Smart Thermometer Shows Fevers Dropping in Areas with Sheltering Measure

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In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, one sign that social distancing measures may be working is that people’s temperatures — a symptom of the virus — are dropping in some cities in the U.S., according to a smart thermometer company. The data could give health officials an early look into how the virus is progressing. Michelle Quinn takes a look.

Gamers Check Back in to Habbo Hotel as Coronavirus Refuge 

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Habbo Hotel, a hit online networking game more than a decade ago, is drawing back hundreds of thousand of players as locked-down millennials look to rediscover a childhood favorite, its Finnish maker said.   “Our traffic has tripled over the past month. The exact user number growth figure is 213% since February 25,” game maker Sulake’s Chief Executive Valtteri Karu told Reuters, adding that this included hundreds of thousands of new and returning users.   Launched 20 years ago, Habbo Hotel gained a strong following among children and teenagers before it was eclipsed by social media sites such as Facebook by 2010.   With a layout reminiscent of classic video games, Habbo Hotel consists of rooms that players can decorate and where they can meet other players to chat or play games. They can also join virtual parties in search of new acquaintances.   One returning user is Pilvi Pitkaranta, a 23-year-old University of Tampere student who was an active player with her classmates about 10 years ago.   With all student events canceled because of the coronavirus, Pitkaranta decided to organize a virtual party at Habbo Hotel. About 30 of her fellow students joined the party at the end of March.   “I thought it was a fun idea to organize a party there, also out of nostalgia,” Pitkaranta said.   “Some people are finding it very distressing that they have to be home alone and are finding it hard to get things done when stuck indoors.”   Habbo Hotel has versions in nine languages, attracting most users in the Americas and Europe, Sulake’s Karu said.   “As the world has shut down, the more users have come along,” he added.   The game’s Finnish maker is jointly owned by private Dutch advertising group Azerion and Finnish telecoms operator Elisa.   It remains to be seen if Habbo’s renewed popularity will last only as long as the virus.   As welcome a diversion as Habbo may be, Pitkaranta and her fellow students are looking forward to when they can enjoy some real-life partying, she said. 

Hackers’ New Target During Pandemic: Video Conference Calls 

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Ceri Weber had just begun to defend her dissertation when the chaos began: Echoes and voices interrupted her. Someone parroted her words. Then Britney Spears music came on, and someone told Weber to shut up. Someone threatened to rape her. Hackers had targeted the meeting on the video conference platform Zoom while Weber was completing the final step of her doctoral degree at Duke University. The harassment lasted 10 minutes — the result of an increasingly common form of cyber attack known as “Zoom bombing.” As tens of millions of people turn to video conferencing to stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic, many have reported uninvited guests who make threats, interject racist, anti-gay or anti-Semitic messages, or show pornographic images. The attacks have drawn the attention of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. “It seemed like someone was just being silly,” but then the intrusions “started to get more serious and threatening,” Weber recalled. “I was really in the zone and kept presenting.” She said she was more concerned about others in the chat who could have been scared. She was interrupted despite having selected “mute all” in the settings for the meeting she conducted from her home in Durham, North Carolina. A Massachusetts high school reported that someone interrupted a virtual class on Zoom, yelled profanity and revealed the teacher’s home address. Another school in that state reported a person who accessed a meeting and showed swastika tattoos, according to the FBI. The agency’s field office in Boston recommended that users of video-teleconference platforms prioritize their security by ensuring that hosts have sole control over screen-sharing features and meeting invitations. In New York, Attorney General Letitia James sent a letter to Zoom with questions about how users’ privacy and security are being protected. In a separate later, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sought information about how the company handles users’ personal data and guards against security threats and abuse. Zoom has referred to trolls as “party crashers,” which some critics have taken as a sign the company is downplaying the attacks. In a statement issued last week, the company told The Associated Press it takes the security of meetings seriously and encourages users to report any incidents directly to Zoom. The company suggested that people hosting large, public meetings confirm that they are the only ones who can share their screen and use features like mute controls. “For those hosting private meetings, password protections are on by default, and we recommend that users keep those protections on to prevent uninvited users from joining,” the company said. Zoom recently updated the default screen-sharing settings for education users so that teachers are by default the only ones who can share content. Despite the update, Nevada’s Clark County School District, which includes all public schools in Las Vegas, and the New York City Department of Education, which is responsible for the largest school district in the U.S., have told teachers to stop using Zoom. Zoom-bombing was always a threat given how the video conferencing app was configured — geared more toward user-friendliness than privacy, said Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. When shelter-at-home mandates suddenly converted Zoom into a lifeline for tens of millions of families, it became a juicy target for mischief, he said. For years, “the usability issues outweighed the potential security issues because society was less reliant on them. Obviously, that has changed dramatically over the last month,” Brookman added. Some Zoom-bombers have been able to randomly guess meeting IDs and crash conferences not configured to keep out interlopers, he said. In other cases, inexperienced users have exposed meeting IDs online, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tweeted a screenshot of a Zoom Cabinet meeting that showed the ID and everyone’s screen name. Brookman said Zoom can do more to boost privacy protections for a massive user base that now ranges from elementary school children to senior citizens discussing their wills with attorneys. “A lot of people, including us, are critical of how they enable hosts to surveil users to make sure they are paying attention to the screen, or reading DMs or recording the call when it’s not entirely clear,” Brookman said. A mother in Georgia told a local TV station that her son was “embarrassed and a little hysterical” after someone hacked into his online class and showed pornography to the children and teacher. The Rev. Jason Wells was holding a publicly advertised forum recently on Zoom when a troll entered and used the chat box to post a racial slur so many times that it made the feature unusable for other participants. “I would not say this was a random vandal hoping to interrupt somebody,” said Wells, who is executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches in Concord and co-chair of a state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, part of a movement pioneered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The intruder was eventually removed and blocked. As the Rev. Laura Everett delivered a sermon via Zoom for Boston’s First Baptist Church, a user who had seen the church service advertised entered the video conferencing session and shouted homophobic and racist slurs. Everett said she had tweeted the link to the sermon because she wanted “the doors of the church to be open to every weary soul who is looking for a word of comfort.” “This was, for all intents and purposes, a house of worship that was violated,” she said. “Zoom and every other business bears the primary responsibility for users’ safety.” In Oakland, California, Malachi Garza reported an attack on a Zoom conference she hosted for roughly 200 participants, including formerly incarcerated people who have experience with solitary confinement and are struggling with the pandemic’s stay-home orders. The conference organized by the philanthropic Solidare Network was interrupted by racist, anti-transgender language, and pornographic images were flashed on a shared screen.  Zoom needs to “tell the truth and call this what it really is,” Garza said. “It’s racial terror, not party crashers.”   

Taiwan Tells Agencies Not to Use Zoom on Security Grounds

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Taiwan’s cabinet has told government agencies to stop using Zoom Video Communications Inc’s conferencing app, the latest blow to the company as it battles criticism of its booming platform over privacy and security.Zoom’s daily users ballooned to more than 200 million in March, as coronavirus-induced shutdowns forced employees to work from home and schools switched to the company’s free app for conducting and coordinating online classes.However, the company is facing a backlash from users worried about the lack of end-to-end encryption of meeting sessions and “zoombombing,” where uninvited guests crash into meetings.If government agencies must hold video conferencing, they “should not use products with security concerns, like Zoom,” Taiwan’s cabinet said in a statement on Tuesday. It did not elaborate on what the security concerns were.The island’s education ministry later said it was banning the use of Zoom in schools.Zoom did not immediately respond to requests for comment.Taiwan would be the first government formally advising against use of Zoom, although some U.S. schools districts are looking at putting limits on its use after an FBI warning last month.Zoom Chief Executive Officer Eric Yuan last week apologized a-message-to-our-users to users, saying the company had fallen short of the community’s privacy and security expectations, and was taking steps to fix the issues.Zoom competes with Microsoft’s Teams, Cisco’s Webex and Google’s Hangouts.Taiwan’s cabinet said domestically-made conferencing apps were preferred, but if needed products from Google and Microsoft could also be considered.Zoom’s shares dipped 1% in premarket trading on the Nasdaq. They have lost nearly a third of their market value since touching record highs late March. 

Technology Helps Doctors, Health Industry Track Patients, Treatments

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As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overwhelm doctors and hospitals throughout the country, medical technology firms and health centers are trying to gain “situational awareness” — giving doctors what they need to know about the sick patients filling emergency rooms.For doctors and staff, “it’s really hard to know what sorts of patients are coming,” said Warren Ratliff, the chief executive of MDmetrix, a software firm that provides analysis of health care inside hospitals.The staff “can see they’re backing up,” he said. But they have few tools to compare patients showing up today with those admitted yesterday, or to show what treatments might be working on certain groups of patients, he added.A frustrated doctorMDmetrix was created by a doctor frustrated that he couldn’t analyze data across patients. With electronic medical records, which have been in use in the U.S. for years, mostly for tracking and billing, physicians typically view one patient’s record at a time.   Enter medical technology firms like MDmetrix, which offer information dashboards and apps so that doctors and hospitals can look for trends and insights across patient outcomes. The technology pulls data from patients’ electronic medical records.As they deal with the patients in front of them, hospitals and doctors are struggling to answer what may seem like simple questions, Ratliff said. How many ventilators are being used? Is low oxygen an indicator of COVID-19? Has anyone followed up on patients who were tested and sent home?The demand for information extends to whether there are different treatments for different groups, he said.Different patients, different treatments“Is there a difference in the treatment between smokers or nonsmokers?” Ratliff said. “In a couple of years, an after-action report will come out. But that’s way too late if you’re fighting a battle right now.”With the push of a button, clinicians and hospital administrators get MDmetrix’s COVID-19 dashboard of charts and graphs that they can view to improve patient care. The information is a real-time snapshot of “whether treatment protocol A is working better than protocol B for any subset of patients,” Ratliff said.As for privacy concerns, data pulled from patient records is stripped of its identity and aggregated, complying with health care privacy laws, Ratliff said.MDmetrix is being used at the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center, both in Seattle. The company is providing its “COVID-19 Mission Control” software for free to hospitals and medical centers.Leveraging the electronic health recordA recent paper in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association outlined efforts at the University of California San Diego Health to quickly build new dashboards based on electronic health records to manage the growing crisis.  The authors conclusion: Electronic health records “should be leveraged to their full potential.”Over the past several years, there’s been an explosion of technology tools to analyze and aggregate data drawn from electronic health records, said Julia Adler-Milstein, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. But the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing hospitals and companies to find ways – sometimes in just days – to analyze data and get critical information to decision-makers.“This has been a pressure test,” she said. “How can we get cuts of our data for the new disease?”Figuring out trends inside a hospital is also the work of TransformativeMed, an electronic record-keeping application that tracks a patient as he or she moves through the hospital. It is being used at the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center; MedStar Health in the Washington, D.C., area; and VCU Health Center in Richmond, Virginia.Tracking a patient — from symptoms, lab results and treatments — can help a hospital understand how a disease is progressing through a community, how effective treatments are and what isn’t working, said Dr. Rodrigo Martinez, chief clinical officer at TransformativeMed and an ear, nose and throat doctor.A generational opportunityThe battle against COVID-19 could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to greatly improve the health care system, he said. The social distancing requirements will boost telehealth, with patients and their health care providers likely to appreciate how much can be accomplished through video chat, he said. 3-D printing, which is being used to repair and create ventilators, will help the medical supply chain. And home lab tests will also likely grow.Add to the list companies such as TransformativeMed and MDmetrix, which are finding trends in patients’ electronic health records.“It’s not that we are creating new technologies,” Martinez said. “We’ve had technologies waiting in the wings, waiting for the opportunity to be applied.”

Delivery Apps Trending as Americans Seek to Avoid Infection

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With “Social Distancing” now the mantra to keep the coronavirus from spreading further, more American consumers are turning to online delivery apps to get their food and household products. Yet as VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports, not everyone can avoid going to stores and if you must go, experts advise people to observe some basic precautions.

Google Boosts Support for Checking Coronavirus Facts 

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Google on Thursday said it is pumping $6.5 million into fact-checkers and nonprofits as it ramps up its the battle against coronavirus misinformation.   Fact-checking organizations, which often operate on relatively small budgets, are seeing a surge in demand for their work as mistaken or maliciously false information about the pandemic spreads, according to Alexios Mantzarlis of the Google News Lab.   “Uncertainty and fear make us all more susceptible to inaccurate information, so we’re supporting fact-checkers as they address heightened demand for their work,” Mantzarlis said.   A Poynter Institute report last year on the state of fact-checking indicated that more than a fifth of fact-checking organizations operated with annual budgets of less than $20,000.   “We are supporting fact checking projects around the world with a concentration on parts hardest hit by the pandemic,” Mantzarlis told AFP.   “This can be a noticeable infusion of additional support at a time of stress.”   Google is also looking to use its products and “ecosystem” to bolster the battle against COVID-19 misinformation.   The Google News Initiative is increasing its support for nonprofit First Draft, which provides a resource hub, training and crisis simulations for journalists covering news during times of crisis, according to Mantzarlis.   Google is also supporting the creation of a public health resource database for reporters.   “We also want to do more to surface fact-checks that address potentially harmful health misinformation more prominently to our users,” Mantzarlis said.   “We’re experimenting with how to best include a dedicated fact-check section in the COVID-19 Google News experience.”   Google is conducting a test in India and Africa to explore how to use trends in what people are asking or searching for online to let fact-checkers know where a lack of reliable answers may invite misinformation.   “Unanswered user questions — such as ‘what temperature kills coronavirus?’ — can provide useful insights to fact-checkers and health authorities about content they may want to produce,” Mantzarlis said.   That test compliments an effort to train 1,000 journalists across India and Nigeria to spot health misinformation, according to the California-based internet titan.   “There is definitely an appetite for this stuff,” Mantzarlis said.   “We grasp for certainty, a glimmer of something we can do to protect ourselves and those we care about. It makes us more vulnerable to this kind of misinformation.”   Facebook has also supported fact-checking operations with AFP and other media companies, including Reuters and the Associated Press, under which content rated false is downgraded in news feeds so that fewer people see it. 

Twitter Deletes Egypt, Saudi Accounts Over ‘Pro-Govt Direction’

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Twitter said Thursday it has removed thousands of accounts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Indonesia and Serbia that allegedly took direction from governments or pushed pro-government content.”We removed 2,541 accounts in an Egypt-based network, known as the El Fagr network,” the San Francisco-based tech firm posted in a series of tweets.”The media group created inauthentic accounts to amplify messaging critical of Iran, Qatar and Turkey. Information we gained externally indicates it was taking direction from the Egyptian government.”El Fagr’s online managing editor Mina Salah vehemently pushed back.”Yes we are loyal to the state but we don’t receive instructions from anyone. We’re merely defending our country and its position is clear vis-a-vis Iran, Qatar and Turkey,” he told AFP.He said Twitter was effectively censoring the newspaper’s content and that journalists were banned from even creating new personal accounts.The platform also deleted 5,350 accounts from regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia for “amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen”.Rights groups have accused the conservative kingdom of spying on dissidents and critical online users on Twitter.The Saudi-linked accounts were run out of the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, where Twitter’s Middle East headquarters is based, as well as Egypt.After an internal investigation, Twitter also removed clusters of accounts in Honduras allegedly propagating pro-government content, in Serbia promoting the “ruling party and its leader” and Indonesian accounts pushing information targeting the West Papuan independence movement.Earlier this week, it removed two of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s tweets questioning quarantine measures aimed at containing the novel coronavirus on the grounds that they violated the social network’s rules.