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Singapore’s police now have access to contact tracing data

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The news: Police will be able to access data collected by Singapore’s covid-19 contact tracing system for use in criminal investigations, a senior official said on Monday. The announcement contradicts the privacy policy originally outlined when the government launched its TraceTogether app in March 2020, and is being criticized as a backpedal just after participation in contact tracing was made mandatory. 

Officials said that while policy had stated that data would “only be used solely for the purpose of contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to covid-19”, the legal reality in Singapore is that police can access any data for criminal investigations—and that contact tracing data was no different. Its privacy policy was changed on January 4, 2021 to clarify “how the Criminal Procedure Code applies to all data under Singapore’s jurisdiction.” 

Early mover: TraceTogether is accessed via a smartphone app or a small wearable device, and is used by nearly 80% of Singapore’s 5.7 million residents. It was the first of the major Bluetooth contact tracing apps unveiled in the spring of 2020, and its data is more centralized than the Apple-Google system used in many other places around the world. Singapore ruled out using the Apple-Google system itself because officials there said they wanted more detailed infection information). Participation in contact tracing was once voluntary, but the government rolled that back late last year and there are now mandatory check-ins at most places where people work, shop, and gather.

The country’s approach to the pandemic has been forceful in many ways, not just when it comes to contact tracing technology. For example, people caught without a mask in public face large fines. 

Why it matters: Our Covid Tracing Tracker notes the privacy policies for dozens of apps around the world that notify users of potential exposure to covid-19. Although Singapore’s general attitudes about data privacy may not mirror what’s happening elsewhere, contact tracing apps around the world have raised questions of user privacy since the first were launched last year. The news from Singapore hits on activists’ and ethicists’ concerns about data misuse, and groups like Human Rights Watch have outlined how surveillance could further hurt already marginalized communities. 

In a recent essay in the journal Science, bioethicists Alessandro Blasimme and Effy Vayena from ETH Zurich in Switzerland, said that the “piecemeal creation of public trust” was an important missing ingredient if we want more people to use these apps.

Data is still important: This isn’t the first time the use of contact tracing data has intersected with law enforcement. Last July, German restaurants, bars and patrons raised objections when it was reported that police used information collected in contact tracing efforts to track down witnesses in investigations. And in late December 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that prohibits law enforcement and immigration authorities from accessing contact tracing data. Groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and New York Immigration Coalition applauded the move.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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InSight’s heat probe has failed on Mars. Is the mission a failure?

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For two years now, NASA’s InSight probe has sat on the surface of Mars, attempting to dig 5 meters (16 feet) deep in order to install the lander’s heat probe. The instrument was going to effectively take the planet’s temperature and tell scientists more about the internal thermal activity and geology of Mars. 

InSight never even got close to realizing that goal. On January 14, NASA announced that it was ending all attempts to place the heat probe underground. Affectionately referred to as “the mole,” the probe is designed to dig underground with a hammering action. But after the first month of its mission, it  was unable to burrow more than 14 inches into the ground before getting stuck. NASA has been working since to come up with some kind of solution, including using InSight’s robotic arm to pin the mole down with added weight to help it loosen up some dirt and get back to burrowing.

It never really worked. The Martian dirt has proved to be unexpectedly prone to clumping up, diminishing the sort of friction the mole needs to spike its way deeper and deeper. Ground crews came up with a last-ditch effort recently to use InSight’s arm to scoop some soil onto the probe to tether it down and provide more friction. After attempting 500 hammer strokes on January 9, the team soon realized there was no progress to be had. 

It’s discouraging news, given that NASA just recently decided to extend InSight’s mission to December 2022. During that time, there won’t be much of a role for the heat probe. Bruce Banerdt, the InSight principal investigator, says that the planet’s temperature could still be measured at the surface and a few inches below the surface using some of the instruments on InSight that still work. “This will allow us to determine the thermal conductivity of the near surface, which might vary with season due to changing atmospheric pressure,” he says.

An illustration of how InSight’s mole was supposed to be deployed on Mars.
DLR

And while the mole was unable to accomplish what was expected, it’s not accurate to see this as a failure. “We have encountered new soil properties that have never before been encountered on Mars, with a thick, crusty surface layer that decreases its volume substantially when crushed,” says Banerdt. “We do not yet understand everything we have seen, but geologists will be poring over this data for years to come, using it to tease out clues to the history of the Martian environment at this location.”

InSight will continue on with some of its other investigations, especially the measurement of seismic activity on Mars. It turns out the Red Planet is rocked by quakes all the time.

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Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020

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The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined, with super late-stage startups reaching new valuation thresholds at a record pace, and total venture capital funding in the United States recording its second-best result of all time.

That’s according to data released recently by CB Insights, which complements our look back at 2020’s venture capital year in America from yesterday.

At the time, we noted that American startups raised an average of $428 million each day last year, a sum that helps illustrate how rapid the private markets moved during the odd period.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But a peek at aggregate results for the world’s largest VC market provides only part of the picture. We need to narrow our lens and peer more deeply into standout categories to understand how the U.S. venture capital market managed to post its biggest year ever in terms of dollars invested, despite seeing deal volume slip for a second consecutive year.

This morning, we’re scraping data together to better understand.

First, we want to how unicorns performed in Q4 2020. This column noted in late December that it felt like unicorn creation was rapid in the quarter; how did that hold up?

And then we’ll take a look dig into PitchBook data concerning the fintech sector, a huge recipient of venture capital time, attention and money.

Fintech’s 2020 is a good perspective to view both the year and its wild final quarter. So this morning, as America itself resets, let’s take a moment to understand last year just a little bit better as we get into this new one.

Unicorns

One of the most curious things about the unicorn era is the rising bet it represents. I’ve written about this before so I will be brief: Nearly every quarter, the number of unicorns — private companies worth $1 billion or more — goes up.

The private market is able to create more unicorns than it has been historically able to exit them.

Some of these companies exit, sometimes in group fashion. But, quarter after quarter, the number of unexited unicorns rises. This means that the bet on expected future liquidity from venture capitalists and other private investors keeps ratcheting higher.

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MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming

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Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

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