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Amazon might have a Cambridge Analytica-size problem
Amazon could be the next big tech firm to find itself in the eye of a data privacy storm.
- This year the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, implicating Facebook and creating mass data privacy concern.
- Concerns have been raised of Amazon user information being leaked to third parties on a regular basis.
- With the amount of sensitive information and huge number of users on the Amazon platform, this is no small concern.
2018 hasn't been a good year for Facebook. In March, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, implicating the company in data harvesting activities for political purposes. The story is far from over, with recent reports stating that the UK Parliament has seized Facebook internal company papers linked to an ongoing investigation into the matter.
Shortly after the scandal broke, Apple CEO Tim Cook twisted the knife, revealing in an interview with MSNBC that he believed Facebook should have shown some self-restraint. He addressed his own company's customers, stating their value to Apple and promising, "We're not going to traffic in your personal life."
Of course, the sentiment is admirable — even for hardened cynics who see the marketing angle of such a statement. However, it doesn't change the fact that all the big tech firms currently process our data inside a black box. Before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google was under the microscope due to Edward Snowden's disclosures of NSA spying activities.
Now, Amazon could be the next big tech firm to find itself in the eye of a data privacy storm. The issue? America's biggest marketplace is heavily dependent on Chinese sellers, who are unwittingly allowing some of China's biggest payment processors access to Amazon customers' personal data.
How Chinese payment processors access Amazon user data
Amazon is a global marketplace, meaning that it's very easy for virtually anyone to become a seller on the platform. When you make an order on Amazon, your personal data including name, address, and basic credit card information and purchase details are passed through to the seller. The seller also needs to have a receiving account, so they can receive the proceeds from your purchase. Amazon requires that the receiving account is linked to the country where the seller is operating.
For this reason, many Chinese sellers use big payment processing companies based in China such as Pingpong, and Lianlian. The payment provider needs access to the seller's Amazon account to set up their receiving account, and here is where the data privacy issue occurs.
A seller has a couple of options for how a third party can plug into their Amazon account. The highest level of access is using the seller's secret key. Someone with a seller's secret key can access all the same data as the seller themselves, including customer data of people who have ordered from the seller.
Even the fact that sellers receive customer data may come as a surprise to many. After all, we assume that Amazon is the company receiving and processing our data, not some small seller on the other side of the world. However, since Amazon accepts pretty much any seller, many will need customer data to fulfill and process payment for the order.
Amazon does provide the option of using an API for payment providers to access a seller's account. However, they provide only the very thinnest of instructions to their sellers on how to do this and explain the dangers of giving out private keys in the vaguest of terms. From discussions taking place on Weixin, China's version of WhatsApp, it's apparent that Chinese sellers are being asked by payment providers to release their secret keys.
Even discussions on Amazon's own community pages imply some sellers have disclosed their secret keys. This means that payment providers, which are huge Chinese companies, now likely have access to the customer data of a currently unquantified number of American Amazon users.
The extent of the damage
While the amount of data breached is unquantified, the sheer scale of Amazon and its ties to China provide some insights into the potential extent of the damage. There are an estimated 90 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the US, with 46% of subscribers buying something at least once per week.
34% of Amazon's top sellers are based in China, with 250,000 new Chinese sellers having joined Amazon in 2017 alone. Pingpong is just one example of a Chinese payment services provider and it has processed more than $1 billion worth of US payments.
Regulators have taken greater steps to intervene in matters user data privacy, but regulatory control only has a defined geographical scope. A court can hold Amazon accountable for its actions in securing customer data in its own jurisdiction, however it cannot rule against the use of data that has already leaked to foreign companies. Nevertheless, the US has been slow to introduce user privacy laws compared to the EU, which has attempted to control the issue with its far-reaching General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR.)
Because Amazon is a global company, the issue is not necessarily limited to US customer data. However, this is taking place against the backdrop of an extremely tense period in US-China trade relations. During 2018, both countries have imposed an increasing series of tariffs on imports from the other, leading to a situation which many economists believe could be extremely damaging to the global economy. Sectors including technology, healthcare, and agriculture are being impacted by the tariffs.
It remains to be seen whether or not Amazon user data may become a pawn in the trade war between President Trump and China's leader Xi Jinping. Amazon is a US company, after all, and any misuse of US Amazon user data by Chinese companies would be likely to be seen as an attack on the US. With the famously unpredictable President Trump in charge of Chinese trade negotiations, it could go either way.
Regulators must hold big tech accountable
The privacy issues with Amazon customer data highlighted here further underline the level of trust we are placing in big tech companies. We rely on their systems, processes and overall integrity to keep our data safe. Increasingly, these firms are demonstrating that they do nothing to earn our trust.
However, once the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, regulators including the US Senate and the UK Parliament were quick to intervene. This has cast a shadow over Facebook's practices, and the company is finally being held to account for its actions. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before Amazon comes under the same level of scrutiny.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.