Category Archives: Technology

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Social Media Companies Accelerate Removals of Online Hate Speech

Social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have greatly accelerated their removals of online hate speech, reviewing over two thirds of complaints within 24 hours, new EU figures show.

The European Union has piled pressure on social media firms to increase their efforts to fight the proliferation of extremist content and hate speech on their platforms, even threatening them with legislation.

Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube signed a code of conduct with the EU in May 2016 to review most complaints within a 24-hour timeframe.

The companies managed to meet that target in 81 percent of cases, EU figures seen by Reuters show, compared with 51 percent in May 2017 when the European Commission last monitored their compliance with the code of conduct.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova has said previously she does not want to see a removal rate of 100 percent as that could impinge on free speech. She has also said she is not in favor of legislating as Germany has done.

 A law providing for hefty fines for social media companies if they do not remove hate speech quickly enough went into force in Germany this year.

“I do not hide that I am not in favor of hard regulation because the freedom of speech for me is almost absolute,” Jourova told reporters in December.

“In case of doubt it should remain online because freedom of expression is [in a] privileged position.”

Of the hate speech flagged to the companies, almost half of it was found on Facebook, the figures show, while 24 percent was on YouTube and 26 percent on Twitter.

The most common ground for hatred identified by the Commission was ethnic origins, followed by anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia, including expressions of hatred against migrants and refugees.

Following pressure from several European governments, social media companies stepped up their efforts to tackle extremist content online, including through the use of artificial intelligence.

The Commission will likely issue a recommendation, a soft law instrument, on how companies should take down extremist content related to militant groups at the end of February, an official said, as it is less nuanced than hate speech and needs to be taken offline more quickly.

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Researchers: Hacking Campaign Linked to Lebanese Spy Agency

A major hacking operation tied to Lebanon’s main intelligence agency has been exposed after careless spies left hundreds of gigabytes of intercepted data exposed to the open internet, according to a report published Thursday.

Mobile security firm Lookout, Inc. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said the haul, which includes nearly half a million intercepted text messages, had simply been left online by hackers linked to Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security.

“It’s almost like thieves robbed the bank and forgot to lock the door where they stashed the money,” said Mike Murray, Lookout’s head of intelligence. Lookout security researcher Michael Flossman said the trove ran the gamut, from Syrian battlefield photos to private phone conversations, passwords and pictures of children’s birthday parties.

“It was everything. Literally everything,” Flossman said.

Discoveries of state-sponsored cyberespionage campaigns have become commonplace as countries in the Middle East and Asia scramble to match the digital prowess of the United States, China, Russia and other major powers. But Lookout and EFF’s report is unusual for the amount of data uncovered about the spying campaign’s victims and its operators.

Notably, their report drew on data generated by suspected test devices — a set of similarly configured phones that appear to have been used to try out the spy software — to potentially pinpoint the hackers’ exact address.

The report said the suspected test devices all seemed to have connected to a WiFi network active at the intersection of Beirut’s Pierre Gemayel and Damascus Streets, the location of the bulky, sandstone-colored high-rise that houses Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security. The Associated Press was able to at least partially verify that finding, sending a reporter to the area around the heavily guarded, antennae-crowned building Wednesday to confirm that the same WiFi network was still broadcasting there. Other data also points to the spy agency: the report said the internet protocol addresses of the spyware’s control panels mapped to an area just south of the GDGS building.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Director of Cybersecurity Eva Galperin said the find was remarkable, explaining that she could think of only one other example where researchers were able to pin state-backed hackers to a specific building.

`We were able to take advantage of extraordinarily poor operational security,” she said.

The GDGS declined to comment ahead of the report’s publication.

The 49-page document lays out how spies used a network of bogus websites and malicious smartphone apps — such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Threema and Signal — to steal passwords or pry into communications, eavesdropping on conversations and capturing at least 486,000 text messages. Some victims were tricked into visiting the websites or downloading the rogue apps by booby trapped messages sent over WhatsApp, the report said. Others may have had malicious programs installed physically when they were away from their phones. Still more may have been lured into compromising their devices by a set of apparently fake Facebook profiles set up to look like attractive young Lebanese women.

EFF and Lookout said the spying stretched over 21 different countries, including the United States and several European nations, but they declined to identify any of the victims except in general terms, saying that there were thousands of them and that in many cases it wasn’t always obvious who they were.

Murray said relevant authorities had been notified of the spying but declined to go into further detail.

Lebanon has historically been a hub for espionage and Lebanese spies have a documented interest in surveillance software. In 2015, for example, the internet watchdog group Citizen Lab published evidence that GDGS had tapped FinFisher, a spyware merchant whose tools have been used to hack into the computers of several African and Middle Eastern dissidents.

The hacking campaign exposed Thursday by EFF and Lookout — which they dub “Dark Caracal” — was discovered in the wake of an entirely different cyberespionage campaign targeting Kazakh journalists and lawyers.

An EFF report on the Kazakh campaign published in 2016 caught the attention of researchers at Lookout, who swept through the company’s vast store of smartphone data to find a sample of the smartphone surveillance software mentioned in the write-up. It was while pulling on that string that investigators stumbled across the open server full of photos, conversations and intercepted text messages — as well as the link to Lebanon.

Galperin and Murray both said researchers were marshalling more evidence and that more revelations were coming.

“Stay tuned,” Murray said.

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Tap and Donate: Paris Church to Take Contactless Cards

The Catholic church is going digital in Paris.

 

The city’s diocese will introduce a system allowing contactless card payments during Sunday’s mass at Saint Francois de Molitor, a church located in an upscale and conservative Paris neighborhood.

 

The diocese explained Thursday that five connected collection baskets with a traditional design will be handed out to mass attenders during the service. They will choose on a screen the amount they want to donate – from 2 to 10 euros ($2.4 to $12.2) – and their payment will be processed in “one second.”

 

The diocese insisted “this new gesture remains extremely close to the usual” one, yet parishioners will still be able to use cash for their donations.

 

According to the diocese, donations amount to 79 percent of its resources.

 

“Mass collection represents 14 percent of that contribution,” it said in a statement. “That’s about 98 euros on average, per year and per faithful.” It explained that the move is meant “to anticipate the gradual disappearance of cash money.”

 

This is not the French Catholic church’s first attempt to keep up with new technologies.

 

Since 2016, a smartphone app for making donations called “La Quete,” which translates as “The Collection,” has been introduced across 28 French dioceses and more than 2,000 parishes.

 

About 4,000 donations have been made over 14 months in the eight Paris parishes that have been testing the app, with the average amount spent coming in at 4.71 euros.

 

“The Church is committed to supporting everyone in the new ways of life and consumption,” the Paris diocese said. “The dematerialization of the means of payment is also part of the challenges the Church has to take up. Whether through a connected basket, with contactless payment, or through a smartphone app.”

 

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Trump Says Solar Tariff Decision Coming Soon, Stakes Huge for Industry

 U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would announce a decision soon on whether to slap tariffs on imported solar panels, and quipped that when countries dump subsidized panels in the United States, “Everybody goes out of business.”

The solar industry is anxiously awaiting the decision, which will have wide-reaching implications for the sector. Domestic panel producers opposed to cheap imports would benefit from a tariff. But installers that have relied on the lower-cost hardware for their recent breakneck growth would suffer.

In an interview with Reuters, Trump declined to say how he would land on the case — which was triggered last year by a domestic manufacturer’s trade grievance — but complained about the effect of imports on U.S. panel makers.

“You know, they dump ’em — government-subsidized, lots of things happening — they dump the panels, then everybody goes out of business,” he said.

Asked when the decision would be announced, he said: “Pretty soon. Honestly, pretty soon.”

According to a process governed by the International Trade Commission, Trump has until Jan. 26 to make his decision.

Bankrupt domestic panel producer Suniva triggered Trump’s consideration of tariffs last year when it filed a trade case arguing it could not compete with cheap imports. About 95 percent of the solar cells and panels sold in the United States are made abroad, with most coming from China, Malaysia and the Philippines, according to SPV Market Research.

Suniva was later joined in the case by the U.S. arm of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG.

In October, Trump received a range of options from members of the U.S. International Trade Commission to protect domestic producers, but he has broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all.

Suniva is seeking strong measures.

“A robust tariff will allow Suniva to restart its factories and rehire employees,” Suniva spokesman Mark Paustenbach said.

Jobs at stake

Only about 14 percent of the solar industry’s 260,000 jobs are in manufacturing. The trade case has fueled anxiety among installers that make up most of the rest of the industry and rely on low-priced imports.

The installation sector’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, has campaigned against tariffs, saying they would drive up the price of solar and cripple demand, eliminating tens of thousands of jobs and ultimately hurting the manufacturers that sought them in the first place.

“I’m staying optimistic that the business aspect of this will come through in the end,” said George Hershman, president of Swinerton Renewable Energy, a privately held firm that constructs large-scale solar projects.

Hershman said Swinerton employed 2,000 full-time employees and up to 8,000 temporary workers, but added several of its projects had been placed on hold pending Trump’s decision. 

“If you add 50 percent to the cost of the job, it may not be economic,” Hershman said.

Solaria Corp, a U.S. company that produces panels in both California and South Korea, also opposes tariffs, according to Chief Executive Suvi Sharma. The company said a recent $23million financing round took months longer than it should have partly because of investor jitters about the case.

“The best thing would be to have this whole thing go away,” Sharma said.

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Facebook Widens Probe Into Alleged Russian Meddling in Brexit

Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it would conduct a new, comprehensive search of its records for possible propaganda that Russian operatives may have spread during the run-up to Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU

membership.

Some British lawmakers had complained that the world’s largest social media network had done only a limited search for evidence that Russians manipulated the network and interfered with the referendum debate.

Russia denies meddling in Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, known as Brexit, or in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google and YouTube have been under intense pressure in Europe and the United States to stop nations from using tech services to meddle in another country’s elections, and to investigate when evidence of such meddling arises.

Facebook’s new search in Britain will require the company’s security experts to go back and analyze historical data, Simon Milner, Facebook’s UK policy director, wrote in a letter on Wednesday to Damian Collins, chair of the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

“We would like to carry out this work promptly and estimate it will take a number of weeks to complete,” Milner wrote.

Facebook said in December that it had found just 97 cents worth of advertising by Russia-based operatives ahead of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Its analysis, though, involved only accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a suspected Russian propaganda service.

Collins last month described Facebook’s initial Brexit-related search as inadequate, and said on Wednesday he welcomed the company’s latest response.

“They are best placed to investigate activity on their platform,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the results of this investigation, and I’m sure we will want to question Facebook about this when we know the outcome.”

Facebook told U.S. lawmakers last year that it had found 3,000 ads bought by suspected Russian agents posing as Americans and seeking to spread divisive messages in the United States about race, immigration and other political topics.

In France last year, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in the days before the country’s presidential election to try to stop the spread of fake news, misinformation and spam.

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Apple to Build 2nd Campus, Hire 20,000 in $350B Pledge

Apple is planning to build another corporate campus and hire 20,000 workers during the next five years as part of a $350 billion commitment to the U.S. economy.

The pledge announced Wednesday is an offshoot from the sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code championed by President Donald Trump and approved by Congress last month.

 

Besides dramatically lowering the standard corporate tax rate, the reforms offer a one-time break on cash being held overseas.

 

Apple plans to take advantage of that provision to bring back more than $250 billion in offshore cash, generating a tax bill of roughly $38 billion.

 

The Cupertino, California, company says it will announce the location of a second campus devoted to customer support later this year.

 

 

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Technology Developers Call on Others to Make Use of It

The world’s biggest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is over but this year’s battle for consumers and their pocketbooks has only began. As smaller companies do not have the resources for research and development, big companies, such as Samsung, Canon and others, have a common message for them – let your imagination tell you how to use our technologies. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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Clean Energy Investment Rose to $333.5B in 2017, Research Shows

New clean energy investment worldwide rose by 3 percent last year to $333.5 billion from a year earlier, driven by a surge in solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, research showed on Tuesday.

The figure is below 2015’s record amount of $360.3 billion, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) said in an annual report.

Solar investment totaled $160.8 billion in 2017, up 18 percent from the previous year even though technology costs have fallen. Just over half of that was spent in China, the research showed.

“The 2017 total is all the more remarkable when you consider that capital costs for the leading technology — solar — continue to fall sharply. Typical utility-scale PV systems were about 25 percent cheaper per megawatt last year than they were two years earlier,” said Jon Moore, the chief executive of BNEF.

Chinese investment in clean energy as a whole totaled $132.6 billion last year, up 24 percent from a year earlier to a record high.

Europe invested $57.4 billion, down 26 percent from the previous year, and the United States invested $56.9 billion, up 1 percent on 2016.

Meanwhile, $127.9 billion changed hands last year — the highest amount ever — as organizations purchased and sold clean energy projects and companies and refinanced existing project debt.

Private equity buy-outs reached a record high of $15.8 billion, six times higher than the previous year. The largest acquisition transaction of 2017 was Brookfield Asset Management’s purchase of a stake in U.S. TerraForm Power for $4.7 billion, the report said.

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US Net Neutrality Move May Lead to Trade War with Chinese Internet Firms

A recent decision by the United States’ Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality, which are rules designed to prevent the selective blocking or slowing of websites, has wide-ranging implications for China, which never believed in net neutrality and banned hundreds of foreign websites. The decision could result in a major trade war involving Chinese telecom and Internet companies, which are interested in accessing the U.S. market, analysts said.

The move will allow American telecom service providers to charge differential prices for various services and even examine the data of their customers. Though this aspect has stirred controversy in the United States, the situation there is still very different from the realities in China.

“In China, the government is monitoring and controlling the networks whereas [in U.S.] it is, at least so far, it is telecommunication companies. At this point, the government does not have access, we know it does not have access to manipulating the flow of traffic in the U.S. Internet,” Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said.

The FCC decision could help U.S. telecom service providers offer high-priced premium services.

Trade war

But this would also open up an opportunity for U.S. service providers to charge high rates from foreign customers. At present, foreign companies can easily access the U.S. cyber market without facing the kind of resistance American companies encounter in China and elsewhere.

“I think it (FCC decision) has an impact potentially for Chinese technology companies that want to do business in the U.S.,” said Benjamin Cavender, a senior analyst at the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group (CMR). “You are asking about companies like Alibaba or Tencent, what this means for them in the U.S. markets– and I could very possibly see this being used as a trade war tool–and the U.S. government saying, ‘Look, we are going to restrict access to companies to our ISPs and force them to pay a lot of money.”

U.S. telecom companies are getting increasing integrated with content providers and might look at foreign players as a source of serious competition. They might go further and even consider blocking some foreign players, including Chinese Internet giants, he said.

“I can also see this happening that they (Chinese Internet firms) just get completely blocked because of the U.S. using this more as a trade tool trying to get more access to the Chinese market because if you are a U.S. technology company you are working at a great disadvantage in the Chinese market. I do see this being used as a trade tool,” Cavender said.

The point is about applying pressure on China to open up its Internet market to American players in exchange for similar treatment in the United States. Washington has usually avoided this kind of tit-for-tat game, but the situation may be changing under the Trump administration, analysts said.

“They (U.S. telecom companies) could at some point say, ‘Look, if you want to have confidential, fast access to the U.S. you have to kind of allow us to do the same thing, allow us to invest more heavily in Chinese firms.’ I could see that happening,” Cavender said.

Moral high ground

China has been advocating the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty,’ which allows governments to create boundaries in cyber space and block foreign sites that it perceives as potential threats to security. Proponents of ‘open Internet’ have been protesting against the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty.’

The Obama administration lobbied and argued with China for nearly a decade to open up Internet access for American companies like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix. It was an important aspect of the annual strategic economic dialogue between the two countries.

The FCC decision coupled with the controversy over alleged cyber spying by Russia is a moral boost of support for China’s online restrictions, which include a ban on major sites like Google, YouTube and Twitter. The moral high ground enjoyed by the United States under the past administration may be at risk, analysts said.

“Even democracies are beginning to think about the need to regulate content. So the Chinese, you know, might take a little comfort in that,” James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said. “When you look at Europeans talking about blocking each other’s content, when you look at the U.S. talking about blocking Russian political warfare, the Internet cannot be the wild west that it’s been for a couple of decades. So, everyone’s moving in this direction and I guess the Chinese can take comfort from that.”

Meanwhile, Chinese experts are protesting a new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress that would prevent branches of the U.S. government from working with service providers that use any equipment from two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, for security reasons.

“This (prejudice towards Chinese companies) seems like a problem that can’t be solved, at least not in the short term,” Liu Xingliang, head of the Data Center of China Internet, told the Global Times newspaper in Beijing.

At the same time, “Chinese firms can’t give up the U.S. market and just focus on smaller countries if they want to really achieve their global goals,” Liu Dingding, an independent tech expert told the paper.

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