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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.”

UAB Startup Takes on Aging at the Cellular Level

Keshav Singh, Ph.D.

A new startup out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham is taking on aging. Yuva Biosciences hopes to tap into the $11 billion hair loss prevention and anti-aging skincare market with new products to be produced within four years.

Yuva Biosciences will develop cosmeceuticals, science-based cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals based on mitochondria research.

“Yuva Biosciences plans to mitigate many of the undesirable effects of aging, which is why we like to say our goal is to provide youthfulness for life,” said Keshav Singh, Ph.D., professor of genetics in the UAB School of Medicine and scientific founder and chief scientific officer of Yuva Biosciences. “Initial products will be aimed at helping people look and feel younger, with a longer-term plan to address aging-related diseases and disorders.”

The idea for Yuva Biosciences came out of Singh and his team’s research into mitochondrial DNA, the tiny part of cells that produce 90 percent of the chemical energy they need to survive. Mitochondrial function declines as humans age.

In 2018, Singh and his team triggered a mutation that caused mitochondrial dysfunction in mice, with the mice quickly developing wrinkled skin and hair loss. But when the mitochondrial function was restored, the mice regained smooth skin and thick fur. While research on animals often doesn’t produce the same results in humans, Singh and his team believe the finding merited further investigation.

Well over a year later, Yuva Biosciences has identified lab space at Innovation Depot and plans to hire additional employees. Greg Schmergel, a Boston-based serial entrepreneur, will serve as chairman of Yuva Biosciences, offering more than 25 years of experience in launching multiple high-tech ventures and leading a nanotechnology company, Nantero Inc., where he is the co-founder and CEO.

“Yuva is positioned to become a leader in the anti-aging industry, under Keshav’s vision and scientific leadership,” Schmergel said. “We are committed to building the company in Birmingham, where we’ll have access to resources like the world-class researchers and facilities at UAB, the startup-focused amenities at Innovation Depot, and the rising regional entrepreneurial network.”

Telehealth Expands UAB Specialist Care to Bibb, Lauderdale Counties

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Additional ultrasound technologist training is part of a grant-funded package bringing more health care options to rural areas.

Patients in Bibb and Lauderdale counties will be able to consult specialists at UAB without driving to Birmingham, thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The grant will fund two telehealth sites— one at Bibb Medical Center in Bibb County and one at North Alabama Medical Center in Lauderdale County. Each will have three patient rooms, especially equipped for telehealth visits. The new patient rooms should be ready by the end of this year.

Because the new sites are at hospitals, patients will be able to get lab work at the same visit.

The grant will also provide funding to train two ultrasound technologists so that high-risk patients can be monitored from afar. The technologists will spend several weeks in Birmingham, honing their skills, before returning to their home hospitals to work with patients.

“Currently there are no maternal-fetal medicine physicians at Bibb Medical Center or at North Alabama Medical Center,” said Eric Wallace, M.D., medical director of UAB eMedicine. With additional training for ultrasound technologists, high-risk pregnancies can be monitored by specialists.

“Maternal morbidity and mortality are increasing,” says Luisa Wett, M.D., a maternal-fetal specialist at UAB. “We hope this opportunity will improve pregnancy outcomes in the state.”

West Jefferson County to Get Replacement Hospital

The state-of-the-art, 200-bed replacement hospital will be on Bell Hill Road, near exit 1 on I-459.

Medical West Hospital has gotten the green flag to build a replacement hospital in the Jefferson County community of McCalla.

The State Health Planning and Development Agency this week approved a Certificate of Need that clears the way for a 200-bed facility near Exit 1 on Interstate Highway 459 for the residents of southwest Jefferson County. Medical West is an affiliate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System.

The existing facility in Bessemer was built in 1964. The new hospital will provide all the services currently available and Medical West will continue to operate its primary care clinics in Bessemer, Hueytown, Vance, Tannehill, Hoover and Parkwest, along with the freestanding emergency department on Highway 150.

Design and construction of the new hospital is expected to take three years. The current facility on 9th Ave. Southwest in Bessemer will continue to provide full medical care during the construction period.

“We are pleased by today’s action which will allow us to begin the next chapter in the history of Medical West, proudly serving the residents of Bessemer and southwest Jefferson County for more than 50 years,” said Keith Pennington, CEO of Medical West Hospital. “The new facility will help us establish a state-of-the art hospital for our patients.”

A Cure for Alabama’s Nursing Shortage

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Wallace State Community College’s Department of Nursing Education and the University of Alabama at Birmingham are partnering to give Wallace State students a path from an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

The new program will take nine semesters to complete. Students are required to complete four semesters of academic coursework before applying to both Wallace State and UAB in advance of the fifth semester. Classes for the last five semesters would be completed concurrently at the Wallace State-Hanceville campus and online through UAB.

It will begin with the class admitted in the spring 2020 semester; applications are currently being accepted through Sept. 1, 2019. Admission will also be available in fall 2020, with applications accepted from March 1 to May 15, 2020.

Wallace State is the first community college to launch this ADN/BSN partnership program with UAB, referred to as the UAB Nursing Community College Partnership Joint Enrollment Program. Wallace State also has a joint Admission Agreement for general undergraduate admission with UAB.

“We constantly strive to provide the best opportunities for our students and our communities,” says Dr. Vicki Karolewics, president of Wallace State. “This agreement acknowledges our longstanding partnership with UAB, and a dedication to excellence and innovation by both nursing departments. It will open doors to advancement for our students and be a boon to a workforce in need of nurses.”

A Look Inside UAB’s New Expansions

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is a fairly young institution, but my how it has grown during its 50 years. Today, the university has nearly 22,000 students, and its buildings spread over more than 100 city blocks in Birmingham, helping to transform the city it calls home.

Some of those new buildings are on the cusp of opening, while others are in the planning stages. Here is a look at the latest facilities and the plans for more.

University Hall, the new College of Arts and Sciences building, will celebrate its grand opening on August 22. Located at the corner of 14th Street South and 10th Avenue, University Hall will house the departments of anthropology, computer science, English, foreign languages and literatures, mathematics, philosophy and social work. Every undergraduate student takes core classes within the College of Arts and Sciences, so the new building will touch each freshman who enters the university. University Hall is also the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified building on campus.

The new 12,800-square-foot, $3 million ROTC training facility opens formally this fall, though it has been in use since April. Located on Eighth Court South, the facility has three classrooms, nine offices, an auditorium, storm shelter, a cadet lounge/library, women’s and men’s locker rooms, a gym and an engagement skills trainer room for simulated combat.

The former Snoozy’s Bookstore is being made over into UAB’s Honors College, providing additional space for honors students who currently use Spencer Honors House. The renovation, which was approved by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees in June, will cost $2.69 million and will comprise the entire two-story, 11,000-square-foot structure. The exterior grounds will be leveled and developed into a landscaped courtyard. The renovation will begin in August and is scheduled to be complete in May 2020.

UAB’s newest student housing development, Residence Hall 2020, is currently under construction near the Campus Green and will allow for more than 730 students to join the 2,880 that already live in UAB’s six other residence halls. This project will be the second LEED-certified building on campus when it is completed in fall 2020.

The Board of Trustees has approved the final stage of planning for the new $19.2 million Technology Innovation Center, which will be built at 17th Street South and Ninth Avenue. The 40,000-square-foot building will house the campus internet connectivity and technology infrastructure and also host colocation services to campus, offering power, bandwidth, cooling and physical security for servers used throughout the university. This new building replaces the Rust Computer Center and will host the fastest high-performance research computer in the state and the data highway that connects researchers throughout the University of Alabama System. It will also house an innovative and cost-effective Tesla Powerpack battery system that increases system reliability while reducing the carbon footprint. The groundbreaking on TIC was August 14.

In February, the Board of Trustees gave approval for planning the first phase of the new Science and Engineering Complex, which will house the College of Arts and Sciences departments of biology, physics and chemistry. This new complex, which is proposed for the Education Building’s current location, will support the instructional, research and collaborative needs of these programs.

What’s Your Credit Score? FICO Helps With Answers

Workshop participants in Birmingham gain skills to better their credit scores.

For the average consumer, there are many mysteries surrounding credit scores. What is a FICO score? Is it really necessary to monitor this metric on a daily basis, as some personal finance counselors suggest? Will a better FICO score make me a better person?

Good questions all. A FICO score is a type of credit score created by the Fair Isaac Corp. Lenders use it, and other scores like it, to assess whether it’s a good idea to lend you money. A good credit score entitles you to better interest rates, since you’re a lower risk, thus potentially saving you hundreds or thousands of dollars when buying a house or car.

A decade or so back your credit score was something you sometimes had to pay to access, usually from one of the three big companies that generated credit scores. The information is now much more available, and it pays to know your score, particularly if you’re in the market for a big purchase. They should also be checked periodically to make sure of their accuracy.

About 100 attendees picked up these tips and others in May when FICO brought its Score a Better Future event to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business. The credit education event featured a 45-minute interactive FICO Score education program followed by individual credit counseling sessions for any attendee who registered. More than 40 individuals opted for individual counseling.

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, delivered opening remarks at the event. Jones is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over credit score/credit reporting issues.

For the traveling show, FICO uses participants in the FICO Score Open Access Credit and Financial Counseling program, such as Operation Hope, National Urban League and Gateway Family Solutions, as part of this financial inclusion initiative. Future events are being scheduled in Washington, DC, and Charleston, SC, along with several other cities.

While good credit doesn’t necessarily equate to a good soul, it does offer food for thought. As one attendee says, “It made me realize the factors that are contributing to my debt and my personal decisions that impact my credit score.”

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