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The First Voice-Initiated Application Process Just Came Online

The Golden Arches can be seen in communities throughout the world and are often run by independent franchises that provide jobs to almost 2 million people. Many a youth has listed McDonald’s as the first job on an application, and the application process just got an upgrade.

In its drive to hire thousands worldwide, including more than 5,000 here in Alabama, McDonald’s Corp. is now working with Alexa and Google Assistant to streamline the world’s first voice-initiated application process called McDonald’s Apply Thru.

“We must continue to innovate and think of creative, and in this case, groundbreaking ways to meet potential job seekers on devices they are already using, like Alexa,” said McDonald’s Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer David Fairhurst.

To get started with Alexa, job seekers simply say “Alexa, help me get a job at McDonald’s.” The voice experience is available on Alexa and Google Assistant devices in the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K., and is expected to roll out to other countries in the coming months. After opening McDonald’s Apply Thru, all users will answer a few basic questions, including job area of interest and location. Potential applicants will receive a text message shortly thereafter with a link to continue their application process.

The move is part of McDonald’s larger Made at McDonald’s campaign, which highlights the opportunities available at the fast-food chain, from a first job, part-time jobs or lifelong careers. The campaign underscores the ways jobs at McDonald’s restaurants build skills, education and relationships that translates to new experiences.

There are more than 38,000 McDonald’s locations in over 100 countries, approximately 93 percent of which are owned and operated by independent local businessmen and women.

Houston County Schools Weigh Cybersecurity Contract

The Houston County School System began considering a cyberscurity contract proposal Monday, in response to a major malware attack in July that delayed school openings and required reprograming and replacement of hardware.

“We’re losing the cyber war, and Southern schools are a target, because they know our systems aren’t up-to-date,” The Dothan Eagle reported a company officer told the school board. “It is the current state of culture. Schools are a major target,” said Brent Panell, CEO and co-founder for ControlAltProtect, based in Birmingham.

School Superintendent David Sewell said the cyber attack did not include ransomware but was costly, owing to loss of equipment and overtime in working on servers and computers.

Board Chairman Vince Wade told the Eagle the board will have to find funding if it decides to adopt the cybersecurity firm’s proposal.

“We are on a mission to change what’s happening in Alabama, because frankly, our cyber security sucks,” Panell told board members.

Panell presented a quote for a 24-month contract for $10,800 per month for phase I and $2,000 per month for phase II.

He told the Eagle his company’s intention was to offer “a low-cost introductory offer to the schools is to get its foot in the door to cater to schools statewide, and get the attention of the Alabama State Department of Education.”

Turning Off Your Devices Might Be a Good Idea

“For sensitive conversations, it might be a good idea to put your phone away or turn it off,” is the most telling tip the computer science professors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham offer in a recent article by UAB writer Yvonne Taunton, “Shh…Your devices may be listening to you.”

Like the background noise of everything we think we already knew, the cautions of professors Ragib Hasan and Nitesh Saxena — PhDs in the UAB Department of Computer Science — seem bothersome.

Better bother, they say. The threat is not just from smart speakers — the first spies to be reported on in the internet of things.

Uncomfortably laughable as it seemed, the idea that Alexa can be bugging your home is among the most obvious of the problems out there.

“Here, the user has installed a device in his home or office, and this device has a microphone that receives and understands users’ vocal commands,” says Saxena. “Ideally, the speaker system should wake up only when the user issues a wake phrase like “OK, Google,” but there is nothing that prevents it from recording the audio at will on regular user conversations. Also, it is likely that, as the speaker listens to our commands, which are often stored on the cloud servers of these companies, the audio could contain sensitive information spoken in the background — music and TV programs played in the background — that may be of interest to some malicious actors.”

Far more pervasive than smart speakers are smart phones and tablet devices, and the threats proliferate as well, say the professors.

“Unfortunately, the smart devices of today are equipped with many different types of sensors that may be listening in on our conversations,” reports Taunton — sensors such as “accelerometers, GPS, gyroscopes and more.” Those particular sensors, besides what they’re supposed to do (an accelerometer is supposed to tell your phone where it is in space), can also track you like a gumshoe.

Just like in the movies, there are good shamuses and nasty, noir ones.

“In reality, we have threats from two directions — malicious apps that hijack the phone sensors to spy on us, and otherwise benign apps secretly listening to or sensing our activities, and then sending the data ‘home’ for advertising and other activities,” says Hasan.

“Researchers have also demonstrated side channel attacks in which a malicious app can exploit benign-looking resources — motion sensors such as accelerometer or gyroscope or power consumption readings — for which the Android OS does not explicitly ask any user permission prior to granting access,” reports Taunton. Consequences of such bad actors could be:

  • Stealing your PIN code based on vibrations of your finger taps
  • Mimicking your voice characteristics from listening to you
  • Tracking your car from vibrations from your phone in the vehicle
  • Tracking your car from variation in cell tower transmissions

Saxena says, “Some recent research studies have demonstrated that many apps in the Android ecosystem have actually been exploiting Android’s permission model to learn sensitive information, such as the device’s IMEI, MAC address or geolocation information to track the device/user, and even exploiting and exfiltrating audio and video data.”

Being careful about what permissions you give to the apps you install is the first thing to do, but it’s no sure bet, and there are ways around it.

“Disable apps from recording and maintaining users’ location history — Google Maps, Facebook,” is another basic recommendation from the professors.

But the most cautionary, if not alarming, thing they recommend is the one we started with: “For sensitive conversations, it might be a good idea to put your phone away or turn it off.”

USA Health Podcast Aims to Demystify Cancer

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For many cancer patients, talking about the disease is at times as difficult as dealing with its many treatment paths, complications, side effects and risk factors.

A new podcast from USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute, called “The Cancering Show,” aims to break down barriers that confront patients and demystify the disease.

“We’re going to discuss every aspect of the cancering journey, from people trying to prevent cancer in their families all the way to families that are coping with an imminent loss,” says Jennifer Young Pierce, M.D., M.P.H., host of the podcast.

Pierce serves as a gynecologic oncologist and leader of cancer control and prevention at the Mitchell Cancer Institute.

For all those credentials, on the air she is simply known as “JYP.”

“We want the listener to think of cancer as not just a moment in time — a moment of being better than you were before, living better, turning cancer from a negative into a positive for not just the patient, but the whole community,” Pierce says.

The podcast offers interviews with cancer survivors, family members, physicians and scientists who share their stories and offer hope. Listeners are invited to share theirs.

“Cancer is just something that we all have to recognize, acknowledge, cope with, live with, struggle with, rage upon, crush, and even thrive with,” JYP tells listeners. “This show is more than knowing and fighting or beating cancer. It’s more than just relaying science, hope and technology. It’s a platform for knowledge, stories, coping advice, life tips, inspiration, humor, jokes and even smiles.”

The first three episodes of The Cancering Show Season 1 can be found on Spotify, YouTube, iTunes and wherever podcasts can be found. Listeners can subscribe to receive new episodes in their inbox and find the show on Facebook @canceringshow.

Tuskegee Researchers Find Promising Way of Capturing Carbon Dioxide

Donald White (left) is an engineering doctoral student at Tuskegee University, working with Dr. Michael Curry, associate professor of chemistry.

Scientists working at Tuskegee University have found a bio-based material that shows promise for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a more immediate solution to climate change than revamping land and forestry usage or geo-engineering.

Dr. Michael Curry, an assistant professor of chemistry, and engineering doctoral student Donald White are working in a National Science Foundation-funded project with nanocellulose derived from agriculture waste products.

“Nanocellulose is a natural material that can be found in abundance on this planet,” says Curry. “Using this material to develop new technologies for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide will only push the boundaries of science toward the development of new systems that promote a cleaner and cooler atmosphere.”

Curry and White’s process uses “naturally occurring plant-based materials as filters to remove dangerous carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere,” the university reports.

Noting that carbon dioxide levels have risen dramatically ever since the Industrial Revolution, Curry links that rise to increasing global temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events.

“We made this problem,” Curry says, “but by developing and employing the appropriate technology to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we can also make a better, healthier plant for centuries to come.”

Sen. Doug Jones to Keynote Israeli Tech Partnership Event

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, will give keynote remarks next week at a conference on creating technology partnerships between Alabama and Israeli businesses.

“Opportunities for Technology Partnerships Between Alabama and Israeli Businesses” is set for Tuesday, Aug. 20 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Alabama Power Co. Auditorium, 600 18th Street North.

The event is being put on by the Birmingham Business Alliance, Conexx: America Israel Business Connector, the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation and Alabama Power Co. It will include an overview of Israel’s technology ecosystem and a panel of business leaders on doing business in Israel.

According to Conexx’s Barry Swartz, Israel is home to more start-ups than the entire European Union and is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of the volume of start-ups it produces. Technology like Waze, a GPS navigation software app now owned by Google, and Mobileye, which was purchased by Intel for $15.3 billion in 2017, were created in Israel. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and others all have a major presence in the country.

Swartz says there will be individuals on hand to facilitate a relationship between Israel and Alabama companies looking to explore Israel’s innovation and technology, as well as possible mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures and alliances.

The event is free but does require registration.

Promoting Entrepreneurship with New Collaboration

A push by The University of Alabama to promote entrepreneurship throughout the Tuscaloosa region is increasing with a realignment of resources to better support innovators.

The Bama Technology Incubator, an on-campus laboratory space, will change its name to Edge Labs, serving as a counterpart to The Edge, a 26,000-square-foot, off-campus business incubator that opened in February as a collaboration among UA, the city of Tuscaloosa and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama.

Edge Labs features laboratories and equipment that new businesses need, as well as the technical infrastructure that will help UA faculty, researchers and students develop and test processes and prototypes that can be translated into products for the marketplace.

“Among the strategic goals of The University of Alabama is improving the impact of activities that positively affect regional economic development,” says UA President Stuart Bell. “This restructuring of our resources will go a long way toward meeting that shared goal.”

The name change to Edge Labs represents a shift of purpose for the facility.

“The goal of this change is to further align the ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship on the UA campus and in the Tuscaloosa area,” says Russell Mumper, UA vice president for research and economic development. “This partnership is a collaboration between UA’s Office for Research and Economic Development and the Culverhouse College of Business.”

The university’s Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute, or AEI, is a program managed by the Culverhouse College of Business, and will integrate Edge Labs into an overall suite of resources to support new and established business growth.

“There will now be a pipeline that directly connects the new and established entrepreneurs and business advisors at The Edge with the technical experts who are in place at Edge Labs,” says Theresa Welbourne, executive director of AEI.

The Edge, located about 1.5 miles from the UA campus, is an $11.7 million facility that includes 20 offices, 100 workstations and several conference rooms, all offered to entrepreneurs, people seeking to build their businesses and individuals who need networking and working space. The Edge Labs is located on the northern end of the UA campus, close to the Ferguson Student Center.

For more information on AEI, visit entrepreneurship.ua.edu.

Inside the Life of a Private Detective in the Digital Age

Computers speed up records searches, but they don’t replace the value of face-to-face views of people and places, says Max Hansen. Photos by Brad McPherson

A Daphne, Alabama conference room houses a display like no other. The trophy case contains surveillance tools, data recovery systems and spy gadgetry of all descriptions. With tracking devices, bugging equipment and pinhole cameras, it is like stepping into James Bond’s attic, except 007 is fiction. Baldwin Legal Investigations is real.

How real? “Give me your name and birthdate,” says the firm’s owner and CEO, Max Hansen. I did. Fifteen minutes later, he presented a 52 page “Story of Emmett.”

The half-inch thick volume in single-spaced text includes every house I have lived in and current owners, automobiles I have owned, 20 neighbors and contact information. Listed also are 20 friends with phone numbers, my relatives, interests, hobbies, credit history, cell phone numbers, email address and previous arrests (none).

Thumbing through my report, Hansen speaks what you want to hear from a private investigator — “You’re a pretty boring guy.”

For others the verdict is different.

The “scatter” or “shotgun” report is an example of computers empowering detectives. Gathering the same information just 10 years ago required weeks of pounding the pavements. Today the process is digitally done in minutes.

State licensing was a catalyst. “It’s been a game changer,” says Barry Hodgens, of Hodgens Investigative Services in Cropwell, near Birmingham. He refers to the Alabama Private Investigation Regulatory Act, a relatively new law empowering state detectives with some pretty cool search engines and more. But Hodgens, an investigator primarily covering personal injury, wrongful death and industrial accidents, adds that, though the law is a good start, it’s not the end.

“We need to beef it up,” says Jonnie Munn, president of the Alabama Private Investigators Association and head of Corporate Special Services Inc. in Birmingham. Referring to the state regulations, he adds, “It is lacking.”

In addition to being APIA president, Munn’s private investigative work includes workers compensation, injuries, surveillance and background checks. He notes, “Under current requirements, one must take a test, pay the fee and prove U.S. citizenship to be a licensed private investigator in Alabama. But the legislation should include minimum standards, an apprenticeship license, at least two years’ experience in related fields and/or a combination of education in criminal justice, law enforcement or political science.”

He adds that the APIA hopes to submit a proposal covering all of the above to the Alabama Legislature by next year’s session. “We want to offer training and bring in new people, but we also want our people required to obtain the training to be professionals.”

“With the exception of Mississippi, Alabama is the only nearby state that does not have similar training and standard requirements,” Munn says. Hopefully, according to APIA, that will soon change.

But Alabama’s private investigators are benefiting from tools now available electronically, along with old fashion gumshoe work.

A tiny video camera just above the clasp on this pen can be a valuable tool for a private eye.

“Once I have your name and birthday, I’ll find you,” claims Hansen, whose agency work includes 17 to 23 capital murder cases annually. “We use a variety of search/database tools,” he adds, referring to services like Tracers, TLO and IRBsearch — many available only to licensed private detectives and law enforcement officers.

“We do the same work we have always done — track, gather information, report it to clients,” says Hansen, acknowledging electronic tools of the trade. “But with computers, we do it much faster.”

The private eye eyes a lot. Cases are an assortment: insurance fraud, domestic relations, industrial and automobile accidents, wrongful death, embezzlements, missing persons, child support, homicides and more. Some detectives cover a wide variety. Others specialize, such as in insurance fraud. Some are hired for expertise in specific skills like building and installing custom tracking devices not much bigger than a postage stamp that can track a car anywhere in North America.

With the computer came the digital detective. Many search engines are only available to licensed professionals. But others are free, and one is referred to by detectives as “the gift that keeps on giving” — social media.

“The beauty of Facebook is that we don’t have to look for the information,” Hansen notes. “You give it to us. It would amaze you the amount of information we glean from social media sites without having to dig for it.”

Barry Hodgens agrees. “To most people, services like Twitter and Facebook are social media outlets. To us it is a resource tool, continuously updated by the people using it.

“No matter how much warning they receive, people do not realize or care that social media posts never go away. They still will say anything online.”

And police and other investigators, with some training and skills, can find patterns in those social media posts, the PIs say. They look not just at the suspects but also whom they hang out with online. Detectives search what suspects are posting, where they go online and what they do while there.

However, all detectives interviewed adamantly stated that, regardless of the digital tools used, nothing replaces old fashioned boots on the ground. “At the end of the day, you still have to be a good interviewer and know how to read people,” says Hodgens, whose 30 years of job experience includes the FBI. “I need to physically see a car crash site and must see the witnesses to determine their truthfulness.”

And even though many tools in the detective’s arsenal are available to the public, knowing how to legally obtain information from bugging devices and tiny hidden microphones and cameras is something the public does not understand. Using such gadgets without a license can be illegal. New detectives learn that, but not overnight.

The training is demanding. Hansen notes, “I sometimes worry that younger, new detectives use computers as a crutch. It is a tool, not the end-all, in good private investigative work.

“We hire people in our firm with criminal justice degrees, law enforcement backgrounds or both,” adds the investigator with 28 years’ experience. “Our people spend a year in-house apprentice training.”

“The job is not for everybody. It’s a tough slot to fill,” he continues. “You must have self-confidence and you cannot be timid.”

Good interviewing, writing and data collecting skills are essential. “I cannot emphasize enough to my people — verify, verify, verify. The information you gather, decisions you make, reports you produce will change someone’s life — good or bad — forever,” Hansen warns.  “I never forget that.”

Munn adds, “In our business we talk to a wide variety of individuals — doctors, professionals, felons, drug addicts, you name it. A good investigator must know how to read people who don’t always want you reading them.”

Detectives interviewed agreed: Gone are the days of trenchcoat-wearing private eyes, except in movies. Hollywood reminisces the romance of days when Humphrey Bogart engaged in shootouts with people he was tailing.

“My insurance carrier would not go for that,” says Hansen. “But back in the day, this business was like the wild, wild West as far as qualifications were concerned. Basically all you had to do was say ‘I’m a private detective,’ and you were one.”

Even if the job is tamer now, there are still risks, Barry Hodgens notes. “You don’t always go in the best neighborhoods. I have experienced situations where I feared for my life. There are times I wear body cams.”

Detectives often work in the same environment police do. But as Hansen says, “When a private detective is in a bad situation, we can’t call for back up. There is no back up.”

But, at the end of the day, the rewards are great. To many, the world of detective work is in their blood, fascinating and a rewarding endeavor where no two days are the same. On Monday, the task is embezzlement charges. On Tuesday, a homicide. Who knows what the week may bring?

“But I love what I do,” Hansen says. “Every day is different, and every day you help people. We help see that justice is served.”

Emmett Burnett and Brad McPherson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and McPherson in Mobile.

DC BLOX to Open Flagship Data Center in Birmingham

DC BLOX is set to cut the proverbial ribbon on the first unit of its flagship technology and innovation campus in Birmingham Thursday, bringing new life to a 27-acre parcel of the former Trinity Steel plant.

The company opened a smaller center in Huntsville last year.

For the past two years, DC BLOX has worked closely with city and county officials and local businesses to develop plans and partnerships for the Birmingham center, said CEO Jeff Uphues. The Thursday event will be “a celebration of this wonderful campus.”

Though the entire project is billed as having the potential for 200,000 square feet and a $785 million investment, the first unit to open is 31,000 square feet. The site includes a data center plus training facilities for technology-related products and services with high-speed internet and cloud services.

“Phase 1 is complete and we have a very brisk demand of customers coming into the facility and are already eyeing that we could be in an expansion mode by the end of this year,” Uphues said by phone Tuesday. The facility is designed to expand in 10,000-square-foot units, and Uphues envisions at least one of those units in progress by the fourth quarter of this year.

DC BLOX doesn’t disclose its customers, says Bill Thomson, vice president of products and marketing, but the mix includes a breadth of companies, managed service providers, local governments and higher education. The firm’s other centers serve clients like Atlanta’s MARTA transit system, Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Mohawk Industries.

“Our core service is space and power for IT equipment. Almost every business has a growing need for that — without having to manage the cost and complexity of a data center,” says Thomson.

“Companies are increasingly using technology to drive business, but they need a place for their expanding computer technology, Thomson says. “In the early phase of a business, you can keep it in a closet,” he added. But as companies grow they need more computer space — and data centers are becoming very specialized facilities, needing to be cooled, secured and have a constant power source. DC BLOX offers a Tier 3 reliability rating, much higher than is typically available.

“No one is throwing anything away anymore,” says Uphues. Instead, they need storage for financial data, health care records, videos and much more. “We have the computers where they can store data and have a secure backup copy of that.”

It’s part of the company strategy to “bring reliable data centers to markets that haven’t had them,” says Thomson. “Both Huntsville and Birmingham were in need of the kind of facilities we build.” The firm anticipates expanding those two before going into new markets, but Uphues has recently visited Montgomery, Mobile and Auburn, with an eye to beginning services there.

DC BLOX has half a dozen full-time employees in Birmingham now with plans for 20 in the near future, plus another six currently on the security team. Between the workforce involved with cybersecurity in Birmingham and that involved in space and defense technology in Huntsville, there’s been no problem finding qualified employees, says Uphues.

Disease Culprit Detection in 40 Seconds at USA Health

Teresa Barnett, medical technologist supervisor with USA Health, demonstrates the BD BACTEC blood culture system to Dr. Benjamin Estrada, professor of pediatrics at the USA College of Medicine and a pediatric infectious disease specialist with USA Health, and Dr. Haidee Custodio, assistant professor of pediatrics at the USA College of Medicine and a pediatric infectious disease specialist with USA Health.

USA Health University Hospital in Mobile says it is now the only healthcare system on the Gulf Coast with the technology to identify diseases-causing pathogens in as little as 40 seconds.

That’s thanks to a new microbiology system at the hospital that combines three key elements that are much more sensitive and provide rapid and highly accurate test results.

After culturing and isolating bacteria and fungi from patient specimens, the organisms are identified and tested to determine which drugs will inhibit or stop their growth. In the past, patients and physicians had to wait up to a week to identity organisms that caused infections in patients.

“This is personalized microbiology,” said James Elliot Carter Jr., M.D., director of clinical laboratories and a pathologist with USA Health. “Imagine what that means for patient care. Instead of wasting high-powered antibiotics that may not do any good and increase antibiotic resistance, the patient can now be started on the right antimicrobials or antifungals immediately.”

The critical diagnostic combo is comprised of: the BD BACTEC blood culture system, BD Phoenix automated identification and susceptibility test system and BD Bruker MALDI biotyper.

The MALDI biotyper acts as a “fingerprinting” system to identify bacteria, yeast and fungi. “Before the MALDI, we were identifying organisms by biochemicals,” explained Teresa Barnett, medical technologist supervisor with USA Health. “We had several kits that took anywhere from three to five days to identify some of these organisms.”

In contrast, the MALDI identifies organisms by the unique spectrum of the major proteins and peptides that constitute their makeup. “The MALDI takes a fingerprint, so it analyzes the peaks and valleys of the ion protein makeup and then compares it to a library in the software,” Barnett said.

The lab uses the BACTEC blood culture system to detect early positive blood cultures. It uses an automatic, vial-activated workflow that helps reduce hands-on time.

Carter, who also serves as a professor of pathology at the USA Health College of Medicine, said rapid pathogen identification saves money for patients and providers. “Patients can be more quickly discharged if they don’t need to be here,” he said. “They aren’t sitting in the hospital for three days being treated for meningitis that they don’t have. It makes a huge difference in patient turnaround.”

Carter said the new lab equipment will be able to help patients and physicians outside USA’s health system. Laboratories previously had to send hard-to-identify organisms to the Alabama Department of Health in Montgomery for identification. Now labs can send those cases to USA Health, he said.

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