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Facebook Says Suspected Iranian Hackers Behind US Election Threats Operated in 2019

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By Reuters | Updated: 28 October 2020

Iranian hackers suspected of emailing threatening messages to US voters last week and spreading false information about compromised election systems ran a disinformation campaign last year targeting the Middle East, Facebook said on Tuesday.

US officials blamed Iran last week for thousands of threatening emails and an online video that purported to show hackers breaking into a voter registration system just days before the US presidential election. Tehran has denied the allegations.

Facebook said it had suspended one fake account which attempted to share the video on its site. That account in turn led to more than 20 other accounts on Facebook and Instagram, revealing a dormant disinformation operation that had targeted countries including Israel and Saudi Arabia in 2019, the company said.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said the newly-discovered accounts were largely inactive, but had previously attempted to spread claims about an “alleged massacre” at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Israel.

US intelligence agencies are still analysing who exactly in Iran commanded the operation and its intent, three people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters last week.

Gleicher said on Tuesday his team found a small number of technical links to a disinformation network suspended in April that was attributed to Iran’s state broadcaster, as well as “connections to individuals associated with the Iranian government.”

Facebook also said it had suspended two pages and 22 Instagram accounts run by people from Mexico and Venezuela that used fake identities and other forms of so-called “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” to post about current events and politics in the United States.

Some of the accounts posed as Americans and posted in Spanish and English about topics including race relations, feminism and the environment, Facebook said. They were identified following a tip from the FBI, it added.

While it was not clear who was behind the activity, some accounts posted captioned pictures previously used by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian organisation US prosecutors have said played a key role in Moscow’s efforts to sway the 2016 US election.

Gleicher said both networks, as well as a third operation targeting Internet users in Myanmar, had been caught before they could attract significant followings.

But he said “malicious actors” were increasingly using concerns about their own election interference attempts to further sow distrust and division.

“We call it perception hacking,” he said. “Rather than actually breaking into a sensitive voter database or using a large social influence campaign, you just play on everyone’s fear that it exists.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Oversight Board Begins Daunting Task on Content Disputes

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 December 2020

Facebook’s “supreme court” tasked with deciding on allowing or removing sensitive and harmful content has begun operations, with a backlog of some 20,000 cases already piling up for the expert panel.

The independent panel, formally known as the Facebook Oversight Board, is considering cases involving Nazi propaganda, hate speech, nudity, pandemic misinformation, and dangerous individuals or organisations.

The board, created at the urging of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with the authority to overrule him and other top executives, said it is prioritising cases that have “potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Facebook’s policies.”

Facebook has agreed to be bound by decisions on appeals, but rulings will only apply to cases at issue and will not set precedents.

But Julie Owono, a board member and the executive director of Paris-based digital rights group Internet Sans Frontieres, said she hopes the board can help establish “jurisprudence” which could set broader standards on content decisions.

Emotion trumps truth?
The board has steered clear of complaints directly related to misleading or disproven claims posted by US President Donald Trump or other high-profile figures commenting on the election.

It is, however, considering an appeal of a decision to remove a post crediting Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels with opining on the need to appeal to emotions and instincts instead of intellect and interest in the truth.

“The user indicated in their appeal to the Oversight Board that the quote is important as the user considers the current US presidency to be following a fascist model,” a summary of the appeal said.

Another appeal being considered regards removal of a screenshot of tweets by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad that contended “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.”

The person making the appeal contends it was meant to raise awareness about his “horrible words,” according to the board.

Breast cancer awareness
Six of the more than 20,000 appeals submitted to the board in October were selected for consideration, with one of the petitions made by the leading social network and the remaining five by users, according to a blog post.

An appeal out of Brazil challenged a decision to remove Instagram pictures of breasts showing cancer symptoms because they also revealed more nudity than is allowed by Facebook rules.

The Instagram photos were shared as part of a “Pink October” campaign for the prevention of breast cancer, according to the appeal.

The panel has also agreed to review a post in a group claiming the unproven combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin is a cure for COVID-19.

Each appeal case has been assigned to a five-member panel that includes at least one member from the region implicated in the content, according to the board.

Decisions and action by Facebook in response to them were expected within 90 days.

The board is taking public comment on cases in an effort to tap into expertise of individuals or organizations on related topics.

The idea for the panel was first proposed by Zuckerberg in 2018, as an independent body which could overrule decisions made by the company regarding what posts stay up and which come down.

Members come from various countries and include jurists, human rights activists, journalists, a Nobel peace laureate and a former Danish prime minister.

Facebook, which has set up an independent foundation to operate the board, said it has been working on software that allows members to review cases from anywhere in the world.

Critics of the social network have expressed skepticism regarding about the oversight board and whether Facebook will comply with content decisions that could curb use and, by extension, advertisement revenue.

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Slack Work-Chat Service to Be Acquired by Salesforce in $27.7-Billion Deal

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By Associated Press | Updated: 2 December 2020 

Business software pioneer Salesforce is buying work-chatting service Slack for $27.7 billion (roughly Rs. 2,03,400 crores) in a deal aimed at giving the two companies a better shot at competing against longtime industry powerhouse Microsoft.

The acquisition announced Tuesday is by far the largest in the 21-year history of Salesforce. The San Francisco company was one of the first to begin selling software as a subscription service that could be used on any Internet-connected device instead of the more cumbersome process of installing the programs on individual computers.

Salesforce’s flamboyant founder and CEO Marc Benioff hailed the “cloud computing” concept as the wave of the future to much derision initially.

But software as a service has become an industry standard that has turned into a gold mine for longtime software makers. Microsoft for one has developed its own thriving online suite of services, known as Office 365, which includes a Teams chatting service that includes many of the same features as Slack’s 6-year-old application.

Slack in July filed a complaint in the European Union accusing Microsoft of illegally bundling Teams into Office 365 in a way that blocks its removal by customers who may prefer Slack.

Microsoft also has been posing a threat to Salesforce’s main products, a line-up of tools that help other companies manage their customer relationships.

“For Benioff, this is all about Microsoft,” Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives said of Tuesday’s deal. “It’s just clear Microsoft is moving further and further away from Salesforce when it comes to the cloud wars.”

Benioff left no doubt he considered the deal to be a major coup, after losing out to Microsoft in 2016 when the two companies were both vying to buy the professional networking service LinkedIn.

“It’s a match made in heaven,” Benioff said during an ebullient conference call. “We see in Slack a once-in-a-generation company and platform. It’s a central nervous system for so many companies.”

Salesforce has been building on its success in recent years to diversify into other fields, largely through a series of acquisitions that included its previous largest deal, a $15.7 billion (roughly Rs.1,15,900 crores) purchase of data analytics specialist Tableau Software last year.

Many of the deals have been financed with Salesforce’s stock, which is worth nearly seven times more than it was a decade ago to lift the company’s current market value to $220 billion (roughly Rs.16,15,400 crores). Salesforce is using its stock to pay for roughly half of the Slack purchase, with the rest being covered with some cash, with some of the money being borrowed during a time of extraordinarily low interest rates.

Slack, on the other hand, hasn’t proven as popular with investors, even though its service that publicly launched in 2014 is being increasingly used by companies and government agencies looking for more nimble alternatives than email. Before news reports of a potential deal with Salesforce surfaced last week, Slack’s stock was still hovering around its initial listing price of $26 (roughly Rs. 1,900) when the company went public nearly 18 months ago.

“This is a stellar exit strategy for Slack,” said Kate Leggett, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Microsoft Teams is eating Slack’s lunch.”

Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield will be hoping this sale works out better than when another company he started, photo sharing service Flickr, was sold to Yahoo 15 years ago. Flickr got lost in the shuffle at Yahoo amid years of turmoil before it was finally sold again in 2018 to SmugMug.

In his next act after leaving Flickr, Butterfield decided to focus on gaming with a startup called Tiny Speck that launched in 2009. A few years later, he shifted to the instant messaging service whose name was an acronym for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge.”

Leggett predicted Salesforce would benefit from owning Slack because it will add a popular collaboration tool to its own software suite, which is focused on managing customer relationships for businesses and government agencies. She said the need for customer-relations agents and other Salesforce users to swarm around a topic and collaborate remotely has only grown with the coronavirus pandemic that has sent so many office workers home and got many hooked on new online tools.

If all goes smoothly, Salesforce hopes to take control of Slack sometime from May to July next year.

Slack, which is free for people who use the basic version, found quick adoption in the tech industry for its ease of use and its fostering of a more casual mode of conversation than email. The company stopped releasing its daily user count after topping 12 million last year, focusing instead on paid customers, which Butterfield said in March have shown a “massive outpouring of interest” because of the way the pandemic has forced people to work from home.

“I think the pandemic’s played a massive role” in paving the way for the deal, Ives said. “The Zooms, the Slacks, the Microsoft Teams, that’s going to be a new part of the workforce.”

Ives said Benioff was also running out of time to catch up to Microsoft, which remains a secondary player in Salesforce’s core customer-relations-management business, known as CRM, but way ahead in providing a broader array of cloud-based services.

Slack and Salesforce are headquartered about a block away from each other in San Francisco. Slack’s office is in the shadow of the 62-story Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in Northern California.

“I get to look right out my window and you know what I see? Slack,” Benioff said.

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Zoom Q3 Results Show COVID-Related Breakneck Growth Is Slowing Down

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By Associated Press | Updated: 1 December 2020

Zoom’s videoconferencing service remains a fixture in pandemic life, but its breakneck growth is showing signs of tapering off as investors debate whether the company will be able to build upon its recent success after a vaccine enables people to intermingle again.

For now, Zoom is thriving as tens of millions of people who never heard of the service at the beginning of the year rely on its video meeting tools to connect with their co-workers, teachers, friends and family while efforts to fight contain the pandemic prevent them from going into offices, schools and most many other places. That dependence boosted Zoom’s fortunes, producing a pandemic-driven success story that was highlighted again Monday with the release of the company’s quarterly results for the August-October period.

Zoom’s revenue more than quadrupled from the same time last year to $777 million (roughly Rs. 5,700 crores), yielding a profit of $198 million (roughly Rs. 1,500 crores), up from just $2.2 million (roughly Rs. 16 crores) a year ago. Both those figures easily topped the estimates among analyst surveyed by FactSet Research, but Zoom’s stock still shed 5 percent in Monday ‘s extended trading after the numbers came out.

One possible reason for the reaction is that number of companies anteing up for Zoom’s subscription version of its service isn’t rising as rapidly as during the pandemic’s early stages. Zoom ended its latest quarter with 4,33,700 customers with at least 10 employees, an increase of 63,500 customers from July. In each of the previous two quarters, Zoom had added more than 1,00,000 customers with at least 10 employees.

While that slowdown was considered an inevitable, the drop-off is nevertheless causing many investors to start considering the possibility that Zoom won’t be able to maintain the momentum it gained from this year’s stay-at-home orders after a substantial portion of the population is vaccinated against the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 1.4 million people worldwide.

As more investors have conclude Zoom has already reached its zenith, the company’s stock price has fallen more than 20 percent from its all-time high of $588.84 (roughly Rs. 43,300) reached last month. Despite the decline, the shares are still more than six times higher than where they ended last year.

Those still betting on Zoom believe many subscribers who signed up for subscriptions to the videoconferencing service during the pandemic will continue to pay for it after the crisis is over as companies continue to limit the number of employees into their offices and cut back on business travel after learning how much can be accomplished in virtual meetings.

“The trends of remote work had started long before the pandemic and they have just been accelerated by this,” Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s chief financial officer, said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. “Given the adoption and the way we have seen all segments, from small business owners to individuals all the way up to large organizations, embrace Zoom, we really expect that those remote working trends will continue even after there is a vaccine.”

In a reflection of the high hopes for Zoom, analysts polled by FactSet predict the company’s revenue next year will reach $3.1 billion (roughly Rs. 22,800 crores). That would be a roughly 20 percent increase from revenue of nearly $2.6 billion (roughly Rs. 19,100 crores) that Zoom is projecting for this year. An effective vaccine also would probably widen Zoom’s profit margins because it is spending more money this year offering a free service to about 1,25,000 schools that are instructing students online instead of in classrooms.

But Nucleus Research analyst Trevor White thinks Zoom is more likely to become known as a “one-hit wonder” after the pandemic, partly because of competition from bigger companies such as Microsoft and Google that can also bundle together other business products with their videoconferencing services.

“Zoom’s spike in consumer demand has given it a competitive edge that cannot transition well into the reopened economy,” White predicted.

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Facebook, Google Becoming ‘Human Rights-Free Zones’ in Vietnam: Amnesty International

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 1 December 2020

Facebook and Google are fast becoming “human rights-free zones” in Vietnam, Amnesty International warned Tuesday, accusing the tech titans of helping censor peaceful dissent and political expression in the country.

Communist Vietnam has long jailed its critics but has come under fire in recent years for targeting users on Facebook, a popular forum for activists in the country where all independent media is banned.

The social network admitted earlier this year that it was blocking content deemed illegal by authorities, while its latest transparency report revealed a nearly 1,000 percent increase in the content it censors on government orders compared to the previous six months.

Amnesty said in a Tuesday report that it had interviewed 11 activists whose content had been restricted from view in Vietnam by Facebook this year.

The rights group also said three others had similar content censored by Google-owned YouTube.

One of them, Nguyen Van Trang, who fled an arrest warrant in Vietnam for his involvement in a pro-democracy group, said Facebook had since May restricted every piece of content he posted about Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong and senior party member Tran Quoc Vuong.

Trang also said some of his posts on controversial issues such as land disputes were blocked from view in Vietnam by YouTube.

“I feel angry about it,” he told AFP. “For social activists, these platforms play an important role in influencing people with regard to progressive values such as democracy, human rights, civil society.”

“The compromise between Facebook and Google is not only the act of blocking information, but it also hinders the progress of a nation, where people do not have many opportunities to participate in political activities.”

‘Propaganda against the Party’
More than 53 million people use Facebook in Vietnam, accounting for over half the population. The platform is also a crucial marketing tool for local business.

Vietnam is now the biggest country by revenue for Facebook and Google in Southeast Asia, according to industry experts.

But Amnesty warned that while they were “once the great hope for the expansion of freedom of expression in the country, social media platforms are fast becoming human rights–free zones”.

Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung said last month that tech companies were complying with requests to remove “bad information, propaganda against the Party and the State” at a higher rate than ever, according to state media.

The same article reported that this year Facebook complied with 95 percent of the government’s requests whereas YouTube complied with 90 percent.

A Facebook spokesperson told AFP it worked hard to defend freedom of speech around the world.

“Over the past few months, we’ve faced additional pressure from the government of Vietnam to restrict more content, however, we will do everything we can to ensure that our services remain available so people can continue to express themselves,” it said.

Google and Vietnamese authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Slack in Talks to Be Acquired by Salesforce: Report

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 26 November 2020

US software firm Salesforce plans to buy corporate messaging platform Slack, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, leading to a jump in stock prices for the young company.

Slack, which has enjoyed increased popularity since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, saw its shares surge 32 percent.

Trade was temporarily suspended but prices were still up nearly 24 percent around 1:00pm (11:30pm IST).

Salesforce, which specialises in technology that allows businesses to communicate with clients, fell nearly three percent, however.

The two companies have begun merger discussions for an agreement that could see Slack valued at more than the present market capitalisation of $17 billion (roughly Rs. 1,25,500 crores), the Journal reported.

“If Salesforce does head down this path it would set off a chain reaction for more cloud software deals in 2021,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said.

It could pave the way for more mergers in the cloud tech sector, Ives said, especially since the move could set up Salesforce as a competitor for Microsoft, which owns Slack rival Teams.

Salesforce acquired data software company MuleSoft in 2018 for around $6.5 million (roughly Rs. 47 crores) and data visualisation tool Tableau for $15.7 billion (roughly Rs.1,15,900 crores) in 2019.

Slack, which purports to make it easier for teams of employees to collaborate online, has boomed as remote working has gained a cultural foothold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its latest quarterly report, the company declared a 49 percent increase in revenue for May, June and July, to $216 million (roughly Rs. 1,600 crores). The platform counts 1,30,000 paying clients.

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TikTok Sale Deadline Extended to December 4 by US Treasury

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 26 November 2020

The US Treasury on Wednesday said it had extended by seven days the November 27 deadline given to the Chinese owner of TikTok to sell the popular social media platform’s American business.

“The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has granted ByteDance a one-week extension, from November 27, 2020 to December 4, 2020 to allow time to review a revised submission that the Committee recently received,” a Treasury spokesperson said.

President Donald Trump’s administration has expressed national security concerns over the app, claiming it could be used for Chinese espionage and threatening to ban it.

The ban has been challenged in courts, including a case in Washington and a separate filing by the app’s “creators” in a Pennsylvania court, which blocked the ban on October 30, though the government is appealing that order.

Trump, who lost his bid for re-election this month, has claimed that TikTok, which has some 100 million US users, can be used to collect data on Americans for Chinese espionage, a claim denied by the company.

The White House has said TikTok must become a US firm controlled by American investors to avert a ban.

But any plan would likely need approval from Beijing, which has balked at giving up control of its social media star.

China’s commerce ministry published new rules in August that added “civilian use” to a list of the types of technology that are restricted for export, which could make it more difficult for ByteDance to sell TikTok, which features clips of everything from dance routines to politics.

A deal appeared to take shape earlier this year which would allow Silicon Valley giant Oracle to be the data partner for a newly incorporated TikTok Global, with Walmart joining as a commercial partner.

While Trump signaled his approval for the plan, it has not been finalised and the prospects remain unclear.

The developments come amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and national security, with the US administration having also banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from obtaining US technology and from deals involving wireless networks.

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