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Alphabet Shutting Down Loon, Its Balloon-Based Internet Alternative to Cell Towers

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 January 2021

Google parent Alphabet is shutting down its Internet balloon business, Loon, which aimed to provide a less expensive alternative to cell towers, saying on Thursday that “the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped.”

Founded in 2011, Loon aimed to bring connectivity to areas of the world where building cell towers is too expensive or treacherous by using balloons the length of tennis courts to float solar-powered networking gear high above the Earth. But the wireless carriers that Loon saw as buyers of its technology have questioned its technical and political viability.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon Chief Executive Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post.

Alphabet executive Astro Teller said in a separate blog post that despite Loon’s “groundbreaking technical achievements” over the past nine years, “the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped.”

Westgarth said Loon’s legacy would include advancing helium balloons to last hundreds of days in the sky and developing communications equipment that could deliver cell coverage across an area 200 times bigger than an average tower can.

But among challenges were that a carrier would need several balloons at once, and each balloon cost tens of thousands of dollars and lasted only about five months.

Loon launched a pilot project in Kenya in 2020, years behind schedule after regulatory delays. Its partner, Telkom Kenya, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The technology previously proved successful in short projects to provide cell coverage in Peru and Puerto Rico when cell towers were downed by natural disasters. The company had pitched countries and international organisations on contracting with Loon to fly in during future emergencies, but gained little traction.

Loon said it may share its technology with carriers, governments or nonprofit groups aiming to bring high-speed internet to the last few places in the world.

The company employed 200 people as of 2019. It drew a $125 million (roughly Rs. 910 crores) investment that year from SoftBank’s HAPSMobile, which is working on floating cell equipment with drones.

HAPSMobile declined to comment on the financial effect of Loon’s shutdown but said it would “continue to work toward our goal of developing a commercial business.”

Separately, companies backed by billionaire entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, continue to look at offering Internet connections using satellites in near-Earth orbit.

Alphabet previously shuttered what it calls “other bets,” or entities separate to Google, such as one working on power-generating kites. Alphabet has pressed some “bets” to raise funding from other investors or become self-sustaining. Loon struggled to attract investment.

The company maintains at least one “bet” tackling the skies – Wing, which is aiming to commercialize goods delivery by drone.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Telangana Thwarts China-Based Hacker Group’s Bid to Target State Power Systems, Says Official

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 3 March 2021

Power utilities in Telangana have averted a possible attempt by a China-based group to hack the state’s power systems, officials said on Wednesday.

The preventive action was taken following an alert by the Computer Emergency Response Team of India (CERT-In) and a heightened state of alertness would continue for more days,an official said.

“We noticed some malware. Immediately, we erased that. We have taken all the preventive steps. Absolutely, there is no problem,” the senior official told PTI. The CERT-In communicated to the state power utilities two days ago. “We have a good team here also. Everyday, they are reviewing. We have anti-virus software,” he added.

The CERT-In has reported from a trusted source that China-based “Threat actor Group Command and Control” servers are trying to communicate with systems belonging to Telangana.

State Load Dispatch Centre (SLDC), TS Transco (Transmission Corporation of Telangana Ltd) and advised taking suitable precautionary measures to ensure security of the power system, official sources said.

The TS Transco has taken various measures like blocking server IPs communicated by CERT-In and temporarily disabling control function for remote operation of circuit breakers from SLDC, they said. User credentials for all those accessing TSSLDC website were changed and suspected equipment within the perimeter of the SCADA (process control system) control centre were isolated to ensure safety of the grid and satisfactory power supply to all consumers of the state, they said.

The increased state of alertness would continue for some days, the official said, adding, “not only Telangana, for that matter, every state has to be careful.”

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Microsoft Says Chinese Hackers Targeted US Groups via Its Exchange Server Software

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 March 2021

A China-linked cyberespionage group has been remotely plundering email inboxes using freshly discovered flaws in Microsoft mail server software, the company and outside researchers said on Tuesday – an example of how commonly used programmes can be exploited to cast a wide net online.

In a blog post, Microsoft said the hacking campaign made use of four previously undetected vulnerabilities in different versions of the software and was the work of a group it dubs HAFNIUM, which it described as a state-sponsored entity operating out of China.

In a separate blog post, cybersecurity firm Volexity said that in January it had seen the hackers use one of the vulnerabilities to remotely steal “the full contents of several user mailboxes.” All they needed to know were the details of Exchange server and of the account they wanted to pillage its emails, Volexity said.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Beijing routinely denies carrying out cyberespionage despite a drumbeat of allegations from the United States and others.

Ahead of the Microsoft announcement, the hackers’ increasingly aggressive moves began to attract attention from across the cyber-security community.

Mike McLellan, director of intelligence for Dell’s Secureworks, said ahead of the Microsoft announcement that he had noticed a sudden spike in activity touching Exchange servers overnight on Sunday, with around 10 customers affected at his firm.

Microsoft’s near-ubiquitous suite of products has been under scrutiny since the hack of SolarWinds, the Texas-based software firm that served as a springboard for several intrusions across government and the private sector. In other cases, hackers took advantage of the way customers had set up their Microsoft services to compromise their targets or dive further into affected networks.

Hackers who went after SolarWinds also breached Microsoft itself, accessing and downloading source code – including elements of Exchange, the company’s email, and calendaring product.

McLellan said that for now, the hacking activity he had seen appeared focused on seeding malicious software and setting the stage for a potentially deeper intrusion rather than aggressively moving into networks right away.

“We haven’t seen any follow-on activity yet,” he said. “We’re going to find a lot of companies affected but a smaller number of companies actually exploited.”

Microsoft said targets included infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher education institutions, defense contractors, policy think tanks, and non-governmental groups.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Amazon Launches Website in Poland, to Offer Free Shipping on Orders Above EUR 83

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 March 2021

US e-commerce giant Amazon on Tuesday launched in Poland – one of the last major European countries without a dedicated Amazon site.

“From today, Polish customers can buy on Amazon.pl and choose from over 100 million products,” the company said in a statement.

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, said it would offer free shipping on orders worth more than EUR 83 (roughly Rs 7,300) .

Within the EU, Amazon has already dedicated sites in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.

Its German website had previously hosted a Polish-language section and the company employs around 18,000 people in nine warehouses in Poland and through the IT company Amazon Web Services.

Amazon is planning to open a 10th warehouse in Swiebodzin later this year with the creation of over 1,000 jobs.

Its German website had previously hosted a Polish-language section and the company employs around 18,000 people in nine warehouses in Poland and through the IT company Amazon Web Services.

Amazon is planning to open a 10th warehouse in Swiebodzin later this year with the creation of over 1,000 jobs.

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Jack Ma Loses Title as China’s Richest Man After Coming Under Beijing’s Scrutiny

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By Reuters | Updated: 2 March 2021

Alibaba and Ant Group founder Jack Ma has lost the title of China’s richest man, a list published on Tuesday showed, as his peers prospered while his empire was put under heavy scrutiny by Chinese regulators.

Ma and his family had held the top spot for China’s richest in the Hurun Global Rich List in 2020 and 2019 but now trail in fourth place behind bottled water maker Nongfu Spring’s Zhong Shanshan, Tencent’s Pony Ma and e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo’s Collin Huang, the latest list showed.

His fall on anti-trust issues,” the Hurun report said.

Ma’s recent woes were triggered by an October 23 speech in which he blasted China’s regulatory system, leading to the suspension of his Ant Group’s $37 billion (roughly Rs. 2,71,540 crores) IPO just days before the fintech giant’s public listing.

Regulators have since tightened anti-trust scrutiny on the country’s tech sector, with Alibaba taking much of the heat; the market regulator launched an official anti-trust probe into Alibaba in December.

Chinese regulators also began to tighten their grip on the fintech sector and have asked Ant to fold some of its businesses into a financial holding company to be regulated like traditional financial firms.

Ma, who is not known for shying away from the limelight, then disappeared from the public eye for about three months, triggering frenzied speculation about his whereabouts. He re-emerged in January with a 50-second video appearance.

China’s current richest man, Zhong, made his first appearance at the top spot largely thanks to the share price performances of Nongfu Spring and vaccine maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, which he also controls.

Tencent’s Ma saw his wealth swell 70 percent over the year to CNY 480 billion (roughly Rs. 5,44,470 crores) while Pinduoduo’s Huang’s fortune grew 283 percent to CNY 450 billion (roughly Rs. 5,100 crores), the list said. In comparison, the wealth of Ma and his family grew 22 percent, to CNY 360 billion (roughly Rs. 4,08,250 crores).

Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok owner ByteDance, broke into the top five rankings among Chinese billionaires in Hurun’s Global Rich List for the first time, with an estimated personal wealth of $54 billion (roughly Rs. 3,96,490 crores).

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Amazon Accused of Race-Gender Bias in Workplace, Faces Lawsuit

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 March 2021

A lawsuit filed in US federal court on Monday accused Amazon of keeping women and Black employees down while publicly talking up the need for diversity and social justice.

Charlotte Newman, who is Black and heads Underrepresented Founder Startup Business Development at Amazon Web Services, said in the suit she has been harassed, sexually assaulted, and kept from advancing to positions she deserved in the corporation.

“Like so many other Black and female employees at Amazon, Charlotte Newman was confronted with a systemic pattern of insurmountable discrimination based upon the colour of her skin and her gender,” attorneys argued in the lawsuit.

Newman is asking for her case to be heard by a jury, and to be awarded unspecified cash damages.

“Amazon works hard to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture, and these allegations do not reflect those efforts or our values,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in reply to an AFP inquiry.

“We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action.”

Amazon is digging into allegations made in the lawsuit, the spokeswoman added.

Newman said she was hired as a public policy manager at Amazon four years ago, quickly doing work typically assigned to higher level employees and paid less than white co-workers.

In June of last year she filed a written complaint about harassment by a male executive and “discriminatory attitudes” expressed by managers at Amazon, according to the suit.

Later that year, she filed a complaint with the Office of Human Rights in Washington, DC, the filing said.

Practices at Amazon include putting Black employees into lower paying jobs at levels beneath their qualifications and skills, and then making them wait longer for promotions, the suit contended.

A number of Black women at Amazon, and particularly its cloud services division, have spoken of having their hair touched without consent or being criticised for not being friendly enough, according to the suit.

“Racial and sexual discrimination exists in Amazon’s corporate corridors, not just its warehouses – it simply takes a different form,” the lawsuit charged.

“Amazon has failed to seriously grapple with these issues among its management.”

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Delhi Excise Department Asks Clubs, Restro-Bars to Share Locations Using Google Maps for Digital Database

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 2 March 2021

The Delhi Excise Department has directed owners of clubs, restaurants, and hotels in the city to share the location of their establishments using Google Maps, a move aimed at preparing a digital database, officials said on Monday.

The department said non-compliance of its directions will be viewed seriously. There are over 1,000 hotels, clubs and restro-bars in the national capital with excise licences to serve liquor to their customers.

In a written communication, the department has asked the establishments to send information relating to their location using longitude and latitude.

An official said the move will also help to know geographic locations of such establishments in a particular area.

“It is digitally easy to find location of clubs, hotels, and restaurants in a particular area. If we have a digital database, we can take decisions accordingly. Such database can also be utilised for excise policy in the coming months,” the official told PTI, adding that the move is part of excise reforms.

Another official said there are some areas which have sufficient number of clubs and restaurants, but there are also other areas where such establishments are not in good numbers.

Last month, the government had constituted a Group of Ministers (GoM) under Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia to examine the current system of excise duty administration and the recommendations of an expert committee on a new excise policy.

Health Minister Satyendar Jain and Law Minister Kailash Gahlot are part of the GoM.

It is examining all aspects of the current system of excise duty administration and will go through the report of the expert committee and the suggestions received from stakeholders and the public.

Last week, the department had warned clubs, hotels, and restaurants of strict action if they are found serving alcohol to customers from liquor bottles not bearing 2D bar-codes.

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