The UpStream

Paying a ransomware demand may go from simply dangerous to illegal

posted Saturday Oct 3, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Paying a ransomware demand may go from simply dangerous to illegal

In 2020, the number of ransomware attacks has grown significantly. In addition to computers and mobile phones, we've begun to see internet-connected devices come under attack, including things as innocuous as coffee makers. All governments have always warned that paying these ransoms are dangerous for multiple reasons, from a likelihood that you won't get back what's been taken to the fact that you're paying criminals and encouraging it to happen again. In the United States, the guidance is changing, and it could become a crime to aide this criminal behavior.

In an advisory from the Treasury Department, it is stressed that transferring money to criminal enterprises, for any reason, is a crime. They point out that many of these groups are international, making the transaction an international wire funding fraud. In addition, the transfers could be going to groups or countries on blacklists, such as Iran, North Korea, or Cuba. The advisory states,

Facilitating a ransomware payment that is demanded as a result of malicious cyber activities may enable criminals and adversaries with a sanctions nexus to profit and advance their illicit aims. For example, ransomware payments made to sanctioned persons or to comprehensively sanctioned jurisdictions could be used to fund activities adverse to the national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States. Ransomware payments may also embolden cyber actors to engage in future attacks. In addition, paying a ransom to cyber actors does not guarantee that the victim will regain access to its stolen data.

The feds have been trying to get a handle on what's been going on with the ransomware space. With medical centers, research facilities, and more, all coming under attack, something has to be done to not only protect citizens but sensitive data, as well. While it is unlikely that the Treasury Department will act on this advisory with individuals, there is no doubt that they will act against large organizations that pay large fees to criminals.

Google Play Pass subscription is now available in 24 more countries

posted Saturday Oct 3, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Google Play Pass subscription is now available in 24 more countries

It's been just over a year since Google began testing Google Play Pass, a subscription service for gaming on mobile devices. Apple quickly announced Apple Arcade, a near copy of the service. However, like many of the new and exciting Google services, it was region locked to a small number of countries. Since coming out of preview, the list has not grown much, until now.

Google has announced that Google Play Pass is officially expanding in a big way - with 24 new countries coming online right now. This brings the full count of countries to 34. For users in these countries, all you need is a compatible device running Android 4.4 or higher and a valid payment option attached to their Google Account.

When it comes to subscription services, one of the biggest challenges can be international expansion. The service has to ensure that they have licenses to distribute content in these new markets. They have to ensure that there is regionalization for the markets. They also have to make sure that the service is a good value proposition for subscribers. In gaming, it can be even more difficult, as some games use technologies that are not always exportable, meaning that the games that are available in the US may not be available in the UK. Plus, a game may not have German language capabilities to be valuable in Germany.

Of course, there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not Google Play Pass is worth the money. There is also the issue of subscription fatigue, something that we have discussed many times over the past year. While most of the focus has been on video services, we have seen a huge increase in the number of subscription services. For heavy mobile gamers, though, a service like Google Play Pass or Apple Arcade can be a valuable option.

EU wants changes in the way mobile bloatware is treated by brands

posted Saturday Oct 3, 2020 by Scott Ertz

EU wants changes in the way mobile bloatware is treated by brands

Bloatware is not a new topic of discussion. Computers have come with unwanted software from the manufacturer for decades, and it has always been annoying. For the most part, this software on computers has been easily uninstalled (with the exception of Norton trials). When it comes to mobile devices, however, the behavior can be very different. So much of the software that comes pre-installed on a phone or tablet is stuck there forever, whether you like it or not. That could be changing, care of the European Union.

When we think of mobile bloatware, most people immediately think of Android. Manufacturers install apps on the phones at the factory. Then, carriers install additional apps before hitting the store. The number of apps that are installed on a Samsung phone from AT&T, for example, is painful. But, Apple is also known for tons of pre-installed apps that you can't get rid of - except they are all from Apple. Almost every iPhone or iPad owner has a folder called Garbage (or something similar) where they hide all of Apple's bloatware.

The good news is that you are not the only one annoyed by this unacceptable behavior. The EU is working on passing a new law, called the Digital Services Act, that would require manufacturers to let users decide if the apps that are pre-installed in their mobile devices should stay. That would mean that Apple and Google devices would need to behave the way that Windows Phone worked - with everything but the core essentials being removable.

Some manufacturers began working on this when Google began requiring their apps to be bundled with Android devices. Apple has begun this process, with some of the bloatware apps, like Apple Music and Apple TV, now being removable. In addition, iOS 14 FINALLY allows users to set other apps as default browser and email clients. However, Apple has said that some of their apps could never be removed, but the collection is shrinking every year.

The real fight will come from manufacturers who get paid by app developers to include their apps and not allow them to be removed. These companies stand to lose money from contracts under this new law, but the user experience is the most important part. It is unlikely that the work done to allow these apps to be removed in the EU will not be duplicated outside of the EU, meaning that this could have positive global effects.

Spotify putting more weight behind podcasts with movie new deal

posted Sunday Sep 27, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Spotify putting more weight behind podcasts with movie new deal

There's no denying that in the past few years, podcasts have grown in popularity. When we got started, there was a small number of shows and a small audience for them. But, today, everyone knows the word and the number of shows has grown to an unbelievable point. The lockdown has had an interesting effect on the market, with some listenership down and some significantly up.

This rapid growth over the past few years has led to a lot of new investments from some of the largest tech and media companies. Google leaned hard into podcasts with Google Podcasts. That move took podcasting from a minimal aspect of Google Play Music to its own focused product. Apple did the same thing, creating Apple Podcasts. Spotify and Amazon have both introduced podcasting into their platforms, as well. But, Spotify has put the most emphasis on it in their business.

Not only has Spotify added podcasts to their catalog, but they have also gotten involved in the creation process by purchasing Anchor, a second-tier hosting and production company. They have also put a lot of money into exclusive podcasts (which technically aren'y podcasts, but we don't exactly have a term for this, so we'll ignore it). These shows include The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the most popular podcasts on the internet.

Now, the company has dedicated even more resources into the space with a deal to produce video projects. According to a report from Deadline, they have entered into an agreement with Chernin Entertainment to turn Spotify projects into movies and TV shows. Two shows, Blackout and The Clearing, have already been agreed upon, with one starring Rami Malek from Mr. Robot.

Audio dramas are a small portion of the number of podcasts but have taken a larger portion of the listenership. The change may have something to do with the lockdown and the lack of new episodes of scripted dramas on television and movies. We'll see how this move works out over time.

Google to limit Chrome extensions further, removing paid option

posted Sunday Sep 27, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Google to limit Chrome extensions further, removing paid option

Apple revitalized the idea of app stores with the release of the iPhone, but Google revitalized the almost dead idea of browser extensions with Chrome. The company made the ability to add custom capabilities to the browser the next frontier in web technologies. Developers released features, both public and private, expanding upon the abilities of the browser. The most common extensions have been ad blockers, but the range is huge. You can get Amazon price comparisons, spelling corrections, and even content automation.

In the recent past, Google has been locking down the capabilities of Chrome. First, we saw the loss of Chrome Apps, an extreme version of extensions, which allowed for full applications built into the browser. A lot of this original move likely had to do with moving that development out of the browser directly and into the Chrome OS platform instead. Then, the focus of Chrome OS moved to Android apps, and the concept of Chrome Apps had little remaining value.

Then came an increase in "security" in the store, with Google harasssing developers over the permissions that their extensions need. For the most part, this is a positive move, but in some circumstances, it is simply a hassle. The next move was the loss of the process of private listings. Originally, a private Chrome extension could be uploaded without issue. Today, even these apps require approval from Google, making the process a pain when it should not be. When paired with the lockdown on permissions, this could be nearly impossible to maintain a private listing.

Now, Google is eliminating the in-store payment system. This has nothing to do with the concerns over in-app purchases we've seen through Apple and Android, but simply because of a lack of interest from Google. Without the payment system, there can no longer be paid apps in the store. Instead, developers will have to offer the extensions for free and lock features behind their own, internal paywall. There are existing products that do this, like Grammarly, but it could pose a problem for smaller developers.

In general, most extensions are offered for free, but this is definitely going to be a change in process for those who use paid features.

Bethesda now an Xbox Game Studio after $7.5 billion ZeniMax purchase

posted Sunday Sep 27, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Bethesda now an Xbox Game Studio after $7.5 billion ZeniMax purchase

One of the largest and best-known game studios, Bethesda, just became a part of the Xbox Game Studios after the purchase of parent company ZeniMax Media by Microsoft for $7.5 billion. This purchase brings some heavy hitter AAA franchises under the Microsoft umbrella, including Fallout, Elder Scrolls, DOOM, Quake, and Wolfenstein.

All of these titles are currently cross-platform, but now officially owned by one of the platforms. The purchase has clearly brought up the question about the future of game access on PlayStation and Switch now that they are owned by Microsoft, but it is important to note that Microsoft also owns Mojang, the developer of Minecraft and, under Microsoft's ownership, the cross-platform capabilities have expanded, not shrunken. With the current Microsoft philosophy of being wherever customers are, it is likely that we will see this same behavior continue, with some benefits on Microsoft platforms. Phil Spencer has confirmed that the company is open to this continuity, with decisions being made on an individual game basis.

This means that some future games might be Xbox and PC exclusives, while others might have a timed-release on Xbox first, with PlayStation and Switch coming later. One thing is for sure, though - as Microsoft studios, games will be considered first-party titles. That means that Xbox Game Pass will be a big part of these games' existence. Bethesda has confirmed that future titles will be available on Xbox Game Pass on launch day, just like other Microsoft titles. This will be a huge benefit for subscribers, and a selling point for the company.

The first title to join the catalog following the acquisition will be Doom Eternal, coming on October 1, 2020. Subscribers will gain access to this already popular game, and its follow-up Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods - Part One comes to Xbox a few weeks later. And this is just the beginning. Bethesda has confirmed that all of their games will be appearing on the service in the near future.

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