle of the video as well as the beginning, which is hilarious, and since the video has now gained over one million clicks, it’s probably making a decent chunk of change.

This is a clear example of the travesty of fake news. People often believe anything – even when they know better.

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iOS 11 Arrives on My iPhone!

The moment I have been waiting for is finally here. iOS 11 public beta 1 has been released, which means I was finally able to install it on my iPhone. It was fairly effortless to upgrade to iOS 11 from my existing iOS 10.3.2 installation.

As always I am placing my iPhone at risk so you, my dedicated readers don’t have to. What will the new iOS bring to your iPhone? Here is what I have found since I updated mine with the iOS 11 Beta.

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What Does iOS 11 Change?

The iOS aesthetic has undergone some major changes over the years, but that’s not really the case here if you’re using an iPhone. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference until you swipe up in search of that flashlight. The iOS Control Center no longer looks like a handful of pages with quick options; it’s a more condensed cluster of buttons and controls that you can finally customize. I appreciate Apple squeezing all of this functionality into one place; it generally works well, and if your iOS device supports 3D Touch, you can press on these icons to access more controls. That said, I’ve already screwed up my screen brightness while trying to close Control Center maybe a thousand times, and I’m not sure I love the look either.

You can also view all your recent notifications from the home screen just by swiping up from your lock screen, which is nice if you need to get caught up on things quickly. That said, if you’re a digital pack rat (like me) and never clear your notifications, this is a great way to see iOS lag.

You’ll also see a big focus on big text: It’s meant to be clear and visually punchy, but if you didn’t like the Apple Music redesign, you’re probably not going to like this either. That bold approach is used everywhere to some extent, from the Messages app to your list of albums in Photos. The best new example, however, is the revamped App Store. It’s not just a place with lists of apps (though those still exist) — it’s more curated, and there’s a strong editorial bent. Featured apps get miniature articles (crafted with help from the developers), lots of big imagery, and more video to help explain what makes them so special. It kind of feels like Apple squeezed a teensy blog into the App Store.

And for the first time, games and apps are kept separate from one another. Sifting through these distinct lists is definitely more convenient than before, but it mostly benefits developers. With these lists now separate, apps won’t get pushed down in the Top Paid and Free lists by whatever the buzzy game of the moment is.

A Smarter iOS

Apple’s pushing the concept of “intelligence” really hard with this release. With Core ML, developers will be able to weave machine learning features into their apps, and hopefully make them more responsive to our desires and behaviors. Too bad none of those apps are ready yet. There’s still one concrete example of Apple’s pronounced focus on intelligence here, though: Siri.

For one, it sounds profoundly more natural than before. There are still small tells that you’re talking to a collection of algorithms, but the line between listening to Siri and listening to an actual person is growing strangely thin. (You’ll notice the improved voice in other places too, like when Apple Maps is giving you directions.) Hell, Siri even sounds good when you ask it to translate something you’ve just said in English into Spanish, French, German or Chinese.

It’s also able to act on more unorthodox requests like “play me something sad,” which happens to launch a playlist called “Tearjerkers.” And if you’re tired of hearing Siri altogether, you can now type queries and commands to it instead. Unfortunately, you’ll have to disable the ability to talk to Siri in the process. Ideally, Apple wouldn’t be so binary about this, but there’s at least one workaround. Worst-case scenario, you can enable dictation for the keyboard, tap the button and start chatting with it.

If some of this sounds familiar, that’s because Siri actually has a lot in common with Google Assistant. While the feature gap between the two assistants is closing, Google is still better for answering general-purpose questions. Apple’s working on it, though. The company says Siri now pulls more answers from Wikipedia, which may be true, but you’ll still just get search results most of the time.

More important, the underlying intelligence that makes Siri work has been woven into other apps. Siri can help suggest stories you might be interested in inside the News app, and if you register for an event within Safari, Siri will add it to your calendar.

Going Social with iOS 11

Sometimes I wonder why Apple doesn’t just go all out and create its own social media service. Then I remember it did. It was called Ping, and it flopped hard. So it’s a little worrying to see Apple bake a stronger social element into Apple Music. At least the company’s approach this time is based on delivering features people actually use. In addition to creating a profile (which only partially mattered before), you can now share your playlists and follow other users. Sound familiar? Well, it would if you were a Spotify user. Apple’s attempts to stack up more favorably against major social services doesn’t end here, either.

With the addition of new features, iMessage has become an even more competent competitor to apps like Line and Facebook Messenger. You want stickers and stuff? Apple made it easier to skim through all of your installed iMessage apps, so you can send bizarro visuals to your friends quickly. You’ll get a handful of new, full-screen iMessage effects for good measure, and it’s not hard to see how the newfound ability to send money through iMessage itself could put a dent in Venmo’s fortunes.

And then there’s the most social tool of all: the camera app. The all-too-popular Portrait mode has apparently been improved, though I’ve been hard-pressed to tell the difference. (It’ll officially graduate from beta when iOS 11 launches later this year.) You’ll also find some new filters, but the most fun additions are some Live photo modes. You can take the tiny video clip associated with a Live Photo and make it loop, or reverse itself, or even blur to imitate a long exposure. Just know this: If you try to send these new Live Photos to anyone not on iOS 11, they just get a standard Live Photo.

iPad Focus

The new update brings welcome changes to iPhones, but it completely overhauls the way iPads work. This is a very good thing. Thanks in large part to the dock, which acts similar to the one in macOS, they’re much better multitaskers. You can pull up the dock while using any other app to either switch what you’re doing or get two apps running next to each other.

Just drag an app from the dock into the main part of the screen and it’ll start running in a thin, phone-like window. Most apps I’ve tested work just fine in this smaller configuration, since they’re meant to scale across different-sized displays. And you can move these windows apps around as needed. To get them running truly side by side, just swipe down — that locks them into the Split View we’ve had since iOS 9.

Having those apps next to each other means you can drag and drop images, links or text from one window into the other. This feels like a revelation compared with having to copy and paste, or saving an image to your camera roll so you could insert it somewhere else. Now it just needs more buy-in from developers. Literally all I want to do sometimes is drag a photo from the new Files app into Slack to share it, but that’s just not possible yet.

Oh, right, there’s a Files app now. It’s another one of those things that do what the name implies: You can manage stuff you’ve saved directly on your iPad, along with other services like Dropbox and Google Drive. Those third-party integrations are sort of theoretical right now, though: Dropbox sync isn’t ready yet, and navigating your Google Drive doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to. It’s a great idea in concept, and I can’t wait to try it when it actually works.

When you’re done dragging and dropping, one upward swipe on the dock launches the new multitasking view. The most annoying part of this new workflow isn’t how your recent apps are laid out as a grid instead of the usual cards. No, it’s that you can’t just swipe up on those cards to close an app like you used to; you have to long-press the card and hit a tiny X to do that. I get that it’s more akin to the way you delete apps, but the original gesture was so much more intuitive and elegant. Otherwise, sifting through open apps to pick up where you left off is a breeze.

That said, it’s odd to see the Control Center to the right of those app windows. Having all these extra control toggles shoved into the side of the screen looks kind of lousy to me, but don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of thoughtful touches on display here. Consider the new on-screen keyboard: Instead of tapping a button to switch layouts for punctuation and numbers, you can just swipe down on a key to invoke the alternate character. I still haven’t gotten completely used to it, but I’m much faster than I was on day one. Hopefully, your muscle memory resets more easily than mine. The Notes app also has been updated with the ability to scan documents on the fly, which has already made my life easier when I’m filing work expenses.

And don’t forget about the Apple Pencil. It was always kind of a hassle going through multiple steps before I started writing a note — you had to unlock the iPad, open Notes and tap a button to enable pen input. Now I can just tap the lock screen with my Pencil and I’m already writing. Longtime readers probably know my handwriting sucks, but it’s generally clean enough for iOS to parse it, so I can search for things I’ve written straight from Spotlight. Tapping a result brings up my note, and, even in its unfinished state, it’s honestly a little crazy how fast Apple’s handwriting interpretation works. Then again, Apple is pushing on-device machine=learning processes like this in a big way, so if we’re lucky, behavior like this will be the rule, not the exception.

These are all valuable improvements, and I’m sure I’ll wind up using these features a lot. At this point, though, I still wouldn’t choose an iPad over a traditional notebook or convertible as my primary machine. The situation will improve as more app developers embed support for all these features into their software, but the foundation still doesn’t seem to be as flexible as I need.

Little Changes That Matter

As always, there are lots of little changes baked into these releases that don’t require a ton of words. Let’s see…

  • There’s a handy one-handed keyboard in iOS 11, but it’s disabled by default. I have no idea why.
  • When you’re on a FaceTime call, you can now take a screenshot of what you’re seeing without that pesky box with your own face in it.
  • Do Not Disturb While Driving is good at knowing when you’re using an iPhone in a car — just be sure to add a toggle for it in the Control Center for when you’re a passenger.
  • It’s basically impossible to miss when an app starts using your location: You’ll see a blue banner at the top of the screen telling you as much.

Even in its unfinished state, iOS 11 seems promising, especially for iPad users. I’ve always maintained that iOS 10 was a release meant to weave Apple’s sometimes disparate features and services into a platform that felt more whole. It was maybe a little unglamorous, but it was necessary. When iOS 11 launches in the fall, we’ll be able to get a better sense of its character and value.

 

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Sonic Heads to Your Smartphone

Following in the tradition of Nintendo – Sega is making a comeback, thanks to your smartphone. The legendary video games company has launched Sega Forever, which is devoted to keeping the Sega name alive long into the future. And what better way to do that than to reach back into the past and bring classic Sega games to your smartphone.

Sonic I didn’t realize how much I missed you. Welcome to my iPhone!

There was a time, not so long ago, when Sega was the biggest games company on the face of the planet. In terms of consoles, the Genesis was a major success. And then there are the famous characters, such as Sonic the Hedgehog.

And then Sega released the Dreamcast, a woefully underrated console, and the whole thing went belly-up. Sega still exists, and still makes arcade machines and games for other consoles. And now, thanks to Sega Forever,the old Sega magic is back. Its a little bit smaller but more mobile then ever before.

Keeping Classic Sega Games Alive Forever

Sega Forever is the new banner under which dozens of classic Sega games will be released on Android and iOS. The games will be be available as free to play with supported by ads and ad-free for a one time payment of $1.99 (per title).

Sega has kicked things off with five Genesis titles: Sonic the HedgehogComix ZoneAltered BeastKid Chameleon, and Phantasy Star II. New games will be launched every two weeks, with titles from the Master System, the Game Gear, the Saturn, and the Dreamcast still to come.

All Sega Forever titles will be available to play offline, with online leaderboards available for those who like comparing their talents with others. The older Sega titles will be brought to smartphones thanks to emulation, while the more recent titles will require full ports to iOS and Android.

My biggest complaint here is that the free ad-supported version is truly annoying. The ads are everywhere and very intrusive. If you want to truly experience that old Sega magic spend the $1.99 on the ad-free version.

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The CIA’s Cool CodeNames

Codenames are awesome. Microsoft & Apple have long used cool codenames for big projects. I just learned that America’s Central Intelligence Agenda loves their codenames as well – and boy are they awesome.

It turns out that in addition to being skilled codebreakers & mathematicians the CIA also contains some creative geniuses who have conceived some truly imaginative names for their top-secret projects. Here are some of my favorites.

Brutal Kangaroo

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Anyone else thinking of Kangaroo Jack right now? Unearthed by Wikileaks earlier today, Brutal Kangaroo is a malware program that can propagate throughout a closed, air-gapped network using infected USB flash drives. It’s very Stuxnet, in that respect. The big difference is that while Stuxnet was used to destroy nuclear centrifuges, Brutal Kangaroo exfiltrates data out of the closed network using some clever steganography tactics.

It’s all very Ronseal-esque; it does what it says in the tin. With respect to the fact that it makes a mockery of air-gapped computers, it’s brutal. Given that the malware and the stolen data ‘hops’ between systems, it’s a bit like a kangaroo.

WeepingAngel

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This one particularly scares because I just bought one these! This malware targets Samsung’s F-Series Smart TVs, allowing the CIA to record what’s going on from the device’s built-in microphone. It’s so named because that’s what happens when you watch those naughty pay-per-view channels.

Starmie and Snubble

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Weirdly, the CIA has a lot of malware named after Pokemon characters. I guess there are similarities between the CIA and Ash Ketchum, with the respect that both are trying to catch ‘em all. Except in the case of the CIA, they’re talking about ISIS members, and instead of Pokeballs, they use Hellfire missiles.

Gaping hole of DOOM

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The CIA named a Comodo AV exploit that promises to consume everything.

Creatine and RoidRage

Both of these target Android. Creatine exploits flaws in the drivers for Qualcomm’s Adreno GPU, while RoidRage is used to monitor all radio functions and steal SMS messages. The documentation for these consists of “DO YOU EVEN LIFT BRAH?” repeated ad-nauseum.

Munge Payload

This tool is used to encrypt and modify payloads so as to avoid detection by an adversary, and sounds nasty.

Panda Sneeze

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It’s not immediately obvious what this threat does. But either way, it’s adorable.

Bumble

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Similarly, this specimen targeting HP routers is just way too cute.

There you go – these security threats may be dangerous but they now have some very cool and bizarre names!

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Taking Control of Your iPhone’s Privacy Settings

As technology continues to take over our lives, the struggle to maintain privacy becomes ever harder. But while we may take special steps to update our privacy settings on Facebook and other social media services it turns out that just having your phone on you at all times has some disturbing consequences.

Did you know that every place you’ve ever visited such as the the local supermarket, the office where you work, the movie theater, your own home is all being stored on your iPhone? This information even includes the exact address and the number of times you’ve been to that location.

Are your feeling a bit freaked out right about now?

How is This Happening?

The reason is a feature hidden deep in your privacy settings called ‘Frequent Locations’, and while it’s in no way new, it often goes unnoticed. For years, the system has been pinpointing the places you visit on a map and logging your arrival and departure times from each location, so your iPhone can help improve the Maps app and serve you best.

Clear your location history settings right here if you are feeling spied on by Apple.

Stopping This – If You Want

So if you want to stop this here’s what you do:

  1. Open your ‘Settings’ menu
  2. Select ‘Privacy’
  3. Select ‘Location Services’
  4. Scroll really far down and select ‘System Services’
  5. Scroll more and select ‘Frequent Locations’
  6. Select ‘Clear History’
  7. Swipe left on the ‘Frequent Locations’ tab to turn it off

There you go – you can now rest easy.  Be warned however – that your Maps app probably will not work as well.

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Book Recommendation: “The Radium Girls”

Image result for radium girls bookIf you look on the right panel of this fine blog you will always see what book I am reading. My literature taste includes, History, Biography, Historical Fiction (although I have lost interest in this genre lately), Science Fiction and of course Star Trek. What I am going to do from time to time is recommend a book that I hope some of you, my dedicated readers will enjoy. So let’s take a look at the first book recommendation.

“The Radium Girls: The Dark Side of America’s Shining Woman” by Kate Moore.

This book was released on April 18, 2017 and I stumbled upon it while browsing the Kindle book store. I love history – especially what I call “hidden history”. Stories that come out of left field – that I previously knew nothing – or very little about. This book, which I am still reading fits that bill perfectly.

This is an amazing and very upsetting work about events that have gone unreported for far too long.

The Story

On April 20, 1902, Marie and Pierre Curie successfully isolate radioactive radium salts from the mineral pitchblende in their laboratory in Paris. In 1898, the Curies discovered the existence of the elements radium and polonium in their research of pitchblende. One year after isolating radium, they would share the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with French scientist A. Henri Becquerel for their groundbreaking investigations of radioactivity.

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer (pictured below) became concerned when her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason. Her troubles were compounded when her jaw became swollen and inflamed, so she sought the assistance of a doctor in diagnosing the inexplicable symptoms. Using a primitive X-ray machine, the physician discovered serious bone decay, the likes of which he had never seen. Her jawbone was honeycombed with small holes, in a random pattern reminiscent of moth-eaten fabric.

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The girls were paid the modern equivalent of $0.27 per watch dial, so the harder they worked, unknowingly swallowing deadly amounts of poison each time to make a few extra pennies, the faster death would approach. In their downtime, some even messed about painting their nails, teeth and faces with the luminous paint, marketed under the brand name “UnDark”.

From here we are led through the horror of what happened to the girls (usually from their mid teens to mid 20’s) who worked as ” radium dial painters”. Their terrible tragedy is made all the more horrible by the negligence of the plant owners.

In the end this is a true story, brilliantly researched and written by Kate Moore which reveals the courageous fight for justice of the Radium Girls against the long odds and brutal tactics and lies of the companies involved and their cronies in the medical and legal professions and in politics. Even sadder is the fact that residents of towns where radium factories set up demonized the factory workers.

How familiar does all this sound today? How safe do you feel in a country where worker protection laws are being stripped and scuttled on a daily basis? If we refuse to learn from events we will surely suffer from their repetition.

I can say this is one of the most haunting books I have read in a very long time. Do yourself a favor and check it out this summer.

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198 Million American Voters Hacked

Another security breach – this time American voters are targeted.

It has been reported that the Republican profiling data and personal information on nearly 198 million American voters has been leaked from a private Amazon Server as this week started.

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Amazon hosted the private server, and Republican data analytics firm Deep Root Analytics provided and managed the content.

The information included in the leaks include the voter’s name, date of birth, home address, phone number, and other voter registration details like party affiliation.

The compromised server also included data from conservative market research firm TargetPoint. The group uses their extensive data to help clients better understand voter policy preferences and political actions, according to the report.

This isn’t the first mass information leak from Republican firms. Campaign data firm i360 accidentally exposed 191 million voter profiles in 2015 and another 154 million profiles were leaked during the course of the 2016 election.

At some point, I am not sure when, online security will be taken a seriously as locking your doors when you are not home or making sure you do not leave your purse or wallet alone and open. Until everyone, both as individuals and as organizations do this, our security is exposed.

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