surveillance cameras on a metal post

DAILY DOSE: Governments are weaponizing Covid-19 data; If there’s a plague outbreak in Europe, blame a foreigner, study.


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In a totally unsurprising revelation, the Associated Press investigated how governments have utilized the abundance of information private citizens provided to public health institutions in the name of combatting Covid-19. Lo-and-behold, law enforcement forces around the world have used the data to harass and target everyday citizens. According to the article,

“In the pandemic’s bewildering early days, millions worldwide believed government officials who said they needed confidential data for new tech tools that could help stop coronavirus’ spread. In return, governments got a firehose of individuals’ private health details, photographs that captured their facial measurements and their home addresses.

Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, The Associated Press has found that authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies. The issue has taken on fresh urgency almost three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID policies recently ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the country’s authoritarian leadership since the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For more than a year, AP journalists interviewed sources and pored over thousands of documents to trace how technologies marketed to “flatten the curve” were put to other uses. Just as the balance between privacy and national security shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has given officials justification to embed tracking tools in society that have lasted long after lockdowns.

“Any intervention that increases state power to monitor individuals has a long tail and is a ratcheting system,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Toronto-based internet watchdog Citizen Lab. “Once you get it, is very unlikely it will ever go away.”

To be fair, if this surprises you, there’s probably a bridge somewhere I can sell you at a discount.

If you’ve ever spent time digging through one of the many pre-print science servers on the internet, you know they’re a bit like the Wild West. Now, scientists are beginning to call for some standards in order to improve the quality and combat shoddy science. Per Science,

“For decades, peer reviewing technical manuscripts before they were published in a journal was a regular duty for senior scientists. But James Fraser, a structural biologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), says he hasn’t reviewed a paper for a journal in years. Instead, Fraser and members of his lab focus on reviewing preprint studies that are posted online whenever authors like, bypassing a journal’s peer-review process.

Critiquing preprints offers big advantages over traditional, journal-based peer review, Fraser argues. Authors can get expert feedback more quickly—sometimes in days instead of months—and from a bigger and more diverse pool of reviewers. It also can be more efficient: Reviewers can focus solely on the quality of the science without worrying about whether a paper is a good fit for a particular journal. And the reviews can be shared with everyone, not just authors and editors. “This is valuable stuff that’s often locked up” in the traditional review process, which at most journals is confidential, he notes.

Fraser isn’t alone in seeing promise in preprint reviews, which represent a radical shift in scholarly communication. Some regard preprint reviews as valuable input for journals that might ultimately publish a paper. Others hope reviewed preprints could ultimately take the place of journal publications. But the widespread adoption of preprint reviewing faces some thorny obstacles. This month, Fraser joined more than 200 scientists, journal editors, and research funders at a workshop that explored ways to overcome them.”

Sounds fair enough.

Sometimes, science entails a modicum of guess work – albeit educated guess-work – and original theories can prove erroneous with changing times. Something like that has happened at a massive fossil site in Nevada. Per the Associated Press,

“Scientists have uncovered new clues about a curious fossil site in Nevada, a graveyard for dozens of giant marine reptiles. Instead of the site of a massive die-off as suspected, it might have been an ancient maternity ward where the creatures came to give birth.

The site is famous for its fossils from giant ichthyosaurs — reptiles that dominated the ancient seas and could grow up to the size of a school bus. The creatures — the name means fish lizard — were underwater predators with large paddle-shaped flippers and long jaws full of teeth.

Since the ichthyosaur bones in Nevada were excavated in the 1950s, many paleontologists have investigated how all these creatures could have died together. Now, researchers have proposed a different theory in a study published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

“Several lines of evidence all kind of point towards one argument here: That this was a place where giant ichthyosaurs came to give birth,” said co-author Nicholas Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

So, a place dinosaurs went to die is now a place they went to have babies. Talk about a 180.

European regulators are just about done with Bitcoin. Per Futurism,

“The European Central Bank is throwing some major shade at bitcoin even as it bounces back following the FTX collapse.

In a blog post titled “Bitcoin’s last stand,” published on its official European Union website, the ECB lobs a devastating takedown at the digital currency — and warns that its demise could just be getting started.

As the ECB notes, bitcoin’s peak value of nearly $70,000 occurred only a year ago in November 2021, yet by June 2022 it had fallen dramatically to less than a third of that. But the real problem, they charge, aren’t localized ups and downs but weaknesses in the entire foundation of the tech: that it has no intrinsic value, has largely been used a vehicle for speculation, and is seldom used for legal transactions.

“For bitcoin proponents, the seeming stabilization signals a breather on the way to new heights,” reads the post. “More likely, however, it is an artificially induced last gasp before the road to irrelevance —  and this was already foreseeable before FTX went bust and sent the bitcoin price to well below USD16,000.””

But… but… the future…

NASA in engaged in some fancy evidence swapping on Mars. Per Nature,

“NASA is about to store some luggage for a trip home from Mars.

As early as next week, the Perseverance rover could start dropping ten test-tube-size cores of rock and dirt onto the ground of Jezero Crater, Mars. Perseverance has been collecting the cores since it landed in Jezero in February 2021, and it has accumulated a range of scientifically intriguing samples. NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send another spacecraft to fetch the samples, which will be returned to Earth in about a decade.

Depositing the cores is an early step toward the first-ever Mars sample return. “We’re coming up on this really big and exciting milestone,” says Meenakshi Wadhwa, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe and NASA’s principal scientist for the Mars sample return.

Perseverance drills and stores rock samples in its belly as it rolls around on Mars; by depositing some of them in what NASA calls a sample depot, it will create a cache of back-up samples that will be safe if something goes catastrophically wrong as the rover continues to explore Jezero. “It guarantees that a scientifically high-value sample collection will be available for Earth return,” Wadhwa said on 16 December, at a press briefing at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.”

Perseverance has near-duplicates of most of the samples it will cache, and will keep those duplicates on board. After it drops off the ten cores, it will continue exploring Jezero, adding cores from each of the interesting rocks it encounters. The goal is that the rover will ultimately hold the near-duplicates of the cores that it put down at Three Forks, plus more cores that represent an even wider range of geological diversity.

No need to worry about the plague in Europe anymore, at least according to a recent study. Per PNAS,

“Plague killed millions of people during the three pandemics in the past two millennia. Despite much research, it remains unclear whether persistent natural plague reservoirs existed in Europe. To examine this question, we have developed a statistical model based on high-resolution and long-term environmental data. From it, we have found no evidence for persistent natural plague reservoirs in historical or contemporary Europe. This suggests that the plague bacterium was repeatedly introduced to Europe, although it might have survived in local medium-term reservoirs. Finally, we question the importance of wildlife rodents as the main hosts in Europe. These findings have wide-ranging significance for the study of human plague through history and provide new tools for resolving century-long enigmas posed by plague.”

What they’re really saying is that should there be an outbreak of the plague again on the continent, it’s probably some foreigner’s fault. Great.

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.

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