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Aug. 31, 2012 at 6:56 PM
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Countries turn software against dissidents

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Governments criticized for their human rights records are using sophisticated off-the-shelf computer software to spy on dissidents, U.S. researchers say.

The FinSpy software tool is intended to be sold only for use in criminal investigations but Google engineer Morgan Marquis-Boire and computer scientist Bill Marczak said they've found evidence it is being used to target political dissidents. The software can capture images of computer screens, record Skype chats, activate cameras and microphones and record a computer user's keystrokes, The New York Times reported.

Marquis-Boire and Marczak said they uncovered mobile versions of the spyware modified to run on all major cellphones.

Use of the spyware has been linked to more than a dozen countries including Turkmenistan, Brunei and Bahrain, researchers said, although no government has admitted to employing the program for domestic surveillance purposes.

The Gamma Group, a British company that created FinSpy, says it sells the monitoring software to governments solely for criminal investigations.

It's a double-edged sword, critics say.

"This is dual-use equipment," said Eva Galperin, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group. "If you sell it to a country that obeys the rule of law, they may use it for law enforcement.

"If you sell it to a country where the rule of law is not so strong, it will be used to monitor journalists and dissidents."

Bronze Age settlement unearthed in China

WENQUAN, China, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Chinese archaeologists say the discovery of tombs and ruins of residential structures in northwest China offers a glimpse into nomadic life in the Bronze Age.

The settlement in the country's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region dates back 3,700-3,900 years, placing it in the time of the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 B.C.), the first Chinese dynasty to be described in ancient documents, China's official Xinhua news agency reported Thursday.

In addition to nearly 100 tombs, the center of the stone ruins features a uniquely designed residential structure, leading archaeologist Cong Dexin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said.

"The ruins of the structure are the first of their kind to be found in Xinjiang," he said.

The settlement is located south of the Qagan Usu pass at Mount Alataw, which borders Kazakhstan.

The tombs were built with stones weighing as much as 1 ton, although it isn't known how the nomads were able to cut and carry such large stones, Cong said.

"The tombs and ruins of residential structures are contemporaneous," he said. "This is the only archaeological site in Xinjiang where one can see dwellings for the living and the deceased at the same time."

"Hopefully, we'll find out more about the mysteries of ancient nomads in northwest China."

DNA of ancient human decoded

LEIPZIG, Germany, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- The genome of a cave-dwelling girl from 80,000 years ago has been analyzed in such detail it's known she had brown hair, eyes and skin, German researchers say.

The cave dweller was a Denisovan, named because bone fragments were found in Siberia's Denisova cave in 2010.

Denisovans were evolutionary cousins of the Neanderthals before both groups died out about 30,000 years ago.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, analyzed a small finger bone to extract DNA information about the previously unknown group of ancient humans.

"This is an extinct genome sequence of unprecedented accuracy," Matthias Meyer, chief researcher on the study, told the BBC.

Comparison of the girl's genome with that of Neanderthals and 11 modern humans from around the world allowed researchers to identify the gene changes that make modern humans different from the two groups of extinct humans, he said.

"To me the most exciting thing is having a good genome from our very closest extinct relatives which we can now compare ourselves to.

"It's a catalog of what makes everyone on the planet unique compared with our closest extinct relatives," he said.

Walmart takes product search 'social'

BENTONVILLE, Ark., Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Walmart says a new search tool on its Web site will show results based on what consumers buy, search for and talk about on social networking sites.

Items that are selling well, generating buzz on social networks or attracting good reviews will be displayed higher in search results, the company said.

The search engine's algorithm takes into account items shoppers have recently purchased on Walmart.com, goods consumers are posting about and sharing on Facebook, and products that have received positive reviews, Internet Retailer reported.

The technology does a much better job of understanding consumers' intent on searches, Walmart said.

For example, when consumers search for the term "house," the old search engine would produce results with numerous dog houses, which few consumers actually bought, Sri Subramaniam, @WalMartLabs' vice president, said.

Now, because the search engine's algorithm considers the items shoppers most often click on, the first results it returns are for DVDs of the TV show "House," he said.

The improved results, Subramaniam said, have led to a 10 percent to 15 percent jump in the number of sales that result from consumers searching for products.

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