Posted Apr. 3, 2017 at 5:40 a.m.

Tech wrap: Verizon tracking?; Zika vaccine trial; Oculus co-founder quits; NYPost app hack

Published: 2017-04-03 05:40:00
Updated: 2017-04-03 05:40:00

Bulldog Bulldog

In today's Bulldog wrapup of science and technology news:

  • Privacy concern raised over search service on Verizon phones
  • US enrolls volunteers in large test of possible Zika vaccine
  • Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey leaves Facebook
  • Hacked New York Post app sends out 'Heil President' alert

The details:

  • Privacy concern raised over search service on Verizon phones

Is Verizon planning to spy on its customers?

You might conclude that it is after reading Verizon's privacy policy on an upcoming AppFlash service, which promises easier access to search and apps on Android phones. The policy says Verizon may share data on features and services you use, along with the list of apps you have installed on your phone, with other Verizon businesses to target ads.

The privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation described AppFlash as "spyware."

Not so fast, Verizon says. In a statement to clarify its intentions, Verizon says users must explicitly grant permission before using AppFlash. Verizon says customers will be able to easily disable the service, and no one will be required to use it.

The statement, however, doesn't say exactly what permission Verizon is seeking. The privacy policy says users can control AppFlash's access to your location and contact information, but says nothing about giving control over broader usage data. At most, users can turn off ad tracking on the phone by digging through the settings.

The EFF has since retracted Thursday's blog post, pending further investigation. The group had said AppFlash represents Verizon's intention "to start monetizing its customers' private data as soon as possible." The post came just days after Congress voted to block Obama-era restrictions on what internet-access companies like Verizon could do with information about you.

Verizon has gotten heat over user privacy before. Last year, Verizon agreed to pay a $1.35 million fine over a "supercookie" that federal regulators said followed phone customers on the internet without their permission.

  • US enrolls volunteers in large test of possible Zika vaccine

U.S. health officials have begun enrolling volunteers for critical next-stage testing of an experimental vaccine to protect against Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that can cause devastating birth defects in pregnant women.

The first volunteer was vaccinated last Wednesday at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as the National Institutes of Health gears up for a two-part study that aims to enroll at least 2,400 people in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and five at-risk countries: Brazil, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and Peru.

Zika has caused an epidemic of birth defects — including babies with abnormally small heads and brains — in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, and continues to spread to a creeping list of other countries. For the U.S. the risk has largely been to travelers, although mosquitoes spread the virus in parts of southern Florida and Texas last year, where health officials remain on guard.

But while Zika largely disappeared from the headlines over the winter, mosquito season is fast approaching — and the risk persists internationally.

"It is imperative that public health research continue to work to contain the spread of the virus," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Friday in announcing the $100 million study.

First-stage safety testing of a so-called DNA vaccine against Zika signaled no side effect concerns, Fauci said — allowing the NIH-created shots to progress to the next stage of testing that will help tell if they really work.

It's a two-part study. First, researchers will evaluate 90 healthy adults given different doses to determine the best one. Those volunteers will be tested at Baylor, the University of Miami and University of Puerto Rico.

Once the correct dose is picked, the larger part of the study could begin as early as June at those sites and additional ones in the at-risk countries — giving 2,400 volunteers either the experimental vaccine or dummy shots. Pregnant women can't receive the experimental shots but women of child-bearing age can enroll. All the volunteers will be tracked for nearly two years to see if the vaccine really protects against Zika infection.

This is a totally new kind of vaccine. Traditionally, vaccines are made using a dead or weakened virus to train the body's immune system to recognize and fight that infection.

In contrast, the DNA vaccine works through trickery: It's made with a circular piece of DNA carrying genes from the Zika virus that, once in the body, make particles that resemble Zika enough to alert the immune system but cannot cause infection.

  • Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey leaves Facebook

Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of Facebook's Oculus virtual-reality business, is leaving the company.

Facebook didn't give a reason for Luckey's departure. His last day was Friday.

Luckey, who is 24, is leaving Facebook in the heels of controversies. Earlier this year, a federal jury found that Oculus, Luckey and co-founder Brendan Iribe violating the intellectual property rights of video-game maker ZeniMax Media. The jury awarded $500 million in damages, including $50 million from Luckey.

Luckey was also criticized for a donation of $10,000 to a pro-Donald Trump group called Nimble America, which created offensive memes online during the 2016 election season.

Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion. Oculus makes the stand-alone Rift virtual-reality headset along with the Gear VR headset for Samsung.

  • Hacked New York Post app sends out 'Heil President' alert

The New York Post app has been hacked on April Fools' Day, sending out push alert notifications that included "Heil President Donald Trump."

The Post apologized Saturday night, shortly after its app sent out a series of alerts. The newspaper said in a follow-up alert: "Our push alert notification system was compromised this evening. We are working to resolve the issue. Please accept our apologies."

The messages appeared directed at Trump. One message said, "Open your heart to those you do not understand and listen to all those you fear and look down upon."

The alerts even included lyrics from Nirvana's song "Come As You Are": "Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, but don't be late."

The Post is owned by Trump-friendly media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

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