The UpStream

Google's questioned in policy of scanning and reporting content

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Google's questioned in policy of scanning and reporting content

It is no secret that online privacy is quickly dissolving. Some of this has been care of the general nature of companies like Facebook, whose platforms are based around you giving someone else your personal information for public consumption. More recently, however, some of the big tech companies have been getting involved with the government to not only invade your privacy but to violate the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution.

One of the most notorious violators of privacy has been Google, according to EPIC (not EPIC Games) the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberty group in Washington DC. They have filed an amicus brief in a case involving Google's practice of scanning files that you upload to the company's servers, looking for specific content that the government has asked them to look for. When they find the content in question, they report it to law enforcement, essentially circumventing the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens against search and seizure.

Obviously, this gets into some really sticky legal ground. Google is a private entity that is not directly bound by the 4th Amendment. Their terms of service could say that they look at every file and search for illegal content and report any violations to law enforcement, and that would technically be fine, though would still cause civil liberty issues. But, a voluntary search of hashes could legally protect their actions.

However, the fact that Google is working directly with law enforcement, and searching on matches and no longer just hashes, for what is deemed illegal activity makes them a partner of law enforcement, not just a private entity. It is similar to being a law enforcement contractor, which could bind them to the rules and regulations against law enforcement.

The biggest issue in question here, above and beyond possible Constitutional violations, is a lack of information about the validity of the system. How often does Google refer innocent people to law enforcement? Has anyone lost their job because Google has inaccurately accused them of trafficking in illegal content? Neither Google not law enforcement agencies have released any information on these statistics. A little transparency of any kind might help them defend their actions, unless they often fail, in which case it could hurt their image even more. Either way, transparency is essential in this kind of questionable behavior.

After years of partnership, Valve is ready to build its own VR headset

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

After years of partnership, Valve is ready to build its own VR headset

Valve, the gaming company behind the Steam game distribution platform and popular games like Portal, has been involved in the virtual reality market for the past few years. The SteamVR platform has been as popular for VR games as Steam has been for PC gaming. But, they have relied on a partnership with HTC to produce the HTC Vive hardware as the primary VR headset for SteamVR. That is about to change, however, as Valve is ready to enter the hardware space once again.

Over the last few months, there have been continued rumors that Valve would be launching their own VR headset, and this week the company confirmed those rumors. In fact, not only have they been working on the headset, but they are nearly ready to show it off. The Valve Index is going to be made public in "May 2019" - only a few weeks away. Unfortunately, other than a darkened, shadowed photo, there is no other information provided.

It is not terribly surprising that Valve would want to get involved in the hardware side of things, especially now. The company has long produced its own flagship hardware for its software platforms, whether or not they were successful. They have been closing up divisions from past products and services that haven't worked, such as the Steam Machines and Steam Link. Relying on a partner for the flagship hardware was a departure, but has produced arguably the best VR experience on the market.

Over the last year or so, HTC has undergone some big corporate problems. They sold the majority of the smartphone business to Google, leaving them with a partial team in that division, plus Vive. There has been a lot of fear that HTC couldn't survive on the Vive alone, so this could simply be a survival move for Valve. It would be a terrible idea to wait until things get really bad to respond.

Asus update tool hacked, allowed access to millions of computers

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Asus update tool hacked, allowed access to millions of computers

Computer manufacturers and users are definitely getting more sophisticated. Manufacturers, as well as Microsoft and Apple themselves, continue to produce more sophisticated tools to prevent hackers from gaining access to your computer. Users are getting smarter about which sites and emails they interact with, preventing attacks. With a more sophisticated computer user must come a more sophisticated hacker, and we have definitely seen a growth in that area. This week, Asus was the target of an incredibly advanced attack, putting computer owners at risk.

According to Russian security firm Kaspersky, a supply chain attack had been carried out using the ASUS Live Update Utility. Using a flaw in the utility, hackers opened a back door into any computer that had downloaded the tool. Kaspersky said that 57,000 of their users have downloaded the compromised tool, but that represented only a small portion of the Asus customer-base. They believe that as many as a million computers may have this backdoor installed.

ShadowHammer, as the attack has been called, is certainly a sophisticated one. The software was able to bypass initial detection because it was signed using an official Asus security certificate. For most, that would be enough to believe it is legitimate. In addition, the hackers managed to make the file exactly the same size as the original file which it replaced.

While many computers are likely compromised, it would appear that the actual usage of the exploit was incredibly targeted. It appears that only 583 MAC addresses were targeted, representing computers within large organizations. The affected computers are almost exclusively owned by ASUSTek, Intel, and AzureWave Technologies, with only 70 affected computers being owned by anyone else. That does not mean that users should not be concerned about this hack. This is not the first time that a company's update utility had been compromised, and it will not be the last.

Apple's unannounced news and media service will be missing big names

posted Sunday Mar 24, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Apple's unannounced news and media service will be missing big names

After committing over $1 billion to develop and launch a new streaming media service, Apple is prepared to announce the service at a press event tomorrow, March 25. It was once thought to be a competitor to Netflix, but more recent leaks have suggested that it might actually be more like Amazon Prime Video, where there is original and licensed content available directly, but you can also add on additional channels. It is somewhere between their existing Apple TV app, and the idea that Avram has been asking for over the past few months.

Rather than paying one-off bills to each streaming platform, you can pay Apple once for whichever services you want. Well, sort of. That's because the service appears to be moving forward without the most important partner: Netflix. That's because Netflix is not interested in giving up the control that Apple seems to be requiring. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said,

We want to have people watch our content on our service. We've chosen not to integrate into their service.

Based on some recent reports, Apple is actually planning on requiring partners to stream their content through Apple's servers, which would give Apple access to streaming statistics that would normally not be available to them. They would be able to use that data to decide what types of original content they want to produce with the $1 billion+ they set aside. That data could then pose a threat to the services that integrate into the system, as Apple will then use their customer data to compete against them directly.

It has long been a rule for content creators, especially online, that you should control your distribution methods. For podcasters, that means using your website as your primary fan point of contact. For streaming services, that means not allowing another service to control your stream. For newspapers, that means making sure people read your content on your own site. That's why even The New York Times is warning publishers against the service, which is rumored to also include newspapers.

We'll find out more about the service in just a few hours, including who will and will not be participating.

Not to be outdone by big tech, FEMA announces major data breach

posted Sunday Mar 24, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Not to be outdone by big tech, FEMA announces major data breach

Everyone who has ever had to deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of a disaster always feels a little like they've been screwed over. Those feelings are going to be eclipsed by how they feel now that the organization has added a new disaster to their experience. That'd because FEMA announced they lost data on 2.5 million people. Those affected are people who have had to use the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. Essentially, these are people who have been in a situation where they have either lost their homes or been unable to return to their homes because of damage.

All victims of this disaster had their addresses released, while 1.8 million of the 2.5 million also had their bank account information revealed by the government. While having your address released is not great, it is a major life event to have the government assist in identity theft. A loss of bank information is not a small matter - it requires replacing nearly every piece of financial data you have, from bank account numbers to checks, debit and credit cards, and more. Then, everything that touches those accounts has to be updated, like your car payments, mortgage or rent, cable, power, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

According to Lizzie Litzow, the press secretary for FEMA, the problem came about when the agency "provided more information than was necessary" to a contractor. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General said that, while the data leak could potentially put people at risk of identity theft, there was no evidence that the information had been used for any nefarious purposes. FEMA is working with the contractor to remove the inappropriate information from its system, but that doesn't guarantee protection for those affected. If you are one of those affected, it is worth contacting your bank to get their input on next steps.

Rise of the streaming game services from Microsoft, Google and more

posted Sunday Mar 24, 2019 by Scott Ertz

The idea of streaming games to computers, consoles, and phones has been a long-standing idea in the gaming world. Many companies have attempted it over the past decade, with no one quite making it work successfully. The most famous failure is probably OnLive, the company that tried to pioneer the concept in modern gaming. A number of other contenders haverevived the concept, with a few big entrants taking the lead.

Over the past year, there have been many details of Microsoft's xCloud streaming service that have emerged. The company has been working on the technology for a couple of years and intends to bring the concept to as many gamers as possible. It is built on their industry-leading Azure cloud service, which also powers the modern Xbox Live. The first public demo of Project xCloud was this month, showing just how far the technology has come. We expect to see a much bigger demo, and far more focus on the system, at E3 2019 in June.

At GDC 2019, however, we got our first big look at Google's game streaming platform: Google Stadia. This is the more permanent version of Project Stream, the beta test that Google ran last November with Assassins Creed Odyssey. The service runs within the Chrome browser, which means that it can be used on a large number of platforms, including the often ignored Chrome OS. They've taken an interesting approach to a controller, with the hardware running over Wi-Fi, rather than the more traditional Bluetooth. The service is planned for a late 2019 launch.

It might seem like this announcement might be a trouble for Microsoft, but Xbox head Phil Spencer seems happy to have the competition. He was impressed by the unique Wi-Fi controller, as well as for the market validation that Microsoft had the right idea for the future of gaming. In a year where companies are skipping E3, including Sony, it will be more important than ever for Microsoft to take advantage of this event, especially as companies like Walmart are considering entering the fray.

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