The UpStream

Libra is changing its plans for launch to avoid regulatory nightmares

posted Saturday Apr 18, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Libra is changing its plans for launch to avoid regulatory nightmares

It's been almost a year since Facebook first announced its intentions to release a cryptocurrency called Libra. Almost immediately, the plan was met with concern from nearly everyone. Governments around the world saw the stable coin as a threat to their own control over the value of currencies. This was caused by the intent of the project - to tie the value of the stable coin to a bucket of investments, such as the US dollar, the Euro, as well as treasuries and securities. The move could reduce some of the control that central banks exert over their population through the controlled value of money, which might have been part of the plan.

The Libra Association, which oversees the project, has announced that it will scale back its intentions. Rather than a single coin based upon the values of various other exchanges, they will produce a variety of coins, each tied to a single point. That will move the concept from a single, global currency to a virtual equivalent of each nation's physical currency. In addition to the overall change in policy, the Libra Association plans to work with governments that require a license to operate payment businesses.

This change in the business model comes after months of problems for the organization. Facebook's ubiquity with the internet, including its 2.5 billion active users, could create a global central bank more powerful than any in existence. They also saw partners jump ship as the likelihood of a timely launch became lessened with the growing scrutiny. In fact, over a quarter of the founding members of the Association have left, including high profile companies like Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal.

The organization plans to launch before the end of 2020, though that timeline will be highly influenced by the governments of the world. The Association says that they will not launch until they have the approvals required to do so.

Crysis Remastered is coming. Will it become the new gaming benchmark?

posted Saturday Apr 18, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Crysis Remastered is coming. Will it become the new gaming benchmark?

For many years, the unofficial test of a gaming PC's power was its ability to play the game Crysis. For a while, it was simply whether the game could be run on the system at all, but over time it became a test of what settings the game could be run on, and what framerate the game would then play at. That statistic quickly became a badge of honor among the gaming community. All of this was because of the incredible graphics - something that was far ahead of its time. It was almost as if the game was a time traveler, showing what the future of gaming might look like.

However, with time, the game caught up with the future it might have come from, and the "can you run it" phrase became a meme rather than a boast. In fact, the original game can now run on a Nintendo Switch - far from the most powerful computing system. But, another time jump might be in our immediate future, as Crytek has announced Crysis Remastered is coming this summer. The timing is far from coincidental, as the first two titles in the franchise take place in the far off year of 2020.

The game will release on the PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and the Nintendo Switch. While it might seem that a remaster coming to the Xbox One and PS4 would suggest a game with lessened capabilities, that is far from a certainty. The original title, which once tested the boundaries of PC hardware, was made to run on consoles only a few years later. Today, the ability to build a game that can scale to console hardware is far easier than it was at the time, meaning that a remaster on PC could be a different experience than the one on these significantly older consoles.

According to Crytek,

Crysis Remastered will focus on the original game's single-player campaigns and is slated to contain high-quality textures and improved art assets, an HD texture pack, temporal anti-aliasing, SSDO, SVOGI, state-of-the-art depth fields, new light settings, motion blur, and parallax occlusion mapping, particle effects will also be added where applicable. Further additions such as volumetric fog and shafts of light, software-based ray tracing, and screen space reflections provide the game with a major visual upgrade.

So, will the new version of the game become the benchmark by which all future computers are measured? Probably not, but one can hope that "Can it run Crysis?" will become a part of the gaming landscape once again.

Contact tracing can never work because people distrust tech firms

posted Saturday Apr 18, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Contact tracing can never work because people distrust tech firms

One of the biggest stories to come out of the COVID-19 outbreak has been the announced partnership between Apple and Google. The two companies, which represent the vast majority of the mobile phone market, have come to whether to develop an app intended to help track the spread of the virus. This is accomplished through mobile Bluetooth beacon technology, which was originally intended for advertising. But, with a little change to the concept, it is going to used to determine whether you have come in contact with someone who has been exposed to the virus.

The original beacon concept has been used in retail stores and sports arenas for a couple of years. We even used to carry a beacon in our pockets wherever we went (it's currently sitting on my desk). It sends out a Bluetooth Low Energy field and, when a phone with Bluetooth turned on and a beacon-enabled app installed comes in contact with it, it reports that contact and the location back to a central server. Once reported, an app can respond to the contact if it wishes, giving an option to open a link, informing you about a sale on a product you're near, etc.

Apple and Google intend to use the same concept to determine whether you have come into contact with someone who is infected or exposed to the infection. Rather than using fixed beacons, each phone with the contact tracing app installed will be both a receiver and a transmitter, essentially becoming a beacon itself. This will allow the companies to track whether your device has been close to the device of someone who has been identified as being infected with COVID-19.

On the surface, this seems like a decent idea. Being able to track the contact path could have the potential to help to reduce the spread of the disease. However, there are a number of major hurdles to overcome before success could be possible, and they are massive. The most limiting factor is the public trust, or lack thereof, of the big tech firms. Over the past few years, public opinion has slid from one of trust to almost complete distrust of these companies, heralded by the disasters at Facebook.

Unfortunately, for this system to work, at least half of the population is going to have to use it. That means opting-in to an elaborate data collection program, which includes who you interact with. It will also include an almost constant knowledge of where you are because you are infrequently out of range of another smartphone. The chances of getting enough people to opt-in to this program grow slimmer by the day.

The other big problem with the concept is how easily it could be manipulated. With just the reported beacon identifier for the user, a series of false beacons could be set up to spread false information. If the user attached to those beacons is reported positive for COVID-19 and the beacons are placed in the right locations, an entire neighborhood, town, or even city, could falsely be reported as in danger. As the people who come in contact with the false beacons interact with other people, the false spread could speed up. One false-positive and the entire network fails.

While conceptually the project could help, in the end, it will be an embarrassment for both companies involved.

Apple Tax suspended for video subscription services - for now

posted Saturday Apr 4, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Apple Tax suspended for video subscription services - for now

One of the biggest limiting factors for media services on Apple is the Apple Tax. The company requires that all subscriptions made available through apps on the platform be run through its App Store. While this may make the process a little easier for users signing up on Apple devices, it is not ideal for the companies themselves. Apple charges a 30 percent fee on all App Store transactions, commonly referred to as the Apple Tax. This means that a company like Spotify or Netflix must give 30 percent of their revenue, not profit, to Apple for providing a service that neither company wants nor needs.

Currently, however, some subscription services are receiving a tax break from Apple. The company is suspending its controversial revenue split for "premium subscription video entertainment providers." The move allows a company like Netflix to implement App Store subscriptions in their apps for new subscribers without losing much of their profit margin.

Publicly, the reasoning behind this is to expedite the process for the flood of new customers flocking to streaming services while stuck at home. However, the tax-free holiday is not a permanent situation, and, if services implement this feature in their apps during the waiver, they will still lose that revenue in the future when the Apple Tax has returned. That future trapped revenue is what Apple is hoping for.

It's not a completely surprising move, considering how many companies have been removing the feature from their platforms in recent months. Most notably, Google canceled all YouTube TV subscriptions that were being billed through the Apple App Store in March 2020. Netflix removed the ability to sign up for service through the store years ago to recover revenue. It is unlikely that any premium services will take Apple up on this temporary offer, knowing what the company's goal truly is.

Zoom is seeing increased usage, exposing its major security flaws

posted Saturday Apr 4, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Zoom is seeing increased usage, exposing its major security flaws

Teleconferencing platform Zoom has been around for a few years, but it has gained popularity care of the current work from home scenario. While there's a lot of excitement around the app, there isn't anything particularly special about it. That is assuming you don't consider the constant and massive security issue in the platform.

Since the increased usage, new security issues have been discovered. The biggest issue is inherent in the design of the platform. Being referred to as zoombombing or zoom-bombing, it involves people who are not supposed to be part of a Zoom call joining the call and causing havoc. This can be done one of two ways. The most common is by randomly entering numbers until a call opens. This means that the bomber doesn't know what they are getting into but can still start posting inappropriate comments and photos. Even before the current environment, I have been involved in Zoom calls that had been zoombombed.

A more targeted but limited attack surface is by watching the social media feeds of people who don't know how to use the internet. This has included prime ministers and other government officials, corporate executives, etc. These people share photos or screenshots of their Zoom conferences in some misguided attempt to look like they are still doing work in the wake of COVID-19. However, what they are doing is exposing the conference ID for their call, making it easy for anyone to join and disrupt.

In addition to posting inappropriate content, bombers were taking advantage of another issue in the Zoom platform. By including a malicious link into the chat of these random or targeted conferences, bombers were able to gain access to security information on the user's computer. That information includes computer passwords, in many cases exposing an entire computer network to vulnerability. By gaining access to a corporate or government user's credentials, an extended level of damage can be created. After extended knowledge of the issue, the company finally patched the flaw once the issue was publicly covered by tech publications.

This is not the first time Zoom has had serious security issues. Last year, another security vulnerability was discovered which allowed attackers to activate a Zoom call on another user's computer with the camera activated without the user's permission or knowledge. The issue only affected users of Zoom on macOS but was knowingly exploited.

Because the company is so susceptible to security and privacy violations, I have repeatedly recommended that people use another platform. There are plenty of other, better services that provide the same capability without the problems we see with Zoom. Try Skype, Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, or Facebook Messenger instead.

Activision can use Humvee in its games care of the First Amendment

posted Saturday Apr 4, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Activision can use Humvee in its games care of the First Amendment

The Humvee is an iconic vehicle, especially regarding wartime imagery. Because of this, Activision has featured the vehicle in many of its Call of Duty titles over the years. Since the intention of the company's popular games is to replicate the environments and experiences of the battles that they represent, it is a logical move to include these vehicles. Unfortunately for Activision, AMG, who holds the trademark on the design, did not believe that including the vehicles in the games was in compliance with the law.

In 2017, the company filed a trademark infringement suit against Activision, claiming that players were being "deceived into believing that AM General licenses the games or is somehow connected with or involved in the creation of the games." It's not outlandish, considering game developers often acquire licensing for their in-game items, such as vehicles and weapons.

This week, a federal judge ruled that Activision did not require a license to include the Humvee in the games because there was no implied licensing in the game. The including of the vehicles was not an active aspect of the game, in the way that it would be for a racing game. The inclusion of the vehicles, even according to an AMG-sponsored survey, only resulted in 16 percent of gamers believing that AMG was officially involved in the game, a percentage that the judge said only led to "some confusion" which is not enough to warrant action.

The ruling falls in line with a 1989 precedent which allows for artistic works to include external trademarked content, so long as the inclusion was relevant to the piece. The inclusion of a vehicle designed for military use in a game that replicates military scenarios for which the vehicle would have been used in real life is not just relevant, but essential. District Judge George B. Daniels wrote,

If realism is an artistic goal, then the presence in Modern Warfare games of vehicles employed by actual militaries undoubtedly furthers that goal.

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