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Zoom’s Sudden Popularity Draws Attention to App’s Privacy Risks

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  • As more and more people use Zoom for virtual gatherings, several have raised concerns about privacy issues in the app.
  • One issue is that meeting hosts have the ability to save meetings to a cloud and monitor some behavior of attendees.
  • Many using the app have also experienced “zoombombers,” which are trolls making their way into calls, showing graphic and explicit content. 
  • Zoom has responded to one major criticism: its ability to share data with Facebook. Vice’s Motherboard found that the app could do so on Thursday and by Friday, Zoom got rid of that code.

Host Capabilities

As video chatting app Zoom increases in popularity while students and employees work from home, critics are afraid the app may have glaring privacy issues that users are unaware of. 

Zoom has become widely-used since millions of people across the country were forced inside because of the coronavirus. From meetings, to lectures to virtual boozy Sunday brunches, it has become the app of choice for video chatting in quarantine. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has used it to conduct government meetings in the U.K.

Calls on the app can be set up by a “host” who initiates scheduling the call, but many allege that these hosts are given too much power on Zoom. The app offers tools that, depending on the subscription tier-one belongs to, allow hosts to access what some may consider private information. 

One feature called “attention tracking” lets the host of a meeting see if an attendee does not have Zoom in focus for more than 30 seconds. This means that if an attendee is active in a window other than Zoom– to look at other documents, message a colleague, or watch the world collapse live on Twitter for 30 seconds– the host is made aware of this. They don’t see what the attendee is specifically doing, just that the Zoom window has become inactive. 

Still, the idea of this happening while you could be completely unaware has made a lot of people uneasy. Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports  said this kind of feature should not exist. 

“If you’re teleworking on a home computer, your boss shouldn’t be able to monitor what’s on your screen,” he said in an article on Consumer Reports. “Zoom should get rid of attention tracking mode, or at the very least make participants aware when it’s on.” 

And this isn’t the only thing hosts can do that some see as potentially dangerous. There are several options that allow Zoom meetings to be recorded. One that some find particularly concerning is cloud recording, which is exclusively for paid subscribers and can only be done by hosts. It allows the video, audio, and a transcription of the meeting to be stored in the Zoom cloud. From there it can be accessed and downloaded by authorized employees at a company so that people who were not part of the meeting can read or watch it back. 

“Zoombombing”

Zoom’s issues extend past the powers a host has. There have also been reports about trolls being able to hack into Zoom meetings, something that has been called “zoombombing.” According to a report from TechCrunch, zoombombers are hopping into meetings and showing graphic content like pornography or violent imagery.

In one case, a public Zoom Work From Home Happy Hour was attacked with sexually explicit video and images. Despite the hosts’ many attempts to boot the zoombomber out of the meeting, they were able to re-enter under a new name. To stop this from happening, the hosts had to end the call.

That’s not the only time something like this has happened. NBC talked to a couple that read children’s books to kids stuck at home via Zoom. Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, was leading the call and told NBC that while she was reading to the kids, an image of a “chubby white man in a thong” popped up.

At first, she did not know if everyone could see it, but then a male voice began to repeatedly say the n-word for all 40 kids on the call to hear. She then had to shut the call down and told the outlet, “we knew it was a malicious, targeted thing. My husband and I are both African American.”

Virtual classrooms, religious services, and various other places have also been targets of this kind of harassment. Zoombombers have the ability to do this for a couple of reasons. First, if a Zoom call is public or if the link has been made public, anyone who wants to join can. Second, Zoom’s default settings allow anyone in a call to get screen time. A host does not need to grant an attendee access. Some of this can be changed in Zoom’s advanced settings if a user knows to look for it, but otherwise, this is the way the app will do things on its own.

Entrepreneur Alex Miller shared a Twitter thread giving tips on how to best protect your Zoom calls from hackings like this. 

You can disable the “join before host” feature so that no one can enter a chat and do something inappropriate without the host knowing. Zoom users can also add a co-host so that multiple people can remain on guard. Screen sharing can also be changed to host only.

On top of this, users can also disable file transfers and prevent removed people from joining the call again.

Info Sharing With Facebook

Zoom has also responded to another issue that was found within the app. A Thursday report from Vice’s Motherboard found that Zoom could send data to a company that is perhaps most well known for data privacy controversies: Facebook. This could happen even if you don’t even have a Facebook account.

One day after this report came out, Zoom removed the code that allowed this. According to Motherboard, Zoom would connect to Facebook’s Graph API, which is the main way developers get data in or out of Facebook. Zoom would then notify Facebook when a user opens the app and give details on the device they are doing so from, including the model, location, phone carrier, and a “unique advertiser identifier created by the user’s device which companies can use to target a user with advertisements.” Nothing in their privacy policy explicitly addressed this. 

When Zoom told Motherboard they were getting rid of this code, they explained that the issue had to do with their SDK, or software development kit, which is a bunch of code that can be used to implement app features, but can also send data to third parties.

“Zoom takes its users’ privacy extremely seriously,” they said in a statement to Motherboard. “We originally implemented the ‘Login with Facebook’ feature using the Facebook SDK in order to provide our users with another convenient way to access our platform. However, we were recently made aware that the Facebook SDK was collecting unnecessary device data.”

Zoom also confirmed that the information being collected was not personal user information, but device information, which lined up with Motherboard’s findings. 

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (Forbes) (BBC)

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SpaceX’s Starlink to Provide Dozens of Families in Rural Texas With Internet in 2021

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  • SpaceX has just agreed to use its Starlink satellite internet service to provide internet to 45 families who do not have broadband access and who live in the Pleasant Farms area of south Ector County, Texas.
  • The internet will be free for families, but the Ector County Independent School District is paying SpaceX $300,000 per year, with $150,000 of that coming from a nonprofit.
  • Services will later expand to 90 more families in the same area as the network evolves and as the district works to deal with the digital divide that has become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The news follows reports that SpaceX is beginning public beta testing of Starlink at $99 a month, with a $499 upfront cost for the Starlink Kit, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod, and a wifi router.

What is SpaceX’s Starlink?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has agreed to a deal with a Texas school district that will bring internet service to dozens of families in need next year.

The internet will be provided though Starlink, which is SpaceX’s plan to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the planet.

According to the Ector County Independent School District, SpaceX will supply internet to 45 families who do not have broadband access and who live in the Pleasant Farms area of south Ector County.

The internet will be free for families, but the district is paying SpaceX $300,000 per year, with $150,000 of that coming from a nonprofit known as Chiefs for Change.

The district said services will later expand to 90 more families in the same area as the network evolves.

The plan is part of the district’s effort to deal with the digital divide that has become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. As more students shift to online learning, a large number of them have been forced to work without stable internet and other essentials. 

“The partners with us share our vision for equity and access for all students,” the district said in it’s announcement. “Today, we take a giant leap forward in closing the digital divide that exists within our community.”

According to the district’s own surveys, 39% of families have limited or no internet access in the area. 

The announcement marks the first agreement for SpaceX to offer Starlink internet in the southern U.S. It will also make Ector County the first school district to utilize SpaceX satellites to provide internet for students.

SpaceX Expands Starlink Beta Testing

The news followed reports Monday that said SpaceX was expanding the beta test of its Starlink satellite internet service.

As of now, SpaceX has launched about 900 Starlink satellites, which is only a fraction of the total needed for global coverage but enough to start providing service in some areas. 

For the last few months, the company has conducted a limited private beta test with employees. However, in emails sent to an unspecified number of people Monday, SpaceX offered its first-ever public beta testing of the service.

It’s reportedly called the “Better Than Nothing Beta,” and it’s priced at $99 a month. Customers must also pay the $499 upfront cost for the Starlink Kit, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod, and a wifi router.

There’s also now a Starlink app listed by SpaceX on the Google Play and Apple iOS app stores.

At this time, it’s unclear where exactly service will be available, but Musk has recently suggested the public beta would be offered in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.

“Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mbps to 150Mbps and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all,” SpaceX warned in its email, according to CNBC.

As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software, data speed, latency, and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”

See what others are saying (CNBC) (Fox Business) (Business Insider)

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Department of Justice Files Antitrust Suit Against Google Alleging Unlawful Monopoly

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  • The Department of Justice is filing an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing it of illegally maintaining its monopoly by using its hefty ad revenue to engage in exclusionary contracts that block competition. 
  • An example of this would be Google’s arrangement with Apple to be the default browser on Safari. The Department thinks this agreement makes it impossible for competition to break through. 
  • Google has defended itself and says that it does make room for competition, but that consumers choose Google of their own volition. 
  • This is one of the largest antitrust suits against a major tech company in years and could be a long legal battle. Depending on the outcome, there could be major implications for other tech companies outside of Google. 

DOJ Files Suit Against Google

The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it is filing an antitrust suit against Google, launching one of the largest cases of its kind against a tech company in decades. 

The suit will hurl multiple allegations against the tech giant, including claims that it maintains its monopoly via unlawful exclusionary and interlocking agreements and contracts that block the growth of competition. The Justice Department is claiming that the company spends billions of dollars in ad revenue to pay major phone and tech companies like Apple to make Google the default search engine on web browsers. 

The lawsuit also alleges that Google has arrangements to make sure its search application is preloaded and cannot be deleted on mobile Android devices, which the department says hurts and prevents competition. 

An action like this from the Justice Department has been highly anticipated for some time now. In the summer of 2019, Department officials announced a broad review of the practices of big companies, including Google. Their investigation into the company has lasted since and has included probes into several aspects of the Silicon Valley behemoth. 

“An antitrust response is necessary to benefit consumers,” Jeffrey A. Rosen, deputy Attorney General said in a briefing. “If the government does not enforce the antitrust laws to enable competition, we could lose the next wave of innovation. If that happens, Americans may never get to see the next Google.”

Google’s Dominance on the Internet 

The Attorneys General from eleven states will be joining the suit, and many more may decide to hop on as the legal battle continues. It could take years for this to play out and be resolved. Pending the results, it could also have major implications for other big tech companies. 

Google’s dominance across the internet is prominent. According to data from Vox, when it comes to searching, the company takes up 92% of the market, with its biggest competitor, Bing, owning just a small sliver of that space. When it comes to smartphone operating systems, it takes up 85% of the market. For web browsers, it takes up 66%. 

The Justice Department is not the only part of the government to recently take aim at Google. In the first week of October, a House subcommittee released a report accusing Google, as well as Facebook, Amazon and Apple, of holding and abusing monopoly power in their respective industries. That report mentioned anti-competitive contracts at Google. The House suggested that there was a “pressing need for legislative action and reform” when it comes to monopolies at major tech companies. 

Google’s Response

Google has repeatedly denied that it holds an unlawful monopoly. In a Tuesday statement, the company maintained that it allows for healthy competition and condemned the Justice Department’s choice to bring an antitrust suit forward.

“Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed,” the statement said. “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”

This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”

When it came to specifics in the suit, Google claimed the Justice Department was relying on “dubious antitrust arguments.” The company compared the agreements it has with companies like Apple to a cereal brand paying a grocery store to stock its boxes at eye level.

When it comes to Apple specifically, Google claims that it is the default in Safari because Apple believes Google to be the best search engine. Google also said their agreement is not exclusive and that Bing and Yahoo are also featured in Safari.

“This isn’t the dial-up 1990s, when changing services was slow and difficult, and often required you to buy and install software with a CD-ROM,” Google argued. “Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store.”

“This lawsuit claims that Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to do this. But we know that’s not true.”

While it will take several years for this case to be resolved, many are analyzing what the potential outcomes may be. The Wall Street Journal said that if Google loses, there could be court-ordered changes to its practices, potentially to create openings for new rivals. However, the lawsuit will not immediately specify specific solutions. That step will come further down the road. 

If Google wins this, it could throw a wrench in the government’s growing plans to go after big tech companies. Other investigations could get complicated or foiled, and it could mean that this issue might have to move into Congress’ hands.  

See what others are saying: (Vox) (Wall Street Journal) (CNN)

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Thousands of Amazon Workers Demand Paid Time Off To Vote

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  • Around 4,000 Amazon tech workers signed a petition Tuesday that calls for eight hours of paid time off to be made available for employees to use up until Election Day for voting-related activities, including voting, registering, and volunteering.
  • Amazon, which is the second-largest employer in the U.S., does not currently have a companywide policy that offers its over 1.3 million workers paid time off to vote.
  • By contrast, companies like Walmart, Facebook, Apple, Uber, Starbucks, and dozens of others offer some sort of paid allotted time for voting.
  • Amazon says employees can request time off to vote, but the number of hours and pay it will provide depends on local laws.
  • Critics note that while some states require employees to be excused and paid for a few hours if voting conflicts with work schedules, several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, do not.

Employees Back Petition

Thousands of Amazon tech workers backed a petition Tuesday urging the company to offer employees paid time off to vote on or before Election Day.

Amazon is the second-largest employer in the country, with over 1.3 million U.S. workers, including Whole Foods employees. However, it does not have a companywide policy in place that offers paid time off to participate in federal elections.

For comparison, Walmart, which is the nation’s largest employer, offers up to three paid hours for its employees to vote. Other companies like Facebook, Apple, Uber, Twitter, and Starbucks also provide allotted time for voting. Some companies, like Patagonia, are even closing their doors completely on Election Day, while stores like Best Buy are reducing hours.

Supporters of such policies point out that for many Americans, voting, especially during a pandemic, can mean hours-long lines and other unexpected delays.

Because of this, on Tuesday, more than 4,000 Amazon tech workers added their support to a petition that was created internally that morning by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

That group formed in 2018 to put pressure on the company to commit to reducing fossil fuel emissions, but has expanded its focus to speak out against poor working conditions and other issues.

The petition calls for eight hours of paid time off to be made available for employees to use up until Election Day for voting-related activities, including registering to vote and volunteering.

Amazon Responds

However, on the other side of the issue, Amazon spokeswoman Jaci Anderson said that the company has given employees information on how to register to vote and request time off.

“In all 47 states with in-person voting, employees that lack adequate time before or after their scheduled workday to vote, can request and be provided excused time off,” she explained. “The number of hours and pay provided to employees varies by state in line with local laws.”

It appears that for now, Amazon doesn’t want to make paid time off for voting a company-wide policy and instead will only comply with local laws.

That’s a big deal because, although many states require employees to be excused and paid for a few hours if voting conflicts with work schedules, several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, do not.

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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