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Online ads spoil Christmas surprises, raising privacy concerns





Lisa Clyburn knew she had found the perfect gift for her nine-year-old son: a feline-themed logic game that would appeal to his passion for cards and cats.

But when the Edmonton child psychologist pulled out her phone to show her son a funny cat video on Facebook, she fears she may have inadvertently tipped him off to the Christmas Day surprise after an ad for the present she had just ordered online popped up in her feed, catching the boy’s eye.

“It wouldn’t have been on his radar had he not seen it,” Clyburn said with a sigh. “I wanted it to blow his mind that mom found this cool game that I knew that he would like.”

Clyburn is one of a number of social media users who say they’ve been burned by online advertisements spoiling romantic getaways, season tickets and even an engagement ring, with some internet shoppers taking precautions such as searching for decoy gifts in order to throw their loved ones off the scent this holiday season.

But experts say it’s not only surprises that are at risk of being exposed as tech companies and retailers develop increasingly sophisticated tools to target users with online advertisements.

The online age has provided companies with a trove of personal information that allows them to target consumers with a degree of precision that can at times feel unsettling. (Kite_rin/Shutterstock)

University of Toronto marketing professor David Soberman said the practice of collecting information about consumers in order to target them with ads is about as old as the industry itself. But the online age has provided companies with a trove of personal information that allows them to target consumers with a degree of precision that can at times feel unsettling.

Soberman said companies build consumer profiles by tracking their online movements linked to an IP address, a unique identifier for each computer using the internet, and through cookies, which are tiny text files that allow websites to log a user’s visits and activity. Advertisers can also use data that people volunteer when creating a profile for a website or app — such as name, age and location — so when a user signs into their account on a new phone or computer, their surfing habits can be tracked across devices, he said.

One of the ways businesses can try to reach potential buyers is through a process called retargeting, said Soberman, in which users are served with ads for products they have already looked up online. For example, he said, if an online shopper visits a website for a hardware store for the crafter on their Christmas list, then ads from that retailer will follow the user around the internet to entice them to click purchase.

Ideally, these personalized advertisements should create value for both the seller and the buyer, said Soberman.

Agreeing to be tracked

The small share of ads that pique users’ privacy concerns are only a symptom of a much broader problem, which is that people don’t understand that they signed up for being tracked when they checked off the box agreeing to a website’s terms and conditions, he said.

“I think that what ends up happening is that it’s only when we feel something’s done that we feel isn’t quite right, that you’ll have a situation where you’re not happy,” said Soberman. “A lot of people are agreeing to things, then they get upset afterwards.”

Vance Lockton, a strategic analyst at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said the privacy watchdog takes two primary considerations into account in monitoring the online ad market — the sensitivity of the information, and the reasonable expectations of the individual.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes the keynote speech at F8, Facebook’s developer conference this past May. On platforms like Google and Facebook, all it takes is a few clicks for a user to view and change their ad settings. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Most online advertising is based on an “opt-out” model of consent, said Lockton, which means companies can assume that they are permitted to track users’ behaviour for marketing purposes, but have to give them an option to withdraw from being targeted.

On platforms like Google and Facebook, all it takes is a few clicks for a user to view and change their ad settings, and the Digital Advertising Alliance Of Canada offers a tool that allows users to opt out of targeted ads from a number of networks.

But Lockton said federal law sets a higher bar of “opt-in” consent for online advertisements based on sensitive subjects that a user would expect to remain private, such as health and financial information, requiring that users explicitly agree to being served with ads about these topics based on their search history.

In a 2015 study, the privacy commissioner’s office examined 9,000 ads and found that three per cent were targeted based on previous searches. Of those roughly 300 targeted ads, investigators found that 34 were based on sensitive searches such as “pregnancy test,” “women’s shelter” or “depression cures.”

Even if the scale of the problem seems relatively minor, Lockton said the impacts of this information being revealed can be far reaching.

What’s sensitive?

He said the regulations also don’t account for the swaths of information that depending on the context, could be considered sensitive.

“There’s no bright-line test to say what is sensitive and what’s not,” he said. “An engagement ring … (is) certainly something that I would say it isn’t obvious to me one way or the other whether it’s sensitive. A case certainly could be made that it would be.”

Users have to opt-in to ads about sensitive topics like health. But some experts argue that searches for things like engagement rings can also be sensitive, depending on the context. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

For Eric Morris, director of Google Canada’s retail business, these distinctions are crystal clear. If an online shopper is looking for an engagement ring, they may want to be exposed to offers from different jewellers to find the best cut and price for the occasion, he said, and it’s up to the user to keep their browsing secret from their hopefully soon-to-be-betrothed.

“We do differentiate between engagement rings and what we call sensitive information, whether it’s related to health or someone’s financial information,” he said, adding that one can find a list online of sensitive categories where the company has made that distinction.

For sensitive categories including health care and financial services, Morris said Google has strict policies in place to prevent information about a user’s personal hardships, identity and beliefs and sexual interests from being revealed through targeted advertising. He said Google has developed artificial intelligence technology that can filter out ads with sensitive information, and human staffers also review ads to ensure that users’ privacy is being protected.

A Google Canada spokesperson ended the phone interview when Morris was asked whether ads that may bypass the tech giant’s sensitivity screening would constitute a violation of users’ privacy. Google said Morris was not the right person to answer questions about what kinds of information Google collects about users for the purposes of targeted advertising.

Ramona Pringle, director of Ryerson University’s Innovation Studio, said tech companies are often opaque about their targeted advertising practices, but if an online service seems “free,” it’s safe to assume it’s your information the business is selling.

“Any time you see a new feature being invented or being introduced, we should ask ourselves: How are they able to collect new information on me using this tool?” said Pringle.

As intrusive as they may seem, targeted advertisements provide a window into the scale of information that companies are collecting about users, a fact many people otherwise seem to forget when scrolling through cyberspace.

“We live in the information age, and part of that means… that information is in our face even when we’re not looking for it, or we’re trying to keep it from people,” Pringle said.

“There’s been interesting cases where businesses know more about people than those people might have even revealed to their family members and their closest friends.”


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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future





Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M






Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.


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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study






The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”


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