At least 30,000 US organizations, small businesses and government offices were victims of Microsoft Exchange hack: Krebs

Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella
Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

At least 30,0000 organizations across the US have been hacked over the last few days through flaws in Microsoft’s Exchange server email software, sources familiar with the matter told KrebsOnSecurity.

The “unusually aggressive Chinese cyber espionage unit” that Microsoft calls “Hafnium” is focusing on stealing emails from a range of victims, including companies, small businesses, and local governments, Krebs said. 

The group exploited four flaws in Microsoft’s Exchange servers. The bugs gave attackers full remote control over the affected systems.

With each hacking incident, the group left behind a hacking tool called “web shell” that is protected by an easy password and could be accessed from any internet browser, the cybersecurity blog said. This tool allowed hackers to have administrative access to computer servers.

Microsoft released a security update this week to patch Exchange versions from 2013 to 2019. Microsoft recommended users immediately install updates to the Exchange product, which is primarily used by business customers. The company also said that it informed appropriate US government agencies about the breach.

Microsoft said the email system is used by organizations including companies, infectious disease researchers, defense contractors, law firms, NGOs, and universities. 

The purported Chinese hacking group is responsible for seizing control over hundreds of thousands of Microsoft Exchange servers worldwide, two anonymous cybersecurity experts told KrebsOnSecurity.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded to Microsoft’s accusations in a Wednesday press briefing, saying there was not enough evidence to draw a conclusion on the Exchange hack’s origins, according to Bloomberg.

This is the eighth time in the last 12 months that Microsoft has publicly reported state-sponsored hacks.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a press briefing on Friday that the weaknesses found in Microsoft’s Exchange Servers were “significant.” 

“We’re concerned that there are a large number of victims,” she added.

The Prague municipality and the Czech Ministry for Labor and Social Affairs were impacted by the Hafnium server breach, according to Reuters who cited a European cyber official briefed on the issue.

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Twitch reportedly approached investor Chamath Palihapitiya to announce his SPAC deals on its live-streaming platform

Chamath Palihapitiya
Investor Chamath Palihapitiya.

  • According to the Wall Street Journal, Twitch approached Chamath Palihapitiya to announce his deals. 
  • Palihapitiya has built a large following on social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter.
  • Twitch did not immediately respond to request to comment from Insider.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Twitch is looking to capitalize on the growing buzz surrounding venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya

According to the Wall Street Journal, the live-streaming service approached Palihapitiya about becoming the exclusive platform to announce his business deals. Palihapitiya – founder and CEO of Social Capital and a frequent sponsor of special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, – has developed a loyal following on social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter, where he openly discusses his next targets and slings insults at hedge funds and traditional finance institutions. 

Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, has an estimated 26 million daily users. Twitch did not immediately respond to request to comment from Insider.

Amid the surge of SPAC deals in recent months, Palihapitiya has become a leader in navigating the increasingly crowded market and appealing to an anti-establishment group of investors. His star has continued to rise thanks largely to his ability to speak openly and candidly about SPAC deals before they start trading, a practice that is restricted in the traditional initial public offering process. 

“I am a byproduct of my generation and media culture, which is faceted,” Palihapitiya said in a recent interview with Bloomberg. “Not always great facets, but multifaceted. And so you have to speak in the language of the times in order to get your point across.”

As a result, the investor has built a growing audience of day traders and investors that cling to his every word in search of the next big deal, which can translate to big business for streaming platforms like Twitch and cable networks.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Palihapitiya arranged for extended airtime with CNBC on the days of specific announcements during which he presents slides from his investor presentation. His appearances on CNBC have had significant influence on the perception of the SPAC, and their ability to bring  a company public without having to go through the formal IPO process. 

“I think that SPACs are very much here to stay,” Palihapitiya told Bloomberg in February. “Using the language of inequality, it evens the playing field. It democratizes access to high growth companies. How? Because it allows retail and it allows long-tail institutional investors. Folks that might not have necessarily been tier one hedge funds, now they can also play.”

 

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Sony has filed a patent for a system that could turn bananas and other household items into PlayStation controllers

Screenshot of Sony's patent
An illustration of Sony’s patent.

  • Sony Interactive Inc. has filed a patent to convert inanimate objects into game controllers. 
  • The system could potentially work with anything from coffee mugs to pens.
  • It would also be equipped with a camera that will allow players to press virtual buttons. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently published a bizarre request from video game firm Sony Interactive Entertainment Inc. to patent a system that turns ordinary household objects and food products into PlayStation controllers, Entrepreneur reports.

“The system comprises an input unit operable to obtain images of a non-luminous passive object held by a user as a video game controller,” the patent says.

In the patent, Sony uses an illustrated banana to visualize their new system. Oranges are among one of the other examples the company uses. “E.g. a player may hold two bananas – one in each respective hand; or e.g two oranges – one in each respective hand.”

While the patent designs shows a banana, Sony anticipates that the system would work with anything from coffee mugs to a piece of bread. 

“It would be desirable if a user could use an inexpensive, simple, and non-electronic device as a video game peripheral,” the patent says, as reported by Polygon.

The system also consists of an object detector and an object pose detector, which is dependent on the position of at least one of the player’s hands, all registered by a camera, per Entrepreneur. The camera would be installed with the purpose of mapping out virtual buttons on the object of choice so that pressing on an object works like pressing a button. 

The patent says this would help users take advantage of all the functions of games, including multiplayer.

Even though the patent is registered, it doesn’t mean Sony will actually carry out the project. A patent only protects other competitors from utilizing this type of technology.

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AT&T has been sued by the SEC for allegedly disclosing nonpublic information to analysts in 2016

AT&T
People walk past the AT&T store in New York’s Times Square, June 17, 2015.

  • AT&T was accused of revealing nonpublic data to avoid missing analysts’ revenue estimates in 2016.
  • The SEC is seeking permanent injunctive relief and civil monetary penalties against each defendant.
  • AT&T said that the allegations it revealed material information are “meritless.”
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against AT&T and three of its investor relations executives for allegedly revealing nonpublic information to analysts to avoid missing revenue estimates in 2016. 

The SEC filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Manhattan on Friday, and said in the complaint that AT&T violated Regulation FD, which requires that firms disclosing material information do so broadly to the investing public, not just to select people. 

The SEC is seeking permanent injunctive relief and civil monetary penalties against each defendant.

AT&T didn’t respond to Insider’s request for comment but maintains the SEC claims are meritless. 

“We look forward to having our ‘day in court’ to demonstrate conclusively that our investor relations employees complied with Regulation FD, and that the allegations in the SEC’s complaints are meritless,” AT&T said in a statement in response to the allegations.

The SEC argues that AT&T knew that it could miss analysts’ revenue estimates for its first-quarter in 2016 due to its larger-than-expected decline in its smartphone sales. To avoid missing estimates for the third consecutive quarter, the company’s investor relations executives, Christopher Womack, Michael Black, and Kent Evans, privately called analysts in around 20 separate firms, the SEC said.

During the phone calls, all three executives allegedly shared AT&T’s internal smartphone sales data and its impact on internal revenue metrics.

Following those calls, analysts reduced their revenue forecasts which led to a slightly lower overall revenue estimate than the one the company reported in April 2016, according to the SEC complaint.

AT&T said that there wasn’t any material  disclosure made, and cited the lack of any market reaction to the company’s first-quarter results in 2016. 

The company added that the material discussed was about the impact of removing subsidy programs on smartphone upgrade rates. Those subsidy programs allowed customers to upgrade their phones and without them, they were buying phones less frequently which as a result reduced equipment revenue. 

AT&T said it disclosed this trend on multiple occasions and clarified that it will not impact its earnings.

The telecommunications company has been hit with other lawsuits since the beginning of 2021. 

Last month, Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued AT&T Mobility National Accounts for charging the city huge sums of money for cellphone and internet services when it was contractually supposed to provide the city the cheapest services available, Reuters reported. The company responded saying that the allegations were “entirely without merit.”

In January, Seattle company Network Apps LLC filed a lawsuit against AT&T accusing the company of patent theft of a technology that allows smart devices to respond to calls assigned to one phone number, Reuters reported. The company is facing a potential payout of at least $1.35 billion.  AT&T said it would review the lawsuit and respond in court.

 

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Dispo is the buzzy, invite-only photo app that’s being called both the ‘new Instagram’ and the ‘anti-Instagram’

Watching on multiple devices
Dispo offers users a more authentic approach to taking photos.

For the last 10 years, Instagram has dominated the photo app scene, but now its potential rival has arrived. 

Dispo, a new, invite-only app, offers users a more authentic approach to taking photos by bringing disposable cameras back into fashion, but in digital form.

The app has attracted significant buzz since its launch in February, becoming the fourth most downloadable app on the App Store, as reported by Entrepreneur. 

According to Axios, the app is valued at about $200 million. 

The simple concept helps it stands out among competitors, including Google photos, CNBC reports. 

Users can take as many photos as they like, but unlike Instagram, the photos cannot be edited with filters, stickers, and texts and cannot be accessed immediately until the photos have been “developed,” as reported by CNBC. The photos can be accessed the following morning at 9 a.m.

Dispo users can also choose whether they would like to post their pictures in a solo or a ‘shared’ roll with other people.

The idea is that users will enjoy their experiences while fully in the moment and without receiving immediate gratification. This makes Dispro the ‘anti-Instagram’ social media platform, according to BuzzFeed.

Entrepreneur’s report quoted Dispo user Terry O’Neal as saying: “Instagram turned everyone into general photographers. Dispo makes you a photographer with a purpose. That is where the construction of the community is: everyone seeks the same thing through their own lens.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times, David Dobrik, a popular YouTuber and creator of Dispo, discussed why he purposely limited the options. He said: “When I used to go to parties with my friends, they had disposable cameras all over the house, and they invited people to take pictures at night. In the morning, they would pick up all the cameras, look back at the footage and say, ‘What happened last night?’ 

The proliferation of invite-only apps has been rising in recent months. Founded in 2020, Clubhouse, an invite-only chatting app, disrupted the social media landscape. The app creates a space for users to meet up to host, tune in, and in some circumstances, join conversations within a community consisting of venture capitalists, celebrities, journalists, and more. 

 

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How ghost kitchens’ business models could threaten the future of traditional dine-in restaurants

Pasta Cooking in Industrial Kitchen.
Dark kitchens were already gaining popularity before the pandemic.

  • Dark kitchens are gaining popularity, enabling restaurants to cut costs during the pandemic. 
  • Spanish broadcaster RTVE estimated 25% of home food deliveries now came from dark kitchens. 
  • If the trend continues, traditional dining establishments will likely find it difficult to recover.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the food industry forever and brought new trends with it.

Among them are “dark kitchens” or “ghost kitchens.”

Dark kitchens consist of premises where food is prepared for home delivery or collection but do not have a dining area or waiters.

The business’s customer service and dining area rental aspects are removed, cutting costs and enabling a direct relationship with consumers.

The concept was already gaining popularity before the pandemic, taking over fast-food chains and supermarkets.

Many restaurants also share premises and facilities to cut costs even further.

Over the last year, dark kitchens have grown exponentially in popularity.

Grocery giant Kroger announced in October that it was opening more dark kitchens to meet surging delivery demand, and Chipotle outlined plans to open its first dark kitchen in November, although the chain has been using digital kitchens within its restaurants for some time.

In many ways, dark kitchens have been the saving grace of the pandemic, allowing restaurants to continue operating despite restrictions that ban diners from visiting their establishments.

25% of food deliveries during the pandemic come from dark kitchens, according to Spanish broadcaster RTVE.

It’s not just restaurants that are catching on – it’s delivery giants too.

Food delivery firm Deliveroo, now worth $7 billion, said it would spend its latest funding win of $180 million partly on investing in dark kitchens.

This will enable them to increase their profit margins hugely as they will no longer be dependent on delivery commissions from restaurants.

However, there are concerns that dark kitchens could threaten traditional dining establishments, as they cannot compete with the larger profit margins, quicker deliveries, and lower prices offered by dark kitchen restaurants.

If they do not return in numbers equivalent to pre-pandemic levels, it will be difficult for restaurants to recover from the losses incurred over lockdowns and closures will be inevitable.

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Amazon will add more delivery stations in New York City in 2021

Amazon prime driver
  • Amazon will launch ten delivery stations in New York City in 2021 and beyond, a company spokesperson said.
  • Delivering from a city-based facility is at least 22% more cost-effective, according to a Deloitte report.
  • Each delivery station will offer around 100 to 150 jobs with a starting wage of $15 per hour.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Amazon plans to set up more delivery stations in New York City to power the last-mile of its order process and provide faster deliveries to customers, the company said. 

The tech giant will launch ten delivery stations in the Big Apple throughout 2021 and beyond, two of which are now operational, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Insider in an email this week.

The new sites will be located in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Amazon has five operational delivery stations across the five boroughs including two in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, one on Staten Island, and one in Queens, according to the spokesperson. It also has two operational delivery stations on Long Island and a sortation center and a fulfillment center on Staten Island.

As online shopping surged during the pandemic, with people staying home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Amazon went looking for warehouse space to expand its footprint in New York City, the country’s biggest market, the New York Times reported this week. None of Amazon’s competitors, including Walmart and Target, have a warehouse in the city, the Times said. 

It is at least 22% more cost-effective to deliver to New Yorkers from a city-based facility than from a facility located in New Jersey where packages typically came from, according to a report by Deloitte.

“We want to get as close to the customer as possible to ensure we can offer fast shipping speeds to customers,” the Amazon spokesperson told Insider.

Each delivery station will offer around 100 to 150 jobs with a wage of $15 per hour and work benefits, the spokesperson said. 

Amazon has had a fraught history trying to set up  in New York City. In 2018, Amazon announced it would build part of its second headquarter in New York, saying the project would provide 25,000 full-time jobs and a $2.5 billion investment in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens. The company would have received an estimated $3 billion in tax incentives.

However, the tech company faced backlash from local politicians, New Yorkers, and labor union representatives who argued that the project could increase rents, overcrowd schools, and congest the subway system. 

Amazon canceled plans to build the HQ2 in February 2019, citing local opposition.

Later in 2019, Amazon confirmed to Insider that it signed a lease for a new 335,000-foot office in New York City that is set to open in 2021. Located in the Hudson Yards area, the new office will employ over 1,500 people, Amazon said.

Amazon plans to continue benefitting from the online shopping surge throughout 2021 as it looks into ways to facilitate delivery and reshuffle inventory such as boosting its air cargo operations.

It launched over 200 new sites across the US in 2020, including fulfillment and sortation centers, and delivery stations, according to the spokesperson.

By late 2020, Amazon announced its plans to set up 1,000 small delivery stations in cities and suburban areas across the country to meet high shopping demands, Bloomberg reported citing people familiar with the matter.  

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Big Tech is under attack from every angle as governments, employees, and consumers come to grips with the industry’s concentration of power

Mark Zuckerberg regulation protest
An activist wearing a mask depicting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in December 2020.

  • Tech companies are facing pressure from all sides: governments, consumers, and their own employees.
  • It’s resulting in governments worldwide issuing new regulations or filing landmark lawsuits.
  • Consumers and employees are also putting pressure on tech firms to evaluate their impact on society.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The walls are closing in on the tech industry.

Governments from Australia to the US are cracking down on big tech companies. Employees are working to form unions at firms like Google and Amazon. And consumers appear to be more distrustful of the world’s biggest platforms than ever before. 

The increased level of scrutiny on Big Tech marks a reckoning of sorts for the industry, one borne out of an increasing understanding of the power these companies wield and a shifting cultural mood toward activism and holding the powers that be accountable.

Experts say it will result in a seismic shift in the industry and one that is already affecting governments, tech companies, and consumers alike. 

“There was a golden era when people focused on the enormous good technology could do to connect users to one another and democratize access to information,” Alexandra Givens, president and CEO at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Insider. “Now, there’s increasing recognition that with this great power comes great responsibility.”

Governments are ratcheting up the pressure on Big Tech

Tech antitrust hearing cicilline gaetz bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifying during the House antitrust hearing last summer.

Last summer, something unprecedented happened: the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google testified before Congress at the same time over concerns they engaged in anticompetitive practices – and they got grilled.

Since then, the Justice Department has filed a landmark antitrust suit against Google, one that’s expected to reverberate throughout the tech industry.

It marks a turning point, not only in how lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view the tech giants, but also in how prepared they are to scrutinize them. As Givens noted, lawmakers staffed up ahead of the hearings in order to be better prepared to question tech CEOs, an effort she expects will continue to “bear fruit” in 2021. (The most recent tech-focused government appointee is Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor and outspoken critic of Big Tech, who will serve on the National Economic Council.)

State governments are also now beginning to probe tech giants’ business practices on numerous fronts: A group of dozens of states have filed their own antitrust complaint against Google; the Arizona House recently passed a bill that would allow app developers to use their own payments systems, circumventing the tariffs imposed by Google’s and Apple’s app stores; and Maryland is imposing a new tax on revenue from digital ads sold by tech giants. 

The US isn’t the only one taking action over how tech companies behave. Just in the last month, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber should count its drivers as workers, an issue Uber, as well as Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash, have fought against in the US as well. And in Australia, the government passed a new law that requires Google and Facebook to pay publishers in order to display their news content in search results and on news feeds.

“It reflects a growing recognition of the fundamental role that technology plays in people’s lives: from how we discover new information to how we connect with friends and family, to how we access job opportunities, find housing, access government benefits,” Givens said. 

And, of course, there’s the issue of Section 230. The law, officially known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, is a point of contention for both Republicans and Democrats – it states that internet platforms like Facebook or Twitter can’t be regulated as publishers, meaning they can’t be held accountable for speech on their platforms.

Givens said this issue, and the issue of misinformation on social media platforms more broadly, is more top of mind than ever before following the 2020 election, which she described as a turning point for many people in realizing the effects online public discourse can have on democracy. As a result, Facebook and Twitter actually changed their policies and instituted bans they had previously been reluctant to impose. 

“We suddenly saw this flourishing of far more creative ways to try and improve the health of information on these online services, and you could tell that was the companies really trying to rise to the moment and importantly, rise to public pressure about the moment,” she said. “This didn’t all happen in a vacuum. This was from civil society, organizations, community, activists, employees, all calling on them to do more.”

Consumers and employees are holding tech companies accountable

Amazon protest covid
Amazon workers protesting the company’s policies during the coronavirus pandemic on May 1 in Hawthorne, California.

But government crackdowns are just one piece of the puzzle: there’s also been a noticeable shift from in thinking among both tech employees and the customers they serve. 

Two Pew Research Center surveys from the last two years show that Americans have a much less rosy outlook on Big Tech than they did in the past. A 2019 survey showed that the percentage of Americans who believe that tech companies have a positive impact on society plummeted more than 20 percentage points from 2015, from 71% to 50%. On the flip side, those who felt tech companies have a negative impact rose from 17% to 33% during this same period. 

And last year, a second Pew survey found that 72% of adults in the US believe social media companies have too much power and influence in politics, with about half of respondents on both ends of the political spectrum saying the government should regulate tech companies more than they currently do. 

Givens chalked up the increased consumer distrust partly to increased awareness among consumers about how their information is being used and shared, which is inspiring tech companies to make changes to their products – Apple, for example, has long touted its commitment to privacy, but it will soon roll out a new software feature that goes one step further: It will allow users to opt out of tracking for advertising purposes, a tool that caused an uproar from app developers, and from Facebook.

“There’s an appetite for businesses to compete on privacy as an asset that they can market to users,” Givens said.

Facebook has been hit with that consumer pressure as well in the form of outrage over its messaging app, WhatsApp. In January, WhatsApp issued new terms and conditions that revealed to many users that the app shares user data with its parent company, Facebook. It sent users into a frenzy and caused many of them to switch to a different messaging app, Signal, which resulted in WhatsApp delaying the date by which users would need to accept the new terms and conditions. Still, WhatsApp and Facebook haven’t adjusted their ways as a result of users’ frustration, at least not yet. 

But beyond consumer skepticism, there’s another powerful force brewing inside tech companies: employee activism. 

In January, more than 200 employees at Google formed a union known as the Alphabet Workers Union. The union, a rarity among Silicon Valley tech giants, has a stated goal to promote more inclusive working conditions at the company and ensure executives act in the best interests of both society and the environment. 

Sonny Tambe, an associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told Insider he believes the newfound energy around this initiative is a spillover from the activism around social justice in the US last summer. And tech companies can’t afford to ignore that momentum, he said, because of how competitive the industry is. 

“I think part of the halo effect for tech has been, they’ve been some of the best places to work, and this is important to them,” Tambe said. “These firms are competing, not just for customers, but also for workers, and workers are not going to stop having strong opinions about the way the world works and the way that their employer impacts the world around them.”

That employee activism has been bubbling up for years at Google, beginning most notably in 2018 with the Google walkout in protest of sexual misconduct and most recently with the firings of some of its top AI ethicists. At Amazon, an AWS employee recently filed a lawsuit alleging racial and gender discrimination at the company; Amazon workers have protested warehouse working conditions throughout the pandemic (and lawmakers are investigating Amazon’s COVID response as well); and at one of the company’s warehouses in Alabama, workers are pushing to unionize, which a union president who would represent those employees linked to the Black Lives Matter protests as well. 

Tambe said he believes there’s a growing understanding among tech workers that because they are highly skilled and have a lot of agency, it is incumbent on them to be part of the larger conversation about how their companies are held accountable. 

“These forces that are converging on Big Tech, they’re substantial,” he said. “A lot of stakeholders are realizing at a similar time that not all tech is moving us forward in positive ways, that these firms are very large and powerful, and that as consumers, as customers, as regulators, we need to be quite cognizant of this.”

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Google says it won’t stalk you across the web with cookies. Experts think it’s a clever ploy to consolidate its ads empire.

Alphabet & Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

  • Google made a big announcement this week, saying it will stop tracking individuals round the web.
  • Insider spoke to privacy experts who said the move falls short of fully protecting privacy.
  • Experts also said it could be a cynical business ploy by Google to get good PR and cement its ad dominance.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Google made a big announcement on Wednesday – it’s going to stop following people round the web. Sort of.

The tech giant said in a blog post that it will be moving away from technologies that track individual people round the web.

This followed a similarly privacy-minded announcement in January, when Google promised to phase out third-party cookies – which also help advertisers target people with ads – by 2022.

“Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,” Google director David Temkin wrote in the blog post. 

In its blog Google touted a new ad system that gives individuals anonymity online by grouping them together with people who share similar interests, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).

FLoC is part collection of proposed new advertising tools that Google has bundled together in what it calls its “Privacy Sandbox.”

For advertisers that means that while their ads won’t be targeted at specific individuals, they’ll be able to target broad sets of people with specific interests.

On the face of it, this is a big deal. Most internet users know that the way Google makes money is by tracking much of what you do online, then using that information to target ads at you, often to creepy effect.

But six experts Insider spoke to voiced varying levels of skepticism over how much the changes will actually protect people’s privacy online.

Some even viewed it as a clever ploy by Google to further entrench its advertising empire.

A PR move that could simultaneously make Google more dominant

Many of the experts Insider spoke to felt the announcement was a way for Google to try and placate users who no longer trust Big Tech companies with their data.

“My feeling is that Google understands that the writing is on the wall for third-party tracking – the public is becoming more critical of targeted advertising – so it’s smart to announce a phaseout,” said Dr. Nakeema Stefflbauer, a tech policy consultant and expert.

In Google’s blog post it cited a Pew Research poll that said 72% people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers.

“It’s difficult not to conclude that, bearing in mind Google’s business model is based around using users data, that Google have seen the polls and realized users are losing faith in them, and so this move may be enough to assuage that loss of confidence,” said Professor Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey.

The benefits of shifting to FLoC go beyond good PR – some experts believe its a tactical ploy to further cement Google’s dominance in the digital ads market.

“Google will come off as being progressive and ahead of privacy regulations to governments, and to advertisers, it is a call to jump ship from other networks to Google’s own alternative framework [FLoC],” said Prof. Sastry.

Eliot Bendinelli, a researcher at Privacy International, thinks that by cementing its advertising dominance Google could pose a bigger privacy threat to users further down the road.

“Google is using raising privacy concerns and increased regulatory attention as marketing arguments to justify changes that might reinforce its dominant position. The reality is that with the Privacy Sandbox, Google is developing and forcing onto users and competitors a new set of tools that strengthen its dominant position on the market,” said Bendinelli.

Prof. Sastry also said that Google’s control of Chrome could give it a “stranglehold over internet advertising.”

This is because the change will mean third-parties – like Facebook and companies that sell digital ads who aren’t Google – won’t be able to track people round the web using cookies.

Google however will still have lots of data about people it can glean directly and use to track them because of its suite of first-party products, like Gmail and Google Maps.

Bendinelli added that the wealth of data Google gleans from its first-party apps means it won’t be out in the cold when it comes to user data.

“Google is in an absolutely dominant position here given the prominence of its services like Gmail, Youtube or Google Maps. This change won’t affect the advertising giant in the same way it will affects its competitors given that millions of users are logged in a Google account when using these services, allowing Google to track and target them at its will,” he said.

Google is shifting from targeting individuals to profiling large sets of people – which comes with its own dangers

In its blog, Google FLoC is good for privacy because it can “hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests.”

But although Google is holding FLoC up as a way to make itself look privacy-conscious, it could lead the company into another PR nightmare surrounding AI ethics.

Dr. Kutoma Wakunuma of DeMontfort University said one of the disadvantages of technology like FLoC is it can encourage “social sorting,” i.e. breaking people down into groups like race, gender and ethnicity likes and dislikes. She said this can open up a “whole host of other challenges.”

“The thing to focus on is not the ‘hiding’ but ‘the crowd’ – it takes a lot of machine learning to make these cohorts accurate as groups of ‘people like you,'” Professor Eerke Boiten of DeMontfort University told Insider.

“In that context, it is relevant that Google has just got rid of some of their key people who were working to keep machine learning honest and fair,” he said, referencing Google’s firing of  AI ethics researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru in December, a move that sparked an intense internal and industry backlash. In February it fired a second AI ethicist, Margaret Mitchell.

It will help strengthen privacy, but it’s too little too late

Professor Nishanth Sastry, who specializes in tracking technologies online at the University of Surrey, said new technologies other than cookies have emerged for tracking people, used by other big firms like Facebook.

“Even if Google does not offer alternate ways of tracking users through its products, it will do little to prevent Facebook pixels,” he said.

Dr. Wakunuma said while the announcement was welcome, Google needs to do more to protect user data. She added that Google is already behind the curve when it comes to blocking cookies.

“Google in a sense is merely playing catch-up with likes of Safari and Firefox browsers which have long since stopped using third party cookies,” she said.

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Elon Musk says Tesla will double its Full Self-Driving software’s beta program. It comes amid news that Ford’s Mustang Mach-E is eating into Tesla’s US sales.

Tesla
A Tesla supercharger station at Burbank town center.

  • CEO Elon Musk said Tesla would double a beta testing program for its Full Self-Driving software.
  • “Still be careful, but it’s getting mature,” Musk said.
  • The news comes amid reports that a Ford rival is eating into Tesla’s lead in the EV market.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Friday said the carmaker would double a beta testing program for its self-driving software. The news comes amid reports that Ford’s electric Mustang Mach-E seems to be eating into Tesla’s lead in the electric vehicle market. 

On Twitter, Musk said:“If you want the Tesla Full Self-Driving Beta downloaded to your car, let us know.”

The beta drivers will be testing version 8.2 of the company’s Full Self-Driving software, said Musk. Last week, the CEO said version 8.1 “normally drives me around with no interventions.” The next version will be “a big step change beyond that.”

“Still be careful, but it’s getting mature,” he added on Friday. 

Musk also said he expected the beta program to be “probably” 10 times larger by the time the company tests its version 8.3 software. Version 8.3 has “literally ~1000 improvements” from the previous version, he tweeted, adding it “will take time to QA internally before release probably in two or three weeks.”

Tesla has an ever-growing number of electric vehicle rivals, and while Ford sold only 3,739 of the new SUVs in February, Tesla’s share of the US electric-car market fell to 69% in the same month. This was down from 81% in the prior year, a Morgan Stanley report found. What’s more, the Mustang accounted for nearly all of Tesla’s market-share losses, the bank said. 

Tesla’s beta testers will be trying out the company’s Full Self-Driving software. One beta user posted a video of his Tesla driving 358 miles, from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley, without the driver intervening. 

The company had plans to launch the autopilot software as a subscription service this year. Musk said this month that it would “for sure” launch before July. 

Waymo CEO, John Krafcik, in January said Tesla’s software can’t compete with Waymo’s autonomous software. Tesla’s building cars with assisted driving, while Waymo’s building cars that don’t need drivers at all, he said. 

“So no Tesla is not a competitor at all. They’re a car company making a driver assist system. We’re a company making a fully autonomous driver,” Krafcik said.

Musk shot back on Twitter, saying Tesla had “better AI hardware and software than Waymo.” 

 

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