Zong Qinghou, founder of Chinese beverage giant Wahaha Group, passed away on Sunday

Zong Qinghou, the founder and chairman of Chinese beverage giant Wahaha Group, died on Sunday at the age of 79, the company has confirmed.

On Thursday, the company said that Zong was hospitalized but remained in stable condition. The group’s business is operating as normal.

In 1987, Zong led two retired teachers to set up a school-run enterprise. With a loan of 140,000 yuan ($19,700 at current rates), they started selling soda and popsicles on a consignment basis. Later through technological and marketing innovation, they created the famous brand Wahaha.

Zong also became a major representative of China’s private entrepreneurs after reform and opening-up kicked off in 1978, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Sunday.

Zong was a deputy to the 10th, 11th and 12th National People’s Congresses, and a representative of the 12th, 13th and 14th National Congresses of the Communist Party of China in Zhejiang Province.

He won honors including the National Model Worker, the National May 1 Labor Medal and the “Top 100 outstanding private entrepreneurs at the 40th anniversary of reform and opening-up award.”

“For Chinese entrepreneurs, it is essential to be patriotic, to innovate continuously and to care for employees,” Zong once said. “Only in this way can private firms thrive.”

With regard to personal wealth, Zong topped the list of the richest people in the Chinese mainland on more than one occasion. As of March 23, 2023, Zong ranked No.121 on the Hurun Global Rich List 2023 with wealth of 100 billion yuan.

As a leader in China’s beverage industry, Zong created a large number of household beverage brands including Wahaha purified water and AD calcium milk. He was regarded as one of the representatives of the first generation of entrepreneurs in Zhejiang andiconic figure of China’s economic reform.

Set up in 1987, the company continued to expand, with output value exceeding 100 million yuan in 1990, climbing to 10 billion yuan in 2003 and reaching 78.28 billion yuan in 2013. In 2022, the group company’s sales reached 51.202 billion yuan.

Media reported that Zong had the habit of reading hard copies of major newspapers in China, which his assistants printed out for him – meaning each time he went on a business trip, his team would bring a small printer, A4 paper and ink cartridges.

Although Zong once served as the chairman of Wahaha Group, a successor has long been in place. In December 2021, Wahaha Group officially announced that Zong Fuli, daughter of Zong Qinghou, was installed as vice chairman and general manager of the group. The father did not hide his pride in her daughter, giving her 90 points in a public media interview for her performance in running the group.

In a Dialogue program of CCTV last year, Zong Qinghou addressed succession within the company. He said he would not retire, but would step back and let young people take charge of day-to-day operations.

Boeing 737MAX8 plane meets delivery requirements in China

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the model of Boeing 737 MAX8 has met delivery requirements set by Chinese regulators.

Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said that the model is approved in accordance with Chinese civil aviation regulations on December 8 of 2023.

The comments came after media reported that Boeing delivered one Boeing 737 MAX to China Southern Airlines.

Earlier, Reuters reported that Boeing was set to deliver the first 737 MAX to a Chinese airline since March 2019 on Wednesday, citing flight data. 

The delivery ends a four-year freeze for the US plane maker’s most profitable jet.

China suspended most orders and deliveries of Boeing planes in 2019 after the 737 MAX model was grounded globally, following two fatal crashes.

Before the delivery, in December of last year, Boeing said that a 787-9 Dreamliner ordered by Juneyao Airlines had been delivered. 

It is the first time since November 2019 that Boeing has delivered a 787 Dreamliner plane to a Chinese airline.

Shanghai Composite Index rises for fourth straight day

China’s Shanghai Composite Index rose for the fourth straight day on Friday to get back above the 2,900-point mark amid the rollout of a series of policies to support the development of the capital market and the macro-economy.

Yang Delong, chief economist at Shenzhen-based First Seafront Fund Management Co, told the Global Times on Friday that the A-share market had been near the bottom level, calling for confidence and patience in the Chinese stock market.

The Central Financial Work Conference called for efforts to accelerate the building of a nation with a strong financial sector. The goal cannot be achieved without a prosperous capital market, which provides support for enterprises’ transformation and upgrading as well as the country’s sci-tech innovations, Yang said, adding that more policies to support the long-term and healthy development of the capital market are expected.

Pan Gongsheng, governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBC), the central bank, said at a press conference on Wednesday that China will cut the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) by 50 basis points from February 5, which is expected to inject 1 trillion yuan in long-term liquidity.

Underscoring the central government’s resolve to bolster the economy, the news boosted investors’ confidence and reversed the stock market’s recent downward trend.

On Friday, the Ministry of Commerce declared 2024 the “year of promoting consumption” and stressed the need to strengthen consumption rebound momentum. The ministry said it would continue to relax restrictions on foreign investment and improve the business environment in order to attract more investment.

Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development on Friday called on various cities to adjust real estate policies based on their local conditions, and pledged to treat developers equally in terms of financing so as to ensure the healthy and steady development of the real estate sector, China Securities Journal reported.

Investors poured almost $12 billion into Chinese equity funds in the week to Wednesday in the largest inflow seen since 2015 and the second-largest ever, Reuters reported on Friday.

Chinese regulators vow ‘all efforts’ to ensure stable capital market

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) on Tuesday vowed to make “all efforts” to maintain the stable operation of the capital market, saying that it would put more emphasis on stability and strive to stabilize the market and investors’ confidence.

An official from the CSRC also said that the country’s top stock market regulators will cultivate long-term and stable investment forces, enrich policy tools to cope with market volatility and guard against risks, according to a media report on Tuesday.

These comments add to growing signals from Chinese officials that they are stepping up efforts to stabilize the capital market amid recent volatility. On Monday, China’s State Council, the cabinet, called for drawing more long-term funds into the capital market to boost its inherent stability.

The signals will offer much-needed reassurance for investors that policy measures are expected to be taken to tackle risks in the capital market and ensure overall stability, which will help lift expectations and boost confidence in the capital market, analysts said on Tuesday.

A meeting of the CSRC on Tuesday stressed that the agency will make all efforts to maintain the stable operation of the capital market. It also vowed to vigorously improve the quality and investment value of listed companies and increase the entry of medium- and long-term funds, according to a statement on the commission’s website.

Zhang Wangjun, a senior official at the CSRC, said that in terms of stabilizing the market and investors’ confidence, the commission will enrich policy tools to cope with market volatility, hedge against risks in a timely manner and firmly hold the bottom line in preventing risks, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Tuesday.

The CSRC will also, along with relevant parties, ensure the continuity and stability of macro policies and industry policies, and avoid introducing policy measures that are not conducive to capital market expectations, in order to stabilize market expectations, according to Zhang.

The remarks from the CSRC come one day after the State Council held an executive meeting to hear reports about the capital market. The meeting stressed that increased medium- and long-term funds should be brought into the country’s capital market and the inherent stability of the market should be enhanced.

The meeting also called for crackdowns on illegal activities and more effective measures to stabilize the capital market and boost investors’ confidence.

Analysts said that these growing signals from government officials could mean concrete policy measures are forthcoming to tackle risks and challenges, boost investor confidence and ultimately maintain stability in the capital market, amid recent volatility.

“The recent declines in the stock market didn’t happen due to major changes in the economic fundamentals, but because of irregular activities that take advantage of pessimistic narratives and market loopholes,” Tian Yun, a Beijing-based economist, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Tian said that this situation isn’t in the interests of investors and will have a significant impact on the overall economy. “This is why regulators must step in to maintain financial stability by using targeted funds and closing loopholes that allow short-selling,” he said.

While China mounted an impressive economic recovery in 2023, with a GDP growth rate of 5.2 percent for the year, foreign media outlets continue to push negative narratives about the Chinese economy that analysts said have had a negative impact on investors’ sentiment, leading to market volatility.

As of Tuesday, the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index had fallen by 6.46 percent so far this year, while the Shenzhen Component Index had lost 8.56 percent.

Amid the downward trend, “restoring investor confidence does require strong policies and large-scale capital inflows to reverse the market’s downtrend, so that investors can regain confidence,” Yang Delong, chief economist at Shenzhen-based First Seafront Fund Management Co, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

The State Council meeting pointed out that it is necessary to enhance the consistency of macro policy, strengthen innovation and coordination of policy tools, consolidate and enhance the positive trend of the economic recovery and promote the stable and healthy development of the capital market.

Zhang also said that the CSRC will strengthen monitoring of the trading behavior of key investors and severely crack down on illegal transactions such as illegal trading and manipulation, according to Xinhua.

GT Voice: Boeing crisis shows danger of US protectionism bubble

The escalating crisis of Boeing is giving rise to mounting frustration and anger within the aviation industry, as repeated safety problems of the American aviation giant, which highlight its poor quality control, along with regulatory failures and narrow-minded US industrial policies, clearly can’t easily be fixed.

Two US airlines have cast doubt on Boeing 737 MAX plane orders. Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, one of the biggest buyers of Boeing jets, said in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday that the MAX 9 groundings are “probably the straw that broke the camel’s back,” signaling to the carrier it should seek “alternative plans” for its aircraft inventory.

In another interview on NBC on Tuesday, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci revealed the carrier found “some loose bolts on many” Boeing 737 Max 9 planes. “I’m more than frustrated and disappointed. I am angry,” he said, according to excerpts of the interview.

There is every reason for airlines like United and Alaska to be disappointed. For the aviation industry, safety is the utmost bottom line, as any problem is likely to cause significant damage to life and property. Boeing’s safety problems have posed a great challenge, becoming a major disruptor of the operation of airlines.

Indeed, United Airlines just warned investors that it will report a larger-than-expected loss in the first quarter because of the grounding of all 737 MAX 9 jets after a door plug blew off on an Alaska Air flight on January 5.

If anything, the CEOs’ comments suggest that the safety crisis is not something that Boeing can quickly or easily quell. This is because since the crisis began earlier this month, reports of various safety problems about Boeing aircraft have continued to surface, indicating that its quality controls are facing a serious systemic problem, which cannot be easily fixed by addressing an isolated case.

For instance, a Boeing 757 aircraft lost its nose tire moments before it was supposed to take off from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Saturday, Fox Business reported on Tuesday.

Also last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was forced to change planes to return to Washington from Davos after the Boeing 737 aircraft he was supposed to board suffered a critical failure related to an oxygen leak.

There has been a lot of analysis as to why Boeing is plagued by repeated mechanical mishaps, such as its over-reliance on parts outsourcing for the purpose of maximizing profits and negligence of quality control.

But these may just be superficial issues. Fundamentally speaking, Boeing’s management problems that have led to defects in aircraft production are inseparable from regulatory failure and government protection.

Due to limited resources, the Federal Aviation Administration has long outsourced some of its oversight responsibilities to Boeing and other manufacturers for self-certification, according to an NPR report, meaning that Boeing has played a role as “both athlete and referee” when it comes to safety supervision.

The US government has been one of Boeing’s biggest customers and its biggest supporter. It is no secret that Boeing has long been one of the largest beneficiaries of tax breaks, subsidies and loans. 

When it comes to trade disputes, the US government imposed tariffs on Airbus to protect Boeing’s position in the US market. Also, US officials have been pushing other countries to buy Boeing products, sometimes by offering loans.

Boeing’s decline in competitiveness is due partly to the excessive support by the US government, which has made the giant lose its sense of urgency about quality controls and other issues affecting its competitive edge. 

It’s clear that American influence has become a more powerful guarantee of market share than production competitiveness. But such protection can backfire.

If Boeing continues to rely on US government influence around the world, rather than really addressing its safety problems, it may become the “spoiled child” of high-end manufacturing in the US and lose its pivotal position in the American manufacturing industry.

Whatever happens to Boeing, the US still leads in some manufacturing areas. As the US tries hard to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, Boeing’s crisis is worth reflecting on for the American manufacturing industry. If US industrial policy continues to be propped up by protectionism, the competitiveness of US manufacturing is bound to be cast into doubt.

China, Maldives elevate ties, underscoring mutual support

Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with President of the Republic of Maldives Mohamed Muizzu in Beijing on Wednesday. Chinese experts said that the elevation of China-Maldives relations will bring more development opportunities to the peoples of two countries as well as to the Indian Ocean region, which is significant to China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the economic and energy security of China. 

According to the Xinhua News Agency, Xi welcomed Muizzi at a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, before holding a bilateral meeting with Muizzu, who is paying a five-day state visit to China from January 8-12. The two heads of state announced the elevation of bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership during the talks. 

China stands ready to exchange governance experience with the Maldives, strengthen the synergy of development strategies, advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, and set a new benchmark for the China-Maldives friendship, Xi said. 

He called on the two sides to strengthen cooperation in such areas as the economy, trade and investment, agricultural parks, and the blue, green and digital economies. He also called for expanded cooperation on marine ecological and environmental protection, as well as strengthened people-to-people exchanges. He said China will support more Maldivian students to study in China and promote more direct flights between the two countries. 

Xi noted that the two sides should strengthen multilateral communication and coordination to safeguard genuine multilateralism and the common interests of developing countries, and build a community with a shared future for humanity to make the world more peaceful, secure and prosperous.

Muizzu said he was honored to pay his first state visit to China with a number of important cabinet ministers and become the first foreign head of state that China has hosted this year, fully demonstrating the great importance both sides attach to the development of bilateral relations.

Noting that this year marks the 10th anniversary of President Xi’s historic state visit to the Maldives, Muizzu said that China has provided a significant amount of valuable assistance to his country’s economic and social development. He said the Maldivian people have benefited greatly from the BRI, citing the Maldives-China Friendship Bridge as a symbol of the bond between the two peoples. 

After their talks, the two heads of state witnessed the signature of an action plan to establish the China-Maldives comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, as well as cooperation documents on the construction of the Belt and Road, disaster management, the economy and technology, infrastructure, people’s livelihoods, green development, and the blue and digital economies. 

Strategic significance

Zhao Gancheng, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Global Times on Wednesday that although Maldives is a small country in terms of land area and population, in terms of geopolitics, it has very high strategic significance.

“The Indian Ocean is far from us, but it’s extremely important to the economic and energy security of our country, as well as the BRI, so China needs to try its best to make friends in the region,” Zhao noted. 

Xi said at the meeting with Muizzu that China respects and supports the Maldives in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions, and supports the Maldives firmly in safeguarding its national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity.

Muizzu said the Maldives pursues the one-China policy firmly. Firm mutual support in safeguarding national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity is a solid foundation for the sustained and sound development of Maldives-China relations.

The Maldives supports the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative, all of which were put forward by President Xi, and is willing to communicate and cooperate closely with China on international and regional affairs, Muizzu noted.

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Wednesday that Muizzu’s visit to China shows that Maldives sincerely wants to develop ties with China and strengthen existing cooperation.

“Muizzu’s pledge to the Maldivian people that there will be ‘no foreign military presence,’ makes India angry, so the newly elected president will surely hope China can help his country deal with the pressure from New Delhi,” Hu said.

China-Maldives relations do not target any third party, but due to India’s aggressive stance against its neighbor, countries in the region will definitely want to diversify their ties to preserve their national dignity and sovereignty via cooperation with other major powers like China, said Chinese experts. 

This is why the normal development of ties between China and Maldives is making some India elites and decision-makers anxious, although it is unnecessary and exposes New Delhi’s intention to suppress its neighbors, said analysts.

Cooperation between China and Maldives, as well as other countries in the Indian Ocean will face challenges and uncertainties from India’s interruption, so China and Maldives need to work together to strengthen their security cooperation to ensure the implementation and operation of other projects, and to jointly oppose foreign intervention, Hu noted. 

According to Indian media, some Indian internet users are launching a boycott campaign against Maldives amid tensions between Maldives and India, and reports claim that Muizzu is trying to attract more Chinese tourists to the Maldives to offset the loss caused by India’s boycott. 

Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Wednesday that Chinese tourists will return to Maldives step by step in the post-pandemic era, because it is a well-known paradise for tourism among Chinese public, so the return of Chinese tourists will not be driven by so-called political reasons or any diplomatic activity. 

China had remained as the largest source of tourist arrivals in the Maldives for years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, nearly 300,000 Chinese tourists visited the Maldives, accounting for around 17 percent of total tourist arrivals that year, Xinhua reported. 

It would be short-sighted and narrow-minded to understand the development of China-Maldives ties only based on tourism. Hu said that apart from the tourist industry, both sides can explore cooperation in other fields related to tourism, such as protection of coastal and marine ecosystems, and the development of the maritime economy, as well as public health cooperation like promoting traditional Chinese medicine to help local people to get better healthcare.

Your phone is like a spy in your pocket

Consider everything your smartphone has done for you today. Counted your steps? Deposited a check? Transcribed notes? Navigated you somewhere new?

Smartphones make for such versatile pocket assistants because they’re equipped with a suite of sensors, including some we may never think — or even know — about, sensing, for example, light, humidity, pressure and temperature.

Because smartphones have become essential companions, those sensors probably stayed close by throughout your day: the car cup holder, your desk, the dinner table and nightstand. If you’re like the vast majority of American smartphone users, the phone’s screen may have been black, but the device was probably on the whole time.

“Sensors are finding their ways into every corner of our lives,” says Maryam Mehrnezhad, a computer scientist at Newcastle University in England. That’s a good thing when phones are using their observational dexterity to do our bidding. But the plethora of highly personal information that smartphones are privy to also makes them powerful potential spies.
Online app store Google Play has already discovered apps abusing sensor access. Google recently booted 20 apps from Android phones and its app store because the apps could — without the user’s knowledge — record with the microphone, monitor a phone’s location, take photos, and then extract the data. Stolen photos and sound bites pose obvious privacy invasions. But even seemingly innocuous sensor data can potentially broadcast sensitive information. A smartphone’s movement may reveal what users are typing or disclose their whereabouts. Even barometer readings that subtly shift with increased altitude could give away which floor of a building you’re standing on, suggests Ahmed Al-Haiqi, a security researcher at the National Energy University in Kajang, Malaysia.

These sneaky intrusions may not be happening in real life yet, but concerned researchers in academia and industry are working to head off eventual invasions. Some scientists have designed invasive apps and tested them on volunteers to shine a light on what smartphones can reveal about their owners. Other researchers are building new smartphone security systems to help protect users from myriad real and hypothetical privacy invasions, from stolen PIN codes to stalking.

Message revealed
Motion detectors within smartphones, like the accelerometer and the rotation-sensing gyroscope, could be prime tools for surreptitious data collection. They’re not permission protected — the phone’s user doesn’t have to give a newly installed app permission to access those sensors. So motion detectors are fair game for any app downloaded onto a device, and “lots of vastly different aspects of the environment are imprinted on those signals,” says Mani Srivastava, an engineer at UCLA.

For instance, touching different regions of a screen makes the phone tilt and shift just a tiny bit, but in ways that the phone’s motion sensors pick up, Mehrnezhad and colleagues demonstrated in a study reported online April 2017 in the International Journal of Information Security. These sensors’ data may “look like nonsense” to the human eye, says Al-Haiqi, but sophisticated computer programs can discern patterns in the mess and match segments of motion data to taps on various areas of the screen.

For the most part, these computer programs are machine-learning algorithms, Al-Haiqi says. Researchers train them to recognize keystrokes by feeding the programs a bunch of motion sensor data labeled with the key tap that produces particular movement. A pair of researchers built TouchLogger, an app that collects orientation sensor data and uses the data to deduce taps on smartphones’ number keyboards. In a test on HTC phones, reported in 2011 in San Francisco at the USENIX Workshop on Hot Topics in Security, TouchLogger discerned more than 70 percent of key taps correctly.

Since then, a spate of similar studies have come out, with scientists writing code to infer keystrokes on number and letter keyboards on different kinds of phones. In 2016 in Pervasive and Mobile Computing, Al-Haiqi and colleagues reviewed these studies and concluded that only a snoop’s imagination limits the ways motion data could be translated into key taps. Those keystrokes could divulge everything from the password entered on a banking app to the contents of an e-mail or text message.

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A more recent application used a whole fleet of smartphone sensors — including the gyroscope, accelerometer, light sensor and magnetism-measuring magnetometer — to guess PINs. The app analyzed a phone’s movement and how, during typing, the user’s finger blocked the light sensor. When tested on a pool of 50 PIN numbers, the app could discern keystrokes with 99.5 percent accuracy, the researchers reported on the Cryptology ePrint Archive in December.

Other researchers have paired motion data with mic recordings, which can pick up the soft sound of a fingertip tapping a screen. One group designed a malicious app that could masquerade as a simple note-taking tool. When the user tapped on the app’s keyboard, the app covertly recorded both the key input and the simultaneous microphone and gyroscope readings to learn the sound and feel of each keystroke.

The app could even listen in the background when the user entered sensitive info on other apps. When tested on Samsung and HTC phones, the app, presented in the Proceedings of the 2014 ACM Conference on Security and Privacy in Wireless and Mobile Networks, inferred the keystrokes of 100 four-digit PINs with 94 percent accuracy.

Al-Haiqi points out, however, that success rates are mostly from tests of keystroke-deciphering techniques in controlled settings — assuming that users hold their phones a certain way or sit down while typing. How these info-extracting programs fare in a wider range of circumstances remains to be seen. But the answer to whether motion and other sensors would open the door for new privacy invasions is “an obvious yes,” he says.

Motion sensors can also help map a person’s travels, like a subway or bus ride. A trip produces an undercurrent of motion data that’s discernible from shorter-lived, jerkier movements like a phone being pulled from a pocket. Researchers designed an app, described in 2017 in IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security, to extract the data signatures of various subway routes from accelerometer readings.

In experiments with Samsung smartphones on the subway in Nanjing, China, this tracking app picked out which segments of the subway system a user was riding with at least 59, 81 and 88 percent accuracy — improving as the stretches expanded from three to five to seven stations long. Someone who can trace a user’s subway movements might figure out where the traveler lives and works, what shops or bars the person frequents, a daily schedule, or even — if the app is tracking multiple people — who the user meets at various places.
Accelerometer data can also plot driving routes, as described at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Communication Systems and Networks in Bangalore, India. Other sensors can be used to track people in more confined spaces: One team synced a smartphone mic and portable speaker to create an on-the-fly sonar system to map movements throughout a house. The team reported the work in the September 2017 Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.

“Fortunately there is not anything like [these sensor spying techniques] in real life that we’ve seen yet,” says Selcuk Uluagac, an electrical and computer engineer at Florida International University in Miami. “But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear danger out there that we should be protecting ourselves against.”

That’s because the kinds of algorithms that researchers have employed to comb sensor data are getting more advanced and user-friendly all the time, Mehrnezhad says. It’s not just people with Ph.D.s who can design the kinds of privacy invasions that researchers are trying to raise awareness about. Even app developers who don’t understand the inner workings of machine-learning algorithms can easily get this kind of code online to build sensor-sniffing programs.

What’s more, smartphone sensors don’t just provide snooping opportunities for individual cybercrooks who peddle info-stealing software. Legitimate apps often harvest info, such as search engine and app download history, to sell to advertising companies and other third parties. Those third parties could use the information to learn about aspects of a user’s life that the person doesn’t necessarily want to share.

Take a health insurance company. “You may not like them to know if you are a lazy person or you are an active person,” Mehrnezhad says. “Through these motion sensors, which are reporting the amount of activity you’re doing every day, they could easily identify what type of user you are.”

Sensor safeguards
Since it’s only getting easier for an untrusted third party to make private inferences from sensor data, researchers are devising ways to give people more control over what information apps can siphon off of their devices. Some safeguards could appear as standalone apps, whereas others are tools that could be built into future operating system updates.

Uluagac and colleagues proposed a system called 6thSense, which monitors a phone’s sensor activity and alerts its owner to unusual behavior, in Vancouver at the August 2017 USENIX Security Symposium. The user trains this system to recognize the phone’s normal sensor behavior during everyday tasks like calling, Web browsing and driving. Then, 6thSense continually checks the phone’s sensor activity against these learned behaviors.

If someday the program spots something unusual — like the motion sensors reaping data when a user is just sitting and texting — 6thSense alerts the user. Then the user can check if a recently downloaded app is responsible for this suspicious activity and delete the app from the phone.

Uluagac’s team recently tested a prototype of the system: Fifty users trained Samsung smartphones with 6thSense to recognize their typical sensor activity. When the researchers fed the 6thSense system examples of benign data from daily activities mixed in with segments of malicious sensor operations, 6thSense picked out the problematic bits with over 96 percent accuracy.
For people who want more active control over their data, Supriyo Chakraborty, a privacy and security researcher at IBM in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and colleagues devised DEEProtect, a system that blunts apps’ abilities to draw conclusions about certain user activity from sensor data. People could use DEEProtect, described in a paper posted online at arXiv.org in February 2017, to specify preferences about what apps should be allowed to do with sensor data. For example, someone may want an app to transcribe speech but not identify the speaker.

DEEProtect intercepts whatever raw sensor data an app tries to access and strips that data down to only the features needed to make user-approved inferences. For speech-to-text translation, the phone typically needs sound frequencies and the probabilities of particular words following each other in a sentence.

But sound frequencies could also help a spying app deduce a speaker’s identity. So DEEProtect distorts the dataset before releasing it to the app, leaving information on word orders alone, since that has little or no bearing on speaker identity. Users can control how much DEEProtect changes the data; more distortion begets more privacy but also degrades app functions.

In another approach, Giuseppe Petracca, a computer scientist and engineer at Penn State, and colleagues are trying to protect users from accidentally granting sensor access to deceitful apps, with a security system called AWare.

Apps have to get user permission upon first installation or first use to access certain sensors like the mic and camera. But people can be cavalier about granting those blanket authorizations, Uluagac says. “People blindly give permission to say, ‘Hey, you can use the camera, you can use the microphone.’ But they don’t really know how the apps are using these sensors.”

Instead of asking permission when a new app is installed, AWare would request user permission for an app to access a certain sensor the first time a user provided a certain input, like pressing a camera button. On top of that, the AWare system memorizes the state of the phone when the user grants that initial permission — the exact appearance of the screen, sensors requested and other information. That way, AWare can tell users if the app later attempts to trick them into granting unintended permissions.

For instance, Petracca and colleagues imagine a crafty data-stealing app that asks for camera access when the user first pushes a camera button, but then also tries to access the mic when the user later pushes that same button. The AWare system, also presented at the 2017 USENIX Security Symposium, would realize the mic access wasn’t part of the initial deal, and would ask the user again if he or she would like to grant this additional permission.

Petracca and colleagues found that people using Nexus smartphones equipped with AWare avoided unwanted authorizations about 93 percent of the time, compared with 9 percent among people using smartphones with typical first-use or install-time permission policies.

The price of privacy
The Android security team at Google is also trying to mitigate the privacy risks posed by app sensor data collection. Android security engineer Rene Mayrhofer and colleagues are keeping tabs on the latest security studies coming out of academia, Mayrhofer says.

But just because someone has built and successfully tested a prototype of a new smartphone security system doesn’t mean it will show up in future operating system updates. Android hasn’t incorporated proposed sensor safeguards because the security team is still looking for a protocol that strikes the right balance between restricting access for nefarious apps and not stunting the functions of trustworthy programs, Mayrhofer explains.

“The whole [app] ecosystem is so big, and there are so many different apps out there that have a totally legitimate purpose,” he adds. Any kind of new security system that curbs apps’ sensor access presents “a real risk of breaking” legitimate apps.

Tech companies may also be reluctant to adopt additional security measures because these extra protections can come at the cost of user friendliness, like AWare’s additional permissions pop-ups. There’s an inherent trade-off between security and convenience, UCLA’s Srivastava says. “You’re never going to have this magical sensor shield [that] gives you this perfect balance of privacy and utility.”

But as sensors get more pervasive and powerful, and algorithms for analyzing the data become more astute, even smartphone vendors may eventually concede that the current sensor protections aren’t cutting it. “It’s like cat and mouse,” Al-Haiqi says. “Attacks will improve, solutions will improve. Attacks will improve, solutions will improve.”

The game will continue, Chakraborty agrees. “I don’t think we’ll get to a place where we can declare a winner and go home.”

New device can transmit underwater sound to air

Don’t expect to play a game of Marco Polo by shouting from beneath the pool’s surface. No one will hear you because, normally, only about 0.1 percent of sound is transmitted from water to the air. But a new type of device might one day help.

Researchers have designed a new metamaterial — a type of material that behaves in ways conventional materials can’t — that increases sound transmission to 30 percent. The metamaterial could have applications for more than poolside play. A future version might be used to detect noisy marine life or listen in on sonar use, say applied physicist Oliver Wright of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and a team at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, who describe the metamaterial in a paper accepted to Physical Review Letters.
Currently, detection of underwater sounds happens with hydrophones, which have to be underwater. But what if you wanted to listen in from the surface?

Enter the new device. It’s a small cylinder with a weighted rubber membrane stretched across a metal frame that floats atop the water surface. When underwater sound waves hit the device, its frame and membrane vibrate at finely tuned frequencies to help sound transmit into the air.

“A ‘hard’ surface like a table or water reflects almost 100 percent of sound,” says Wright. “We want to try to mitigate that by introducing an intermediary structure.”
Both water and air resist the flow of sound, a property known as acoustic impedance. Because of its density, water’s acoustic impedance is 3,600 times that of air. The greater the mismatch, the more sound is reflected at a boundary.
Adding a layer of material one-fourth the thickness of an incoming wave’s wavelength can reduce the amount of reflection. This is the principle at work behind anti-reflective coatings applied to lenses of cameras and glasses. While optical light has a wavelength in the hundreds of nanometers, necessitating a thin coating only a few atoms thick, audible sound waves can be meters long.

Even though it’s only one-hundredth the thickness of the sound’s wavelength, instead of the conventional one-fourth, the metamaterial still transmits sound.

“It’s a tour de force of experimental demonstration,” says Oleg Godin, a physicist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who was not involved with the research. “But I’m less impressed by the suggestions and implications about its uses. It’s wishful thinking.”

One major problem that the researchers would have to overcome is the device’s inability to transmit sound that hits the surface an angle. In the lab, the device is tested in a tube — effectively a one-direction environment. But on the vast surface of a lake or ocean, the device would be limited to transmitting sounds from the small area directly below it. Additionally, the metamaterial is limited to transmitting a narrow band of frequencies. Noise outside that range reflects off the water’s surface as usual.

Still, the scientists are optimistic about the next steps, and even propose that a sheet of these devices could work in concert.