Australian Research Council

Latest

Budget brief: how does science and research funding fare?

5:23AM | Wednesday, 13 May

 The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) has won an extra year of funding, worth $150 million, giving greater certainty to researchers working at 27 research facilities across the country.   There’s also $13 million for the Australian Synchrotron – the biggest piece of research infrastructure and our flagship infrastructure internationally.   But this has come at the expense of block funding grants, which support the scientists who conduct their research in NCRIS facilities. Funding research infrastructure by cutting $262.5 million in support for the researchers who use it is nonsensical.   And there’s been no word in the budget for the Future Fellowships program for mid-career researchers, which appears to remain tied to savings measures contained in the Higher Education Reform Bill. NCRIS reprieve   NCRIS hit the headlines earlier this year over fears that as many as 1,700 highly skilled jobs would be lost in a political battle over funding. But in March, Education Minister Christopher Pyne committed to an additional 12 months of funding for the $150 million program, taking the total amount outlined in this budget to $300 million.   Last week, The Australian reported that the one-year lifeline would be extended to two. The longer-term funding for NCRIS will be announced after a Research Infrastructure Review led by businessman Philip Clark and Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, due out soon.   Back in March, Nobel Laureate and astronomer Brian Schmidt said that while he was grateful for the NCRIS funding reprieve, scientists “certainly need a longer-term cycle” to avoid uncertainty over crucial research.   The government had been threatening to withhold NCRIS funding unless the Senate passed its university deregulation legislation – a negotiating tactic that ended up backfiring.   Having offered a reprieve for NCRIS, the government’s science budget appears to be treading water. There are forecast increases, but these are outweighed by the forecast cuts.   There is an ongoing commitment to establish and fund the Medical Research Future Fund: good news. But there’s no significant news for the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. Radioactive waste   Also mentioned in the budget is that Australia’s facilities are running out of room to store radioactive waste. The federal government will spend $22 million over the next three years to bring together existing waste sites and boost storage at Lucas Heights in Sydney.   ANSTO’s current waste-storage facilities are expected to reach full capacity by 2017. Meanwhile we’re due to take back our intermediate-level radioactive waste. The measure will ensure ANSTO can continue to store additional radioactive waste beyond 2017, pending the establishment of the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility.   The measure will provide additional storage capacity for up to 45 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste and 1,200 cubic metres of low-level waste.   Meanwhile the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) – so very important to the government’s stated aim of encouraging links between science and industry, and of translating research and development into jobs – have had their funding cut by $29.8 million. What will replace them?   Two more positives: the budget has allocated an additional $9.4 million for Antarctic research and $15.3 million for research into tropical diseases.   The story for science doesn’t end on budget night. The government has committed to working with the Australian Chief Scientist to develop a science strategy and will be consulting broadly with the sector over the coming months. This will be a big deal for Australian science and research and it will be important for every researcher and science organisation with an interest in Australia’s scientific future to provide considered input into the consultation.   As the mining boom slows, this should be a time of growth in science funding. We should be preparing Australia to build a knowledge economy so that we can not just survive but thrive in an increasingly competitive world.   We should be supporting our world-class research infrastructure, and our world-class researchers, to create new knowledge and innovation. And we should be supporting scientists and industry to forge strong links to translate this innovation into economic growth and security; not putting our future wealth and well-being at risk by plundering science for short-term savings.   This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Why a national science strategy is good for Australia

4:32AM | Tuesday, 21 April

This week saw the welcome news that the federal government has committed to pursuing a national science strategy.   Following a meeting on Monday with the Commonwealth Science Council, of which I am a member, the Minister for Industry and Science, Ian Macfarlane, has indicated he will consult with the science sector to agree on a number of research priorities that will help direct funding.   This is good news not only for scientists and research institutions, but also for the nation as a whole, and especially for the interaction between science and industry.   Australia has some amazing strengths in science. The Australian Research Council’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) report shows us that our research in physics, astronomy, agriculture – to pick a few – is at the forefront of world activities in terms of citations and academic impact. Our best research is indeed internationally leading.   But this paints an incomplete picture. Australia also ranks 29th of the 30 OECD countries on the proportion of large businesses and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) collaborating with higher education and public research institutions on innovation.   The reality is that our science workforce is strongly mismatched with our industry base. So, in truth, while this result is disappointing, it is not surprising.   One stark example is medical research. Our medical research is outstanding. We have a large medical research workforce and it is an area that captures the public interest. This is starkly evident when we look at the money: the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) budget for 2015-2016 is A$858 million, whereas the ARC is A$795 million.   Considering that the ARC budget covers all non-medical research, from the social sciences and humanities to maths and engineering, this seems out of balance. Connections to industry This question of balance becomes even more stark when we take a step back and look at the broader picture – at the industry base. Australia’s industry is largely SME-based. But SMEs often have trouble taking discoveries from medical science and translating them into new commercial products.   We are not a home to Big Pharma, as in the UK and the US. And the pathways to bringing new drugs to market is more challenging here as a result. This is also an expensive game that is harder for a smaller player such as Australia to take a major share in.   My time working at the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre shaped my view on how research concentrations can work with industry. It was rare to have a week where a company, big or small, was not in the lab talking about possible projects, stimulating new fundamental research directions and initiating new applied projects.   Working in this kind of ecosystem drives researcher mobility. Its spin offs provide new career pathways for PhD graduates, who then place research projects back in the university, and so on.   This is the kind of ecosystem we need to strive to create in Australia. But it is much harder to do if we try to artificially construct it on top of our research capabilities without thought to the industry base. Reaching out to SMEs We do have significant numbers of SMEs that work in areas including component manufacturing, food processing and engineering services. Some are under enormous stress in current conditions, such as those supplying the almost extinct Australian automotive industry.   These are the companies that need a real leg up to allow them to benefit from working with researchers. The challenges are real and significant. It is not always easy for a researcher to identify how they can contribute to a small company working to short-term challenges and time horizons. The language gap is much larger than with the largest companies, which have the luxury of having staff with a background in research.   But it can be done. A tangible example is the South Australian Government’s Photonics Catalyst Scheme. This co-funds small projects posed by local SMEs that can be tackled by the state’s photonics researchers.   This scheme has generated a long list of partners in a short time since it was established two years ago. It works because regular opportunities are created to bring the industry face-to-face with the researchers. This fosters opportunities for relationships to be formed, and for the industry to gain an understanding of the intellectual and infrastructure capacities within our universities.   Australia’s research capacity has largely grown organically, bottom-up, from curiosity-driven research lead at our universities. It is here, unlike the US, where most of our research capacity resides.   The ARC was established in 1988 to direct support to “fields that have the capacity to contribute to the national industry capacity”. However, we have not had the courage as a nation to really focus our investment in science and research before now. Previous sets of national priorities for research have been broadly framed and all encompassing. Priorities The confirmation this week that the Commonwealth Science Council endorsed nine new National Research Priorities is a great step forward. These priorities are:   Food Soil and water Transport Cybersecurity Energy Resources Manufacturing Environmental change and health.   Expert working groups have articulated key challenges Australian research could focus on in each of these areas to create knowledge and generate solutions that will be of particular importance to everybody.   Investigator-driven research would not on its own cover these needs, so this is a great step forward. It’s clear that this is not an applied research agenda – the idea is to encourage fundamental research inspired by these priorities as much as to facilitate stronger partnerships between research and industry.   This raises the questions of how we can now use these priorities to shift our research base towards the challenges our nation faces and the opportunities we can seize. Funding clearly drives behaviour, and the extent to which these priorities drive funding opportunities will determine outcomes to some extent.   The other critical element is recognition and rewards. Our current university system idolises high impact papers and citations. While this is a great way of telling us what other academics think of our work, it is necessary but not sufficient for driving outcomes from that work.   I have also observed that research inspired by meaningful practical challenges attracts more women to areas that are typically male-dominated, such as physics and engineering. Getting research out of the lab The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) has recently been working with the other learned academies to propose a second dimension to the research metrics space: that of research engagement with end-users of that research.   The report on this work is due to be released shortly. We need our universities to be be able to recognise and reward research concentrations that are both high quality and strongly engaged. This is the Pasteur’s Quadrant of research evaluation.   The 2014 paper Boosting the Commercial Returns from Research proposed that the ARC and NHMRC should recognise industry experience. This is an excellent principle.   But we need to go further by creating promotion pathways and fellowships that prioritise industry experience. At the University of South Australia we have recently implemented a promotion pathway to full professor that rewards outstanding attainment in working with industry. Such pathways can open up paths for researchers to develop research careers in which they spend time both in universities and in industry.   Anything that can encourage researchers to work with industry, or that encourages entrepreneurship, will start us on the journey of evolving our research base into one that supports Australia’s future economic prosperity and quality of life.   This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New research project to quantify the impact of refugee entrepreneurs in Australia

11:14AM | Thursday, 27 November

The first research project into refugee entrepreneurs has secured $20,000 in funding from the Australian Research Council.   Professor Jock Collins from the University of Technology Sydney and Dr Branka Krivokapic-Skoko from Charles Sturt University will seek to understand refugees’ contributions to innovation, productivity and trade.   They will also look into the barriers facing refugee entrepreneurs and how they overcame them, with the aim of identifying particular strategies to assist existing and future startups. Factors such as gender and geographical location will be investigated.   In a statement, Professor Collins said there was a rich history of immigrant entrepreneurship in Australia. However, until now there has been no study investigating humanitarian refugees who have turned to entrepreneurship.   “The image of them is as a burden, rather than as contributing to Australian society and to the economy,” he said.   “Refugees generally have limited financial capital and their human capital often isn’t recognised in Australia … in many ways they face the greatest challenges of any entrepreneur, and yet they overcome these challenges. It’s an amazing story of resilience, hard work and determination.”   The research project will also look into how refugee entrepreneurs and their businesses create not just profits but social capital. It will run for three years.   Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Customers to provide the hotspots in Telstra’s new Wi-Fi plan

10:16AM | Thursday, 9 October

Telstra’s plans to rollout Australia’s largest Wi-Fi network over the next five years involves asking existing customers to allow part of their broadband connection to be used as hotspots.   More than two million new hotspots are planned as part of the A$100 million-plus strategy to increase broadband connectivity in the places that Australians live, work and visit daily. The first 1,000-hotspots will go live before Christmas.   But only two years ago Telstra shelved its plan to build a 1,000 hotspot Wi-Fi network, citing a lack of profitability and a clear customer preference for 3G connectivity.   So what has changed?   In contrast to the fixed line National Broadband Network (NBN) quagmire, the shifting position of Telstra with regards to Wi-Fi reflects a rapidly evolving wireless telecommunications market.   The continued uptake of smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices, and the increasingly central role these devices play in social, economic and political life, is generating a phenomenal demand for wireless data.   This is outpacing the development of cellular network capacity and creating congestion and reduced service quality on these networks. Telstra’s interest in developing a Wi-Fi network to offload some of this data traffic mirrors that by its international counterparts.   The fundamental role that wireless communications now play in contemporary life has also translated into government interest in the provision of public Wi-Fi as civic infrastructure. Governments are well placed to do so since they control assets, such as light poles, on which the large number of low-range Wi-Fi access points can be mounted.   While Telstra will make use of some of its own assets, such as public pay phone booths, it is seeking to establish hotspots in partnership with governments. This will spread the cost of provision, but Telstra are also undoubtedly keen to maintain some control over public Wi-Fi developments to make sure it reduces cellular congestion without cutting into its existing revenue streams.         Telstra has also developed a business model that it believes will make sure Wi-Fi becomes a profitable revenue stream. Use of Wi-Fi hotspots by Telstra’s contracted home and business broadband customers will count towards their already monetised bandwidth allowance.   Those without Telstra home broadband services will pay a fee to access the hotspots, the pricepoint of which will likely be structured to facilitate casual use but encourage regular users to consider signing up to Telstra broadband.   Compelling as these reasons may be for Telstra to dip back into Wi-Fi provision, shareholders might be forgiven for worrying that the rollout of two million hotspots is an overcommitment, and one that will present similar headaches to those faced by NBN Co. But they should fear not, as Telstra will build just 8,000 of these hotspots, with the majority actually rolled out by Telstra’s customers themselves.   A Fon on your Wi-Fi network   A fascinating aspect of Telstra’s plan is its partnership with the European-based bandwidth sharing enterprise Fon. Telstra hopes that two million of its customers will follow the lead of Fon users around the globe and make part of the bandwidth they purchase for their home or business broadband service available to other users.   So what is Fon, and are Telstra’s plans feasible?   Fon was established in 2005 by Argentinian entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky. The company is headquartered in Spain, a country with a significant history of community wireless activism, such as guifi.net.   Despite affectionate references to its community of “foneros”, Fon has moved some way from its cooperative roots. Backed by some heavyweight venture capitalists, Fon broke even after four years of operation.         The company has been signing exclusive deals with foreign telcos like Telstra as a means of rapidly expanding its international hotspot network. The company now claims to have more than 13 million Fon spots worldwide. These will be available to Telstra customers through the deal.   Fon’s bandwidth-sharing scheme is not unique, but its scale and ambition sets it apart. Commentators have been intrigued by the company’s evolving blend of user-generated and commercial elements.   But its service model – which concentrates provision in private homes and residential areas – has been criticised for its variable accessibility and reliability. This concern would seem to be amplified in the large spaces of Australian cities.   How many of the projected two million hotspots will be in low density neighbourhoods where Wi-Fi signals may not extend much beyond the front gate, or where there is little passing foot traffic? Will lingering outside houses to utilise the network boost commitment to the sharing economy, or arouse suspicion?   Such suspicion will hardly be allayed by Fon’s unfortunate description of non-sharing network users as “aliens”.   Telstra, then, will be tasked with boosting provision in commercial and tourist areas, and identifying incentives for householders to sign up and share.   Who benefits from the deal?   Specifically, it enables Telstra to secure a new footing in Australia’s rapidly evolving Wi-Fi scene. By asking Telstra’s customers to purchase and maintain a key component of the network infrastructure – the signal splitting modem – Telstra outsources infrastructure investment.   More speculatively, the new network may generate revenue from casual users and remove data traffic from mobile networks in favour of premium voice services.   Fon is aiming to build its global community but its business is currently concentrated in Europe, North-east Asia and South America. An alliance with Telstra brings Fon into the Asia-Pacific region. Partnering with major telcos may also help counter criticism of Fon’s reliability.   The new hotspot network will provide a new platform for Telstra customers to access bandwidth from their home broadband plan and, depending on pricing and performance, may provide cost effective internet access for non-customers.   More generally, roll-out of the network is likely to expand commercial Wi-Fi coverage in Australian cities, and may promote innovation and further technical development.   Ian McShane receives funding from the Australian Research Council. Chris K Wilson and Mark A Gregory do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

From art to science: Interest in robotics is on the move, but finance remains an issue

10:37AM | Thursday, 2 October

The cofounder of a pioneering Sydney-based robotics startup, with a Powerhouse Museum display and a successful crowdfunding campaign under its belt, says the sector is set to get much bigger but finance for projects remains an issue.   Robological cofounder Damith Herath told Private Media there are a number of exciting robotics startups founded by Australians, including Marathon Robotics and Navisens, and the sector is gaining momentum globally.   “It’s kinda like the ‘70s in computing and the ‘90s in the web. It’s the same feeling in the robotics community and the general consensus is it’s getting a lot bigger,” Herath says.   “A few good examples are some of the startups Google has recently purchased, or Baxter, or Cynthia Breazeal, who quit her job at MIT to do a startup called Jibo and raised $2 million on Indiegogo.   “But we have to be careful, because a lot of people over-promise and under deliver. Robots will move into other spaces, though not in the anthropomorphic sense.   “One of the issues is finding people to finance you is tricky, especially for hardware. People are more comfortable with apps and things that get a quick return on their investment.”   In January, Robological raised $3031 on Indiegogo for Ro-buddy, a pre-built board that integrates with an Android app, making it easy to build a robot without needing to learn a programming language such as C. Herath says the startup is finalising the board for fabrication in China.   “You can build a Raspberry Pi robot straight away, plug in a camera and motors, and within 10 to 20 minutes you have a spy cam working with the Android app,” he says.   “We think it’s useful because it’s in the pro-maker space, but it’s not as complex as Arduino. So if you’re building something in home automation, you can get something going with Android.”   Aside from Ro-buddy, Herath says Robological does consulting and research work, including working as a research partner with the Australian distributor for Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot and on Curtin University’s Alternative Anatomies project.   It is also “chipping away” on a variation of the cloud-based internet of things robotics ideas put forward by UC Berkley professor Ken Goldberg, although Herath is remaining tight-lipped about what the project involves.   The startup began with a robotics display called the Articulated Head, which was on exhibit for two years at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.   “The three founders – Zhengzhi Zhang, Christian Kroos and I – met at the University of Western Sydney six years ago on a project called Thinking Ahead, which was a project of the Australian Research Council into AI (artificial intelligence).   “We each had a slightly different background, myself with robotics engineering, Zhang with software engineering and Christian with linguistic and cognitive science.   “Stelarc is one of the top performing artists in the world; an Australian artist who’s done a lot of work with robotics on stage and theatre. And the project I worked on was conceived of by Stelarc.”   The project ended when funding ended, but this allowed the team to develop valuable intellectual property on robots and human interaction. The founders decided to form Robological to continue their research.   One of its first projects was called Adopt a Robot, a research project looking into interactions between humans and robots.   “It got a lot of good publicity because it captured the public imagination. We gave away seven robots and over six months we changed its behaviour and added a face… Each person who got a robot had to care for it and fill out a questionnaire every four to six weeks,” Herath says.   Next month, Robological will jointly organise a workshop on robots and art with Curtin University as part of the Sixth International Conference on Social Robotics in Sydney. Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Bitcoin ruling still doesn’t answer which country has the right to tax

8:08AM | Thursday, 28 August

It’s been about five years since bitcoin emerged online, claiming to be the world’s first digital cryptocurrency. Bitcoin functions as a form of digital cash; really, it is a technology, using cryptography to ensure the validity of transactions and periodically generate new bitcoins. Bitcoin has grown into an industry now worth more than US$6 billion.   Last week, the ATO published long-awaited guidance on the Australian tax treatment of bitcoin, in the form of draft rulings regarding income tax, Goods and Services Tax and Fringe Benefits Tax.   The ATO’s position is that bitcoin is property. So bitcoin’s tax treatment for income tax, GST, and FBT, follows that of a valuable commodity such as gold or shares. Where bitcoins are exchanged for other property or services, this is treated as a barter transaction. Both the supply of bitcoin and the AUD (Australian dollar) value of the property received may be taxable.   Income tax of bitcoin holders and traders   Where a taxpayer holds bitcoin as an investment, capital gains tax (CGT) may apply to gains or losses made on the disposal of the bitcoin. This requires the taxpayer to track the purchase and sale price of bitcoin in Australian dollars.   If the transaction remains under the A$10,000 CGT personal-use threshold, individuals who use bitcoin to purchase goods or services for personal use will not be subject to CGT. Equally, individuals are not required to report or collect GST when using bitcoin to purchase items for personal consumption.   However, businesses will be taxable where bitcoin is received as payment for an ordinary business transaction, as the business must report as income the AUD value of the bitcoin received. Where bitcoin is paid to an employee, it is a property fringe benefit and FBT may apply to its AUD value. And if a business acquires and exchanges bitcoin in the ordinary course of business, the bitcoin is treated as trading stock.   The ATO says bitcoin mining can be a business, depending on the scale and nature of the bitcoin operations. Mining could be treated as generating services income, as miners verify the validity of bitcoin transactions; but if bitcoin is really an intangible commodity, perhaps this is a business of acquiring or producing that commodity itself.   How do we value bitcoin?   The CGT treatment of bitcoin means bitcoins are not fungible. For example, over time, a business or investor acquires three bitcoins for a cost of $100, $500, and $1000 respectively. Later, one bitcoin is valued at $500, and the business wishes to use one bitcoin to pay for a $500 transaction. This could generate very different tax consequences depending on which bitcoin is sold: a taxable gain, a loss, or no net tax. This produces tax planning opportunities, as for other investments such as shares.   Valuing bitcoin is difficult as it has “no intrinsic value” (as noted in an OECD working paper). It is also highly volatile. Determining market value at receipt and disposal of each bitcoin will result in administrative costs.   GST on bitcoin exchanges   GST will apply to a supply of bitcoin by a registered business and it is not treated as an input-taxed financial supply or as money. When bitcoin is used in a transaction with another business, two GST events occur: the supply of the product and the supply of the bitcoin. If cash were used, GST would be charged only on the product.   While a business purchaser is entitled to an input credit for both the bitcoin and product supplies, this approach presents a commercial disincentive for using bitcoin as a means of exchange compared to Australian dollars. It is likely to be more costly and difficult for businesses to reuse bitcoin in business-to-business transactions.   What is the alternative?   The ATO’s approach is broadly consistent with the tax rulings issued to date by many other countries. US IRS guidance issued in March this year acknowledged bitcoin is a “convertible virtual currency” but states that for tax purposes it should be treated as property. Since then, a range of software has been created that helps automatically complete administrative tasks like valuing bitcoin.   But other countries have taken a more flexible view. The UK has avoided giving a blanket tax classification to bitcoin, instead stating tax rules would be applied depending on the facts. HMRC guidance also notes that, given their volatility, bitcoin investments could be considered as gambling gains or losses (and therefore gains may not be taxable - or losses deductible). Most significantly for businesses, the UK takes the view that VAT will not be chargeable on bitcoin mining or on most trading transactions. Uncertainty about VAT and bitcoin in Europe has led Sweden to recently request that the EU Court rule on the VAT status of bitcoin.   The ATO considered whether bitcoin should be treated as a foreign currency or “money” for tax. Some Australian and English courts have taken a functional approach to defining money as a “generally accepted medium and means of exchange, without being legal tender” [Emmett J, Travelex]. However, this is not widely accepted and other courts indicate that money must be issued or authorised by an act of sovereignty.   A fundamental feature of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is that they are non-fiat, that is, not established or backed by a government. But what if bitcoin was to gain recognition as a currency by governments in future? This would undermine the ATO approach. California recently legislated to remove impediments for corporations to put bitcoin into circulation although its not legal tender in the US.   Bitcoin in the global digital economy   The ATO rulings do not discuss jurisdiction to tax bitcoin and nor do they address the challenges of secrecy and tax evasion or money laundering potential of bitcoin. These and other issues are raised in a recent OECD report on tax and the digital economy and an OECD working paper.   The question of which country has a right to tax (and ability to enforce tax rules) is increasingly difficult to answer in the digital world. If mining, or trading, bitcoin is a business or service, where does this occur, given that bitcoin operates on a global peer-to-peer network?   It’s possible that countries will treat bitcoin differently for tax and other regulatory purposes. The German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority classifies bitcoin as a financial instrument or “unit of account” that functions as a form of private money, for regulatory purposes. The inability to identify bitcoin owners is a serious problem for regulators, who may treat bitcoin as currency or cash for transaction reporting purposes even though tax authorities view it as property - and that could help tax authorities with enforcement. The tax and regulatory challenges of cryptocurrencies are only just beginning.   Miranda Stewart receives funding from the Australian Research Council.   Joel Emery does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation.   Read the original article.   Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Tracking your digital fingerprint online raises privacy issues

7:28AM | Monday, 28 July

Just how much information we give away about ourselves as we browse the web has been raised again by a tracking device used in thousands of websites.   Researchers at Belgium’s University of Leuven have revealed the widespread use of a technique called “canvas fingerprinting” that tracks the activities of people on a website without their knowledge.   More than 5,600 websites were identified using the fingerprinting technique including Australian websites such as Australia Post, the Fairwork Ombudsman and the Sea Shepherd conservation group.   While this technique is relatively new, it represents another front in a very long battle to find out what users do online, and raises concerns about our ability to control our online privacy.   Here, have a cookie   Technical mechanisms for uniquely identifying web users date back to the introduction of the cookie in the Netscape browser in 1994.   When the user loads a webpage they get all the information necessary to display the page, such as the text, layout and images. But they also a small amount of “cookie” data sent along too, which is stored by the browser on the user’s computer.   When the user requests another page from the same website, the browser appends the cookie to the request to the server. In this way, the server hosting the website knows that the request came from the same computer.   Cookies are extremely useful and without them there would be no support for website logins.   But they can also be used to provide a complete record of a user’s use of a website. The use of “tracking cookies” allows this recording to extend across many, many websites, providing a comprehensive picture of a user’s browsing history to whoever controls the tracking cookie.   This becomes particularly intrusive if this browsing history can then be tied to any identifying data.   Privacy management   Understandably, many internet users aren’t terribly enthusiastic about their browsing history being so readily available to third parties. Tools to manage cookies have been incorporated into internet browsers and third-party privacy tools.   Deleting cookies, or controlling whether particular cookies are sent back to particular websites, gives the user more control over the extent of monitoring.   The technical response of browser developers has been combined with legal measures, such as the European Union’s privacy directive.   Under these rules, cookies used in a potentially privacy-invading manner must be disclosed to website visitors and explicit consent obtained.   Browser fingerprinting   Some internet companies have now turned to another ingenious technique for uniquely identifying and tracking users.   Rather than relying on browsers to send back a previously sent cookie, they collect enough information about the user’s browser environment to uniquely identify the user.   Modern computers have specialised hardware that greatly speeds up the computations needed to draw pictures on the screen. These graphics chips, made by companies such as NVidia, have made possible the amazing graphics of modern games, and speeded up your browsing and spreadsheets on today’s high-resolution monitors.   But the wide variety of such hardware, and the software used as “drivers” to control them, means that different computers will render such pictures in subtly different ways.   Images rendered by the graphics hardware (and thus subtly different on different computers) can be created from within a browser, analysed and sent back to a web server.   On its own, this is not enough to uniquely identify a user. But when combined with information such as the browser name and version number, and the list of fonts available on the system, it can provide a unique “fingerprint” of a user’s computer.   This provides a tracking mechanism that can be operated across many websites; a “super-cookie” that can’t be deleted as it is inherent to the computer it’s running on.   Again, this is most intrusive if it can be combined with personally identifying information. But even without this, it is very much against the spirit of the cultural norm (and the EU law) that requires internet sites to explicitly gain the consent of their users to enable tracking.   The University of Leuven research indicates that around 5% of the world’s top 1,000 websites make some use of this fingerprinting method, which was originally identified by University of California researchers in 2012.   Interestingly, however, the vast majority of websites using browser fingerprinting had done so by incorporating a third-party element into their website.   Free tools come with a hidden price   The primary product of AddThis is sharing tools – an easy-to-add component that website developers can incorporate on their sites that allow visitors to easily share the page they are viewing on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.   While AddThis charges for some use of some these components, others are available for free. Free and good-looking website components are to website developers what honeypots are to bears, so it’s not surprising that they have been widely adopted.   But AddThis extracts an additional quid pro quo – collecting browser data about those who visit sites usings their tools, much more than either the visitors, or the website owners, would have realised.   AddThis’s Rich LaBarca said it carried out a six month test using the fingerprinting and that any data collected was used for “internal research”. The code has since been disabled.   But the White House blog on the website of the US President didn’t realise that incorporating AddThis tools to its website violated its own privacy policy.   Taking what most of us give away anyway   As a computer geek from way back, I can’t help but grudgingly respect the ingenuity of those who perfect these privacy-invading tools, even as I deplore their ethics.   But my outrage is also tempered by the knowledge that these companies are taking by stealth what most of us choose to give away freely to other companies.   As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff observed, we – or, more precisely, our personal information – are “products” to many online companies such as Facebook, Google and AddThis.   The greatest fortunes of the 21st century have been founded on collecting and exploiting the personal information of billions of people, with a level of detail that companies such as AddThis can only dream of accessing.   And they’ve found that providing an easy way for us to share webpages of amazing cat videos and pictures is compelling enough that most of us will freely give them that information.   So what of ethics?   Do those who actually build these technologies – the programmers, analysts, testers and other IT professionals – have any obligation to consider the ethics of the tools they build? In theory, they do.   The two largest global professional bodies of the IT profession – the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society (IEEE-CS) – have jointly developed a Software Engineering Code of Ethics. The Australian Computer Society also has its own code of ethics.   Unfortunately – and unlike law, medicine or other fields of engineering – professional societies and their codes of ethics have virtually no influence within the information technology community.   Despite occasional efforts to set themselves up as gatekeepers through licensing, they have had little success. As such, however virtuous these codes of ethics may appear, they have no teeth.   Much as I would personally like it to be otherwise, it’s unlikely that attempts to violate the privacy of individuals will reduce through the self-regulation of IT professionals.   The financial incentives for companies to do so are likely to continue. Privacy protection will have to come through some combination of public pressure, legal means, and individual adoption of technical and behavioural countermeasures.   Robert Merkel receives has previously received Australian Research Council grants to investigate aspects of software testing and reliability.   This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What now for the NBN as taxpayer investment is capped?

5:34AM | Friday, 16 May

The Abbott Government’s first federal budget has allocated funds for capital investment into the National Broadband Network (NBN) to continue up to 2017-18 but with a cap of A$29.5 billion.   This falls well short of NBN Co’s original forecast of A$44.1 billion not withstanding various estimates of cost blowouts and new NBN Co leadership’s revised forecast of A$72.6 billion.   The Coalition under Tony Abbott’s leadership in opposition and in government has long maintained that NBN could cost less and be rolled out quicker.   That commitment was confirmed this week by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull following the budget announcement on spending.   In a statement, he said the budget provides A$20.9 billion in equity funding to NBN Co to cover up to 2017–18. This is on top of A$8.6 billion already committed bringing the total to the capped A$29.5 billion.   New sources of funding needed   NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow now faces some difficult decisions in deciding how best to allocate resources to meet the objective of providing high-speed broadband across Australia.   Since the Coalition’s election in September last year the NBN has been subject to a number of reviews and a wholesale clean out of management.   With many reviews, such as the cost-benefit analysis, yet to report, the strategic direction for NBN Co is uncertain making it difficult to comment on future developments with accuracy.   What can be said with certainty is the capping of the government’s investment gives a clear indication that Coalition’s NBN will be vastly different from that proposed under Labor.   But some issues will need to be addressed so they do not provide a thorn in the side to NBN Co or hinder the rollout of broadband across the community.   The funding cap amplifies the need for private investment. Only A$57 million has so far been earned in revenue related cashflow against the A$7.3 billion invested to date.   NBN Co will therefore be required to increase revenue and raise funds through private equity or debt financing to ensure it can fund both operational expenses and future capital investments. But it will need to show an attractive rate of return potential to lure Australian institutional investors, superfunds and other international investors.   Alternatively NBN Co will be forced to secure loans to bridge the gap. But whether the Abbott government would offer debt guarantees to the company remains an open question.   NBN Co may seek to reprioritise the rollout of the planned network by cherry picking more profitable connections in metropolitan regions. But this may detract from the rollout of services in areas with a higher capital cost, such as regional towns and outer suburban areas, which are often those areas that have the most to gain from the provision of broadband.   Deals with telcos   The A$11 billion deal with Telstra to lease part of its existing network is currently under renegotiation. This might extend to accessing existing fibre-to-the-cabinet, hybrid fibre-coax and dark fibre in addition to copper infrastructure to speed up “new” NBN rollout.   A changing technology mix means that some existing copper will not be decommissioned, entering operation as part of the NBN.   The outcomes of the renegotiation and the terms of any new agreement will impact the rollout and the future technology mix. Fibre-to-the-node in some form and maximising the use of existing copper infrastructure appears to be a dominant base for such mix and existing carrier infrastructure may offer opportunities in a funding constrained environment.   By further reviewing its construction and installation methods NBN Co may be able to achieve some cost savings and curtail cost blowouts.   Network competition   The NBN Co is operating in an uncertain regulatory environment. The current rules were set up with the NBN Co being a monopoly wholesale infrastructure provider.   But internet service provider TPG’s plan to rollout its own fibre-to-the-basement network is changing the telecommunications landscape requiring a regulatory response. Failure to clarify this would force NBN to lose opportunities in rolling out to rapidly expanding apartments sector with a customer base often opting for higher tier services.   Australia would then see its history repeated once more with parallel network rollout similar to the hybrid fibre-coax rollout by Telstra and Optus.   Maintaining the wholesale monopoly for NBN Co could have possible competitive consequences. Currently there appears to be a confusion in the way wholesale services are defined with potential restrictions on emerging market opportunities. NBN review panel’s terms of reference is seeking input on clarification of this.   Relieving NBN Co of its wholesale-only constraints, or at least redefining its limitations, would allow it to provide network connectivity directly to business end-users such as mobile base-stations, large businesses, governments and national infrastructure such as power grids which offer high growth potential.   This approach would be good for NBN Co as it would open new revenue streams that would support the government’s desire for the company to increase private investment.   Thas Ampalavanapillai Nirmalathas is a Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. He is currently an Associate Director with the Institute for Broadband-Enabled Society which has received funding from a range of sources including the University of Melbourne and Victorian Government. He is also the Director of Melbourne Accelerator Program which helps to promote entrepreneurship culture through acceleration of start-ups. Views expressed in this article is entirely that of the author and do not reflect the views of his employer - University of Melbourne. He receives funding from the Australian Research Council.   This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

University R&D grants dwindle as industrial research forges on

7:07AM | Monday, 30 July

The scope of a competitive grants scheme has been questioned after it was revealed university research and development supporting grants totalled $22 million less in 2012 than in 2011, despite the government’s heavy focus on this area.

Australia’s innovation performance dubbed “appalling”

5:29AM | Wednesday, 16 May

Australia’s innovation performance is “appalling” compared to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a former chief scientist.

Government pledges $67m for research partnerships

5:02PM | Tuesday, 31 May

The Federal Government has pledged $67 million for more than 200 research partnerships between universities and businesses, with projects ranging from needle-free vaccinations to protection from cyber bullying.

prev
1
next
loading...
loading...
loading...