Hackers Can Now Unlock Phones With a VR Headset and Facebook Photos | Motherboard

Hackers Can Now Unlock Phones With a VR Headset and Facebook Photos | Motherboard

Fingerprint readers and iris scanners are just a few of the biometric security mechanisms that manufacturers have been putting in smartphones, tablets, and laptops lately. But while slick and futuristic, these new and unique methods for securing mobile devices inevitably have new and unique vulnerabilities.

Take face authentication, for example. To ensure a stranger can’t access someone’s phone just by holding a picture of the owner’s face in front of its camera, devices that offer face-unlock features have recently implemented ways of detecting motion and “liveness” in a face—essentially, looking for facial movement patterns like blinking in order to tell a “live” face from a flat picture or video.

But in a paper presented earlier this month at the USENIX Security Symposium in Austin, TX, a group of researchers was able to circumvent that safeguard using a virtual reality model of a person’s head recreated from a handful of photos taken from social media.

The researchers show it’s possible to defeat modern face authentication systems by creating a virtual model derived from high-resolution photos of the device’s owner. Essentially, they were able to convince the device it was looking at a live face by attaching it to a VR headset and loading the 3D head model, whose movements are realistically motion-tracked by the device’s accelerometers and gyroscopes. The researchers could then further manipulate the 3D head model within the headset to make realistic facial movements like smiling or raising an eyebrow, which face authentication systems often prompt a user to do.

All five of the face authentication systems tested were successfully spoofed with 3D models built from high-resolution photos. Lower resolution photos from social media were also able to spoof all but one of the systems, though each had a somewhat lower success rate than their hi-res versions.

“We argue that such VR-based spoofing attacks constitute a fundamentally new class of attacks that point to a serious weaknesses in camera-based authentication systems: Unless they incorporate other sources of verifiable data, systems relying on color image data and camera motion are prone to attacks via virtual realism,” the researchers write, suggesting that a robust face authentication system would need to incorporate some kind of non-public imagery of the user, like a skin heat map.

“Given the widespread nature of high-resolution personal online photos, today’s adversaries have a goldmine of information at their disposal for synthetically creating fake face data.”


New HTTPS Exploit Leaves Hundreds of Sites Vulnerable | Digital Trends

New HTTPS Exploit Leaves Hundreds of Sites Vulnerable | Digital Trends

Researchers at INRIA, the French national research institute for computer science, have devised a new way to decrypt secret cookies which could leave your passwords vulnerable to theft.

Karthikeyan Bhargavan and Gaetan Leurent, have devised and carried out an attack – in a crypto research lab – which can pirate traffic from over 600 of the web’s most popular sites and lay bare your previously secure login information.

The exploit, dubbed ‘Sweet32’, isn’t easy to carry out, however. It involves mining hundreds of gigabytes of data, and targeting specific users who have accessed a malicious website which saddled them with a bit of malware. Still, the difficulty in carrying out the attack is outweighed by just how completely it subverts some of the internet’s most common encryption schemes.

While the attack is very difficult to carry out in practice, the existence the exploit has security experts on the OpenSSL development team taking notice.

By mining HTTPS or OpenVPN encrypted traffic, the researchers were able to use a mathematical paradox to identify portions of encrypted information and decipher login and password credentials in their entirety.

Don’t panic just yet, security experts speaking with Ars Technica are convinced that the threat posed by the exploit is minimal, in part due to the fact that it’s got a relatively simple fix.

The key vulnerability exploited in the secret-cookie-decryption-scheme is only found in 64-bit block ciphers, which OpenVPN developers have already addressed in the most recent version of their VPN software. Other security experts speaking with Ars have confirmed that the exploit poses little threat as long as developers get on board and stop using 64-bit block ciphers like Triple DES, or ‘3DES’.

“The 3DES issue is of little practical consequence at this time. It is just a matter of good hygiene to start saying goodbye to 3DES,” said Viktor Dukhovni, a member of the OpenSSL team.


Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming – Scientific American

Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming – Scientific American

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Scientific American is not in the business of endorsing political candidates. But we do take a stand for science—the most reliable path to objective knowledge the world has seen—and the Enlightenment values that gave rise to it. For more than 170 years we have documented, for better and for worse, the rise of science and technology and their impact on the nation and the world. We have strived to assert in our reporting, writing and editing the principle that decision making in the sphere of public policy should accept the conclusions that evidence, gathered in the spirit and with the methods of science, tells us to be true.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who pays even superficial attention to politics that over the past few decades facts have become an undervalued commodity. Many politicians are hostile to science, on both sides of the political aisle. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has a routine practice of meddling in petty science-funding matters to score political points. Science has not played nearly as prominent a role as it should in informing debates over the labeling of genetically modified foods, end of life care and energy policy, among many issues.

The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain. When the major Republican candidate for president has tweeted that global warming is a Chinese plot, threatens to dismantle a climate agreement 20 years in the making and to eliminate an agency that enforces clean air and water regulations, and speaks passionately about a link between vaccines and autism that was utterly discredited years ago, we can only hope that there is nowhere to go but up.

In October, as we did four years previously, we will assemble answers from the campaigns of the Democratic and Republican nominees on the public policy questions that touch on science, technology and public health and then publish them online. We will support ScienceDebate.org’s efforts to persuade moderators to ask important science-related questions during the presidential debates. We encourage the nation’s political leaders to demonstrate a respect for scientific truths in word and deed. And we urge the people who vote to hold them to that standard.


Sensor systems identify senior citizens at risk of falling within 3 weeks — ScienceDaily

Sensor systems identify senior citizens at risk of falling within 3 weeks — ScienceDaily

Each year, millions of people — especially those 65 and older — fall. Such falls can be serious, leading to broken bones, head injuries, hospitalizations or even death. Now, researchers from the Sinclair School of Nursing and the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri found that sensors that measure in-home gait speed and stride length can predict likely falls. This technology can assist health providers to detect changes and intervene before a fall occurs within a three-week period.

“We have developed a non-wearable sensor system that can measure walking patterns in the home, including gait speed and stride length,” said Marjorie Skubic, director of the MU Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology and professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Assessment of these functions through the use of sensor technology is improving coordinated health care for older adults”

To predict falls, researchers used data collected from sensor systems at TigerPlace, an innovative aging-in-place retirement residence, located in Columbia, Mo. The system generated images and an alert email for nurses indicating when irregular motion was detected. This information could be used to assist nurses in assessing functional decline, providing treatment and preventing falls.

“Aging should not mean that an adult suddenly loses his or her independence,” said Marilyn Rantz, Curators’ Professor Emerita of Nursing. “However, for many older adults the risk of falling impacts how long seniors can remain independent. Being able to predict that a person is at risk of falling will allow caretakers to intervene with the necessary care to help seniors remain independent as long as possible.”

Results from an analysis of the sensor system data found that a gait speed decline of 5 centimeters per second was associated with an 86.3 percent probability of falling within the following three weeks. Researchers also found that shortened stride length was associated with a 50.6 percent probability of falling within the next three weeks.

Additional research led by Rantz and Skubic recently received an award from Mather LifeWays ® Institute on Aging. Their research has found that by integrating care coordination and sensor technology at TigerPlace, residents are able to live independently on average of four years compared to the national average of 22 months.

“Using embedded sensors in independent living to predict gait changes and falls,” recently was published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research. Future research on the sensor systems will focus on how nurses can best use the fall prediction statistics to intervene before the fall occurs. Contributing to the study were MU researchers Lorraine Phillips, Chelsea DeRoche, Gregory Alexander, Laurel Despins, Carmen Abbott, Bradford Harris, Colleen Galambos and Richelle Koopman. Research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (RO1NR014255). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agency.


More to rainbows than meets the eye — ScienceDaily

More to rainbows than meets the eye — ScienceDaily

There’s more to rainbows than meets the eye. Knowledge gained from studying these multicoloured arcs of scattered light can be incredibly useful in ways that may not immediately spring to mind. Rainbow effects can warn of chemical contamination in the atmosphere, help to develop more efficient combustion engines and possibly even provide insight into the mechanics of reinforced concrete.

Writing in European Journal of Physics, Alexander Haußmann of the Institute of Applied Physics at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, has reviewed the latest developments in the field of rainbow research. His article takes a comprehensive look at natural rainbows and touches on the many practical applications of this fascinating interaction between light, liquid and gas.

Haußmann has been studying rainbows for more than 20 years. His interest began at school where he and his friends would log meteorological data for fun to keep tabs on changes in the weather. Today, weather watching has become more sophisticated with the introduction of techniques such as radar remote sensing, but observing rainbows remains important. As Haußmann points out, these patterns of scattered light can provide considerable clues to the size distribution and shape of raindrops falling during wet weather. If paired with radar data, this information could be used to quantify the amount of rainwater reaching the ground. “If our analysis methods are precise enough, we can turn rainbows into optical remote sensing tools to study the physics of rain,” he comments.

Haußmann’s review delves deep into the challenges of simulating rainbows as mathematical modeling is an important tool in furthering our understanding of this field. There are some key points that add to the puzzle. “Rain drops are not exactly spherical, but become deformed into slightly flattened ‘hamburger bun’ shapes due to air drag as they fall through the sky,” he explained. “This has a drastic influence on the appearance of rainbows and makes scattering calculations numerically very demanding.”

As well as focusing on the science, the article also provides tips for capturing rainbows on camera, which could help to win bragging rights on Instagram and other popular photo-sharing websites. “Rainbows are short-lived and special phenomena such as twinned bows are pretty rare, so it’s important to always have your camera to hand,” recommends Haußmann. “This can be a smartphone or, in my case, an SLR camera with a fisheye lens to capture the full width of a rainbow in a single frame.”


At Home with the Irrational by Glen Baxter | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

At Home with the Irrational by Glen Baxter | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

Over four decades and many books, “Colonel” Glen Baxter has built a world and language all his own—slightly familiar, decidedly abnormal, irresistibly funny. Baxter’s drawings and prose poems are a delicious stew of adventure novels, highbrow hijinks, and outright absurdity. The following is a selection from Baxter’s new book, Almost Completely Baxter, which brings together highlights from the full sweep of his long career.
—The Editors

Television didn’t arrive in England until the Fifties. Its images were of course in black, white, and grey, which fit perfectly with our childhood lives, already chugging along in drab monochrome. Light grey drizzle fell from the black clouds and specks of soot belched from the factory chimneys. It was grim. This monotony could only be broken by a visit to the cinema. Republic Pictures film serials and Flash Gordon were my guides to a more exciting future.

A film I remember fondly featured a scene where a tousle-haired man in a belted raincoat is leaning against a tall building in Manhattan. A cop walks by swinging his billy club. “Move along, buster!” he exhorts. “Do ya think you’re holding up the building?” The accused adjusts his battered hat and moves away as instructed. The building crashes to the ground in a flurry of dust and rubble. I had entered the world of the Marx Brothers and I would never look back.

Years later at art school I came upon a similar spirit of anarchy in the work of the Dada and Surrealist poets and painters. I was home, and dry. And yet, I was distinctly out of step with the prevailing ideology. I was surrounded by abstract painters churning out fake de Koonings and Rothkos. The collage novels of Max Ernst, with their haunting dreamlike imagery and absurdity, became my beacon as I tried to escape the prevailing orthodoxy.

My early attempts at prose poetry found their way into print in the samizdat publication Adventures in Poetry, published by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Lower East Side. Encouraged by poets Ron Padgett and Larry Fagin, I came to New York and read from my collected works. After years of neglect in my homeland I had finally found my audience.

—Glen Baxter, August 2016

Source: At Home with the Irrational by Glen Baxter | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

New Window Coating: Let The Light In – Leave The Heat Out

New Window Coating: Let The Light In – Leave The Heat Out

A team from A*STAR Singapore Institute of Manufacturing and Technology, led by Hui Huang, is working on refining the chemical arrangement of nanoparticles to block the infrared heat, while at the same time still allowing the visible light in. The new technology will be manufactured as a coating that can be applied to existing windows.

We use windows and glass doors to let in as much natural light as possible, but that also lets in near infrared radiation, which generates heat. In colder climates this is more than welcomed, but in tropical climates, the greenhouse effect has us using air conditioning to keep the temperature at comfortable levels.

In tropical countries like Singapore, the largest component of a building’s energy consumption is air conditioning. Smart windows that block near-infrared radiation but still allows most of the light in will save on energy costs and thereby reduce carbon emissions. Significant savings can be achieved even if the heat intake is reduced by a small percentage.

Currently, window coatings using antimony doped tin oxide nanopowders are commercially available. Although Huang and his team use the same chemicals, they are focusing on varying the nanoparticles‘ antimony concentration to achieve the optimum absorption of near infrared radiation. The initial results far exceed the current solutions with the infrared shielding achieved being twice that of existing products. Using a coating with 10-nanometer antimony-doped tin oxide nanoparticles, more than 80 percent of visible light is let through, while more than 90 percent of the infrared radiation is blocked.

A synthesis procedure known as the solvothermal method was used to produce the tiny nanoparticles. Using a special vessel, called an autoclave, precursors are heated under pressure. The method allows the nanoparticle size to be tightly controlled and requires relatively low temperatures. The key to allowing some wavelengths through while blocking others lies in the nanoparticle size. Huang’s work has already attracted the interest of a local glass company in Singapore. They are interested in licensing this smart window technology with infrared shielding.


With Windows 10, Microsoft Blatantly Disregards User Choice and Privacy: A Deep Dive | Electronic Frontier Foundation

With Windows 10, Microsoft Blatantly Disregards User Choice and Privacy: A Deep Dive | Electronic Frontier Foundation

Microsoft had an ambitious goal with the launch of Windows 10: a billion devices running the software by the end of 2018. In its quest to reach that goal, the company aggressively pushed Windows 10 on its users and went so far as to offer free upgrades for a whole year. However, the company’s strategy for user adoption has trampled on essential aspects of modern computing: user choice and privacy. We think that’s wrong.

You don’t need to search long to come across stories of people who are horrified and amazed at just how far Microsoft has gone in order to increase Windows 10’s install base. Sure, there is some misinformation and hyperbole, but there are also some real concerns that current and future users of Windows 10 should be aware of. As the company is currently rolling out its “Anniversary Update” to Windows 10, we think it’s an appropriate time to focus on and examine the company’s strategy behind deploying Windows 10.

Disregarding User Choice

The tactics Microsoft employed to get users of earlier versions of Windows to upgrade to Windows 10 went from annoying to downright malicious. Some highlights: Microsoft installed an app in users’ system trays advertising the free upgrade to Windows 10. The app couldn’t be easily hidden or removed, but some enterprising users figured out a way. Then, the company kept changing the app and bundling it into various security patches, creating a cat-and-mouse game to uninstall it.

Eventually, Microsoft started pushing Windows 10 via its Windows Update system. It started off by pre-selecting the download for users and downloading it on their machines. Not satisfied, the company eventually made Windows 10 a recommended update so users receiving critical security updates were now also downloading an entirely new operating system onto their machines without their knowledge. Microsoft even rolled in the Windows 10 ad as part of an Internet Explorer security patch. Suffice to say, this is not the standard when it comes to security updates, and isn’t how most users expect them to work. When installing security updates, users expect to patch their existing operating system, and not see an advertisement or find out that they have downloaded an entirely new operating system in the process.

In May 2016, in an action designed in a way we think was highly deceptive, Microsoft actually changed the expected behavior of a dialog window, a user interface element that’s been around and acted the same way since the birth of the modern desktop. Specifically, when prompted with a Windows 10 update, if the user chose to decline it by hitting the ‘X’ in the upper right hand corner, Microsoft interpreted that as consent to download Windows 10.

Time after time, with each update, Microsoft chose to employ questionable tactics to cause users to download a piece of software that many didn’t want. What users actually wanted didn’t seem to matter. In an extreme case, members of a wildlife conservation group in the African jungle felt that the automatic download of Windows 10 on a limited bandwidth connection could have endangered their lives if a forced upgrade had begun during a mission.

Disregarding User Privacy

The trouble with Windows 10 doesn’t end with forcing users to download the operating system. Windows 10 sends an unprecedented amount of usage data back to Microsoft, particularly if users opt in to “personalize” the software using the OS assistant called Cortana. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of data sent back: location data, text input, voice input, touch input, webpages you visit, and telemetry data regarding your general usage of your computer, including which programs you run and for how long.

While we understand that many users find features like Cortana useful, and that such features would be difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to implement in a way that doesn’t send data back to the cloud, the fact remains that many users would much prefer not to use these features in exchange for maintaining their privacy.

And while users can disable some of these settings, it is not a guarantee that your computer will stop talking to Microsoft’s servers. A significant issue is the telemetry data the company receives. While Microsoft insists that it aggregates and anonymizes this data, it hasn’t explained just how it does so. Microsoft also won’t say how long this data is retained, instead providing only general timeframes. Worse yet, unless you’re an enterprise user, no matter what, you have to share at least some of this telemetry data with Microsoft and there’s no way to opt-out of it.

Microsoft has tried to explain this lack of choice by saying that Windows Update won’t function properly on copies of the operating system with telemetry reporting turned to its lowest level. In other words, Microsoft is claiming that giving ordinary users more privacy by letting them turn telemetry reporting down to its lowest level would risk their security since they would no longer get security updates (1). (Notably, this is not something many articles about Windows 10 have touched on.)

But this is a false choice that is entirely of Microsoft’s own creation. There’s no good reason why the types of data Microsoft collects at each telemetry level couldn’t be adjusted so that even at the lowest level of telemetry collection, users could still benefit from Windows Update and secure their machines from vulnerabilities, without having to send back things like app usage data or unique IDs like an IMEI number.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, Microsoft’s questionable upgrade tactics of bundling Windows 10 into various levels of security updates have also managed to lower users’ trust in the necessity of security updates. Sadly, this has led some people to forgo security updates entirely, meaning that there are users whose machines are at risk of being attacked.

There’s no doubt that Windows 10 has some great security improvements over previous versions of the operating system. But it’s a shame that Microsoft made users choose between having privacy and security.

The Way Forward

Microsoft should come clean with its user community. The company needs to acknowledge its missteps and offer real, meaningful opt-outs to the users who want them, preferably in a single unified screen. It also needs to be straightforward in separating security updates from operating system upgrades going forward, and not try to bypass user choice and privacy expectations.

Otherwise it will face backlash in the form of individual lawsuits, state attorney general investigations, and government investigations.

We at EFF have heard from many users who have asked us to take action, and we urge Microsoft to listen to these concerns and incorporate this feedback into the next release of its operating system. Otherwise, Microsoft may find that it has inadvertently discovered just how far it can push its users before they abandon a once-trusted company for a better, more privacy-protective solution.

(1) Confusingly, Microsoft calls the lowest level of telemetry reporting (which is not available on Home or Professional editions of Windows 10) the “security” level—even though it prevents security patches from being delivered via Windows Update.


CNS – Acts of Disbarred Lawyers Called ‘Most Shocking, Unethical’ Ever

CNS – Acts of Disbarred Lawyers Called ‘Most Shocking, Unethical’ Ever

Disbarring two lawyers who got opposing counsel arrested for drunken driving, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday slammed the misconduct as some of “the most shocking, unethical, and unprofessional” it has ever seen.

The scandal erupted in Tampa during the high-profile trial between two area DJs, Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem and Todd “MJ” Schnitt.

Clem was also embroiled around this time in Hulk Hogan’s sex-tape drama with Gawker, but the trial at hand stemmed from on-air rants in which Clem had called Schnitt “a lying piece of crap” and a “snitch.”

On Jan. 23, 2013, the Clem-Schnitt case had been ongoing for roughly five years. Trial had recessed for the day, and a paralegal at the firm representing Clem found herself at the same restaurant as Schnitt’s attorneys.

The ensuing melee resulted Thursday in the disbarment of Clem’s three attorneys, Robert D. Adams, Stephen Diaco and Adam Robert Filthaut, formerly of the Tampa firm Adams & Diaco.

As recounted in the court’s ruling, paralegal Melissa Personius recognized attorney Phillip Campbell at the restaurant as her bosses’ courtroom opponent. Campbell did not recognize Personius.

Cellphone records from that night show that Campbell called Adams, and Filthaut called his friend at Tampa police.

Meanwhile, Personius flirted with Campbell at the restaurant, buying drinks and encouraging the attorney to drink. Because of Filthaut’s call, a Tampa police officer waited outside the restaurant to see if Campbell would attempt to drive home.

It turned out Campbell did not even have a car that night. He had walked to the restaurant and planned on walking home, just a few blocks away.

Personius ensured that the lawyer got behind the wheel, however, by insisting on retrieving her car from valet.

The ruling says Campbell agreed “out of frustration … to move the car to a lot near his apartment building and call her a cab from there.”

After he was promptly arrested for drunken driving, attorney Diaco vilified Campbell in the media, saying the “behavior was a mockery of the judicial system and an embarrassment to Diaco as an attorney,” as summarized in the ruling.

Campbell soon realized he had been set up, and disciplinary proceedings against Adams and Filthaut quickly uncovered more misconduct.

The ruling says Campbell had inadvertently left his trial bag in Personius’ car, and that Adams and Flithaut “made no attempt to inform him or return the bag until after Personius’ identity was discovered.”

Campbell’s co-counsel wound up having to demand return of the bag.

It also turned out that Flithaut had attempted back in November 2012 to get Campbell arrested for drunken driving. The lawyer’s report to his sergeant friend caused Tampa police to conduct 45 minutes of surveillance on Nov. 29, but “Mr. Campbell was not observed driving that night and no arrest was made,” according to the referee’s findings in the disciplinary proceedings.

The referee, William Douglas Baird, recommended permanent disbarment for Diaco, Adams and Filthaut. Only Adams and Filthaut challenged the recommendations, but the Florida Supreme Court approved the requested discipline in full.

“The respondents’ actions constituted a deliberate and malicious effort to place a heavy finger on the scales of justice for the sole benefit of themselves and their client,” the unsigned opinion states.

Personius’ ex-husband had testified, as quoted in the ruling, that Diaco told her “she would receive a big bonus and would be his best-paid paralegal” for her role in the setup.

The court conceded that Adams and Filthaut’s actions did not match the usual threshold for permanent disbarment: “continuing egregious and unrepentant misconduct demonstrating that the respondent attorney is not amenable to rehabilitation and is beyond redemption.”

It is worth noting though, the court said, that Adams and Filthaut’s behavior was “unique and essentially unprecedented.”

“The respondents’ willingness to inflict and indifference to causing such harm is, in the words of the referee, quite ‘stunning,'” the court wrote. “The referee did not find remorse as a mitigating factor for either respondent, and neither of them challenges this.”

Each attorney’s disbarment was effective immediately, and each must also pay more than $14,000 in costs.

None of the listed numbers for Adams or Filthaut connected to a working phone line, and their firm is listed on Google as “permanently closed.”

Campbell’s assistant did not immediately respond to a voicemail requesting comment.


Semen reshapes immune system to boost chances of pregnancy | New Scientist

Semen reshapes immune system to boost chances of pregnancy | New Scientist

Semen does more than fertilise eggs. In mice, it seems to prime the female’s immune system for pregnancy, making it more likely that an embryo will successfully implant in the womb. It appears to prompt similar changes in women, a finding that could explain why IVF is more successful if couples have regular sex during treatment.

Sarah Robertson at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and her colleagues found that each time a female mouse copulates, it caused the release of immune cells called regulatory T-cells, which are known to dampen down inflammation in the body.

This process may be important for allowing embryos to implant in the womb, rather than being rejected as a foreign body. In people, low regulatory T-cell counts are linked to several reproductive problems, including unexplained infertility, miscarriage, pre-eclampsia and pre-term labour.

Examining the cervix in women, the team found signs that semen does seem to prompt immune system changes in people too. Shortly after sex, they detected the cervix begins to release immune signalling molecules, which may be a sign of increased levels of regulatory T-cells.

“It’s as if the seminal fluid is a Trojan horse that activates the immune cells to get things ready for conception,” says Robertson.

As well as making the embryo more likely to successfully implant in the womb lining, it’s possible that such effects also minimise the chances of a woman’s body rejecting the fetus later on in pregnancy, she says. Women who conceive after limited sexual activity are more likely to develop disorders during pregnancy, she adds.

IVF help
The findings, presented at the International Congress of Immunology in Australia this week, fit with observations that semen contains several signaling molecules – including cytokines, prostaglandins, and hormones – that can have an effect on female tissue.

The discovery has implications for IVF. After a woman’s eggs have been fertilised in the lab, an embryo is chosen for implantation and is surgically inserted into the womb. This is one of the points where IVF can fail, if an embryo is unable to implant in a woman’s uterine lining.

Many fertility clinics advise couples to abstain from sex during IVF treatment to minimise risk of infection from seminal fluid during the implantation surgery. This is a small risk outweighed by the benefits semen can have for the female immune system, Robertson says.

This is supported by a recent review of studies that concluded that sex during IVF improves embryo implantation rates by 23 per cent. “I think it’s really good for couples to know that there’s something they can do to help their chances – it allows them to take a bit of control back,” says Robertson.

Peter Illingworth of IVF Australia says the evidence is compelling. “I personally always say to IVF patients: ‘if you want to have sex, just have sex’.” But many couples choose not to during the treatment because IVF causes a lot of discomfort, he says. “If you’ve got ovaries the size of baseballs, sex is a much less appealing prospect.”

Conception delay
The effect of semen on a woman’s immune system could also help explain why most couples do not fall pregnant straight away, says Robertson. “In humans, it seems that at least three months of sexual cohabitation is required to give you the priming that you need,” she says.

If low levels of regulatory T-cells are for a cause of infertility, therapies that increase them may help women who have been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for a long time. Treatments like these are currently being developed for immune conditions like graft-versus-host disease, but they haven’t been tested for fertility yet.

“Our results suggest that the first-line approach to treating infertility should be to tell people to go home and practise,” Robertson says. “But if that doesn’t work, tackling regulatory T cells may be the way to go.”