By Reuters | Updated: 13 August 2021 09:48 IST
A backlash over Apple’s move to scan US customer phones and computers for child sex abuse images has grown to include employees speaking out internally, a notable turn in a company famed for its secretive culture, as well as provoking intensified protests from leading technology policy groups.
Apple employees have flooded an Apple internal Slack channel with more than 800 messages on the plan announced a week ago, workers who asked not to be identified told Reuters. Many expressed worries that the feature could be exploited by repressive governments looking to find other material for censorship or arrests, according to workers who saw the days-long thread.
Past security changes at Apple have also prompted concern among employees, but the volume and duration of the new debate is surprising, the workers said. Some posters worried that Apple is damaging its leading reputation for protecting privacy.
Though coming mainly from employees outside of lead security and privacy roles, the pushback marks a shift for a company where a strict code of secrecy around new products colors other aspects of the corporate culture.
Slack rolled out a few years ago and has been more widely adopted by teams at Apple during the pandemic, two employees said. As workers used the app to maintain social ties during the work-from-home era by sharing recipes and other light-hearted content, more serious discussions have also taken root.
In the Slack thread devoted to the photo-scanning feature, some employees have pushed back against criticism, while others said Slack wasn’t the proper forum for such discussions.
Core security employees did not appear to be major complainants in the posts, and some of them said that they thought Apple’s solution was a reasonable response to pressure to crack down on illegal material.
Other employees said they hoped that the scanning is a step toward fully encrypting iCloud for customers who want it, which would reverse Apple’s direction on the issue a second time.
Last week’s announcement is drawing heavier criticism from past outside supporters who say Apple is rejecting a history of well-marketed privacy fights.
They say that while the US government can’t legally scan wide swaths of household equipment for contraband or make others do so, Apple is doing it voluntarily, with potentially dire consequences.
People familiar with the matter said a coalition of policy groups are finalising a letter of protest to send to Apple within days demanding a suspension of the plan. Two groups, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) both released newly detailed objections to Apple’s plan in the past 24 hours.
“What Apple is showing with their announcement last week is that there are technical weaknesses that they are willing to build in,” CDT project director Emma Llanso said in an interview. “It seems so out of step from everything that they had previously been saying and doing.”
Apple declined to comment for this story. It has said it will refuse requests from governments to use the system to check phones for anything other than illegal child sexual abuse material.
Outsiders and employees pointed to Apple’s stand against the FBI in 2016, when it successfully fought a court order to develop a new tool to crack into a terrorism suspect’s iPhone. Back then, the company said that such a tool would inevitably be used to break into other devices for other reasons.
But Apple was surprised its stance then was not more popular, and the global tide since then has been toward more monitoring of private communication.
With less publicity, Apple has made other technical decisions that help authorities, including dropping a plan to encrypt widely used iCloud backups and agreeing to store Chinese user data in that country.
A fundamental problem with Apple’s new plan on scanning child abuse images, critics said, is that the company is making cautious policy decisions that it can be forced to change, now that the capability is there, in exactly the same way it warned would happen if it broke into the terrorism suspect’s phone.
Apple says it will scan only in the United States and other countries to be added one by one, only when images are set to be uploaded to iCloud, and only for images that have been identified by the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children and a small number of other groups.
But any country’s legislature or courts could demand that any one of those elements be expanded, and some of those nations, such as China, represent enormous and hard to refuse markets, critics said.
Police and other agencies will cite recent laws requiring “technical assistance” in investigating crimes, including in the United Kingdom and Australia, to press Apple to expand this new capability, the EFF said.
“The infrastructure needed to roll out Apple’s proposed changes makes it harder to say that additional surveillance is not technically feasible,” wrote EFF General Counsel Kurt Opsahl.
Lawmakers will build on it as well, said Neil Brown, a UK tech lawyer at decoded.legal: “If Apple demonstrates that, even in just one market, it can carry out on-device content filtering, I would expect regulators/lawmakers to consider it appropriate to demand its use in their own markets, and potentially for an expanded scope of things.”
© Thomson Reuters 2021
TikTok, Snapchat, Other Video Sharing Platforms Must Do More to Protect Users: UK Regulator
By Reuters | Updated: 6 October 2021
Online video sharing platforms (VSPs), such as TikTok, Snapchat and OnlyFans, need to provide clear rules on content, allow users to flag harmful videos, and restrict access to pornographic material, Britain’s media regulator Ofcom said.
Under laws that came into effect in Britain last year, VSPs must take appropriate steps to protect all of their users from illegal material, with a particular focus on under 18s.
Ofcom, which is responsible for enforcing the rules, published guidance for VSPs on Wednesday, saying it wanted to see noticeable improvements over time in safety processes and complaint procedures.
Chief Executive Melanie Dawes said online video played a huge role in people’s lives, particularly for children, but many users saw hateful, violent or inappropriate material while using them.
“The platforms where these videos are shared now have a legal duty to take steps to protect their users,” she said.
“So we’re stepping up our oversight of these tech companies, while also gearing up for the task of tackling a much wider range of online harms in the future.”
Ofcom said its research showed that a third of users said they had witnessed or experienced hateful content; a quarter claimed they’d been exposed to violent or disturbing content; while one in five had seen content that encouraged racism.
The regulator’s remit covers platforms established in Britain, numbering 18 initially. Platforms established in other countries, such as YouTube and Facebook, are excluded.
If it finds a VSP had failed to take appropriate measures to protect users, it will be able to investigate and take action, including fines or — in the most serious cases — suspending or restricting the service.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
WhatsApp Outage Hits Trading in Assets From Crypto to Russian Oil
By Reuters | Updated: 6 October 2021
WhatsApp’s nearly six-hour long outage on Monday hit trading of assets from cryptocurrencies to Russian oil, market players said, although a quick shift to alternative platforms such as Telegram limited severe disruption.
Despite many financial institutions discouraging employees from using messaging services such as WhatsApp and other Facebook platforms that went down on Monday, their convenience has made them popular among traders communicating with clients in over-the-counter (OTC) markets.
Facebook blamed a “faulty configuration change” for the outage that hit WhatsApp, as well as Instagram and Messenger, in the largest ever outage tracked by web monitoring group Downdetector.
Among those affected was BCB Group, a London-based crypto firm that offers OTC trading as well as other services. Facebook’s services went dark at around noon Eastern time (1600 GMT), a key window for BCB’s traders.
“The WhatsApp outage hit us in our busiest trading period where we face US counterparties,” said Chief Executive Oliver von-Landsberg Sadie.
“Day-on-day volume was down 15 percent on the average daily, which we’re internally attributing to the connectivity issues. Telegram and Slack-based trading was on par with daily averages.”
WhatsApp usage among financial traders tracked by communications surveillance firm VoxSmart has boomed as banks accept that clients want to use the platform, even if bosses prefer their staff to use official messaging channels, VoxSmart CEO Oliver Blower said.
The app has become the “default messaging service” in many markets, especially in continental Europe and Asia-Pacific, Blower added.
From some 2,000 interdealer users sending 10,000 messages a day in the energy market in 2016, VoxSmart today tracks between three and five million messages weekly across asset classes, including between banks and buy-side clients.
“What’s interesting is both the volume and the content of the messages. It’s not just, what time are you headed to ‘The Dog and Duck’, it’s, what’s your price on a 5-year?,” said Blower, using slang for a British pub.
WhatsApp to Telegram
Still, the prevalence of messenger services beyond WhatsApp meant Monday’s outage was a nuisance rather than a major disruption.
In India, for example, market chatter on WhatsApp has moved to Telegram where there are fewer restrictions on the size of group chats. The outage also came after markets had closed in much of Asia, limiting any impact.
In the Middle East, “crypto OTC trading is predominately on Telegram or WhatsApp, where you ask your OTC brokers for bid and offer, and then you hit it and they’ll confirm the transaction,” said Zachary Cefaratti, CEO of Dubai investment platform Dalma Capital, adding that Telegram was becoming more widely used.
OTC traders in oil markets were also hit, though again the blow was softened by the use of other platforms.
In Russia, oil traders said WhatsApp was commonly used to communicate details on orders across Europe and Asia. Monday’s outage was an “unpleasant surprise”, one Europe-based trader said.
“It was not nice. Everybody uses it. But we use alternative messengers too, so switched,” said another.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Facebook Blames ‘Faulty Configuration Change’ for Nearly Six-Hour Outage
By Reuters | Updated: 5 October 2021
Facebook blamed a “faulty configuration change” for a nearly six-hour outage on Monday that prevented the company’s 3.5 billion users from accessing its social media and messaging services such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger.
The company in a late Monday blog post did not specify who executed the configuration change and whether it was planned.
Several Facebook employees who declined to be named had told Reuters earlier that they believed that the outage was caused by an internal mistake in how Internet traffic is routed to its systems.
The failures of internal communication tools and other resources that depend on that same network in order to work compounded the error, the employees said. Security experts have said an inadvertent mistake or sabotage by an insider were both plausible.
“We want to make clear at this time we believe the root cause of this outage was a faulty configuration change,” Facebook said in the blog.
The Facebook outage is the largest ever tracked by Web monitoring group Downdetector.
The outage was the second blow to the social media giant in as many days after a whistleblower on Sunday accused the company of repeatedly prioritizing profit over clamping down on hate speech and misinformation.
As the world flocked to competing apps such as Twitter and TikTok, shares of Facebook fell 4.9 percent, their biggest daily drop since last November, amid a broader selloff in technology stocks on Monday. Shares rose about half a percent in after-hours trade following resumption of service.
“To every small and large business, family, and individual who depends on us, I’m sorry,” Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer tweeted, adding that it “may take some time to get to 100 percent.”
“Facebook basically locked its keys in its car,” tweeted Jonathan Zittrain, director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Twitter on Monday reported higher-than-normal usage, which led to some issues in people accessing posts and direct messages.
In one of the day’s most popular tweets, video streaming company Netflix shared a meme from its new hit show Suid Game captioned “When Instagram & Facebook are down,” that showed a person labeled “Twitter” holding up a character on the verge of falling labeled “everyone.”
Inside a Facebook group for advertisement buyers, one member wisecracked after service returned that “lots of people searched today ‘how to run google ads for clients.'”
Facebook, which is the world’s largest seller of online advertisements after Google, was losing about $545,000 ( roughly Rs. 4 crores) in US advertisement revenue per hour during the outage, according to estimates from ad measurement firm Standard Media Index.
Past downtime at Internet companies has had little long-term affect on their revenue growth, however.
Facebook’s services, including consumer apps such as Instagram, workplace tools it sells to businesses and internal programmes, went dark noon Eastern time (9:30pm IST). Access started to return around 5:45pm ET (3:15am IST).
Soon after the outage started, Facebook acknowledged users were having trouble accessing its apps but did not provide any specifics about the nature of the problem or say how many users were affected.
The error message on Facebook’s webpage suggested an error in the Domain Name System (DNS), which allows Web addresses to take users to their destinations. A similar outage at cloud company Akamai Technologies took down multiple websites in July.
On Sunday, Frances Haugen, who worked as a product manager on the civic misinformation team at Facebook, revealed that she was the whistleblower who provided documents underpinning a recent Wall Street Journal investigation and a US Senate hearing last week on Instagram’s harm to teen girls.
Haugen was due to urge the same Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to regulate the company, which she plans to liken to tobacco companies that for decades denied that smoking damaged health, according to prepared testimony seen by Reuters.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Zoom’s Abandoned Five9 Deal Shows Hurdles to Expansion
By Reuters | Updated: 4 October 2021
Zoom’s aborted $14.7 billion (roughly Rs. 1,09,280 crores) acquisition of call centre software firm Five9 has spotlighted issues that will weigh on the virtual meeting giant’s next attempt to expand through dealmaking, analysts, and investment bankers said.
Zoom’s unwillingness to add cash to its bid and rely solely on its stock as currency to pay for the Five9 deal backfired after its shares slipped by as much as 29 percent in the weeks after the deal was announced in July, on concerns that the return to physical meetings as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes will erode its business.
Five9 shareholders voted down the deal last week.
Investment bankers and analysts said Zoom’s stock would likely remain volatile until investors establish what the prospects of its business will be once the pandemic is over. This decreases the chances of another acquisition target accepting Zoom’s shares as currency in the near term, they said.
Zoom carries almost no debt but it had only $2 billion (roughly Rs. 14,865 crores) in cash as of the end of July, which it needs to fund growth initiatives.
“Zoom has to figure out how to keep some of the customers that signed up as individual subscribers that may not need Zoom when they return to more physical lives,” said Alex Zukin, an analyst at Wolfe Research.
Zoom declined to comment.
Another hurdle that could give the next company that will attract Zoom’s acquisition interest pause is its ties to China. US prosecutors charged a former China-based Zoom executive last year with disrupting video meetings commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown at the request of the Chinese government.
A US Justice Department-led committee said last month it was reviewing Zoom’s proposed acquisition of Five9 to see if it “poses a risk to the national security or law enforcement interests.”
While Five9 shareholders voted down the Zoom deal before that review concluded, analysts said the regulatory intervention exposed a risk that will continue to weigh on the minds of other acquisition targets.
“The US government is likely to give increased scrutiny to transactions involving companies with engineering talent or other operations in China,” said Sujit Raman, a former US Associate Deputy Attorney General who is now partner at law firm Sidley Austin LLP specialising in government investigations.
Activist hedge funds
Zoom sought to acquire Five9, whose call centre software is used by more than 2,000 companies across the globe to interact with their clients, offering more products beyond its flagship teleconferencing. Without any transformative acquisition, Zoom shareholders are likely to grow anxious over the company’s reliance on virtual meetings, whose popularity has peaked, some investors said.
Dianne McKeever, chief investment officer of investment firm Ides Capital Management said it was possible that an activist hedge fund would seek to take advantage of the situation by amassing a stake in Zoom and push for changes.
“When a deal falls apart, forced selling by often short-term focused, event driven funds can create an outsized valuation opportunity for a long-term investor,” McKeever said.
Examples of companies that attracted the wrath of investors after botching an acquisition attempt abound. Hedge fund TCI Fund Management, one of the biggest investors in Canadian National Railway Co, is calling on the railroad’s CEO to resign following its failed $29 billion (roughly Rs. 2,15,540 crores) acquisition bid for Kansas City Southern.
Activist hedge funds Starboard Value LP and Elliott Management Corp have amassed stakes in Willis Towers Watson, whose $30 billion (roughly Rs. 2,22,970 crores) merger with insurance broker Aon was called off earlier this year because of objections from US regulators.
To be sure, Zoom’s stock may be expensive for some activist hedge funds, analysts said. It is also not obvious whether there would be an acquirer for Zoom, which is something some activist hedge funds might push for.
Still, a failed deal can be interpreted by some investors as a signal by a company’s board that it cannot unlock more value, said Lawrence Elbaum, co-head of law firm Vinson & Elkins’ shareholder activism practice.
“This immediately makes their board seats vulnerable in an activism campaign,” Elbaum said.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Clubhouse Rolls Out Features to Record and Replay Conversations, Share Short Clips on Social Media
By Reuters | Updated: 1 October 2021
Social audio chat app Clubhouse is launching the ability to record and replay conversations and also download 30-second clips to share on social media or other sites, it said on Thursday. The app will also roll out an improved search function to help people find live and scheduled audio rooms, users and clubs oriented around certain interests, the company said.
The new features will aim to help content creators on Clubhouse expand their audience at a time when larger tech rivals like Facebook and Twitter have also introduced competing “social audio” features.
✨ lots of new news in this video ✨— Clubhouse (@Clubhouse) September 30, 2021
✂ CLIPS is in beta
🔎 SEARCH rolling out now
▶️ REPLAYS coming soon
and stay tuned for our entire eng & design team moving to LA to formally pursue voice acting pic.twitter.com/bUTabb9TDO
“Right now it’s too hard for (creators) to grow,” Paul Davison, Clubhouse’s co-creator and chief executive, said in an interview. “Anytime you help create a great moment or there’s a good quote, you can share that out far and wide, alongside a link that tells people where to go to join that club.”
The ability to record and replay conversations will be tested and offered to certain creators over the next few weeks, Clubhouse said, while the ability to share short clips rolled out on Thursday.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Google Meet Live Translation Feature Goes Live in Beta for Select Paid Tiers
By ANI | Updated: 30 September 2021
International teams that use Google Meet a lot have a new tool in their arsenal – the app can now generate live translated captions.
Google announced the rollout of live translated captions in Meet. When the feature is on, the app will automatically translate spoken language into another language, and produce captions on the fly.
Initially, the feature only supports English meetings which can be translated to Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German.
The benefits of having your speech translated to another language as you deliver it are obvious, both for the speaker and the listeners.
Google thinks the feature will be most useful in all-hands meetings and training programs with globally distributed teams, as well as educators communicating with students.
The feature is currently available for Google Workspace Business Plus, Enterprise Standard, Enterprise Plus, Education Plus, and Teaching and Learning Upgrade users.
There’s a catch, though: It’s only available in beta. This means that the Meet admin has to first enrol in the beta; once they do, the feature will be available by default and can be turned on during a Meet video call by going to Settings – Captions – Translated captions.
Google has been on fire lately when it comes to adding new Meet features. Last week, the Meet camera started automatically detecting when a user appears underexposed, and enhancing the brightness to improve their visibility.
The company also recently made the Hand Raise more visible in Meet, added new filters and masks to Meet (though only for personal accounts), and added emoji reacts to Meet.
There’s no word on when the live translated captions will become more widely available; the fact that the feature is available in beta means it’ll probably roll out to everyone at some point, but it may take weeks or months before that happens.
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