United Kingdom

‘Magic: The Gathering’ game maker exposed 452,000 players’ account data

Posted by | Bucket, computer security, cryptography, database, Europe, game developer, Gaming, General Data Protection Regulation, Government, information commissioner's office, Password, player, Prevention, Security, spokesperson, United Kingdom, washington | No Comments

The maker of Magic: The Gathering has confirmed that a security lapse exposed the data on hundreds of thousands of game players.

The game’s developer, the Washington-based Wizards of the Coast, left a database backup file in a public Amazon Web Services storage bucket. The database file contained user account information for the game’s online arena. But there was no password on the storage bucket, allowing anyone to access the files inside.

The bucket is not believed to have been exposed for long — since around early-September — but it was long enough for U.K. cybersecurity firm Fidus Information Security to find the database.

A review of the database file showed there were 452,634 players’ information, including about 470 email addresses associated with Wizards’ staff. The database included player names and usernames, email addresses, and the date and time of the account’s creation. The database also had user passwords, which were hashed and salted, making it difficult but not impossible to unscramble.

None of the data was encrypted. The accounts date back to at least 2012, according to our review of the data, but some of the more recent entries date back to mid-2018.

A formatted version of the database backup file, redacted, containing 452,000 user records. (Image: TechCrunch)

Fidus reached out to Wizards of the Coast but did not hear back. It was only after TechCrunch reached out that the game maker pulled the storage bucket offline.

Bruce Dugan, a spokesperson for the game developer, told TechCrunch in a statement: “We learned that a database file from a decommissioned website had inadvertently been made accessible outside the company.”

“We removed the database file from our server and commenced an investigation to determine the scope of the incident,” he said. “We believe that this was an isolated incident and we have no reason to believe that any malicious use has been made of the data,” but the spokesperson did not provide any evidence for this claim.

“However, in an abundance of caution, we are notifying players whose information was contained in the database and requiring them to reset their passwords on our current system,” he said.

Harriet Lester, Fidus’ director of research and development, said it was “surprising in this day and age that misconfigurations and lack of basic security hygiene still exist on this scale, especially when referring to such large companies with a userbase of over 450,000 accounts.”

“Our research team work continuously, looking for misconfigurations such as this to alert companies as soon as possible to avoid the data falling into the wrong hands. It’s our small way of helping make the internet a safer place,” she told TechCrunch.

The game maker said it informed the U.K. data protection authorities about the exposure, in line with breach notification rules under Europe’s GDPR regulations. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office did not immediately return an email to confirm the disclosure.

Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual turnover for GDPR violations.

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More layoffs at pivoting London ed tech startup pi-top

Posted by | edtech, Education, Europe, Gadgets, London, pi-top, Raspberry Pi, Startups, STEM learning, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

London ed tech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

Pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market.”

In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware-focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract; pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.

The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.

One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office, where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.

Pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.

Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”

“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pitop 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.

Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the U.K. office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.

We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.

Pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy, but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region.”

We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost-reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.

As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. ed tech seed fund.

Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary ed tech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.

At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth-gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200,000 to fund the project.

In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community,” as well as offering social sharing features.

The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)

We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.

Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 

“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”

Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4 million in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability,” as it put it today.

“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.

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Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Posted by | augmented reality, Australia, barcelona, Canada, China, Computer Vision, computing, France, Gadgets, Germany, hardware, head-mounted displays, holography, hololens 2, ireland, Japan, machine learning, Microsoft, microsoft hardware, Microsoft HoloLens, Microsoft Ignite 2019, mixed reality, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Windows 10 | No Comments

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system it is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a “bloom” gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation “holographic processing unit.”

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors, which allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latency when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

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European risk report flags 5G security challenges

Posted by | 5g, 5g security, Europe, european union, Internet of Things, Mobile, mobile networks, risk management, Security, telecommunications, United Kingdom | No Comments

European Union Member States have published a joint risk assessment report into 5G technology which highlights increased security risks that will require a new approach to securing telecoms infrastructure.

The EU has so far resisted pressure from the U.S. to boycott Chinese tech giant Huawei as a 5G supplier on national security grounds, with individual Member States such as the UK also taking their time to chew over the issue.

But the report flags risks to 5G from what it couches as “non-EU state or state-backed actors” — which can be read as diplomatic code for Huawei. Though, as some industry watchers have been quick to point out, the label could be applied rather closer to home in the near future, should Brexit comes to pass…

Some parts of the 5G report on risk of non-EU cyberattacks may accidentally gain a new unexpected meaning after #Brexit (https://t.co/o7gyV0hqCv) https://t.co/VgU30kRz4p

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) October 9, 2019

Back in March, as European telecom industry concern swirled about how to respond to US pressure to block Huawei, the Commission stepped in to issue a series of recommendations — urging Member States to step up individual and collective attention to mitigate potential security risks as they roll out 5G networks.

Today’s risk assessment report follows on from that.

It identifies a number of “security challenges” that the report suggests are “likely to appear or become more prominent in 5G networks” vs current mobile networks — linked to the expanded use of software to run 5G networks; and software and apps that will be enabled by and run on the next-gen networks.

The role of suppliers in building and operating 5G networks is also noted as a security challenge, with the report warning of a “degree of dependency on individual suppliers”, and also of too many eggs being placed in the basket of a single 5G supplier.

Summing up the effects expected to follow 5G rollouts, per the report, it predicts:

  • An increased exposure to attacks and more potential entry points for attackers: With 5G networks increasingly based on software, risks related to major security flaws, such as those deriving from poor software development processes within suppliers are gaining in importance. They could also make it easier for threat actors to maliciously insert backdoors into products and make them harder to detect.
  • Due to new characteristics of the 5G network architecture and new functionalities, certain pieces of network equipment or functions are becoming more sensitive, such as base stations or key technical management functions of the networks.
  • An increased exposure to risks related to the reliance of mobile network operators on suppliers. This will also lead to a higher number of attacks paths that might be exploited by threat actors and increase the potential severity of the impact of such attacks. Among the various potential actors, non-EU States or State-backed are considered as the most serious ones and the most likely to target 5G networks.
  • In this context of increased exposure to attacks facilitated by suppliers, the risk profile of individual suppliers will become particularly important, including the likelihood of the supplier being subject to interference from a non-EU country.
  • Increased risks from major dependencies on suppliers: a major dependency on a single supplier increases the exposure to a potential supply interruption, resulting for instance from a commercial failure, and its consequences. It also aggravates the potential impact of weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and of their possible exploitation by threat actors, in particular where the dependency concerns a supplier presenting a high degree of risk.
  • Threats to availability and integrity of networks will become major security concerns: in addition to confidentiality and privacy threats, with 5G networks expected to become the backbone of many critical IT applications, the integrity and availability of those networks will become major national security concerns and a major security challenge from an EU perspective.

The high level report is a compilation of Member States’ national risk assessments, working with the Commission and the European Agency for Cybersecurity. It’s couched as just a first step in developing a European response to securing 5G networks.

“It highlights the elements that are of particular strategic relevance for the EU,” the report says in self-summary. “As such, it does not aim at presenting an exhaustive analysis of all relevant aspects or types of individual cybersecurity risks related to 5G networks.”

The next step will be the development, by December 31, of a toolbox of mitigating measures, agreed by the Network and Information Systems Cooperation Group, which will be aimed at addressing identified risks at national and Union level.

“By 1 October 2020, Member States – in cooperation with the Commission – should assess the effects of the Recommendation in order to determine whether there is a need for further action. This assessment should take into account the outcome of the coordinated European risk assessment and of the effectiveness of the measures,” the Commission adds.

For the toolbox a variety of measures are likely to be considered, per the report — consisting of existing security requirements for previous generations of mobile networks with “contingency approaches” that have been defined through standardisation by the mobile telephony standards body, 3GPP, especially for core and access levels of 5G networks.

But it also warns that “fundamental differences in how 5G operates also means that the current security measures as deployed on 4G networks might not be wholly effective or sufficiently comprehensive to mitigate the identified security risks”, adding that: “Furthermore, the nature and characteristics of some of these risks makes it necessary to determine if they may be addressed through technical measures alone.

“The assessment of these measures will be undertaken in the subsequent phase of the implementation of the Commission Recommendation. This will lead to the identification of a toolbox of appropriate, effective and proportionate possible risk management measures to mitigate cybersecurity risks identified by Member States within this process.”

The report concludes with a final line saying that “consideration should also be given to the development of the European industrial capacity in terms of software development, equipment manufacturing, laboratory testing, conformity evaluation, etc” — packing an awful lot into a single sentence.

The implication is that the business of 5G security will need to get commensurately large to scale to meet the multi-dimensional security challenge that goes hand in glove with the next-gen tech. Just banning a single supplier isn’t going to cut it.

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Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Posted by | Android, Australia, Clothing, Fashion, France, Gadgets, Germany, Google, Google ATAP, hardware, Italy, jacket, Jacquard, Japan, noise cancelling, TC, United Kingdom, United States, Wearables | No Comments

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

2019 09 30 0946 1

What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

jacquard dongle

Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

IMG 20190930 102524

Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

IMG 20190930 104137IMG 20190930 104137

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‘We are seeing volume and interest in Peloton explode,’ says company president on listing day

Posted by | Android, barnes & noble, Canada, economy, Fundings & Exits, Germany, initial public offering, john foley, linguistics, London, Lyft, Media, New York, Peloton, Pinterest, pittsburgh, Startups, tampa, Uber, unicorn, United Kingdom, United States, Venture Capital, WeWork | No Comments

This morning, Peloton (NASDAQ: PTON), the tech-enabled stationary bicycle and fitness content streaming company, raised $1.2 billion in its NASDAQ initial public offering. Despite dropping more than 10% in its first day of trading — ultimately closing down 11% at $25.84 per share — the IPO was a bona fide success. Peloton, once denied (over and over again) by VC skeptics, now has hundreds of millions of dollars to take its business into a new era. One in which, the media, hardware, software, logistics and social company attempts to become a generation-defining company akin to Apple.

Founded in 2012 — six years after Soul Cycle opened its first cycling studio in New York’s Upper East Side and two years before a Soul Cycle founder, Ruth Zukerman, jumped ship to launch her own indoor cycling business, Flywheel Sports — a man by the name of John Foley made the ambitious, some might say foolish, decision to start a company that would sell these exercise bikes direct-to-consumer. That way, you could take a Soul Cycle class, in essence, in the comfort of your own home. Even better, technology would improve the experience.

As my colleague Josh Constine recently described it, these bikes come outfitted with a 22-inch Android screen, transforming an outdated exercising experience and bringing it into 2019: “It makes lazy people like me work out. That’s the genius of the Peloton bicycle. All you have to do is Velcro on the shoes and you’re trapped. You’ve eliminated choice and you will exercise,” Constine writes.

Peloton’s ability to get people exercise — a feature driven by its talented instructors (some of whom were poached from competitor Flywheel Sports) — ultimately had venture capital investors funneling $1 billion, roughly, into the business. Today, Peloton operates dozens of showrooms across the U.S., counts 1.4 million total community members — defined as any individual who has a Peloton account — and over 500,000 paying subscribers. Why? Because the company, as stated in its IPO prospectus, “sells happiness.”

“Peloton is so much more than a Bike — we believe we have the opportunity to create one of the most innovative global technology platforms of our time,” writes Foley. “It is an opportunity to create one of the most important and influential interactive media companies in the world; a media company that changes lives, inspires greatness, and unites people.”

Peloton Bike Lifestyle 04

Peloton’s flagship product, a tech-enabled stationary bike.

Peloton’s community coupled with the high margins on sales of its $2,245 bikes had the company reporting $915 million in total revenue for the year ending June 30, 2019, an increase of 110% from $435 million in fiscal 2018 and $218.6 million in 2017. Its losses, meanwhile, hit $245.7 million in 2019, up significantly from a reported net loss of $47.9 million last year.

What’s next for Peloton? The opportunities are endless, given the company’s firm seat at the intersection of hardware, software, media content and more. A third product may be in the works, expansion to international markets or new instructors. Peloton is going after a massive market ripe for disruption. What’s certain is that we’ll see a whole lot of cash flowing into fitness tech copycats in the next couple of years.

Peloton, following a number of lukewarm consumer IPOs (Uber), nearly doubled its valuation to $8.1 billion this morning after pricing its IPO at the top of its range, $29 per share. To answer some of our most burning questions, we chatted with Peloton’s president William Lynch, the former CEO of Barnes & Noble, about the float.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

William Lynch

Peloton president and former Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch.


Kate Clark: What’s next for Peloton?
William Lynch: We now have over a billion in capital to fuel more growth, especially in the area of product innovation.

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UK police arrest a number of climate activists planning Heathrow drone protest

Posted by | climate change, drone regulations, drones, Europe, Gadgets, Heathrow, robotics, social media, United Kingdom | No Comments

U.K. police have arrested a number of environmental activists affiliated with a group which announced  last month that it would use drones to try to ground flights at the country’s busiest airport.

The group, which calls itself Heathrow Pause, is protesting against the government decision to green-light a third runway at the airport.

In a press release published today about an operation at Heathrow Airport, London’s Met Police said it has arrested nine people since yesterday in relation to the planned drone protest, which had been due to commence early this morning.

Heathrow Pause suggested it had up to 200 people willing to volunteer to fly toy drones a few feet off the ground within a 5km drone “no fly” zone around the airport — an act that would technically be in breach of U.K. laws on drone flights, although the group said it would only use small drones, flown at head height and not within flight paths. It also clearly communicated its intentions to the police and airport well in advance of the protest.

“Three women and six men aged between their 20s and the 60s have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” the Met Police said today.

“Four of the men and the three women were arrested yesterday, Thursday, 12 September, in Bethnal Green, Haringey and Wandsworth, in response to proposed plans for illegal drone use near Heathrow Airport.

“They were taken into custody at a London police station.”

The statement says a further two men were arrested this morning within the perimeter of Heathrow Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance — though it’s not clear whether they are affiliated with Heathrow Pause.

Videos of confirmed members of the group being arrested by police prior to the planned Heathrow Pause action have been circulating on social media.

Roger Hallem , our brave drone pilot being arrested preemptively . We will not give up and we urge all right minded people to rise up with us . Don’t sleep walk into oblivion . Protect your children as if their lives depended on it . It does @ExtinctionR @GretaThunberg pic.twitter.com/10gpVtVVEF

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 12, 2019

In an update on its Twitter feed this morning Heathrow Pause says there have been 10 arrests so far.

It also claims to have made one successful flight, and says two earlier drone flight attempts were thwarted by signal jamming technology.

More flights are planned today, it adds.

UPDATE: 3 attempted flights, at least one successful. 10 arrests so far. More flights planned today.

James, having completed his flight, is about to hand himself into police. Currently in Heathrow Terminal 2 Departures for interviews/photos.

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Heathrow using signal jamming to frustrate early flights 💚🌲🌍🌲💚#HeathrowPause #ClimateBreakdown #ActNow https://t.co/F4b8NvcLj1

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Thank you James Brown for your courage. @HeathrowAirport when will you adhere by your own rules and close the airport? https://t.co/fJFlLx2dGb

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

A spokeswoman for Heathrow told us there has been no disruption to flights so far today.

In a statement the airport said: “Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby. We will continue to work with the authorities to carry out dynamic risk assessment programmes and keep our passengers flying safely on their journeys today.”

“We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer. The answer to climate change is in constructive engagement and working together to address the issue, something that Heathrow remains strongly committed to do,” it added.

We’ve asked the airport to confirm whether signal jamming counter-drone technology is being used to try to prevent the protest.

The Met Police said a dispersal order under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been implemented in the area surrounding Heathrow Airport today.

“It will be in place for approximately 48 hours, commencing at 04:30hrs on Friday, 13 September,” it writes. “The order has been implemented to prevent criminal activity which poses a significant safety and security risk to the airport.”

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Loot boxes in games are gambling and should be banned for kids, say UK MPs

Posted by | Damian Collins, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, entertainment software association, epic games, Europe, fifa, game design, Gaming, gaming disorder, instagram, Jagex, loot box, nancy pelosi, online games, online platforms, Snapchat, social media platforms, UK government, United Kingdom, world health organization | No Comments

UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.

Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.

Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.

The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.

“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.

As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.

In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.

A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.

In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.

“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.

“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”

The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.

“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.

“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.

“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”

The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.

MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.

The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).

“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.

“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.

During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.

A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.

Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.

Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage. 

The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.

“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”

“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.

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Europe’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, set for expanded role in next Commission

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, digital economy, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, european parliament, european union, Facebook, financial services, France, Google, Margrethe Vestager, Mariya Gabriel, online disinformation, Policy, TC, Trump administration, United Kingdom, United States, Vera Jourova | No Comments

As the antitrust investigations stack up on US tech giants’ home turf there’s no sign of pressure letting up across the pond.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen today unveiled her picks for the next team of commissioners who will take up their mandates on November 1 — giving an expanded role to competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager. The pick suggests the next Commission is preparing to dial up its scrutiny of big tech’s data monopolies.

Under the draft list of commissioners-designate, which still needs to be approved in full by the European Parliament, Vestager has been named executive VP overseeing a new portfolio called ‘Europe fit for the digital age’.

But, crucially, she will also retain the competition portfolio — which implies attention on growing Europe’s digital economy will go hand in glove with scrutiny of fairness in ecommerce and ensuring a level playing field vs US platform giants.

“Executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager will lead our work on a Europe fit for the digital age,” said von der Leyen at a press conference to announce her picks. “Digitalization has a huge impact on the way we live, we work, we communicate. In some fields Europe has to catch up — for example in the field of business to consumer but in other fields we’re excellent. Europe is the frontrunner, for example in business to business, when we talk about digital twins of products and procedures.

“We have to make more out of the field of artificial intelligence. We have to make our single market a digital single market. We have to use way more the big data that is out there but we don’t make enough out of it. What innovation and startups are concerned. It’s not only need to know but it’s need to share big data. We have to improve on cyber security. We have to work hard on our technological sovereignty just to name a few issues in these broad topics.

“Margrethe Vestager will co-ordinate the whole agenda. And be the commissioner for competition. She will work together with the commissioner for internal market, innovation and youth, transport, energy, jobs, health and justice.”

If tech giants were hoping for Europe’s next Commission to pay a little less attention to question marks hanging over the fairness of their practices they’re likely to be disappointed as Vestager is set to gain expanded powers and a broader canvas to paint on. The new role clearly positions her to act on the review of competition policy she instigated towards the end of her current mandate — which focused on the challenges posed by digital markets.

Since taking over as Europe’s competition chief back in 2014, Vestager has made a name for herself by blowing the dust off the brief and driving forward on a series of regulatory interventions targeting tech giants including Amazon, Apple and Google . In the latter case this has included opening a series of fresh probes as well as nailing the very long running Google Shopping saga inherited from her predecessor.

The activity of the department under her mandate has clearly catalyzed complainants — creating a pipeline of cases for her to tackle. And just last month Reuters reported she had been preparing an “intensive” handover of work looking into complaints against Google’s job search product to her successor — a handover that won’t now be necessary, assuming the EU parliament gives its backing to von der Leyen’s team.

While the competition commissioner has thus far generated the biggest headlines for the size of antitrust fines she’s handed down — including a record-breaking $5BN fine for Google last year for illegal restrictions attached to Android — her attention on big data holdings as a competition risk is most likely to worry tech giants going forward.

See, for example, the formal investigation of Amazon’s use of merchant data announced this summer for a sign of the direction of travel.

Vestager has also talked publicly about regulating data flows as being a more savvy route to control big tech versus swinging a break up hammer. And while — on the surface — regulating data might sound less radical a remedy than breaking giants like Google and Facebook up, placing hard limits on how data can be used has the potential to effect structural separation via a sort of regulatory keyhole surgery that’s likely to be quicker and implies a precision that may also make it more politically palatable.

That’s important given the ongoing EU-US trade friction kicked up by the Trump administration which is never shy of lashing out, especially at European interventions that seek to address some of the inequalities generated by tech giants — most recently Trump gave France’s digital tax plans a tongue-lashing.

von der Leyen was asked during the press conference whether Vestager might not been seen as a controversial choice given Trump’s views of her activity to date (Europe’s “tax lady” is one of the nicer things he’s said about Vestager). The EU president-elect dismissed the point saying the only thing that matters in assigning Commission portfolios is “quality and excellence”, adding that competition and digital is the perfect combination to make the most of Vestager’s talents.

“Vestager has done an outstanding job as a commissioner for competition,” she went on. “At competition and the issues she’s tackling there are closely linked to the digital sector too. So having her as an executive vice-president for the digital in Europe is absolutely a perfect combination.

“She’ll have this topic as a cross-cutting topic. She’ll have to work on the Digital Single Market. She will work on the fact that we want to use in a better way big data that is out there, that we collect every day — non-personalized data. That we should use way better, in the need for example to share with others for innovation, for startups, for new ideas.

“She will work on the whole topic of cyber security. Which is the more we’re digitalized, the more we’re vulnerable. So there’s a huge field in front of her. And as she’s shown excellence in the Commission portfolio she’ll keep that — the executive vice-presidents have with the DGs muscles to deal with their vast portfolios’ subject they have to deal with.”

In other choices announced today, the current commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, will be taking up a new portfolio called ‘Innovation and Youth’. And Sylvie Goulard was named as ‘Internal Market’ commissioner, leading on industrial policy and promoting the Digital Single Market, as well as getting responsibility for Defence Industry and Space.

Another executive VP choice, Valdis Dombrovskis, looks likely to be tackling thorny digital taxation issues — with responsibility for co-ordinating the Commission’s work on what’s been dubbed an “Economy that Works for People”, as well as also being commissioner for financial services. 

In prepared remarks on that role, von der Leyen said: We have a unique social market economy. It is the source of our prosperity and social fairness. This is all the more important when we face a twin transition: climate and digital. Valdis Dombrovskis will lead our work to bring together the social and the market in our economy.”

Frans Timmermans, who was previously in the running as a possible candidate for Commission president but lost out to von der Leyen, is another exec VP pick. He’s set to be focused on delivering a European Green Deal and managing climate action policy.

Another familiar face — current justice, consumer and gender affairs commissioner, Věra Jourová — has also been named as an exec VP, gaining responsibility for “Values and Transparency”, a portfolio title which suggests she’ll continue to be involved in EU efforts to combat online disinformation on platforms.

The rest of the Commission portfolio appointments can be found here.

There are 26 picks in all — 27 counting von der Leyen who has already been confirmed as president; one per EU country. The UK has no representation in the next Commission given it is due to leave the bloc on October 31, the day before the new Commission takes up its mandate.

von der Leyen touted the team she presented today as balanced and diverse, including on gender lines as well as geographically to take account of the full span of European Union members.

“It draws on all the strength and talents, men and women, experienced and young, east and west, south and north, a team that is well balanced, a team that brings together diversity of experience and competence,” she said. “I want a Commission that is led with determination, that is clearly focused on the issues at hand — and that provides answers.”

Commissioners elect

“There’s one fundamental that connects this team: We want to bring new impetus to Europe’s democracy,” she added. “This is our joint responsibility. And democracy is more than voting in elections in every five years; it is about having your voice heard. It’s about having been able to participate in the way our society’s built. We gave to address some of the deeper issues in our society that have led to a loss of faith in democracy.”

In a signal of her intention that the new Commission should “walk the talk” on making Europe fit for the digital age she announced that college meetings will be paperless and digital.

On lawmaking, she added that there will be a one-in, one-out policy — with any new laws and regulation supplanting an existing rule in a bid to cut red tape.

The shape of the next Commission remains in draft pending approval by the European Parliament to all the picks. The parliament must vote to accept the entire college of commissioners — a process that’s preceded by hearings of the commissioners-designate in relevant parliamentary committees.

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Climate activists plan to use drones to shut down Heathrow Airport next month

Posted by | climate change, drones, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, Gadgets, Gatwick Airport, GreenTech, Heathrow, quadcopter, robotics, TC, United Kingdom, unmanned aerial vehicles | No Comments

A UK group of climate activists is planning to fly drones close to Heathrow Airport next month in a direct action they hope will shut down the country’s largest airport for days or even longer.

The planned action is in protest at the government’s decision to green-light a third runway at Heathrow.

They plan to use small, lightweight “toy” drones, flown at head high (6ft) within a 5km drone ‘no fly’ zone around the airport — but not within flight paths. The illegal drone flights will also be made in the early morning at a time when there would not be any scheduled flights in the air space to avoid any risk of posing a threat to aircraft.

The activists point out that the government recently declared a climate emergency — when it also pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 — arguing there is no chance of meeting that target if the UK expands current airport capacity.

A press spokesman for the group, which is calling itself Heathrow Pause, told TechCrunch: “Over a thousand child are dying as a result of climate change and ecological collapse — already, every single day. That figure is set to significantly worsen. The government has committed to not just reducing carbon emissions but reducing them to net zero — that is clearly empirically impossible if they build another runway.”

The type of drones they plan to use for the protest are budget models which they say can be bought cheaply at UK retailer Argos — which, for example, sells the Sky Viper Stunt Drone for £30; the Revell GO! Stunt Quadcopter Drone for £40; and the Revell Spot 2.0 Quadcopter (which comes with a HD camera) for £50.

The aim for the protest is to exploit what the group dubs a loophole in Heathrow’s health and safety protocol around nearby drone flights to force it to close down runways and ground flights.

Late last year a spate of drone sightings near the UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, led to massive disruption for travellers just before Christmas after the airport responded by grounding flights.

At the time, the government was sharply criticized for having failed to foresee weaknesses in the regulatory framework around drone flights near sensitive sites like airports.

In the following months it responded by beefing up what was then a 1km airport exclusion zone to 5km — with that expanded ‘no fly’ zone coming into force in March. However a wider government plan to table a comprehensive drones bill has faced a number of delays.

It’s the larger 5km ‘no fly’ zone that the Heathrow Pause activists are targeting in a way they hope will safely trigger the airport’s health & safety protocol and shut down the airspace and business as usual.

Whether the strategy to use drones as a protest tool to force the closure of the UK’s largest airport will fly remains to be seen.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow airport told us it’s confident it has “robust plans” in place to ensure the group’s protest does not result in any disruption to flights. However she would not provide any details on the steps it will take to avoid having to close runways and ground flights, per its safety protocol.

When we put the airport’s claim of zero disruption from intended action back to Heathrow Pause, its spokesman told us: “Our understanding is that the airport’s own health and safety protocols dictate that they have to ground airplanes if there are any drones of any size flying at any height anywhere within 5km of the airport.

“Our position would be that it’s entirely up to them what they do. That the action that we’re taking does not pose a threat to anybody and that’s very deliberately the case. Having said that I’d be surprised to hear that they’re going to disregard their own protocols even if those are — in our view — excessive. It would still come as a surprise if they weren’t going to follow them.”

“We won’t be grounding any flights in any circumstances,” he added. “It’s not within our power to do so. All of the actions that have been planned have been meticulously planned so as not to pose any threat to anybody. We don’t actually see that there need to be flights grounded either. Having said that clearly it would be great if Heathrow decided to ground flights. Every flight that’s grounded is that much less greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere. And it directly saves lives.

“The fewer flights there are the better. But if there are no flights cancelled we’d still consider the action to be an enormous success — purely upon the basis of people being arrested.”

The current plan for the protest is to start illegally flying drones near Heathrow on September 13 — and continue for what the spokesman said could be as long as “weeks”, depending on how many volunteer pilots it can sign up. He says they “anticipate” having between 50 to 200 people willing to risk arrest by breaching drone flight law.

The intention is to keep flying drones for as long as people are willing to join the protest. “We are hoping to go for over a week,” he told us.

Given the plan has been directly communicated to police the spokesman conceded there is a possibility that the activists could face arrest before they are able to carry out the protest — which he suggested might be what Heathrow is banking on.

Anyone who flies a drone in an airport’s ‘no fly’ zone is certainly risking arrest and prosecution under UK law. Penalties for the offence range from fines to life imprisonment if a drone is intentionally used to cause violence. But the group is clearly taking pains to avoid accusations the protest poses a safety risk or threatens violence — including by publishing extensive details of their plan online, as well as communicating it to police and airport authorities.

A detailed protocol on their website sets out the various safety measures and conditions the activists are attaching to the drone action — “to ensure no living being is harmed”. Such as only using drones lighter than 7kg, and giving the airport an hour’s advance notice ahead of each drone flight.

They also say they have a protocol to shut down the protest in the event of an emergency — and will have a dedicated line of communication open to Heathrow for this purposes.

Some of the activists are scheduled to meet with police and airport authorities  tomorrow, face to face, at a London police station to discuss the planned action.

The group says it will only call off the action if the Heathrow third runway expansion is cancelled.

In an emailed statement in response to the protest, Heathrow Airport told us:

We agree with the need to act on climate change. This is a global issue that requires constructive engagement and action. Committing criminal offences and disrupting passengers is counterproductive.

Flying of any form of drone near Heathrow is illegal and any persons found doing so will be subject to the full force of the law. We are working closely with the Met Police and will use our own drone detection capability to mitigate the operational impact of any illegal use of drones near the airport.

Asked why the environmental activists have selected drones as their tool of choice for this protest, rather than deploying more traditional peaceful direct action strategies, such as trespassing on airport grounds or chaining themselves to fixed infrastructure, the Heathrow Pause spokesman told us: “Those kind of actions have been done in the past and they tend to result in very short duration of time during which very few flights are cancelled. What we are seeking to do is unprecedented in terms of the duration and the extent of the disruption that we would hope to cause.

“The reason for drones is in order to exploit this loophole in the health and safety protocols that have been presented to us — that it’s possible for a person with a toy drone that you can purchase for a couple of quid, miles away from any planes, to cause an entire airport to stop having flights. It is quite an amazing situation — and once it became apparent that that was really a possibility it almost seemed criminal not to do it.”

He added that drone technology, and the current law in the UK around how drones can be legally used, present an opportunity for activists to level up their environmental protest — “to cause so much disruption with so few people and so little effort” — that it’s simply “a no brainer”.

During last year’s Gatwick drone debacle the spokesman said he received many enquiries from journalists asking if the group was responsible for that. They weren’t — but the mass chaos caused by the spectre of a few drones being flown near Gatwick provided inspiration for using drone technology for an environmental protest.

The group’s website is hosting video interviews with some of the volunteer drone pilots who are willing to risk arrest to protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds.

In a statement there, one of them, a 64-year-old writer called Valerie Milner-Brown, said: “We are in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency. I am a law-abiding citizen — a mother and a grandmother too. I don’t want to break the law, I don’t want to go to prison, but right now we, as a species, are walking off the edge of a cliff. Life on Earth is dying. Fires are ravaging the Amazon. Our planet’s lungs are quite literally on fire. Hundreds of species are going extinct every day. We are experiencing hottest day after hottest day, and the Arctic is melting faster than scientists’ worst predictions.

“All of this means that we have to cut emissions right now, or face widespread catastrophe on an increasingly uninhabitable planet. Heathrow Airport emits 18 million tons of CO2 a year. That’s more than most countries. A third runway will produce a further 7.3 million tons of CO2. For all Life — now and in the future — we have to take action. I’m terrified but if this is what it will take to make politicians, business leaders and the media wake up, then I’m prepared to take this action and to face the consequences.”

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