Businesses

Jeff Bezos Reveals That Amazon Has Over 100 Million Prime Subscribers (theverge.com) 63

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed today that the company has over 100 million Prime members, "marking the first time in the 13-year history of Amazon offering its Prime membership that the company has ever revealed its number of subscribers," reports The Verge. From the report: According to Bezos, Amazon Prime also saw its best year ever in 2017, with the company shipping over five billion products with Prime and signing up more new members than in any previous year. Also revealed today, Whole Foods Market will discontinue its rewards program on May 2 and fold it into Amazon Prime. "Stay tuned for additional announcements for Amazon Prime members," reads the Whole Foods FAQ page focused on digital coupons, rewards and online accounts. "Any account benefits, including membership and/or unused rewards, will not roll into any future programs."
Privacy

Richard Stallman On Facebook's Privacy Scandal: We Need a Law. There's No Reason We Should Let Them Exist if the Price is Knowing Everything About Us (nymag.com) 316

From a wide-ranging interview of Richard Stallman by New York Magazine: New York Magazine: Why do you think these companies feel justified in collecting that data?

Richard Stallman: Oh, well, I think you can trace it to the general plutocratic neoliberal ideology that has controlled the U.S. for more than two decades. A study established that since 1998 or so, the public opinion in general has no influence on political decisions. They're controlled by the desires of the rich and of special interests connected with whatever issue it is. So the companies that wanted to collect data about people could take advantage of this general misguided ideology to get away with whatever they might have wanted to do. Which happened to be collecting data about people. But I think they shouldn't be allowed to collect data about people.

We need a law. Fuck them -- there's no reason we should let them exist if the price is knowing everything about us. Let them disappear. They're not important -- our human rights are important. No company is so important that its existence justifies setting up a police state. And a police state is what we're heading toward. Most non-free software has malicious functionalities. And they include spying on people, restricting people -- that's called digital restrictions management, back doors, censorship.

Empirically, basically, if a program is not free software, it probably has one of these malicious functionalities. So imagine a driverless car, controlled of course by software, and it will probably be proprietary software, meaning not-free software, not controlled by the users but rather by the company that makes the car, or some other company. Well imagine if that has a back door, which enables somebody to send a command saying, "Ignore what the passenger said, and go there." Imagine what that would do. You can be quite sure that China will use that functionality to drive people toward the places they're going to be disappeared or punished. But can you be sure that the U.S. won't?

Bitcoin

Cambridge Analytica Planned To Launch Its Own Cryptocurrency (theverge.com) 60

Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that harvested millions of Facebook profiles of U.S. voters, attempted to develop its own cryptocurrency this past year and intended to raise funds through an initial coin offering. The digital coin would have helped people store online personal data and even sell it, former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser told The New York Times. The Verge reports: Cambridge Analytica, which obtained the data of 87 million Facebook users, was hoping to raise as much as $30 million through the venture, anonymous sources told Reuters. Cambridge Analytica confirmed to Reuters that it had previously explored blockchain technology, but did not confirm the coin offering and didn't say whether efforts are still underway. The company also reportedly attempted to promote another digital currency behind the scenes. It arranged for potential investors to take a vacation trip to Macau in support of Dragon Coin, a cryptocurrency aimed at casino players. Dragon Coin has been supported by a Macau gangster Wan Kuok-koi, nicknamed Broken Tooth, according to documents obtained by the Times. Cambridge Analytica started working on its own initial coin offering mid-2017 and the initiative was overseen in part by CEO Alexander Nix and former employee Brittany Kaiser. The company's plans to launch an ICO were still in the early stages when Nix was suspended last month and the Facebook data leak started to gain public attention.
Businesses

Cybersecurity Tech Accord: More Than 30 Tech Firms Pledge Not to Assist Governments in Cyberattacks (cybertechaccord.org) 67

Over 30 major technology companies, led by Microsoft and Facebook, on Tuesday announced what they are calling the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, a set of principles that include a declaration that they will not help any government -- including that of the United States -- mount cyberattacks against "innocent civilians and enterprises from anywhere."

The companies that are participating in the initiative are: ABB, Arm, Avast, Bitdefender, BT, CA Technologies, Cisco, Cloudflare, DataStax, Dell, DocuSign, Facebook, Fastly, FireEye, F-Secure, GitHub, Guardtime, HP Inc., HPE, Intuit, Juniper Networks, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Nielsen, Nokia, Oracle, RSA, SAP, Stripe, Symantec, Telefonica, Tenable, Trend Micro, and VMware.

The announcement comes at the backdrop of a growing momentum in political and industry circles to create a sort of Digital Geneva Convention that commits the entire tech industry and governments to supporting a free and secure internet. The effort comes after attacks such as WannaCry and NotPetya hobbled businesses around the world last year, and just a day after the U.S. and U.K. issued an unprecedented joint alert citing the threat of cyberattacks from Russian state-sponsored actors. The Pentagon has said Russian "trolling" activity increased 2,000 percent after missile strikes in Syria.

Interestingly, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Twitter are not participating in the program, though the Tech Accord says it "remains open to consideration of new private sector signatories, large or small and regardless of sector."
Bitcoin

Coinbase Buys Earn.com For Reported $100 Million, Adds Key Executive (cnbc.com) 8

Digital currency exchange Coinbase announced today that it has acquired Earn.com, a portal that allows people to make money by answering emails or completing other tasks. Coinbase did not disclose the terms of the deal but according to Recode, the offer was more than $100 million. As part of the acquisition, the crypto company will bring on Earn's founder and CEO Balaji Srinivasan as its first-ever chief technology officer. From the report: Srinivasan will act as "technological evangelist" for both the industry, and for Coinbase in his new role, the company said. "Balaji has become one of the most respected technologists in the crypto field and is considered one of the technology industry's few true originalists," Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said in a blog post Monday. Srinivasan holds a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University, and has taught courses in data mining, stats, genomics, blockchain at his alma mater. He will also be responsible for recruiting more talent, an effort that the San Francisco-based company has beefed up in recent months.
Communications

France is Building Its Own Encrypted Messaging Service To Ease Fears That Foreign Entities Could Spy on Private Conversations (reuters.com) 87

The French government is building its own encrypted messenger service to ease fears that foreign entities could spy on private conversations between top officials, the digital ministry said on Monday. From a report: None of the world's major encrypted messaging apps, including Facebook's WhatsApp and Telegram -- a favorite of President Emmanuel Macron -- are based in France, raising the risk of data breaches at servers outside the country.

About 20 officials and top civil servants are testing the new app which a state-employed developer has designed, a ministry spokeswoman said, with the aim that its use will become mandatory for the whole government by the summer. "We need to find a way to have an encrypted messaging service that is not encrypted by the United States or Russia," the spokeswoman said. "You start thinking about the potential breaches that could happen, as we saw with Facebook, so we should take the lead."

Education

Former Senior VP of Apple Tony Fadell Says Company Needs To Tackle Smartphone Addiction (wired.co.uk) 73

In an op-ed published on Wired, former SVP at Apple Tony Fadell argues that smartphone manufacturers -- Apple in particular -- need to do a better job of educating users about how often they use their mobile phones, and the resulting dangers that overuse might bring about. An excerpt: Take healthy eating as an analogy: we have advice from scientists and nutritionists on how much protein and carbohydrate we should include in our diet; we have standardised scales to measure our weight against; and we have norms for how much we should exercise. But when it comes to digital "nourishment", we don't know what a "vegetable", a "protein" or a "fat" is. What is "overweight" or "underweight"? What does a healthy, moderate digital life look like? I think that manufacturers and app developers need to take on this responsibility, before government regulators decide to step in -- as with nutritional labelling. Interestingly, we already have digital-detox clinics in the US. I have friends who have sent their children to them. But we need basic tools to help us before it comes to that. I believe that for Apple to maintain and even grow its customer base it can solve this problem at the platform level, by empowering users to understand more about how they use their devices. To do this, it should let people track their digital activity in detail and across all devices.
Movies

Netflix Licensed Content Generates 80% of US Viewing, Study Finds (variety.com) 105

Netflix is spending a pretty penny on original entertainment -- but while that stuff grabs most of the headlines, it's actually licensed titles like TV show reruns that still form the core of the company's streaming business. From a report: That's according to a data analysis from 7Park Data, which found that 80% of Netflix U.S. viewing is from licensed content with 20% from original shows like "House of Cards" or "Stranger Things." The firm also found that 42% of Netflix subscribers watch mostly licensed content (95% or more of their total streaming). Just 18% of Netflix's U.S. streaming customers are "originals dominant," whose viewing comprises 40%-100% of originals, according to 7Park. The data is for the 12-month period that ended September 2017.
Microsoft

Microsoft Engineer Charged In Reveton Ransomware Case (bleepingcomputer.com) 24

An anonymous reader writes: A Microsoft network engineer is facing federal charges in Florida for allegedly helping launder money obtained from victims of the Reventon ransomware. Florida investigators say that between October 2012 and March 2013, Uadiale worked with a UK citizen going online by the moniker K!NG. The latter would distribute and infect victims with the Reveton ransomware, while Uadiale would collect payments and send the money to K!NG, in the UK. Investigators tracked down Uadiale because this happened before Bitcoin became popular with ransomware authors and they used the now-defunct Liberty Reserve digital currency to move funds. Authorities from 18 countries seized and shut down Liberty Reserve servers in May 2013.
Social Networks

'An Apology for the Internet -- from the People Who Built It' (nymag.com) 179

"Those who designed our digital world are aghast at what they created," argues a new article in New York Magazine titled "The Internet Apologizes". Today, the most dire warnings are coming from the heart of Silicon Valley itself. The man who oversaw the creation of the original iPhone believes the device he helped build is too addictive. The inventor of the World Wide Web fears his creation is being "weaponized." Even Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, has blasted social media as a dangerous form of psychological manipulation. "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he lamented recently...

The internet's original sin, as these programmers and investors and CEOs make clear, was its business model. To keep the internet free -- while becoming richer, faster, than anyone in history -- the technological elite needed something to attract billions of users to the ads they were selling. And that something, it turns out, was outrage. As Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, points out, anger is the emotion most effective at driving "engagement" -- which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one. By creating a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination, social media further polarized what had already seemed, during the Obama years, an impossibly and irredeemably polarized country... What we're left with are increasingly divided populations of resentful users, now joined in their collective outrage by Silicon Valley visionaries no longer in control of the platforms they built.

Lanier adds that "despite all the warnings, we just walked right into it and created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks." Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, is even quoted as saying that a social-validation feedback loop is "exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators -- it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people -- understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."

The article includes quotes from Richard Stallman, arguing that data privacy isn't the problem. "The problem is that these companies are collecting data about you, period. We shouldn't let them do that. The data that is collected will be abused..." He later adds that "We need a law that requires every system to be designed in a way that achieves its basic goal with the least possible collection of data... No company is so important that its existence justifies setting up a police state."

The article proposes hypothetical solutions. "Could a subscription model reorient the internet's incentives, valuing user experience over ad-driven outrage? Could smart regulations provide greater data security? Or should we break up these new monopolies entirely in the hope that fostering more competition would give consumers more options?" Some argue that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shields internet companies from all consequences for bad actors -- de-incentivizing the need to address them -- and Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, thinks the solution is new legislation. "The government is going to have to be involved. You do it exactly the same way you regulated the cigarette industry. Technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and product designers are working to make those products more addictive. We need to rein that back."
Businesses

Firms Relabelling Low-Skilled Jobs As Apprenticeships, Says Report (bbc.com) 58

Fast food giants, coffee shops and retailers are relabelling low-skilled jobs as apprenticeships and gaining subsidies for training, a report says. BBC: The study by centre-right think tank Reform says many firms have rebranded existing roles after being obliged to contribute cash to on-the-job training. It adds that 40% of government-approved apprenticeship standards do not meet a traditional definition of them. The government says "quality" is at the heart of its apprenticeship reforms. As part of the changes, it introduced an apprenticeship levy on organisations paying more than $4.3m in salaries a year. They have to pay 0.5% of their wages total into a "digital account" held by HMRC. They then "spend" these contributions on apprenticeship training delivered by registered providers. They can also get back up to 90% of the cost of training. But they are also entitled to pay apprentices lower than the standard minimum wage.
Books

Google's New Book Search Deals in Ideas, Not Keywords (axios.com) 16

A new Google project called called "Talk to Books" provides answers to questions by drawing on a library of more than 100,000 books. From a report: Tech pioneer Ray Kurzweil debuted the project at the TED conference in Vancouver, and explained that it differs from traditional search by relying on semantics rather than keywords. Keyword search is great when you're hunting down a specific piece of information, but Google -- and digital technology in general -- still has a long way to go when it comes to connecting ideas and answering questions with complete thoughts.
Encryption

Researchers Devise a Way To Generate Provably Random Numbers Using Quantum Mechanics (newatlas.com) 139

No random number generator you've ever used is truly, provably random. Until now, that is. Researchers have used an experiment developed to test quantum mechanics to generate demonstrably random numbers, which could come in handy for encryption. From a report: The method uses photons to generate a string of random ones and zeros, and leans on the laws of physics to prove that these strings are truly random, rather than merely posing as random. The researchers say their work could improve digital security and cryptography. The challenge for existing random number generators is not only creating truly random numbers, but proving that those numbers are random. "It's hard to guarantee that a given classical source is really unpredictable," says Peter Bierhorst, a mathematician at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where this research took place. "Our quantum source and protocol is like a fail-safe. We're sure that no one can predict our numbers." For example, random number algorithms often rely on a source of data which may ultimately prove predictable, such as atmospheric noise. And however complex the algorithm, it's still applying consistent rules. Despite these potential imperfections, these methods are relied on in the day-to-day encryption of data. This team's method, however, makes use of the properties of quantum mechanics, or what Einstein described as "spooky action at a distance." Further reading: Wired, LiveScience, and CNET.
Communications

Reddit Continues To Protect Racist Language In Favor of Free Speech (digitaltrends.com) 659

In a thread about Reddit's 2017 transparency report, a user asked CEO Steve Huffman whether posts containing racism or racial slurs violate Reddit's terms. Huffman revealed that said speech are permissible on the site. "On Reddit, the way in which we think about speech is to separate behavior from beliefs," Huffman clarified. "This means on Reddit there will be people with beliefs different from your own, sometimes extremely so." Digital Trends reports: It's unclear if Huffman's comments are representative of Reddit's company policy, but protection of hate speech can -- and do -- lead to online harassment and cyberbullying. A recent study from Pew revealed that as many as 40 percent of Americans have experienced some form of harassment online. And even if hate speech may still be protected content on Reddit, Huffman was quick to point out that any threat of violence is not tolerated on the site. "When users actions conflict with our own content policies, we take action," he said. This distinction is consistent with Reddit's prior policies for enforcement. "Going forward, we will take action against any content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people; likewise we will also take action against content that glorifies or encourages the abuse of animals," the updated terms read, noting that "context is key."
Transportation

Dubai To Launch Digital Vehicle Number Plates (bbc.com) 75

Drivers in Dubai may soon be using digital number plates under new plans. In a trial starting next month, vehicles will be fitted with smart plates with digital screens, GPS and transmitters. From a report: The new plates will be able to inform emergency services if a driver has an accident. Dubai has recently spearheaded a number of new transport initiatives as it seeks to become an international technology hub. According to Sultan Abdullah al-Marzouqi, the head of the Vehicle Licensing Department at Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), the plates will make life easier for drivers in Dubai. As well as contacting the police and ambulance services if the vehicle is involved in a collision, the technology allows real-time communication with other drivers about traffic conditions or any accidents ahead. The number plates can also change to display an alert if the vehicle or digital plate is stolen.
Privacy

'Big Brother' In India Requires Fingerprint Scans For Food, Phones, Finances (nytimes.com) 132

The New York Times reports of the Indian government's intent to build an identification system of unprecedented scope. The country is reportedly "scanning the fingerprints, eyes and faces of its 1.3 billion residents (alternative source) and connecting the data to everything from welfare benefits to mobile phones." Here's an excerpt from the report: Civil libertarians are horrified, viewing the program, called Aadhaar, as Orwell's Big Brother brought to life. To the government, it's more like "big brother," a term of endearment used by many Indians to address a stranger when asking for help. For other countries, the technology could provide a model for how to track their residents. And for India's top court, the ID system presents unique legal issues that will define what the constitutional right to privacy means in the digital age. The government has made registration mandatory for hundreds of public services and many private ones, from taking school exams to opening bank accounts.

Technology has given governments around the world new tools to monitor their citizens. In China, the government is rolling out ways to use facial recognition and big data to track people, aiming to inject itself further into everyday life. Many countries, including Britain, deploy closed-circuit cameras to monitor their populations. But India's program is in a league of its own, both in the mass collection of biometric data and in the attempt to link it to everything -- traffic tickets, bank accounts, pensions, even meals for undernourished schoolchildren.

Anime

Animation Legend Isao Takahata, Co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Dies at 82 (nbcnews.com) 27

Isao Takahata, co-founder of the prestigious Japanese animator Studio Ghibli, which stuck to a hand-drawn "manga" look in the face of digital filmmaking, has died. He was 82. From a report: Takahata started Ghibli with Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki in 1985, hoping to create Japan's Disney. He directed "Grave of the Fireflies," a tragic tale about wartime childhood, and produced some of the studio's films, including Miyazaki's 1984 "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," which tells the horror of environmental disaster through a story about a princess. Takahata died Thursday of lung cancer at a Tokyo hospital, the studio said in a statement Friday.

He was fully aware of how the floating sumie-brush sketches of faint pastel in his works stood as a stylistic challenge to Hollywood's computer-graphics cartoons. In a 2015 interview with The Associated Press, Takahata talked about how Edo-era woodblock-print artists like Hokusai had the understanding of Western-style perspective and the use of light, but they purposely chose to depict reality with lines, and in a flat way, with minimal shading.
"Pom Poko", a movie released in 1994, is often considered the best work of Takahata. The New York Times described it as, "a comic allegory about battling packs of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) joining forces to fight human real estate developers. It's earthy and rollicking in a way that his co-founder's films aren't." In an interview with Wired in 2015, when Takahata was asked what he felt about people regarding him as the heart of Studio Ghibli. "Now you've both finished your final films, what are your feelings on Ghibli's legacy and reputation?, the interviewer asked. Takahata said, "I'm not sure I can respond in any meaningful way. What Hayao Miyazaki has built up is the greatest contribution. The existence of that thick trunk has allowed leaves to unfurl and flowers to bloom to become the fruitful tree that is Studio Ghibli."

Further reading: Isao Takahata's stark world of reality (The Japan Times).
The Internet

One of Estonia's First 'e-Residents' Explains What It Means To Have Digital Citizenship 76

An anonymous reader shares a report from Quartz, written by Estonian e-Resident April Rinne: In 2014, Estonia, a country previously known as much for its national singing revolution as anything else, became the first country in the world to launch an e-Residency program. Once admitted, e-Residents can conduct business worldwide as if they were from Estonia, which is a member of the EU. They are given government-issued digital IDs, can open Estonian bank and securities accounts, form and register Estonian companies, and have a front-row seat as nascent concepts of digital and virtual citizenship evolve. There is no requirement to have a physical presence in Estonia. [...] Three years in, what I find most incredible about e-Residency is that it actually works.

E-Residency was appealing to me for several reasons (none of which include dodging the law, taxes, or other civic responsibilities). I have Finnish heritage and for many years was intrigued by Finland's "smaller neighbor." And, I'd just joined an Estonian startup as an advisor. Becoming an e-Resident would allow me to receive payment from clients in Euros from any company without worrying about currency fluctuations, and to own shares in the company (previously this would have required various administrative work-arounds). [...] At a basic level, e-Residency makes working overall simpler and, ideally, more streamlined. This plays out in many ways, depending on the type of worker or organization. For example, many bona fide small- and mid-sized companies in other regions simply could not get access to European markets. The costs of entry and other requirements made it prohibitively cumbersome. E-Residency gives them a new avenue to do this; they still have to prove their merits, but the playing field is more level. For independent entrepreneurs, especially those working in different countries, Estonia makes the entire process of establishing and maintaining a small business easier, faster and more affordable. In my case, I'm able to transact, bank, and sign documents easily. I still maintain my U.S. presence -- because a non-trivial amount of my portfolio is in the U.S., and I maintain a range of local commitments and community -- but many of my fellow e-Residents have shifted their entire enterprise to Estonia.
In conclusion, Rinne notes the imperfections of the residency: "multiple times I had to disable firewalls to get digital services to work, and the e-Residency team discovered a potential bug in late 2017 which led them to deactivate all ID cards until they could be updated through the internet." All in all the experience has been "useful beyond measure," Rinne writes. "It has enabled me to re-think not only how I work, but also the many ways in which the world of work itself is changing and emerging opportunities for the future."
Communications

Microsoft Touts Breakthrough In Making Chatbots More Conversational (windowscentral.com) 101

In a blog post today, Microsoft said that it has created what it believes is the "first technological breakthrough" toward making conversations with chatbots more like speaking to another person. Windows Central reports: Microsoft says that it has figured out how to make chatbots talk and listen at the same time, allowing them to operate in "full duplex," to use telecommunications jargon. The company says this allows chatbots or assistants to have a flowing conversation with humans, much more akin to how people talk to one another. That stands in contrast to how digital assistants and bots currently work, where only one side can talk at any given time. The technology is already up and running in Xiaolce, Microsoft's AI chatbot currently operating in China. Using "full duplex voice sense," as Microsoft calls it, Xiaolce can more quickly predict what the person it is speaking to will say. "That helps her make decisions about both how and when to respond to someone who is chatting with her, a skill set that is very natural to people but not yet common in chatbots," Microsoft says. Another bonus of the breakthrough is that people interacting with chatbots don't have to use a "wake word" every time they speak during a conversation.
The Almighty Buck

Swedes Turn Against Cashlessness (theguardian.com) 403

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: It is hard to argue that you cannot trust the government when the government isn't really all that bad. This is the problem facing the small but growing number of Swedes anxious about their country's rush to embrace a cash-free society. Most consumers already say they manage without cash altogether, while shops and cafes increasingly refuse to accept notes and coins because of the costs and risk involved. Until recently, however, it has been hard for critics to find a hearing. "The Swedish government is a rather nice one, we have been lucky enough to have mostly nice ones for the past 100 years," says Christian Engstrom, a former MEP for the Pirate Party and an early opponent of the cashless economy. "In other countries there is much more awareness that you cannot trust the government all the time. In Sweden it is hard to get people mobilized."

There are signs this might be changing. In February, the head of Sweden's central bank warned that Sweden could soon face a situation where all payments were controlled by private sector banks. The Riksbank governor, Stefan Ingves, called for new legislation to secure public control over the payments system, arguing that being able to make and receive payments is a "collective good" like defense, the courts, or public statistics. "Most citizens would feel uncomfortable to surrender these social functions to private companies," he said. "It should be obvious that Sweden's preparedness would be weakened if, in a serious crisis or war, we had not decided in advance how households and companies would pay for fuel, supplies and other necessities."
The report mentions a recently-released opinion poll, which found that seven out of 10 Swedes wanted to keep the option to use cash, while just 25% wanted a completely cashless society.

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