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WHO readies coronavirus app for checking symptoms, possibly contact tracing




OAKLAND, California:

The World Health Organization (WHO) plans to launch an app this month to enable people in under-resourced countries to assess whether they may have the novel coronavirus, and is considering a Bluetooth-based contact tracing feature too, an official told Reuters on Friday.

The app will ask people about their symptoms and offer guidance on whether they may have COVID-19, the potentially lethal illness caused by the coronavirus, said Bernardo Mariano, chief information officer for the WHO. Other information, such as how to get tested, will be personalized according to the user’s country.

Though the WHO will release a version on app stores globally, any government will be able to take the app’s underlying technology, add features and release its own version on app stores, Mariano said in a phone interview.

India, Australia and the United Kingdom already have released official virus apps using their own technology, with common features including telling people whether to get tested based on their symptoms and logging people’s movements to enable more efficient contact tracing.

Several countries are ramping up contact tracing, or the process of finding, testing and isolating individuals who crossed paths with an infectious individual. It is seen as vital to safely opening economies, and apps that automate parts of the process could accelerate efforts.

The WHO expects its app to draw interest in other countries, including some in South America and Africa where case numbers are rising. They may lack the technology and engineers to develop apps or be struggling to offer testing and education.

“The value is really for countries that do not have anything,” Mariano said. “We would be leaving behind the ones that are not able to (provide an app), that have fragile health systems.”

Engineers and designers, including some who previously worked at Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, have been volunteering for weeks to develop the new app with about five of them overseeing the process. They are designing it open-source on the hosting service GitHub, meaning code is open to public input.

Several team members declined to comment.

Mariano said he wants to include additional tools beyond the symptom checker, including a self-help guide for mental health care.

The team also is considering what the WHO refers to as proximity tracing.

Engineers have done preliminary work and talked to smartphone operating system makers Apple Inc and Google about possibly adopting technology the companies plan to release jointly this month to make tracing easier.

The technology relies on virtual “handshakes” between phones that come within a few feet of each other for at least five minutes. Phones keep anonymised logs of such encounters, allowing someone who later tests positive to anonymously send notifications to recent contacts about their possible exposure to the virus.

But Mariano said legal and privacy considerations have prevented the WHO from committing to such a feature yet. He expressed concern about the many businesses pitching proximity tools turning around and using any personal data they gather to generate revenue later.

“We want to make sure we ring-fence all the risks around it,” he said.

Apple and Google have said their system will not use any data for other purposes and will be stopped when the pandemic ends.

The WHO plans to release guidance as soon as next week on issues countries should consider as they weigh their own proximity tracing apps.

To reach people with limited internet access, the WHO is working to deliver information via text messages. In March, it launched an account on Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp to provide users with information about the coronavirus, and it partnered with the company’s Free Basics program to make some information available without users incurring data charges.

The WHO also plans to release an app next week to inform health workers globally about best practices for donning protective gear, washing hands and treating the virus. The organization already has a general app, WHO Info, that largely mirrors its website.

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TikTok Says Removed Over 49 Million Videos in Second Half of 2019




By Reuters | Updated: 10 July 2020

Social media app TikTok said on Thursday it removed more than 49 million videos from its platform in the second half of last year for violating its guidelines.

These videos accounted for less than 1 percent of the total posted on the platform and fell under categories such as “violent and graphic content, hate speech and adult nudity”, it said in a report released on its website.

About one-third of the videos were from India, followed by the United States, and Pakistan, it added.

The transparency report comes days after the company owned by China’s ByteDance was banned from India, one of its biggest markets, after a Sino-India border clash. The short-form video making app also decided to exit the Hong Kong market following China’s establishment of a sweeping new national security law for the semi-autonomous city.

TikTok launched a new platform to court small business advertisers on Wednesday. The platform, however, was fraught with challenges, especially after the Trump administration’s threat this week to impose a ban on China-based social media apps.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Apple Rolls Out Free Online Coding Course for Teachers




By Reuters | Updated: 10 July 2020

Apple said on Thursday it was rolling out a free online coding course for teachers, while beefing up its existing school coding programs with new material.

The Cupertino, California-based company, which offers coding courses under the “Develop in Swift” and “Everyone Can Code” banners, said the new course is designed to supplement the need for computer science educators in the United States.

The new course will help instructors build foundational knowledge to enable them to teach app development with Apple’s open source programming language Swift.

“Everyone Can Code” courses are aimed at beginners, while its “Develop in Swift” programs focus on advanced coders.

Apple said it is also redesigning and adding resources to these existing programs.

The “Develop in Swift” series will include four new books that will be available in the fall at no cost in Apple Books.

The iPhone maker will also add a new set of books in its “Everyone Can Code” course that uses puzzles and games to teach Swift through its Swift Playgrounds App.

Online learning has emerged as the new norm with US schools and colleges shutting down since mid-March to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The trend may continue for the upcoming fall semester for colleges and universities with Harvard announcing that the 2020-2021 academic year will be online.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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US Said to Probe Allegations TikTok Violated Children’s Privacy




By Reuters | Updated: 8 July 2020

The Federal Trade Commission and the US Justice Department are looking into allegations that popular app TikTok failed to live up to a 2019 agreement aimed at protecting children’s privacy, according to two people interviewed by the agencies.

The development is the latest bump in the road for the short video company, which is popular with teens. TikTok has seen scrutiny, including from the national security-focused Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, rise sharply because of its Chinese parent corporation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government, a charge it denied.

A staffer in a Massachusetts tech policy group and another source said they took part in separate conference calls with the FTC and Justice Department officials to discuss accusations the China-based short video sharing app had failed to live up to an agreement announced in February 2019.

The Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and others in May asked the FTC look into their allegations TikTok failed to delete videos and personal information about users age 13 and younger as it had agreed to do, among other violations.

A TikTok spokesman said they take “safety seriously for all our users,” adding that in the United States they “accommodate users under 13 in a limited app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for a younger audience.”

Officials from both the FTC, which reached the original consent agreement with TikTok, and Justice Department, which often files court documents for the FTC, met via video with representatives of the groups to discuss the matter, said David Monahan, a campaign manager with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“I got the sense from our conversation that they are looking into the assertions that we raised in our complaint,” Monahan said.

A second person, speaking privately, confirmed that advocates had met with officials from the two agencies to discuss concerns TikTok violated the consent decree.

The FTC declined to comment. The Justice Department had no immediate comment.

TikTok has grown increasing popular among U.S. teenagers and allows users to create short videos. About 60 percent of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States are aged 16 to 24, the company said last year.

US lawmakers have also raised national security concerns over TikTok’s handling of user data, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies support and cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok, owned by parent company ByteDance, is one of several China-based firms that have had to navigate heightened U.S.-China tensions over trade, technology and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under intense US regulatory scrutiny, it has poached Disney’s Kevin Mayer to be its chief executive and is trying to project a more global image, with offices in California, Singapore and elsewhere.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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