Saturday, January 30, 2021

Forests are needed to absorb carbon, but the overheating planet might soon flip a critical switch

By Jack Board 

30 Jan 2021

BANGKOK: New research shows that the fast warming of the planet could cause trees and plants to release more carbon than they absorb, a critical function reversal that would further accelerate climate change.

By as early as 2040, given the current projections of global temperature rise, land systems will only be able to take in half the amount of carbon compared to what they do today, according to the research, published in Science Advances this month.

The research analysed data from about 1,500 sites around the world to try and understand how temperature intersected with the absorption of carbon. What it uncovered was a “powerful tipping point”.

As temperatures continue to rise, the ability of trees and plants to perform photosynthesis - a function that utilises carbon dioxide in the air - is compromised. At the same time, in a warmer environment, the respiration of plants also increases due to heat stress, adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Big Read: What’s the big deal with data privacy? Thorny, complex issues confront citizens and governments


January 16, 2021
  • The issue of data privacy has come under the spotlight, with debates triggered by the police’s use of TraceTogether data and the privacy policy changes of WhatsApp
  • Besides your name, age, gender, education and employment, data companies know what vehicle you own, the size of your home, your socioeconomic status, the websites you visit, your tendency to default on loans, and even your health problems
  • The enormous use of personal data by corporates and governments have become part and parcel of today’s connected society and quality of life, but also risks being misused or falling into the wrong hands
  • Data privacy law differs from country to country. Experts say Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act is not designed to ensure data privacy as its chief aim, but was conceived to achieve a narrower goal of protecting personal user data
  • The onus is also on the individual to keep asking questions about their personal data and not simply sign away their privacy, experts added

SINGAPORE — When messaging app WhatsApp’s new privacy policy sparked a global exodus from its services, Mr Darren Chin’s company — a local tech firm — decreed that its entire staff was to cease using the Facebook-owned platform for work.

“We’ve all been using WhatsApp for many years, but the company’s top management decided to ban it and we cannot say no,” said Mr Chin, 52.

“Everyone in the tech chat groups in my company switched to Signal, so I did so as well. I agree with the decision too: Data privacy is important to me,” the IT operations specialist told TODAY — ironically in an interview conducted over Facebook at his request.

Signal, as well as Telegram, are rival encrypted messaging apps that have surged in popularity amid the fiasco as an alternative to WhatsApp.

WhatsApp has since come forward to clarify that its new terms will not allow its parent company to access the app users' messages, and delayed its February deadline for users to accept the terms. But the new policy will still allow WhatsApp to share more information with Facebook and roll out advertising and e-commerce.

Around the same time, a similar controversy unfolded involving Singapore’s contact-tracing system TraceTogether, after Singaporeans found out earlier this month that their Bluetooth proximity data could be used for criminal investigations.

This led some users to switch off their apps or leave their tokens at home, despite the fact that such data is critical in fighting the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, TODAY previously reported.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The scary power of the companies that finally shut Trump up

By Michelle Goldberg

January 12, 2021


In the days after President Donald Trump whipped up a mob to overrun the United States Capitol in a desperate attempt to stop the certification of his defeat, many conservatives have voiced their outrage over the true victims of the failed putsch.

“I’ve lost 50k-plus followers this week,” an indignant Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter on Saturday, after the platform banned Mr Trump and purged accounts that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Complaining of “radical left” censorship, Sanders, Mr Trump’s former press secretary, wrote: “This is not China, this is United States of America, and we are a free country.”

In fact, Twitter and Facebook’s ejection of Mr Trump is pretty much the opposite of what happens in China; it would be inconceivable for the Chinese social media giant Weibo to block President Xi Jinping.

Mr Trump’s social media exile represents, in some ways, a libertarian dream of a wholly privatised public sphere, in which corporations, not government, get to define the bounds of permissible speech.

As a non-libertarian, however, I find myself both agreeing with how technology giants have used their power in this case, and disturbed by just how awesome their power is.

Mr Trump deserved to be deplatformed.

Parler, a social network favored by Trumpists that teemed with threats against the president’s enemies, deserved to be kicked off Amazon’s web-hosting service.

But it’s dangerous to have a handful of callow young tech titans in charge of who has a megaphone and who does not.

In banning Mr Trump, the big social media companies simply started treating him like everyone else.

Lots of people, including prominent Trump supporters like Alex Jones, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, have been ousted from Facebook, Twitter or both for inciting violence, threatening journalists and spreading hatred.

Mr Trump, who has done all of those things, had until this past week been given special privileges as president.

There’s no First Amendment problem with taking these privileges away; Americans don’t have a constitutional right to have their speech disseminated by private companies.

On the contrary, the First Amendment gives people and companies alike the freedom not to associate with speech they abhor.

There’s a debate about how far this freedom should go.

Liberals, myself included, generally believe that freedom of association shouldn’t trump civil rights law, which is why bakeries shouldn’t be allowed to deny wedding cakes to gay couples.

But it seems obvious enough that the Constitution doesn’t compel either individuals or businesses to amplify seditious political propaganda.

Still, the ability of tech companies, acting in loose coordination, to mostly shut up the world’s loudest man is astonishing, and shows the limits of analogies to traditional publishers.

It’s true that Mr Trump can, any time he wants, hold a press conference or call into Fox News.

But stripping him of access to social media tools available to most other people on Earth has diminished him in a way that both impeachment and electoral defeat so far have not.

Social media bans matter because they work.

You can see it with villains as diverse as Isis, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones.

“Their ability to drive the conversation, reach wider audiences for recruitment, and, perhaps most importantly to a lot of these conflict entrepreneurs, to monetise it, is irreparably harmed,” said Peter W Singer, co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.

It’s great that Mr Trump’s poisonous presence has been curtailed.

Private companies have shown themselves able to act far more nimbly than the US government, imposing consequences on a would-be tyrant who has until now enjoyed a corrosive degree of impunity.

But in doing so, these companies have also shown a power that goes beyond that of many nation-states, one they apply capriciously and without democratic accountability.

As The Verge noted, it’s hard to make sense of a system that leads to the trolly left-wing podcast “Red Scare” being suspended from Twitter, but not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So it’s not surprising that serious people including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny find the Trump bans disturbing.

“This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world,” Mr Navalny wrote on Twitter.

“In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘This is just common practice; even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”

But the answer isn’t to give Mr Trump his beloved account back.

Mr Navalny pointed out that Mr Trump’s ban seems arbitrary because so many other bad actors, including autocrats, Covid-19 deniers and troll factories, still have access to the service.

He called for platforms to create a more transparent process, appointing committees whose decisions could be appealed. That would be a start.

In the long term, tech monopolies need to be broken up, as US Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed.

Mr Singer described the tech barons who finally took action against Mr Trump after enabling him for years as “rulers of a kingdom that abdicated their responsibility for a long time.”

This time, with Mr Trump, they ruled judiciously. But they shouldn’t rule over as much as they do. 



Michelle Goldberg has been an opinion columnist for The New York Times since 2017 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. She is the author of three books.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

440,000 Singaporeans eligible for matched CPF savings scheme

A total of 440,000 Singaporeans aged 55 to 70 are eligible for a new savings scheme this year where the Government will match cash top-ups made to their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Retirement Accounts.

06 Jan 2021

SINGAPORE: A total of 440,000 Singaporeans aged 55 to 70 are eligible for a new savings scheme this year where the Government will match cash top-ups made to their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Retirement Accounts.

To qualify for the Matched Retirement Savings Scheme, the CPF members must have less than the prevailing Basic Retirement Sum in their accounts, said the CPF Board in a media release on Wednesday (Jan 6).

The Basic Retirement Sum this year is S$93,000.

Other eligibility criteria are: An average monthly income of not more than S$4,000, an annual value of residence of up to S$13,000 – which covers all Housing Board flats – and ownership of not more than one property.

About 53 per cent of CPF members between 55 and 70 years old are eligible for the grant, the CPF Board said.