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Google Home’s Philips Hue integration can now wake you up gently

Posted by | Australia, Canada, Companies, consumer electronics, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, home appliances, Home Automation, india, lighting, Philips, philips hue, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

Maybe you love the sound of your alarm clock blaring in the morning, heralding a new day full of joy and adventure. More likely, though, you don’t. If you prefer a more gentle wake-up (and have invested in some smart home technology), here’s some good news: Google Home now lets you use your Philips Hue lights to wake you up by slowly changing the light in your room.

Philips first announced this integration at CES earlier this year, with a planned rollout in March. Looks like that took a little while longer, as Google and Philips gently brought this feature to life.

Just like you can use your Home to turn on “Gentle Wake,” which starts changing your lights 30 minutes before your wake-up time to mimic a sunrise, you also can go the opposite way and have the lights mimic sunset as you get ready to go to bed. You can either trigger these light changes through an alarm or with a command that starts them immediately.

While the price of white Hue bulbs has come down in recent years, colored hue lights remain rather pricey, with single bulbs going for around $40. If that doesn’t hold you back, though, the Gentle Sleep and Wake features are now available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and India in English only.

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Roblox hits milestone of 90M monthly active users

Posted by | Europe, France, Gaming, Germany, online games, online safety, Roblox, United Kingdom, video games, video gaming | No Comments

Kids gaming platform Roblox, most recently valued at over $2.5 billion, has reached a new milestone of 90 million monthly active users, the company said on Sunday. That’s up from the 70 million monthly actives it claimed at its last funding round — a $150 million Series F announced last fall. The sizable increase in users is credited to Roblox’s international expansion efforts, and particularly its more recent support for the French and German languages.

The top 150 games that run on the Roblox platform are now available in both languages, along with community moderation, customer support and parental resources.

The gaming company also has been steadily growing as more kids join after hearing about it from friends or seeing its games played on YouTube, for example. Like Fortnite, it has become a place that kids go to “hang out” online even when not actively playing.

The games themselves are built by third-party creators, while Roblox gets a share of the revenue the games generate from the sale of virtual goods. In 2017, Roblox paid out $30 million to its creator community, and later said that number would more than double in 2018. It says that players and creators now spend more than a billion hours per month on its platform.

Roblox’s growth has not been without its challenges, however. Bad actors last year subverted the game’s protections to assault a child’s in-game avatar — a serious problem for a game aimed at kids, and a PR crisis, as well. But the company addressed the problem by quickly securing its platform to prevent future hacks of this kind, apologized to parents, banned the hackers and soon after launched a “digital civility initiative” as part of its broader push for online safety.

Months later, Roblox was still surging.

International expansion was part of the plan when Roblox chose to raise additional funding, despite already being cash-flow positive.

As CEO David Baszucki explained last fall, the idea was to create “a war chest, to have a buffer, to have the opportunity to do acquisitions,” and “to have a strong balance sheet as we grow internationally.”

The company soon made good on its to-do list, making its first acquisition in October 2018 when it picked up the app performance startup, PacketZoom. It also followed Minecraft’s footsteps into the education market, and has since been working to make its service available to a global base of users.

On that front, Roblox says Europe has played a key role, with millions of users and hundreds of thousands of game creators — like those behind the Roblox games “Ski Resort” (Germany), “Crash Course” (France) and “Heists 2 (U.K.).

In addition to French and German, Roblox is available in English, Portuguese and Spanish, and plans to support more languages in the coming months, it says.

But the company doesn’t want to face another incident or PR crisis as it moves into new countries.

On that front, Roblox is working with digital safety leaders in both France and Germany, as part of its Digital Civility Initiative. In France, it’s working with e-Enfance; and in Germany, it’s working with Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK). Roblox also added USK’s managing director, Elisabeth Secker, to the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board.

“We are excited to welcome Roblox as a new member to the USK and I’m honored to join the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board,” said Elisabeth Secker, Managing Director of the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK), in a statement. “We are happy to support Roblox in their efforts to make their platform not only safe, but also to empower kids, teens, and parents with the skills they need to create positive online experiences.”

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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UK report blasts Huawei for network security incompetence

Posted by | 5g, 5G network security, Asia, China, Ciaran Martin, computer security, cyberattack, cybercrime, ernst & young, Europe, european union, huawei, Mobile, National Cyber Security Centre, national security, Security, telecommunications, UK government, United Kingdom | No Comments

The latest report by a UK oversight body set up to evaluation Chinese networking giant Huawei’s approach to security has dialled up pressure on the company, giving a damning assessment of what it describes as “serious and systematic defects” in its software engineering and cyber security competence.

Although the report falls short of calling for an outright ban on Huawei equipment in domestic networks — an option U.S. president Trump continues dangling across the pond.

The report, prepared for the National Security Advisor of the UK by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board, also identifies new “significant technical issues” which it says lead to new risks for UK telecommunications networks using Huawei kit.

The HCSEC was set up by Huawei in 2010, under what the oversight board couches as “a set of arrangements with the UK government”, to provide information to state agencies on its products and strategies in order that security risks could be evaluated.

And last year, under pressure from UK security agencies concerned about technical deficiencies in its products, Huawei pledged to spend $2BN to try to address long-running concerns about its products in the country.

But the report throws doubt on its ability to address UK concerns — with the board writing that it has “not yet seen anything to give it confidence in Huawei’s capacity to successfully complete the elements of its transformation programme that it has proposed as a means of addressing these underlying defects”.

So it sounds like $2BN isn’t going to be nearly enough to fix Huawei’s security problem in just one European country.

The board also writes that it will require “sustained evidence” of better software engineering and cyber security “quality”, verified by HCSEC and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), if there’s to be any possibility of it reaching a different assessment of the company’s ability to reboot its security credentials.

While another damning assessment contained in the report is that Huawei has made “no material progress” on issues raised by last year’s report.

All the issues identified by the security evaluation process relate to “basic engineering competence and cyber security hygiene”, which the board notes gives rise to vulnerabilities capable of being exploited by “a range of actors”.

It adds that the NCSC does not believe the defects found are a result of Chinese state interference.

This year’s report is the fifth the oversight board has produced since it was established in 2014, and it comes at a time of acute scrutiny for Huawei, as 5G network rollouts are ramping up globally — pushing governments to address head on suspicions attached to the Chinese giant and consider whether to trust it with critical next-gen infrastructure.

“The Oversight Board advises that it will be difficult to appropriately risk-manage future products in the context of UK deployments, until the underlying defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security processes are remediated,” the report warns in one of several key conclusions that make very uncomfortable reading for Huawei.

“Overall, the Oversight Board can only provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated long-term,” it adds in summary.

Reached for its response to the report, a Huawei UK spokesperson sent us a statement in which it describes the $2BN earmarked for security improvements related to UK products as an “initial budget”.

It writes:

The 2019 OB [oversight board] report details some concerns about Huawei’s software engineering capabilities. We understand these concerns and take them very seriously. The issues identified in the OB report provide vital input for the ongoing transformation of our software engineering capabilities. In November last year Huawei’s Board of Directors issued a resolution to carry out a companywide transformation programme aimed at enhancing our software engineering capabilities, with an initial budget of US$2BN.

A high-level plan for the programme has been developed and we will continue to work with UK operators and the NCSC during its implementation to meet the requirements created as cloud, digitization, and software-defined everything become more prevalent. To ensure the ongoing security of global telecom networks, the industry, regulators, and governments need to work together on higher common standards for cyber security assurance and evaluation.

Seeking to find something positive to salvage from the report’s savaging, Huawei suggests it demonstrates the continued effectiveness of the HCSEC as a structure to evaluate and mitigate security risk — flagging a description where the board writes that it’s “arguably the toughest and most rigorous in the world”, and which Huawei claims shows at least there hasn’t been any increase in vulnerability of UK networks since the last report.

Though the report does identify new issues that open up fresh problems — albeit the underlying issues were presumably there last year too, just laying undiscovered.

The board’s withering assessment certainly amps up the pressure on Huawei which has been aggressively battling U.S.-led suspicion of its kit — claiming in a telecoms conference speech last month that “the U.S. security accusation of our 5G has no evidence”, for instance.

At the same time it has been appealing for the industry to work together to come up with collective processes for evaluating the security and trustworthiness of network kit.

And earlier this month it opened another cyber security transparency center — this time at the heart of Europe in Brussels, where the company has been lobbying policymakers to help establish security standards to foster collective trust. Though there’s little doubt that’s a long game.

Meanwhile, critics of Huawei can now point to impatience rising in the U.K., despite comments by the head of the NCSC, Ciaran Martin, last month — who said then that security agencies believe the risk of using Huawei kit can be managed, suggesting the government won’t push for an outright ban.

The report does not literally overturn that view but it does blast out a very loud and alarming warning about the difficulty for UK operators to “appropriately” risk-manage what’s branded defective and vulnerable Huawei kit. Including flagging the risk of future products — which the board suggests will be increasingly complex to manage. All of which could well just push operators to seek alternatives.

On the mitigation front, the board writes that — “in extremis” — the NCSC could order Huawei to carry out specific fixes for equipment currently installed in the UK. Though it also warns that such a step would be difficult, and could for example require hardware replacement which may not mesh with operators “natural” asset management and upgrades cycles, emphasizing it does not offer a sustainable solution to the underlying technical issues.

“Given both the shortfalls in good software engineering and cyber security practice and the currently unknown trajectory of Huawei’s R&D processes through their announced transformation plan, it is highly likely that security risk management of products that are new to the UK or new major releases of software for products currently in the UK will be more difficult,” the board writes in a concluding section discussing the UK national security risk.

“On the basis of the work already carried out by HCSEC, the NCSC considers it highly likely that there would be new software engineering and cyber security issues in products HCSEC has not yet examined.”

It also describes the number and severity of vulnerabilities plus architectural and build issues discovered by a relatively small team in the HCSEC as “a particular concern”.

“If an attacker has knowledge of these vulnerabilities and sufficient access to exploit them, they may be able to affect the operation of the network, in some cases causing it to cease operating correctly,” it warns. “Other impacts could include being able to access user traffic or reconfiguration of the network elements.”

In another section on mitigating risks of using Huawei kit, the board notes that “architectural controls” in place in most UK operators can limit the ability of attackers to exploit any vulnerable network elements not explicitly exposed to the public Internet — adding that such controls, combined with good opsec generally, will “remain critically important in the coming years to manage the residual risks caused by the engineering defects identified”.

In other highlights from the report the board does have some positive things to say, writing that an NCSC technical review of its capabilities showed improvements in 2018, while another independent audit of HCSEC’s ability to operate independently of Huawei HQ once again found “no high or medium priority findings”.

“The audit report identified one low-rated finding, relating to delivery of information and equipment within agreed Service Level Agreements. Ernst & Young concluded that there were no major concerns and the Oversight Board is satisfied that HCSEC is operating in line with the 2010 arrangements between HMG and the company,” it further notes.

Last month the European Commissioner said it was preparing to step in to ensure a “common approach” across the European Union where 5G network security is concerned — warning of the risk of fragmentation across the single market. Though it has so far steered clear of any bans.

Earlier this week it issued a set of recommendations for Member States, combining legislative and policy measures to assess 5G network security risks and help strengthen preventive measures.

Among the operational measures it suggests Member States take is to complete a national risk assessment of 5G network infrastructures by the end of June 2019, and follow that by updating existing security requirements for network providers — including conditions for ensuring the security of public networks.

“These measures should include reinforced obligations on suppliers and operators to ensure the security of the networks,” it recommends. “The national risk assessments and measures should consider various risk factors, such as technical risks and risks linked to the behaviour of suppliers or operators, including those from third countries. National risk assessments will be a central element towards building a coordinated EU risk assessment.”  

At an EU level the Commission said Member States should share information on network security, saying this “coordinated work should support Member States’ actions at national level and provide guidance to the Commission for possible further steps at EU level” — leaving the door open for further action.

While the EU’s executive body has not pushed for a pan-EU ban on any 5G vendors it did restate Member States’ right to exclude companies from their markets for national security reasons if they fail to comply with their own standards and legal framework.

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Law enforcement needs to protect citizens and their data

Posted by | Android, Australia, Column, computer security, crypto wars, cryptography, encryption, european union, Facebook, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Data Protection Regulation, human rights, law, law enforcement, national security, privacy, Security, United Kingdom | No Comments
Robert Anderson
Contributor

Robert Anderson served for 21 years in the FBI, retiring as executive assistant director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch. He is currently an advisor at The Chertoff Group and the chief executive of Cyber Defense Labs.

Over the past several years, the law enforcement community has grown increasingly concerned about the conduct of digital investigations as technology providers enhance the security protections of their offerings—what some of my former colleagues refer to as “going dark.”

Data once readily accessible to law enforcement is now encrypted, protecting consumers’ data from hackers and criminals. However, these efforts have also had what Android’s security chief called the “unintended side effect” of also making this data inaccessible to law enforcement. Consequently, many in the law enforcement community want the ability to compel providers to allow them to bypass these protections, often citing physical and national security concerns.

I know first-hand the challenges facing law enforcement, but these concerns must be addressed in a broader security context, one that takes into consideration the privacy and security needs of industry and our citizens in addition to those raised by law enforcement.

Perhaps the best example of the law enforcement community’s preferred solution is Australia’s recently passed Assistance and Access Bill, an overly-broad law that allows Australian authorities to compel service providers, such as Google and Facebook, to re-engineer their products and bypass encryption protections to allow law enforcement to access customer data.

While the bill includes limited restrictions on law enforcement requests, the vague definitions and concentrated authorities give the Australian government sweeping powers that ultimately undermine the security and privacy of the very citizens they aim to protect. Major tech companies, such as Apple and Facebook, agree and have been working to resist the Australian legislation and a similar bill in the UK.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Newly created encryption backdoors and work-arounds will become the target of criminals, hackers, and hostile nation states, offering new opportunities for data compromise and attack through the newly created tools and the flawed code that inevitably accompanies some of them. These vulnerabilities undermine providers’ efforts to secure their customers’ data, creating new and powerful vulnerabilities even as companies struggle to address existing ones.

And these vulnerabilities would not only impact private citizens, but governments as well, including services and devices used by the law enforcement and national security communities. This comes amidst government efforts to significantly increase corporate responsibility for the security of customer data through laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Who will consumers, or the government, blame when a government-mandated backdoor is used by hackers to compromise user data? Who will be responsible for the damage?

Companies have a fiduciary responsibility to protect their customers’ data, which not only includes personally identifiable information (PII), but their intellectual property, financial data, and national security secrets.

Worse, the vulnerabilities created under laws such as the Assistance and Access Bill would be subject almost exclusively to the decisions of law enforcement authorities, leaving companies unable to make their own decisions about the security of their products. How can we expect a company to protect customer data when their most fundamental security decisions are out of their hands?

phone encryption

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Thus far law enforcement has chosen to downplay, if not ignore, these concerns—focusing singularly on getting the information they need. This is understandable—a law enforcement officer should use every power available to them to solve a case, just as I did when I served as a State Trooper and as a FBI Special Agent, including when I served as Executive Assistant Director (EAD) overseeing the San Bernardino terror attack case during my final months in 2015.

Decisions regarding these types of sweeping powers should not and cannot be left solely to law enforcement. It is up to the private sector, and our government, to weigh competing security and privacy interests. Our government cannot sacrifice the ability of companies and citizens to properly secure their data and systems’ security in the name of often vague physical and national security concerns, especially when there are other ways to remedy the concerns of law enforcement.

That said, these security responsibilities cut both ways. Recent data breaches demonstrate that many companies have a long way to go to adequately protect their customers’ data. Companies cannot reasonably cry foul over the negative security impacts of proposed law enforcement data access while continuing to neglect and undermine the security of their own users’ data.

Providers and the law enforcement community should be held to robust security standards that ensure the security of our citizens and their data—we need legal restrictions on how government accesses private data and on how private companies collect and use the same data.

There may not be an easy answer to the “going dark” issue, but it is time for all of us, in government and the private sector, to understand that enhanced data security through properly implemented encryption and data use policies is in everyone’s best interest.

The “extra ordinary” access sought by law enforcement cannot exist in a vacuum—it will have far reaching and significant impacts well beyond the narrow confines of a single investigation. It is time for a serious conversation between law enforcement and the private sector to recognize that their security interests are two sides of the same coin.

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Europe is prepared to rule over 5G cybersecurity

Posted by | 5g, artificial intelligence, Australia, barcelona, broadband, China, computer security, EC, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, european commission, european union, Germany, huawei, Internet of Things, Mariya Gabriel, Mobile, mwc 2019, network technology, New Zealand, Security, telecommunications, trump, UK government, United Kingdom, United States, zte | No Comments

The European Commission’s digital commissioner has warned the mobile industry to expect it to act over security concerns attached to Chinese network equipment makers.

The Commission is considering a defacto ban on kit made by Chinese companies including Huawei in the face of security and espionage concerns, per Reuters.

Appearing on stage at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona today, Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for digital economy and society, flagged network “cybersecurity” during her scheduled keynote, warning delegates it’s stating the obvious for her to say that “when 5G services become mission critical 5G networks need to be secure”.

Geopolitical concerns between the West and China are being accelerated and pushed to the fore as the era of 5G network upgrades approach, as well as by ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over trade.

“I’m well away of the unrest among all of you key actors in the telecoms sectors caused by the ongoing discussions around the cybersecurity of 5G,” Gabriel continued, fleshing out the Commission’s current thinking. “Let me reassure you: The Commission takes your view very seriously. Because you need to run these systems everyday. Nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts.

“However it is also clear that Europe has to have a common approach to this challenge. And we need to bring it on the table soon. Otherwise there is a risk that fragmentation rises because of diverging decisions taken by Member States trying to protect themselves.”

“We all know that this fragmentation damages the digital single market. So therefore we are working on this important matter with priority. And to the Commission we will take steps soon,” she added.

The theme of this year’s show is “intelligent connectivity”; the notion that the incoming 5G networks will not only create links between people and (many, many more) things but understand the connections they’re making at a greater depth and resolution than has been possible before, leveraging the big data generated by many more connections to power automated decision-making in near real time, with low latency another touted 5G benefit (as well as many more connections per cell).

Futuristic scenarios being floated include connected cars neatly pulling to the sides of the road ahead of an ambulance rushing a patient to hospital — or indeed medical operations being aided and even directed remotely in real-time via 5G networks supporting high resolution real-time video streaming.

But for every touted benefit there are easy to envisage risks to network technology that’s being designed to connect everything all of the time — thereby creating a new and more powerful layer of critical infrastructure society will be relying upon.

Last fall the Australia government issued new security guidelines for 5G networks that essential block Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment to operators — justifying the move by saying that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security.

New Zealand followed suit shortly after, saying kit from the Chinese companies posed a significant risk to national security.

While in the U.S. President Trump has made 5G network security a national security priority since 2017, and a bill was passed last fall banning Chinese companies from supplying certain components and services to government agencies.

The ban is due to take effect over two years but lawmakers have been pressuring to local carriers to drop 5G collaborations with companies such as Huawei.

In Europe the picture is so far more mixed. A UK government report last summer investigating Huawei’s broadband and mobile infrastructure raised further doubts, and last month Germany was reported to be mulling a 5G ban on the Chinese kit maker.

But more recently the two EU Member States have been reported to no longer be leaning towards a total ban — apparently believing any risk can be managed and mitigated by oversight and/or partial restrictions.

It remains to be seen how the Commission could step in to try to harmonize security actions taken by Member States around nascent 5G networks. But it appears prepared to set rules.

That said, Gabriel gave no hint of its thinking today, beyond repeating the Commission’s preferred position of less fragmentation, more harmonization to avoid collateral damage to its overarching Digital Single Market initiative — i.e. if Member States start fragmenting into a patchwork based on varying security concerns.

We’ve reached out to the Commission for further comment and will update this story with any additional context.

During the keynote she was careful to talk up the transformative potential of 5G connectivity while also saying innovation must work in lock-step with European “values”.

“Europe has to keep pace with other regions and early movers while making sure that its citizens and businesses benefit swiftly from the new infrastructures and the many applications that will be built on top of them,” she said.

“Digital is helping us and we need to reap its opportunities, mitigate its risks and make sure it is respectful of our values as much as driven by innovation. Innovation and values. Two key words. That is the vision we have delivered in terms of the defence for our citizens in Europe. Together we have decided to construct a Digital Single Market that reflects the values and principles upon which the European Union has been built.”

Her speech also focused on AI, with the commissioner highlighting various EC initiatives to invest in and support private sector investment in artificial intelligence — saying it’s targeting €20BN in “AI-directed investment” across the private and public sector by 2020, with the goal for the next decade being “to reach the same amount as an annual average” — and calling on the private sector to “contribute to ensure that Europe reaches the level of investment needed for it to become a world stage leader also in AI”.

But again she stressed the need for technology developments to be thoughtfully managed so they reflect the underlying society rather than negatively disrupting it. The goal should be what she dubbed “human-centric AI”.

“When we talk about AI and new technologies development for us Europeans it is not only about investing. It is mainly about shaping AI in a way that reflects our European values and principles. An ethical approach to AI is key to enable competitiveness — it will generate user trust and help facilitate its uptake,” she said.

“Trust is the key word. There is no other way. It is only by ensuring trustworthiness that Europe will position itself as a leader in cutting edge, secure and ethical AI. And that European citizens will enjoy AI’s benefits.”

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Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

Posted by | Android, antitrust, competition law, data protection, data protection law, DCMS committee, digital media, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Giovanni Buttarelli, Google, instagram, Margrethe Vestager, Messenger, photo sharing, privacy, Social, social media, social networks, surveillance capitalism, TC, terms of service, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

#GDPR allows imposing a permanent ban on data processing. This is the nuclear option. Much more severe than any fine you can imagine, in most cases. https://t.co/X772NvU51S

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) January 28, 2019

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

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pi-top’s latest edtech tool doubles down on maker culture

Posted by | drone, edtech startup, Education, electronics, Europe, Gadgets, hardware, learn to code, London, pi-top, pi-top 4, Raspberry Pi, robotics, Startups, STEM, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

London-based edtech startup, pi-top, has unboxed a new flagship learn-to-code product, demoing the “go anywhere” Pi-powered computer at the Bett Show education fare in London today.

Discussing the product with TechCrunch ahead of launch, co-founder and CEO Jesse Lozano talked up the skills the company hopes students in the target 12-to-17 age range will develop and learn to apply by using sensor-based connected tech, powered by its new pi-top 4, to solve real world problems.

“When you get a pi-top 4 out of the box you’re going to start to learn how to code with it, you’re going to start to learn and understand electronic circuits, you’re going to understand sensors from our sensor library. Or components from our components library,” he told us. “So it’s not: ‘I’m going to learn how to create a robot that rolls around on wheels and doesn’t knock into things’.

“It’s more: ‘I’m going to learn how a motor works. I’m going to learn how a distance sensor works. I’m going to learn how to properly hook up power to these different sensors. I’m going to learn how to apply that knowledge… take those skills and [keep making stuff].”

The pi-top 4 is a modular computer that’s designed to be applicable, well, anywhere; up in the air, with the help of a drone attachment; powering a sensing weather balloon; acting as the brains for a rover style wheeled robot; or attached to sensors planted firmly in the ground to monitor local environmental conditions.

The startup was already dabbling in this area, via earlier products — such as a Pi-powered laptop that featured a built in rail for breadboarding electronics. But the pi-top 4 is a full step outside the usual computing box.

The device has a built-in mini OLED screen for displaying project info, along with an array of ports. It can be connected to and programmed via one of pi-top’s other Pi-powered computers, or any PC, Mac and Chromebook, with the company also saying it easily connects to existing screens, keyboards and mice. Versatility looks to be the name of the game for pi-top 4.

pi-top’s approach to computing and electronics is flexible and interoperable, meaning the pi-top 4 can be extended with standard electronics components — or even with Littlebits‘ style kits’ more manageable bits and bobs.

pi-top is also intending to sell a few accessories of its own (such as the drone add-on, pictured above) to help get kids’ creative project juices flowing — and has launched a range of accessories, cameras, motors and sensors to “allow creators of all ages to start learning by making straight out of the box”.

But Lozano emphasizes its platform play is about reaching out to a wider world, not seeking to lock teachers and kids to buying proprietary hardware. (Which would be all but impossible, in any case, given the Raspberry Pi core.)

“It’s really about giving people that breadth of ability,” says Lozano, discussing the sensor-based skills he wants the product to foster. “As you go through these different projects you’re learning these specific skills but you also start to understand how they would apply to other projects.”

He mentions various maker projects the pi-top can be used to make, like a music synth or wheeled robot, but says the point isn’t making any specific connected thing; it’s encouraging kids to come up with project ideas of their own.

“Once that sort of veil has been pierced in students and in teachers we see some of the best stuff starts to be made. People make things that we had no idea they would integrate it into,” he tells us, pointing by way of example to a solar car project from a group of U.S. schoolkids. “These fifteen year olds are building solar cars and they’re racing them from Texas to California — and they’re using pi-tops to understand how their cars are performing to make better race decisions.”

pi-top’s new device is a modular programmable computer designed for maker projects

“What you’re really learning is the base skills,” he adds, with a gentle sideswipe at the flood of STEM toys now targeting parents’ wallets. “We want to teach you real skills. And we want you to be able to create projects that are real. That it’s not block-based coding. It’s not magnetized, clipped in this into that and all of a sudden you have something. It’s about teaching you how to really make things. And how the world actually works around you.”

The pi-top 4 starts at $199 for a foundation bundle which includes a Raspberry Pi 3B+,16GB SD card, power pack, along with a selection of sensors and add-on components for starter projects.

Additional educational bundles will also launch down the line, at a higher price, including more add ons, access to premium software and a full curriculum for educators to support budding makers, according to Lozano.

The startup has certainly come a long way from its founders’ first luridly green 3D printed laptop which caught our eye back in 2015. Today it employs more than 80 people globally, with offices in the UK, US and China, while its creative learning devices are in the hands of “hundreds of thousands” of schoolkids across more than 70 countries at this stage. And Lozano says they’re gunning to pass the million mark this year.

So while the ‘learn to code’ space has erupted into a riot of noise and color over the past half decade, with all sorts of connected playthings now competing for kids’ attention, and pestering parents with quasi-educational claims, pi-top has kept its head down and focused firmly on building a serious edtech business with STEM learning as its core focus, saving it from chasing fickle consumer fads, as Lozano tells it.

“Our relentless focus on real education is something that has differentiated us,” he responds, when asked how pi-top stands out in what’s now a very crowded marketplace. “The consumer market, as we’ve seen with other startups, it can be fickle. And trying to create a hit toy all the time — I’d rather leave that to Mattel… When you’re working with schools it’s not a fickle process.”

Part of that focus includes supporting educators to acquire the necessary skills themselves to be able to teach what’s always a fast-evolving area of study. So schools signing up to pi-top’s subscription product get support materials and guides, to help them create a maker space and understand all the ins and outs of the pi-top platform. It also provides a classroom management backend system that lets teachers track students’ progress.

“If you’re a teacher that has absolutely no experience in computer science or engineering or STEM based learning or making then you’re able to bring on the pi-top platform, learn with it and with your student, and when they’re ready they can create a computer science course — or something of that ilk — in their classroom,” says Lozano.

pi-top wants kids to use tech to tackle real-world problems

“As with all good things it takes time, and you need to build up a bank of experience. One of the things we’ve really focused on is giving teachers that ability to build up that bank of experience, through an after school club, or through a special lesson plan that they might do.

“For us it’s about augmenting that teacher and helping them become a great educator with tools and with resources. There’s some edtech stuff they want to replace the teacher — they want to make the teacher obsolete. I couldn’t disagree with that viewpoint more.”

“Why aren’t teachers just buying textbooks?” he adds. “It takes 24 months to publish a textbook. So how are you supposed to teach computer science with those technology-based skills with something that’s by design two years out of date?”

Last summer pi-top took in $16M in Series B funding, led by existing founders Hambro Perks and Committed Capital. It’s been using the financing to bring pi-top 4 to market while also investing heavily in its team over the past 18 months — expanding in-house expertise in designing learning products and selling in to the education sector via a number of hires. Including the former director of learning at Apple, Dr William Rankin.

The founders’ philosophy is to combine academic expertise in education with “excellence in engineering”. “We want the learning experience to be something we’re 100% confident in,” says Lozano. “You can go into pi-top and immediately start learning with our lesson plans and the kind of framework that we provide.”

“[W]e’ve unabashedly focused on… education. It is the pedagogy,” he adds. “It is the learning outcome that you’re going to get when you use the pi-top. So one of the big changes over the last 18 months is we’ve hired a world class education team. We have over 100 years of pedagogical experience on the team now producing an enormous amount of — we call them learning experience designers.”

He reckons that focus will stand pi-top in good stead as more educators turn their attention to how to arm their pupils with the techie skills of the future.

“There’s loads of competition but now the schools are looking they’re [asking] who’s the team behind the education outcome that you’re selling me?” he suggests. “And you know what if you don’t have a really strong education team then you’re seeing schools and districts become a lot more picky — because there is so much choice. And again that’s something I’m really excited about. Everybody’s always trying to do a commercial brand partnership deal. That’s just not something that we’ve focused on and I do really think that was a smart choice on our end.”

Lozano is also excited about a video the team has produced to promote the new product — which strikes a hip, urban note as pi-top seeks to inspire the next generation of makers.

“We really enjoy working in the education sector and I really, really enjoy helping teachers and schools deliver inspirational content and learning outcomes to their students,” he adds. “It’s genuinely a great reason to wake up in the morning.”

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Drones ground flights at UK’s second largest airport

Posted by | Civil Aviation Authority, drone, drones, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, Gadgets, Gatwick Airport, gchq, hardware, robotics, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

Mystery drone operator/s have grounded flights at the U.K.’s second largest airport, disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people hoping to get away over the festive period.

The BBC reports that Gatwick Airport’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night on safety grounds, after drones were spotted being flown repeatedly over the airfield.

It says airlines have been advised to cancel all flights up to at least 16:00 GMT, with the airport saying the runway would not open “until it was safe to do so.”

More than 20 police units are reported to be searching for the drone operator/s.

The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

Further adding to the misery of disrupted passengers today, the Civil Aviation Authority told the BBC it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” — meaning airlines aren’t obligated to pay financial compensation.

There’s been a marked rise in U.K. aircraft incidents involving drones over the past five years, with more than 100 recorded so far this year, according to data from the U.K. Airprox Board.

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg faced a barrage of questions about the Gatwick disruption in the House of Lords today, including accusations the government has dragged its feet on bringing in technical specifications that might have avoided the disruption.

“These drones are being operated illegally… It seems that the drones are being used intentionally to disrupt the airport, but, as I said, this is an ongoing investigation,” she told peers, adding: “We changed the law earlier this year, bringing in an exclusion zone around airports. We are working with manufactures and retailers to ensure that the new rules are communicated to those who purchase drones.

“From November next year, people will need to register their drone and take an online safety test. We have also recently consulted on extending police powers and will make an announcement on next steps shortly.”

The minister was also pressed on what the government had done to explore counterdrone technology, which could be used to disable drones, with one peer noting they’d raised the very issue two years ago.

“My Lords, technology is rapidly advancing in this area,” responded Sugg. “That is absolutely something that we are looking at. As I said, part of the consultation we did earlier this year was on counterdrone technology and we will be announcing our next steps on that very soon.”

Another peer wondered whether techniques he said had been developed by the U.K. military and spy agency GCHQ — to rapidly identify the frequency a drone is operating on, and either jam it or take control and land it — will be “given more broadly to various airports”?

“All relevant parts of the Government, including the Ministry of Defence, are working on this issue today to try to resolve it as quickly as possible,” the minister replied. “We are working on the new technology that is available to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. It is not acceptable that passengers have faced such disruption ahead of Christmas and we are doing all we can to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

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UK video games workers unionize over ‘wide-scale exploitation’ and diversity issues

Posted by | Diversity, Europe, Gaming, IWGB, unions, United Kingdom | No Comments

Working in video games might sound like a dream job to a 12-year-old Fortnight-loving kid, but the day-to-day reality of grinding in the industry can be as unrelenting as fighting an end of level baddie.

Games devs are routinely corralled to “crunch” to hit sequential release target deadlines to ensure a project gets delivered on time and budget. Unpaid overtime is a norm. Long hours are certainly expected. And taking any holiday across vast swathes of the year can be heavily frowned upon, if not barred entirely.

From the outside looking in it’s hard not to conclude people’s passion for gaming is being exploited in the big business interest of shipping lucrative titles to millions of gamers.

In the U.K. that view is now more than just a perception, with the decision of a group of video games workers to unionize.

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) said today it’s setting up a union branch for games workers, the first such in the country — and one of what’s claimed as just a handful in the world — with the aim of tackling what it dubs the “wide-scale exploitation” of video games workers.

In recent years the union has gained attention for supporting workers in the so-called “gig economy,” backing protests by delivery riders and drivers for companies including Uber and Deliveroo. But this is its first foray into representing games workers.

As well as seeking to tackle issues of excessive and often unpaid overtime (aka “crunch”) — with the union claiming some workers have reported clocking up as much as 100 hours a week — it says it will focus on the use of zero-hour contracts in the industry, especially among Quality Assurance testers (aka game testers). 

Zero-hour contracts refer to employment contracts with no minimum guaranteed hours of work. 

The IWGB says the branch also intends to shine a light on the industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion — and what it couches as a failure to tackle a “pervasive culture of homophobia and sexism.” So, um, it’s about ethics in the games industry itself this time

Commenting in a statement, game worker and founding member of the IWGB‘s Games Workers Unite branch, Dec Peach, said: For as long as I can remember it has been considered normal for games workers to endure zero-hours contracts, excessive unpaid overtime and even sexism and homophobia as the necessary price to pay for the privilege of working in the industry. Now, as part of the IWGB, we will have the tools to fix this broken sector and create an ethical industry where it’s not only big game companies that thrive, but workers as well.”

In another supporting statement, IWGB general secretary Dr Jason Moyer-Lee added: The game workers’ decision to unionise with the IWGB should be a wake up call for the U.K.’s gaming industry. The IWGB is proud to support these workers and looks forward to shining a massive spotlight on the industry.”

The U.K. games industry employs some 47,000 workers, according to UKIE — making it one of the largest such sectors in Europe.

The IWGB‘s Games Workers Unite branch will hold its first meeting on December 16, which the union says will be open to all past, current and “soon to be” workers in the industry — including contract, agency and casual workers, plus direct employees (with the exception of those with hiring and firing power).

It says it’s expecting “hundreds” of games workers to join in the first few months.

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