Posts with «personal finance - career & education» label

Everyone is selling VPNs, and that's a problem for security

Whatever YouTube rabbit hole you’ve spiraled down lately — gaming playthroughs, political commentary, niche eight-hour video essays — you’ve encountered an ad for virtual private network, or VPN, services. The influencers promise military grade encryption and streaming content from anywhere as long as you use code FOLLOWME10 at checkout so that they get their cut.

It’s not just anecdotal that VPN ads are everywhere on YouTube. Since the beginning of 2016, VPN companies have collectively sponsored about 247,000 YouTube videos, according to Daniel Conn, co-founder of influencer marketing consulting firm ThoughtLeaders. Almost none came up before then, signaling rapid growth as both influencer marketing and VPN companies took off.

For the YouTubers, it’s a lucrative and consistent way to fund their aspirations; for VPN providers, it’s helping to bring the obscure security product into the mainstream. But for the casual viewer, the sharp spike in VPN ads adds to the confusion and jargon around cybersecurity — and it could be misleading us on how secure we really are.

“If you do think of it like education, it might be the most pervasive form of security education out there,” said Dave Levin, assistant professor in computer science at the University of Maryland.

Researchers at the University of Maryland took a random sample of those hundreds of thousands of ads to better understand what these influencers are saying about security. While not explicitly inaccurate, most of the ads featured vague or exaggerated claims on what VPNs could do, according to Michelle Mazurek, also an associate professor in computer science at the university.

All a VPN can really do is mask your IP address and the identity of your computer on the network by creating an encrypted "tunnel" that prevents your internet service provider from accessing data about your browsing history. They can’t keep your identity secret, protect from financial exploitation, offer “military-grade encryption” or other marketing terms these companies use. Military-grade encryption refers to AES-256, but that’s become an industry standard, and won’t protect you from security threats like phishing attacks. 

Still, it’s sold as a one-step security solution, when it’s really just the start of what you can do to protect yourself online. The companies and the ads are “overselling what a functional one could do,” Omer Akgul, the PhD student at University of Maryland who led the research paper on VPN advertising, said. “It's problematic that users think they're getting protections where they really aren't.”

Most advertising comes with these caveats, but in a field as high risk and difficult to understand as security, the exaggerated claims can be damaging. If a YouTuber sells you on a new electric toothbrush, you can get first-hand experience deciding whether it’s worth your money. You can feel whether it leaves your teeth feeling clean, see real results when you go in for your next dentist appointment and easily compare it to other options on the market. But security isn’t tangible. One VPN service might be more user friendly than the next, but we rely on recommendations from others to tell us whether or not one is “more secure.”

The power behind influencer marketing lies in those recommendations. We trust the people we follow as we build parasocial relationships and see them advertise the same services over and over again. According to the UMD research, influencers use this to tailor their approaches to VPN ads. A far-right conspiracy channel will tout a VPN’s privacy protections from government snooping because, while a movie reviewer will say the VPN can help you access streaming platforms in different countries, Akgul said, “because YouTubers know who their audiences are, they can frame it in such a way that their audience would be interested or understand.”

Influencers tend to be tight-lipped about these advertising relationships because it can put future earnings in jeopardy. But according to Conn, the influencers he’s encountered generally like working with VPN providers because they can be so lucrative. And for VPNs, the competition is fierce to secure top converters, and includes exclusivity periods to prevent top YouTubers from working with competitors. They’re also actively recruiting with companies like Surfshark, NordVPN and ExpressVPN all touting open calls for influencers to sell their services.

“It's a battleground,” Conn said. “Because of these exclusivity causes, it's a race between them to scoop up in inventory because effectively you're blocking your competitor from the advertising space as well with those clauses. It’s a very aggressive market for VPNs.”

If you’re looking to hide your internet data from your ISP, want to stream Netflix abroad or are connecting to an untrusted public network, a VPN would be a worthwhile investment. But just because you’ve seen more ads online, doesn’t mean the use cases for VPNs have changed. Plus, as it becomes a more lucrative way for influencers to make money online, it probably means you should be even more skeptical of both the advertisements and the provider themselves.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Pocket users can now create multiple collections of articles, videos and websites

Read-it-later service Pocket has unveiled some new features, including the option to create private lists of saved articles, videos and websites. Pocket Lists are only available in the US on the web for now, but the feature will be available globally starting next month and on mobile later this year.

You'll be able to create multiple lists with titles and descriptions. In the near future, you'll have the option to add several items to a list at once and attach notes to help you remember why an item is there. Later this year, Pocket will roll out the option to publish lists and share them with other users.

The Pocket team suggests that you might set up lists for things like recipes, trip planning or simply stuff that puts a smile on your face for whenever you need it. This is a handy update from Pocket, particularly for those who like to keep things organized. You might think of it as a bit like having bookmark folders in Pocket or a different place to save Pinterest-style collections.

Elsewhere, Pocket has built a new version of its iOS app with the aim of rolling out features more rapidly — the plan is to release updates every two weeks. You'll need to be on at least iOS 16 to use the latest app, which offers personalized recommendations and a more streamlined user interface, Pocket says. The My List tab is now called Saves, and it will offer access to features such as search, tagged items, favorites and a way to listen to audio versions of articles all in one place. One other handy update means that you'll be able to swiftly archive items with a swipe.

On Android, there's a very welcome update rolling out today. Pocket will now save log-in credentials for websites you've saved stuff from, so you'll no longer need to sign in every time you visit them. While in article view, you'll be able to move between saved items using Previous and Next buttons.

Pocket, which Mozilla bought back in 2017, added that it has removed some features. The team plans to bring back some of those within a few months, such as the option to highlight articles. Other features are gone for good, however, including the ability to recommend items to other users, which has been removed in favor of lists. To that end, here's hoping Pocket rolls out the option to share lists fairly swiftly.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

The government is very hackable, and they have your data

Data breaches and security failures happen everyday. There’s little we can do about that if we want to participate in modern society, except maybe switch out the companies we interact with for their competitors if we presume one to be more secure. There’s one service that we don’t have a choice on whether to interact with, no matter how high profile its security incidents become: the federal government.

A breach of the Office of Personnel Management announced in 2015 it had leaked background investigation records, impacting 21.5 million individuals, according to the agency. The highly publicized Solarwinds hack discovered in 2020 exposed government and business records to Russian insiders. Earlier this year, the US Marshals Service division of the Department of Justice became a target, when hackers stole personal information about investigation targets, personnel and more.

The attacks were targeted, usually seeking out some type of sensitive state information. But we all have sensitive information stored throughout federal agencies like our social security numbers or home addresses. Probably even more information is at stake if you utilize federal services like Medicare, student loans or SNAP benefits. We have no choice but to give the federal government access to our personal information in exchange for certain services, unless you’re reading this while living off grid.

“If we want to live in the information age, and we're using some of these systems, we are inherently giving up control,” Kevin Cleary, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems at University at Buffalo, told Engadget. “You have to trust that agency has put forward all the best controls and practices.”

In response, the federal government has developed agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to lead better security initiatives across departments. In part, this is intended to help you feel a little bit better about storing your data within federal servers by setting higher standards for how it safeguards your data. According to Michael Duffy, associate director of the cybersecurity division at CISA, since the agency’s establishment in 2018, it’s spearheaded the most progress he’s seen in his federal cybersecurity career.

So, things are improving, and you can probably trust the federal government to keep your data safe in the same way you trust the companies you interact with everyday. What makes the government so different, though, is that it’s a high profile target. Adversarial countries want in on state secrets while, at the same time, it’s hard to prioritize spending on security measures. Getting tax-payer funds to fill a pothole on your local highway is hard enough when the damage is tangible and obvious, while security is hard to quantify the benefits of until an attack occurs. In other words, the value of security investments aren’t proven until it’s already too late.

This has gotten better. Security investments in the federal government largely trend upwards. Still, it’s not enough. “Sometimes their budgets don't allow them to take every step or to everything that they would like to do, because you just simply don't have the money,” Marisol Cruz Cain, director of information technology and cybersecurity at GAO, said.

But the reason why the federal government may appear less secure is because of its obligation for transparency. There’s a responsibility to share lessons learned after an incident, and make sure citizens know what happened. That’s actually a big part of CISA’s job. “We are really looking at ways that we are making it more acceptable to raise the hand and say this is the way that we were attacked or an incident occurred,” Duffy said.

The government also interacts with a ton of outside businesses. So, say a government contractor experiences a breach or security incident, that means that data held in federal tech could be exposed. This opens up a slew of new attack vectors, and possibilities for malpractice.

You can actually see how secure certain agencies are thanks to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and legislation like the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. The latter documents tech modernization efforts across major agencies, including cyber readiness. GAO, for its part, audits cybersecurity efforts and develops privacy impact assessments that are publicly available descriptions about what information the agency collects, how they use it and more.

But with all these audits come a relatively bleak conclusion. Agencies aren’t evaluating their policies and procedures to make sure that high profile incidents don’t happen on a regular basis, Cruz Cain said. Your information will be on those servers whether you like it or not.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

The best gifts for teachers

Teachers can be some of the most important individuals in our lives. Whether you had one this past year that truly inspired you, or one that just made getting through the daily grind of classes easier, now’s a great time to show them your appreciation. If you want to skip the standard gift basket or bouquet of flowers in favor of something a bit more personal (or perhaps practical), these are some of the best gifts for teachers that you can surprise them with this year.

Hario cold brew bottles

We recommend the Hario cold brew tea maker in our gift guide for tea lovers because it makes a beautiful, functional gift for anyone who likes loose-leaf iced tea. The heat-proof glass exterior has a wine bottle shape and the green silicone top houses a mesh strainer that keeps tea leaves where they belong. If the teacher you know is more into coffee, you get them the equally attractive cold brew coffee maker from the same Japanese manufacturer. It brews up a batch in the fridge overnight and has graduated milliliter markings that make it look a little like a chemistry class beaker. – Amy Skorheim, Commerce Writer

Ember Mug 2

Many of us rely on caffeine to get through the day and teachers are no different. But dealing with students, lectures and other classroom activities may mean their beverage of choice grows cold before they can drink it all. The second generation of Ember’s smart mug, the Mug 2, doesn’t just keep tea or coffee hot — it keeps it at a steady temperature for a long time. The app integration lets you set the temp of the mug, while interior sensors shut the heat off when the mug’s empty or hasn’t been touched in two hours. The 10-ounce size has a battery life of up to an hour and a half and the 14-ounce capacity adds another 20 minutes. They can also stick the mug on the included charging coaster to keep their java warm all school day long. – A.S.

Aura Mason

If your teacher is a sentimental type, a digital photo frame like the Aura Mason can let them easily add and look back on their favorite snapshots. The Mason itself has a crisp, nine-inch, 1,600 x 1,200 resolution display and a minimalist design that should look normal on a work desk or a side table back home. It can display photos in portrait or landscape mode, and uploading photos (or videos) through the Aura app is uncomplicated. Just note that it can sometimes add black boxes around photos that don’t match its 4:3 aspect ratio.

If you want to save $50, the Aura Carver is a larger 10.1-inch frame with similar benefits, though it has a lower resolution (1,280 x 800) and only works in landscape. You could also gift a multi-function smart display like the Google Nest Hub, but those usually have lower-quality screens and aren’t as simple to mount on a wall. — Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Writer

Book of the Month

If you know a teacher who’s still a champion of the printed word, they might appreciate a Book of the Month subscription. I like how BOTM does the hard work of figuring out what’s new and good in fiction so all I have to do is read. The club selects seven or so books each month for members to pick from, and the selection is diverse enough that most readers will find something to meet their tastes. And if nothing looks good, they can always pick something from the back catalog or skip the month altogether. At first I thought it would be too much pressure to contend with a new book every month, but the option to skip effectively just extends their subscription, so there’s no pressure. You can gift a three, six or twelve month membership for $60, $100 or $200, respectively. – A.S.

Belkin BoostCharge Pro with MagSafe

A pick from our guide to the best wireless chargers, Belkin’s BoostCharge Pro is a compact charging pad that should be a useful addition for any iPhone-owning teacher’s desk. It’s MagSafe-compatible, so it can snap magnetically onto the back of any recent iPhone, and it delivers up to 15W of power, which is the fastest rate available for this class of device. It won’t be as quick as using a cable, but there’s a certain pleasure to simply plopping your phone down on it to recharge, and it can still deliver about a 70 percent charge to an iPhone 14 in an hour. The BoostCharge Pro also has a built-in kickstand for propping up a phone to watch videos and the like. This is far from the cheapest charging puck around, but as a gift, it’s a convenient way to top up. Just try to get it with a power supply, if possible. — J.D.

Blue light blocking glasses

Your favorite teacher or professor probably looks at a screen for just as long as you do every day. Blue light blocking glasses can be a great gift since they’ll make it easier for them to get work done while (hopefully) reducing eye strain, headaches and other ailments. These are probably best bought for educators who don’t wear prescription glasses already, since you don’t want to impede their actual eyesight with non-prescription lenses. Plenty of eyewear companies make stylish blue light glasses, but you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg on a pair. Privé Revaux has a ton of options priced as low as $30 each, or if you have a feeling your teacher would like to swap styles more often, Amazon has a number of multi-packs to choose from. — Valentina Palladino, Senior Commerce Editor


The most tenured college professor and the newest preschool teacher could likely use a little more calm in their day, and Headspace is one way to get it. The brightly colored app has a slew of meditations, guided breathing sessions and inspirational talks to choose from and each one lists its duration. I often just have a minute or two before I have to get back to what I was doing, and following even a one-minute-long breathing exercise can noticeably change my mood (and posture and general awareness). Headspace includes sleep programs too, like wind-down sessions, stories, white noise sounds and soundscapes. You can gift one year of the service for $70, or three months for $39. – A.S.

Kobo Clara 2e

We don’t want to make generalizations, but if there’s a segment of the population who likes to read, it’s probably teachers. The Kobo Clara 2E is our current favorite e-reader because it’s easy on the eyes, comfortable to hold and offers the right amount of customization. The waterproof design makes it a good candidate for vacations and pool-side reading, and the warm lights make it easy to read late into the night. Considering Kobo now has an unlimited read and listen subscription in Kobo Plus, the company's well-built devices are even better equipped to compete in a space where Kindles have dominated for years. – A.S.

Bellroy Desk Caddy

They say an organized desk is an organized mind. Whether that’s true or not, it can certainly be difficult to keep track of all the tech you need on a regular basis. Bellroy’s Desk Caddy has pockets, pouches and loops to keep cords, plugs, earbuds, and dongles in their place. The structured shape stands up when you load it, but is flexible enough to fit into a crowded backpack if you need to take it with you. We also like that it’s water resistant and made from recycled materials. – A.S.

Trade Coffee subscription

A Trade Coffee subscription can help the teacher in your life shake up their morning cup of joe. It offers a curated selection of more than 450 coffees from across the US and smartly personalizes which ones it recommends to each subscriber. Upon redeeming their gift, your teacher will be prompted to take a brief quiz that asks about their flavor and brew preferences, information Trade will use to suggest a specific bag catered to their taste. They can then give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to any coffee they receive, which the company considers to hone future recommendations. Managing all of this online is straightforward. You can gift anywhere from two to 24 bags, and Trade says any gift subscriptions will not automatically renew, so nobody will have any surprise charges to deal with down the line. — J.D.

Purist Mover

The Purist Mover is the closest thing to a “premium” water bottle that I’ve tried, with a clean, minimalist aesthetic and a satisfying textured finish. Its biggest hook, though, is the ultra-thin layer of glass that lines its interior. Apart from insulating your drink, this is designed to keep fluids from gaining a metallic taste or unwanted odors as quickly as they might with other bottles. The whole thing will still need washing every so often, but in my experience, this has actually worked.

The Mover is an 18oz bottle, but there are different size and lid options to choose from (the “Union” spout top is my preference, though it can be somewhat noisy, if that matters). No Purist bottle is especially cheap, but it should make hydrating a little more convenient for your teacher’s day-to-day, on top of providing a nicer piece of design for their desk. — J.D.

Tribit StormBox Micro 2

For audio-related lessons in class or just enjoying music while out and about, the Tribit StormBox Micro 2 is a highly portable Bluetooth speaker that pumps out good volume for its compact size. Its playback controls are simple to operate, and its built-in strap lets it connect to things like a bag or bike handlebars on the go. It can also double as a power bank and charge a smartphone in a pinch. A speaker this small will never be the fullest sounding, but for what it is, the Stormbox Micro 2’s audio quality is fine as well. If you like the idea of gifting a portable speaker but want something that sounds richer, though, you can check out our Bluetooth speaker buying guide for more recommendations. — J.D.

Criterion Channel subscription

If your teacher considers themselves a film buff, a Criterion Channel subscription might suit their tastes. This is the streaming service of The Criterion Collection, a video distribution company that restores and preserves a carefully curated selection of acclaimed films that span genres and languages. It doesn’t have the same deluge of content as a Netflix or Prime Video, but it also has a lot less trash.

The service bundles many films into helpful collections, from Afrofuturism to Foreign-Language Oscar Winners to Short Films by David Lynch. Various titles come with bonus features like cast interviews as well. Unfortunately, not every film in the Collection is available on the Channel at any given time. (There are gift cards that can go toward films that are only available in physical form.) Nevertheless, for movie-loving teachers who feel like they’ve watched everything on the usual suspects, the service should still provide hours of stimulating works. Gift subscriptions are available in one- to 12-month increments. — J.D.

The Sill plant gifts

You can’t go wrong with a gift of greenery to show your appreciation for a beloved teacher. You could pick up a flower arrangement locally or send them a fancy one from Bouqs or another online service, but something more unique like a plant from The Sill could be a gift they’ve never gotten before. The site has a bunch of options that will appeal to all kinds of people, from those who have never taken care of a plant before to green-thumbed veterans. There are even pet-friendly plant gifts you can buy for those teachers you know have little creatures in their households. The Sill also has regular deals on plants that you can snag (be it for someone else or yourself), so you don’t have to sacrifice even if you’re working with a tight budget. — V.P.

Amazon gift card

If you’re at a loss over what to get your favorite teacher to show your appreciation, an Amazon gift card is a good catch-all solution. Whether it’s supplies for their classroom, household essentials for their family or just something they’ve had on their wish list for themselves, most teachers will find a way to spend a few extra dollars at Amazon (or Walmart, Target or another retailer they prefer). — V.P.

A relaxing video game or two

For teachers who like to wind down with a video game after an aggravating day of work, a recommendation from our list of good relaxing games could make for a gift that’s both thoughtful and fun. A couple of standouts: PowerWash Simulator is a game about cleaning grimy environments that has a similar soothing effect as those deep-cleaning videos on YouTube, while Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a delightful puzzle game from Nintendo about exploring and reexamining diorama-like levels from new angles. — J.D.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Chromebooks' short lifespans are creating 'piles of electronic waste'

Chromebooks have always been a popular option for schools due to the relatively cheap prices, but they exploded in popularity during the Covid pandemic as kids did their schoolwork from home. However, they may not be such a good deal after all, according to a new report called Chromebook Churn from the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). They found that many Chromebooks purchased just three years ago are already breaking, creating electronic waste and costing taxpayers money. 

Chromebooks in schools typically see rough use, and repairability is a key issue, due to a lack of parts and expensive repairs. For instance, 14 out of 29 keyboard replacements for Acer Chromebooks were found to be out of stock, and 10 of the 29 cost $90 each — nearly half the price of some models. "These high costs may make schools reconsider Chromebooks as a cost-saving strategy," the report states. In another instance, HP only stocked power cords and AC adapters for one model, but no other parts.

The devices also have built in "death dates," the report reads, after which software updates end. "Once laptops have 'expired,' they don’t receive updates and can’t access secure websites." Google does provide eight years of software updates for Chromebooks, but that's only from the date of release. Since many schools buy Chromebooks released several years before, support can expire in half that time. 

Chromebooks aren’t built to last. Professional repair techs tell me they’re often forced to chuck good Chromebook hardware with years of life left due to aggressive software expiration dates.

"Chromebooks aren’t built to last. Professional repair techs tell me they’re often forced to chuck good Chromebook hardware with years of life left due to aggressive software expiration dates," iFixit's director of sustainability Elizabeth Chamberlain told PIRG. Those expiration dates also make it a challenge for schools to resell their devices. PCs and Macs may have a higher purchase price, but they can easily be resold after a couple of years and can get updates for longer periods of time.

The organization said that doubling the lifespan of the Chromebooks sold in 2020 (some 31.8 million) "could cut emissions by 4.6 million tons of CO2e, equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road for a year. To do that, they recommend that Google eliminate update expirations and that its manufacturing partners production a 10 percent overstock of replacement parts, and that those parts be more standardized across models. They also say that consumers should be allowed to install alternative operating systems like Linux.

In a statement to Ars Technica, Google said: "Regular Chromebook software updates add new features and improve device security every four weeks, allowing us to continuously iterate on the software experience while ensuring that older devices continue to function in a secure and reliable manner until their hardware limitations make it extremely difficult to provide updates." 

It added that it's "always working with our device manufacturing partners to increasingly build devices across segments with post-consumer recycled and certified materials that are more repairable, and over time use manufacturing processes that reduce emissions."

Google needs to do better, though, according to the group. "The least we can do for students who rely on their laptops is ensure these devices are durable and repairable—not part of a constant churn," said PIRG's Lucas Rockett Gutterman. "With more tech in our lives and classrooms, if Google wants to be a trusted source for tens of millions of students, they need to make laptops that families and school districts can count on."

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Google's new Classroom tools include a 'reader mode' for people with dyslexia

Google is making it easier for people with reading challenges, such as dyslexia, to be able to make out articles and text posts online. The tech giant has launched "reader mode" for Chrome, which takes a site's primary content and puts it into the sidebar to reduce clutter and distractions. Users will also be able to change the text's typeface, font size and spacing, as well as its color and background color, to find the combination that works best for them. 

Reader mode is but one of the new features and updates Google has rolled out for education users. Another new feature for Google Classroom gives educators the ability to add interactive questions to YouTube videos. That will allow students to answer them and get immediate feedback, giving teachers an insight on how well they understand the subject matter. 

Google is also giving teachers a way to share practice sets with other verified educators in their domain, so that they can expand the availability of materials their students have access to. For particularly difficult mathematical and scientific concepts, for instance, more examples mean more opportunity to better understand them. The company has released a new web player for Screencast on Chrome OS, as well, allowing users to watch casts in any browser on any platform. Plus, it has expanded language options for Screencast closed captions and for practice sets. 

Classes using Meet for online lectures will also find a new and useful feature: Hand raise gesture detection powered by AI. Apparently, when a student raises a hand in real life, the video conferencing app can now automatically activate its Hand Raise icon. In addition, two teachers can now also manage slides concurrently on Meet and co-present lectures together. Google has been growing and improving its education-related tools for years, though it has perhaps kicked things up a notch after schools shut down during the pandemic. It released a slew of updates to make virtual classrooms more usable since then, and it looks like it hasn't forgotten online-based education even though schools have mostly gone back to in-person learning. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Trombone Champ's 'autotoot' makes the ridiculous music game more accessible

Trombone Champ is a blast to watch, but a beast to play even compared to some other rhythm games — you try nailing a slide during the "William Tell Overture." Thankfully, developer Holy Wow Studios is putting the game within reach of more players. It's introducing an "Autotoot" option that takes away the need to press buttons. If you have hand mobility issues, you'll have a better chance of squonking your way to an S rank. Your score is halved to prevent leaderboard cheating, but you can advance the story.

The update is also more streamer-friendly, with icons warning when a tune might be muted on services like Twitch. It's faster to restart a track when your performance goes askew, and you'll see your character in the points screen.

Trombone Champ quickly became a viral sensation after its debut last September. Anyone who's familiar with Guitar Hero or Rock Band will grasp the basic mechanics, but the laugh-'til-you-cry hilarity of playing trombone over classic pieces can't be overstated — this is one of those precious games where messing up is almost more entertaining than a perfect score. And that's before you throw in unofficial songs that put brass where it clearly doesn't belong.

Autotoot is also part of a larger trend of improving accessibility in games. Titles like The Last of Us now make accommodations for a wide range of mobility, hearing and vision abilities. Input devices like Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller and Sony's Project Leonardo are also making many games viable for people who can't use conventional gamepads.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

It took a TikToker barely 30 minutes to doxx me

In 30 minutes or less, TikToker and Chicago-based server Kristen Sotakoun can probably find your birth date. She’s not a cybersecurity expert, despite what some of her followers suspect, but has found a hobby in what she calls “consensual doxxing.”

“My first thing is to be entertaining. My second thing is to show you cracks in your social media, which was the totally accidental thing that I became on TikTok,” Sotakoun, who goes by @notkahnjunior, told me.

It’s not quite doxxing, which usually refers to making private information publicly available with malicious intent. Instead, it’s known in the cybersecurity field as open-source intelligence, or OSINT. People unknowingly spell out private details about their lives as a bread crumb trail across social media platforms that, when gathered together, paint a picture of their age, families, embarrassing childhood memories and more. In malicious cases, hackers gather information based on what you or your loved ones have published on the web to get into your accounts, commit fraud, or even socially engineer a user to fall for a scam.

Sotakoun mostly just tracks down an anonymous volunteer's birth date. She doesn’t have malicious intent or interest in a security career, she said she just likes to solve logic puzzles. Before TikTok, that was spending a ride home from a friend’s birthday dinner at Medieval Times discovering the day job of their “knight.” Sotakoun just happened to eventually go viral for her skills.

So, to show me her process, I let Sotakoun “consensually doxx” me. She found my Twitter pretty quickly, but because I keep it pretty locked down, it wasn’t super helpful. Information in author bios from my past jobs, however, helped her figure out where I went to college.

My name plus where I studied led her to my Facebook account, another profile that didn’t reveal much. It did, however, lead her to my sister, who had commented on my cover photo nine years ago. She figured out it was my sister because we shared a last name, and we’re listed as sisters on her Facebook. That’s important to note because I don’t actually share a last name with most of my other siblings, which could’ve been an additional roadblock.

My sister and I have pretty common names though, so Sotakoun also found my stepmom on my sister’s profile. By searching my stepmom’s much more unique name on Instagram, it helped lead Sotakoun to mine and my sister’s Instagram accounts, as opposed to one of the many other Malones online.

Still, my Instagram account is private. So, it was my sister’s Instagram account – that she took off “private” for a Wawa giveaway that ultimately won her a t-shirt – featuring years-old birthday posts that led Sotakoun to the day I was born. That took a ton of scrolling and, to correct for the fact that a birthday post could come a day late or early, Sotakoun relied on the fact that my sister once shared that my birthday coincided with World Penguin Day, April 25.

Then, to find the year, she cross-referenced the year I started college, which was 2016 according to my public LinkedIn, with information in my high school newspaper. My senior year of high school, I won a scholarship only available to seniors, Sotakoun discovered, revealing that I graduated high school in 2016. From there, she counted back 18 years, and told me that I was born on April 25, 1998. She was right.

“My goal is always to find context clues, or find people who care less about their online presence than you do,” Sotakoun said.

Many people will push back on the idea that having personal information online is harmful, according to Matt Edmondson, an OSINT instructor at cybersecurity training organization SANS Institute. While there are obvious repercussions to having your social security number blasted online, people may wonder what the harm is in seemingly trivial information like having your pet’s name easily available on social media. But if that also happens to be the answer to a security question, an attacker may be able to use that to get into your Twitter account or email.

In my case, I’ve always carefully tailored my digital footprint to keep my information hidden. My accounts are private and I don’t share a lot of personal information. Still, Sotakoun’s OSINT methods found plenty to work with.

Facebook and Instagram are Sotakoun’s biggest help for finding information, but she said she has also used Twitter, and even Venmo to confirm relationships. She specifically avoids resources like records databases that could easily give away information.

That means that there’s still a lot of data out there on each of us that Sotakoun isn’t looking for. Especially if you’re in the US, data like your date of birth, home address and more are likely already out there in some form, according to Steven Harris, an OSINT specialist that teaches at SANS.

“Once the data is out there, it’s very hard to take back,” Harris said. “What protects people is not that the information is securely locked away, it’s that most people don’t have the knowledge or inclination to go and find out.”

There are simple things you can do to keep attackers from using these details against you. Complex passwords and multi-factor authentication make it harder for unauthorized users to get into your account, even if they know the answers to your security questions.

That gets a bit more complicated, though, when we think about how much our friends and family post for us. In fact, Sotakoun said she noticed that even if a person takes many measures to hide themselves online, the lack of control over their social circle can help her discover their birth date.

“You have basically no control on your immediate social circle, or even your slightly extended social circle and how they present themselves online,” she said.

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Hitting the Books: How 20th century science unmade Newton's universe

Science is the reason you aren't reading this by firelight nestled cozily under a rock somewhere however, its practice significantly predates its formalization by Galileo in the 16th century. Among its earliest adherents — even before pioneering efforts of Aristotle — was Animaxander, the Greek philosopher credited with first arguing that the Earth exists within a void, not atop a giant turtle shell. His other revolutionary notions include, "hey, maybe animals evolved from other, earlier animals?" and "the gods aren't angry, that's just thunder."

While Animaxander isn't often mentioned alongside the later greats of Greek philosophy, his influence on the scientific method cannot be denied, argues NYT bestselling author, Carlo Rovelli, in his latest book, Animaxander and the Birth of Science, out now from Riverhead Books. In in, Rovelli celebrates Animaxander, not necessarily for his scientific acumen but for his radical scientific thinking — specifically his talent for shrugging off conventional notion to glimpse at the physical underpinnings of the natural world. In the excerpt below, Rovelli, whom astute readers will remember from last year's There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important than Kindness, illustrates how even the works of intellectual titans like Einstein and Heisenberg can and inevitably are found lacking in their explanation of natural phenomena — in just the same way that those works themselves decimated the collective understanding of cosmological law under 19th century Newtonian physics.   

Riverhead Books

Excerpted from Animaxander and the Birth of Science. Copyright © 2023 by Carlo Rovelli. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Did science begin with Anaximander? The question is poorly put. It depends on what we mean by “science,” a generic term. Depending on whether we give it a broad or a narrow meaning, we can say that science began with Newton, Galileo, Archimedes, Hipparchus, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, or Anaximander — or with an astronomer in Babylonia whose name we don’t know, or with the first primate who managed to teach her offspring what she herself had learned, or with Eve, as in the quotation that opens this chapter. Historically or symbolically, each of these moments marks humanity’s acquisition of a new, crucial tool for the growth of knowledge.

If by “science” we mean research based on systematic experimental activities, then it began more or less with Galileo. If we mean a collection of quantitative observations and theoretical/mathematical models that can order these observations and give accurate predictions, then the astronomy of Hipparchus and Ptolemy is science. Emphasizing one particular starting point, as I have done with Anaximander, means focusing on a specific aspect of the way we acquire knowledge. It means highlighting specific characteristics of science and thus, implicitly, reflecting on what science is, what the search for knowledge is, and how it works.

What is scientific thinking? What are its limits? What is the reason for its strength? What does it really teach us? What are its characteristics, and how does it compare with other forms of knowledge?

These questions shaped my reflections on Anaximander in preceding chapters. In discussing how Anaximander paved the way for scientific knowledge, I highlighted a certain number of aspects of science itself. Now I shall make these observations more explicit.

The Crumbling of Nineteenth Century Illusions

A lively debate on the nature of scientific knowledge has taken place during the last century. The work of philosophers of science such as Carnap and Bachelard, Popper and Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Quine, van Fraassen, and many others has transformed our understanding of what constitutes scientific activity. To some extent, this reflection was a reaction to a shock: the unexpected collapse of Newtonian physics at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, a common joke was that Isaac New‐ ton had been not only one of the most intelligent men in human history, but also the luckiest, because there is only one collection of fundamental natural laws, and Newton had had the good fortune to be the one to discover them. Today we can’t help but smile at this notion, because it reveals a serious epistemological error on the part of nineteenth-​­century thinkers: the idea that good scientific theories are definitive and remain valid until the end of time.

The twentieth century swept away this facile illusion. Highly accurate experiments showed that Newton’s theory is mistaken in a very precise sense. The planet Mercury, for example, does not move following Newtonian laws. Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and their colleagues discovered a new collection of fundamental laws — general relativity and quantum mechanics — that replace Newton’s laws and work well in the domains where Newton’s theory breaks down, such as accounting for Mercury’s orbit, or the behavior of electrons in atoms.

Once burned, twice shy: few people today believe that we now possess definitive scientific laws. It is generally expected that one day Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s laws will show their limits as well, and will be replaced by better ones. In fact, the limits of Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are already emerging. There are subtle incompatibilities between Einstein’s theory and Heisenberg’s, which make it unreasonable to suppose that we have identified the final, definitive laws of the universe. As a result, research goes on. My own work in theoretical physics is precisely the search for laws that might combine these two theories.

Now, the essential point here is that Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are not minor corrections to Newton’s. The differences go far beyond an adjusted equation, a tidying up, the addition or replacement of a formula. Rather, these new theories constitute a radical rethinking of the world. Newton saw the world as a vast empty space where “particles” move about like pebbles. Einstein understands that such supposedly empty space is in fact a kind of storm-​­tossed sea. It can fold in on itself, curve, and even (in the case of black holes) shatter. No one had seriously contemplated this possibility before. For his part, Heisenberg understands that Newton’s “particles” are not particles at all but bizarre hybrids of particles and waves that run over Faraday lines’ webs. In short, over the course of the twentieth century, the world was found to be profoundly different from the way Newton imagined it.

On the one hand, these discoveries confirmed the cognitive strength of science. Like Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories in their day, these discoveries led quickly to an astonishing development of new technologies that once again radically changed human society. The insights of Faraday and Maxwell brought about radio and communications technology. Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s led to computers, information technology, atomic energy, and countless other technological advances that have changed our lives.

But on the other hand, the realization that Newton’s picture of the world was false is disconcerting. After Newton, we thought we had understood once and for all the basic structure and functioning of the physical world. We were wrong. The theories of Einstein and Heisenberg themselves will one day likely be proved false. Does this mean that the understanding of the world offered by science cannot be trusted, not even for our best science? What, then, do we really know about the world? What does science teach us about the world?

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Scientists create the most complex map yet of an insect brain's 'wiring'

Researchers understand the structure of brains and have mapped them out in some detail, but they still don't know exactly how they process data — for that, a detailed "circuit map" of the brain is needed. 

Now, scientists have created just such a map for the most advanced creature yet: a fruit fly larva. Called a connectome, it diagrams the insect's 3016 neurons and 548,000 synapses, Neuroscience News has reported. The map will help researchers study better understand how the brains of both insects and animals control behavior, learning, body functions and more. The work may even inspired improved AI networks.

"Up until this point, we’ve not seen the structure of any brain except of the roundworm C. elegans, the tadpole of a low chordate, and the larva of a marine annelid, all of which have several hundred neurons," said professor Marta Zlatic from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. "This means neuroscience has been mostly operating without circuit maps. Without knowing the structure of a brain, we’re guessing on the way computations are implemented. But now, we can start gaining a mechanistic understanding of how the brain works." 

To build the map, the team scanned thousands of slices from the larva's brain with an electron microscope, then integrated those into a detailed map, annotating all the neural connections. From there, they used computational tools to identify likely information flow pathways and types of "circuit motifs" in the insect's brain. They even noticed that some structural features closely resembled state-of-the-art deep learning architecture.

Scientists have made detailed maps of the brain of a fruit fly, which is far more complex than a fruit fly larva. However, these maps don't include all the detailed connections required to have a true circuit map of their brains. 

As a next step, the team will investigate the structures used for behavioural functions like learning and decision making, and examine connectome activity while the insect does specific activities. And while a fruit fly larva is a simple insect, the researchers expect to see similar patterns in other animals. "In the same way that genes are conserved across the animal kingdom, I think that the basic circuit motifs that implement these fundamental behaviours will also be conserved," said Zlatic.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at