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Digital sound waves

Interpol’s New Software Will Recognize Criminals by Their Voices

The world’s largest police network is evaluating software that would match samples of speech taken from phone calls or social media posts to voice recordings of criminals stored within a massive database shared by law enforcement agencies.

The platform, as described by developers, would employ several speech analysis algorithms to filter voice samples by gender, age, language, and accent. It will be managed by Interpol at its base in Lyon, France with a goal of increasing the accuracy of voice data, and boosting its reliability and judicial admissibility.

The development team completed successful field tests of the system in March and November 2017. Next up is a project review this June in Brussels.

While the system can process any “lawfully intercepted” sound, including ambient conversation, its expected use would be to match voices gleaned from telephone and social media against a “blacklist” database. The samples could come from mobile, landline, or voice-over-Internet-protocol recordings, or from snatches of audio captured from recruitment or propaganda videos posted to social media.

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Someone taking a photograph of text on a computer.

Hiding Information in Plain Text

Computer scientists have now invented a way to hide secret messages in ordinary text by imperceptibly changing the shapes of letters.

The new technique, named FontCode, works with common font families such as Times Roman and Helvetica. It is compatible with most word-processing software, including Microsoft Word, as well as image-editing and drawing programs, such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

Although there are obvious applications for espionage with FontCode, its inventors suggest it has more practical uses in terms of embedding metadata into texts, much like watermarking. “You can imagine that it would be used to provide extra information, such as authors, copyright and so on, about a document,” says study senior author Changxi Zheng, a computer scientist at Columbia University. “Another application is to protect legal documents: Our technique can be used to detect if a document, even when printed on paper, has been tampered with or not. It can even be used to tell which part of the document is tampered.”

Changxi and his collaborators will detail their findings in August at the SIGGRAPH  conference in Vancouver.

Another potential application of FontCode is as an alternative to QR codes. For instance, when people snap a photo of a poster with FontCode-modified text, their smartphones may be redirected “to a website or Youtube video about that poster,” Zheng says. “This is similar to what a QR code can do, but now without the need of putting a black-and-white pattern that can be distracting or compromise the aesthetics of the poster.”

FontCode embeds data into texts using minute perturbations to components of letters. This includes changing the width of strokes, adjusting the height of ascenders and descenders, and tightening or loosening the curves in serifs and the bowls of letters such as o, p, and b.

A kind of artificial-intelligence system known as a convolutional neural network can recognize these perturbations and help recover the embedded messages. The amount of information FontCode can hide is limited only by the number of letters on which it acts, the researchers say.

“Traditionally, a text document is meant to deliver information to the human only. Now we show that it can also deliver embedded information to digital intelligent systems, and the two parts of information delivery do not conflict,” Zheng says. “This is drastically different from existing methods such as QR codes or optical barcodes, which are meant to be read by digital systems but occupy a certain area on the paper.”

To account for potential distortions to text due to concerns such as lighting, blurriness, or camera angle, the scientists relied on the 1,700-year-old Chinese remainder theorem, which can help reconstruct missing information. This strategy could help recover hidden messages even when 25 percent of perturbations to texts are not recognized correctly.

Moreover, FontCode not only embeds messages in text, but can also encrypt them. For instance, users can agree on a private key that can specify the order in which hidden letters are read.

Although other methods exist to hide a message in text, FontCode's inventors say their new technique is the first to work independent of document type. It can also retain secret information even when a document or an image with text is printed onto paper or converted to another file type, they say.

The researchers have filed a patent for FontCode with Columbia Technology Ventures. In addition, “we want to extend this technique to other languages,” Zheng says. “We demonstrated using English in this project; it might require a bit of thought to extend it to other languages—especially the logographic languages, such as Chinese.”

Die photograph of the 500 C active down-conversion mixer.

Making Radio Chips for Hell

There are still some places the Internet of Things fears to tread. Researchers at the University of Arkansas and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Sweden, are building a radio for those places. This month, in IEEE Electron Device Lettersthey describe a mixer, a key component of any wireless system, that works just fine from room temperature all the way up to 500 ºC. It’s the first mixer IC capable of handling such extremes.

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A dark sky with a tornado touching down

Spying on a Storm's Infrasonic Signals to Improve Tornado Warnings

Tornado survivors often compare the terrifying, deafening roars of a twister’s furious winds to the sound of a freight train. But storms also emit sounds that are inaudible to human ears right before producing a tornado. By detecting these infrasonic waves from miles away, researchers hope to develop an earlier, more accurate tornado warning system.

Today, weather agencies issue tornado warnings by closely observing storms for characteristic air movements. Warnings typically come about 10 minutes in advance. But most warnings are false alarms, says Brian Elbing, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University. “Seventy-five percent of the time, tornadoes don’t occur,” he says.

The high rate of error causes ‘warning fatigue,’ which can be deadly. After a 2011 twister ripped through Joplin, Missouri, taking 162 lives, a federal report found that a majority of residents ignored or reacted slowly to warnings in the crucial minutes before the tornado hit.

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Close up of Vayyar Sensor Chip

Vayyar’s 72-Transceiver Radar Chip Sees Just Enough But Not Too Much

Last week, Israeli radar chip startup Vayyar Imaging released a new, higher resolution 3D imaging radar chip it expects will appear in applications as broad as home security, infotainment, and elder care. The resolution is higher, because it packs an unprecedented 72 transceivers on a chip that has its own digital signal processing circuitry. But the image it creates is nothing like a visible light camera’s, and that’s the key, according the company’s CEO and cofounder Raviv Melamed.

“One of the biggest problems, if you want to monitor people in their home, is privacy,” says Melamed. “Obviously, the best thing to have is a camera, but nobody really wants a camera in the house, especially when people can hack in.” He thinks Vayyar’s chip, which forms images at radar frequencies between 3 GHz to 81 GHz, can provide all the information needed for a home security system without any of the identifying data that impinges on people’s privacy.

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Gloved hands holding several used phones with a bin of other used electronics in the background

That New Memory Smell: Tech Can Tell if Your Flash is New or Recycled

Flash is designed to last a decade or more of use. A lot of the gadgets that rely on it are not. Shady recyclers have spotted opportunity in that mismatch, stripping out used chips and selling them as new. But engineers at the University of Alabama have come up with a straightforward electronic examination that can tell if a flash chip is new or recycled, even if that chip has only seen 5 percent or less of its life. And the technique is so straightforward that a smartphone app could run it on its own memory.

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This image shows the unfolded envelope before it is wrapped around a hardware security module.

The Unhackable Envelope

In a high-security computer center, there’s one machine that’s nearly impossible to break into. The systems that store and serve up cryptographic keys are physically protected from even the kinds of subtle attacks that belong in spy movies: x-rays, drill bits a fraction of a millimeter wide, electromagnetic snooping.

These so-called hardware security modules (HSMs) are protected by a battery-powered mesh of micrometer-scale wires embedded in special resin, and they store cryptographic keys in volatile memory that is automatically wiped if the mesh experiences even a minute amount of damage. The tiniest drill bit, for example, will result in open circuits, short circuits, or other changes in resistance that the system instantly detects.

It’s hard to say if anyone has ever succeeded in penetrating an HSM, because it’s not the sort of thing that companies crow about. But engineers from three institutions in Munich think they can do better. In particular, they see potential problems with the reliance on a battery and the memory system.

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On stage at the Brooklyn 5g Summit

5G Poised for Commercial Rollout by 2020

5G report logo, link to report landing page

Key figures in the development of 5G assembled last week at the annual Brooklyn 5G Summit in NYC. In two presentations and a panel discussion, attendees heard encouraging updates about the standardization process and its ability to support a global standards-based commercial rollout of the new wireless technology as early as 2019.

Perhaps most significantly, the experts are confident that everything is on track for Release 15 of the 5G New Radio specifications, scheduled for June of this year. Release 15 is critical to the development of 5G because it provides specifications that manufacturers can use to manufacture equipment. For instance, it will describe how 5G base stations will be configured and how those base stations will communicate with smartphones.

The good news is that a decision by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)—a unification of seven telecommunications standards development organizations—to accelerate the 5G New Radio (NR) schedule back in 2017 has not encountered any major setbacks.

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Illustration of a satellite, earth, and internet beamed to a computer with Facebook on it.

Facebook May Have Secret Plans to Build a Satellite-Based Internet

Facebook may soon join SpaceX and OneWeb in the rush to deliver Internet from orbit.

A filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week revealed details of a multi-million dollar experimental satellite from a stealthy company called PointView Tech LLC. The satellite, named Athena, will deliver data 10 times faster than SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites, the first of which launched in February.

However, PointView appears to exist only on paper. In fact, the tiny company seems to be a new subsidiary of Facebook, formed last year to keep secret the social media giant’s plans to storm space.

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