TIME technology

How US Companies Help Central Asian Autocrats Eavesdrop

A Long Island firm is helping Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan clamp down on dissent

American companies are supplying technology that the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are using to spy on their citizens’ communications and clamp down on dissent, according to a new report from the UK-based advocacy group Privacy International.

Verint Systems, a manufacturer of surveillance systems headquartered in Melville, N.Y., has sold software and hardware to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that is capable of mass interception of telephone, mobile, and Internet networks, the group alleged in its Nov. 20 report. It also provided the training and technical support needed to run them, the report said.

Verint, which claims customers in 180 nations, in turn sought decryption technology made by a firm in California, Netronome, as it helped the Uzbek government attempt to crack the encryption used by Gmail, Facebook, and other popular sites, according to the report.

The report’s overall message is that countries in Central Asia – including also Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan – regarded as among the world’s most autocratic are getting Western help to install, on a much smaller scale, some of the same advanced mass interception techniques that Edward Snowden revealed are used by the National Security Agency.

Those acquisitions have been facilitated in part by loose export controls over surveillance technology. To be subject to U.S. export restrictions, products must appear on a Commerce Department control list — and the key components of the surveillance products described in the Privacy International report do not appear to be on those lists, according to report co-author Edin Omanovic.

Products that can lay the foundation for mass surveillance are not restricted by special export controls if they are sold in an off-the-shelf, unaltered state, according to Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights foundation.

While many of the group’s sources are not listed in the report, and its claims therefore cannot all be confirmed, the report says that staff members interviewed activists in the region who recounted that transcripts of their private communications were used to convict and imprison them on charges of conspiracy.

Recent U.S. State Department reports for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan describe a pattern of state-sponsored torture, inhumane treatment of prisoners, arbitrary arrest, and limited civil liberties in both countries. The State Department’s report on Uzbekistan specifically accused authorities there of detaining and prosecuting activists and journalists for politically motivated reasons. In the Kazakhstan report, “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government” was listed as a significant human rights problem.

Kathleen Sowers, an assistant to the general manager of Verint Systems, said in a telephone conversation on Nov. 20 that all of the company’s senior personnel were traveling and could not be reached for comment. Netronome spokeswoman Jennifer Mendola said in an email that the company had “no information on the matter” described in the Privacy International report. The company complies with all applicable laws of the United States and every other jurisdiction in which it operates, and “does not condone any violation of human rights or personal privacy,” she added.

Privacy International, a 24-year-old registered charity in the United Kingdom, publishes investigations and studies about digital privacy. It has challenged the legality of Britain’s spy agency using information obtained from the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program to conduct mass surveillance of British citizens.

Several of the firms alleged to have exported snooping gear to the region have Israeli connections. Verint’s exports, for example, were dispatched by its Israeli subsidiary, according to the report. According to Omanovic, multiple sources had told his group that the transfers had been approved by the Israeli government. Israel and Kazakhstan signed an agreement for defense trade and cooperation at the beginning of 2014. A spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington did not have any immediate comment.

The report also said the Israeli firm NICE Systems has supplied monitoring systems with mass surveillance capabilities to the Kazakh and Uzbek regimes. Erik Snyder, NICE’s director of Corporate Communications, told the group in response that NICE provides law enforcement agencies and intelligence organizations with solutions for lawful communication interception, collection, processing, and analysis, but that it “does not operate these systems, and has no access to the information gathered.”

Some of the U.S. companies named in the report allegedly provided the Central Asian governments with technology that has less controversial purposes. Sunnyvale, CA-based Juniper Networks manufactured broadband equipment that Kazakhstan has been using to transmit data, according to the report, and a surveillance system that actively monitors internet users is now operating from that equipment. But the report makes no claim about Juniper’s complicity in surveillance. Juniper spokeswoman Danielle Hamel said she would look into the claim but then did not respond further.

The sole international agreement that includes regulations for the export of mass surveillance technologies – known as the Wassenaar arrangement — is non-binding on its 41 signatories. Israel is not a signatory, but says it uses Wassenaar’s control list as a guide, according to Privacy International’s Omanovic.

In October 2014, the European Commission amended its export controls to impose extra licensing requirements on monitoring and interception technologies. But the U.S. has not enacted its own controls on such exports.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has introduced several versions of a bill entitled “The Global Online Freedom Act,” meant to “prevent United States businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance.” But he has not been able to get the bill approved even by the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations that he chairs.

TIME technology

It Took Microsoft 3 Tries Before Windows Was Successful

Microsoft Windows 1.0
Microsoft Windows 1.0 AP

Windows 1.0 wasn't exactly a huge win — even with Microsoft Paint helping out

The first version of Microsoft Windows will be knocking on the door of its third decade Thursday when it turns the ripe old age of 29 — well past retirement in software years, given that Microsoft officially put it out to pasture in December of 2001. Still, looking back at Windows 1.0 offers exactly what its name implies: A window into how things used to be, and, in a way, how little has changed.

First announced in 1983, Microsoft Windows 1.0 wouldn’t make it to the consumer market for another two years — making it one of the first pieces of software to be dismissed as “vaporware,” a term actually coined by a Microsoft engineer a year before the Windows announcement, as a disparaging title bestowed upon a product that’s announced but never sees the light of day.

Windows 1.0′s big selling point was its Graphical User Interface (GUI), intended to replace MS-DOS-style command prompts (C:/DOS/RUN) with a computing style that looked much more like the multitasking, mouse-click-based computing most of us use today. It also came with software intended to show off its new graphical computing environment with what we’d now call “apps” like “Calendar,” “Clock,” and yes, of course, “Paint.”

Windows wasn’t the first operating system with a GUI as its primary feature. Microsoft rival Apple, for example, beat Windows to that punch by about a year when its Macintosh hit the market in 1984, and other “desktop”-style graphical interfaces were floating around before that. (Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs is said to have gotten a nudge towards the Apple desktop interface after visiting a Xerox facility in 1979.) But Windows 1.0 was marketed as an upgrade for people already running MS-DOS — and, in fact, it ran on top of MS-DOS, so anybody who wanted Windows had to have MS-DOS installed first.

So did Windows 1.0 fly off the shelves? Not exactly. Early reviews panned the product for running far too slowly — not the last time the tech press has made that particular critique. The New York Times wrote that “running Windows on a PC with 512K of memory is akin to pouring molasses in the Arctic.” Many reviews said the speed slowdown only got worse when users ran more than one application at a time — an ability that had been intended as a primary draw. And that weird mouse thing Microsoft insisted Windows users embrace? Lots of people hated it.

Despite those early hiccups, Microsoft didn’t just give up and close Windows — a smart move, given that computers running Windows operating systems now make up about 90% of the market. But not even Windows 2.0, released in 1987, set Windows on its path to world dominance. That spark didn’t come until Windows 3.0, released in 1990 to critical acclaim and widespread adoption, thanks to a redesigned interface and speed improvements. As TIME put it in the June 4 issue of that year, “Microsoft seems to have got it right this time.”

TIME technology

See How Terrifying the World’s Tallest Roller Coaster Is Going to Be

This four-minute animation gives you a front seat view as the terrifying 'Skyscraper' climbs 570 ft before plummeting through loops, dives and spins

Plans for what will be the world’s tallest roller coaster were unveiled Monday in Orlando, Florida.

‘The Skyscraper’ is part of Skyplex Orlando and features a 570 ft climb before dropping its riders into spins, loops and dives. It will open to thrill-seekers in 2017, the Independent reports.

Riders will be flung over angles more acute than 90 degrees and tumble into several barrel rolls.

“Skyscraper will not only take riders higher than ever before, but also introduce one thrill right after the next – there’s no ‘down time’ on this four-minute coaster experience,” president of U.S. Thrill Rides, Michael Kitchen, told the Orlando Sentinel.

For those not brave enough to be launched down the coaster but who still want a piece of the action, there will be an observation deck 535 ft above the ground.

[Independent]

TIME Companies

Sony Rethinks Spotify Collaboration, Taking a Cue from Taylor Swift

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - November 14, 2014
Taylor Swift seen on the streets of Manhattan on November 14, 2014 in New York City. James Devaney—GC Images

The 24-year-old pop singer reshapes the conversation in Sony's executive suite

Taylor Swift’s eye-catching decision to yank her music from Spotify has prompted Sony Corporation to reconsider its collaboration with the free streaming music service, top executives said Tuesday.

Sony Music’s chief financial officer, Kevin Kelleher, told the Wall Street Journal that the 24-year-old pop singer’s decision has opened a new conversation in the executive suite. “Actually, a lot of conversation has taken place over the last week in the light of that,” Kelleher said. While Kelleher declared himself “very encouraged” by Spotify’s growth of paid subscribers, he said Sony executives had lingering concerns about Spotify’s free streaming service, which is supported by ad-based revenues.

“What it all really comes down to is how much value are the music company and the artist getting from the different consumption methods,” Kelleher said.

Swift has emerged as a vocal detractor of Spotify’s revenue sharing model, criticizing it as a raw deal for performing artists in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

TIME technology

Watch Tony Hawk Ride the World’s First Real Hoverboard

Get ready, Back to the Future fans: all your dreams are slowly coming true

Earlier this year, legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk pranked us with a phony video about new hoverboard technology. But now, to make up for it, here he is riding a real hoverboard.

Yup, Marty McFly’s preferred mode of transportation is now a real thing. Or at least, it’s pretty close. What the skateboarding icon rides in the video is a Hendo board, which bills itself as the world’s first hoverboard. Its developers recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, where you can pre-order one of these high-tech boards for a cool $10,000.

If that’s out of your price range, then just enjoy this video of Hawk testing one of them out. He’s not nearly as graceful as he is on a normal skateboard, but that’s understandable.

TIME technology

How Amazon Could Save the Post Office’s Holidays

Michael McDonald
Packages wait to be sorted as a postal worker gathers mail to load into his truck before making a delivery run. The U.S. Postal Service recently announced that it will deliver packages seven days a week through Christmas Day. David Goldman—AP

The U.S. Postal Service begins 7-day holiday delivery this week

This week, the U.S. Postal Service is launching 7-day holiday delivery service for the first time, allowing procrastinating gift-givers extra time to get their packages in the mail. But the extra day each week isn’t merely meant as a convenience during a stressful time of year—it’s an indication of where the post office is heading.

Last year, as the USPS’s total mail volume continued its decade-long decline (from 158 billion pieces to 155 billion), shipping and package volume actually increased by 300 million, an jump of 8.1% from the year before. Revenue from packages increased 9.1%, and that growth helped the post office increase its operating revenue by almost $600 million.

Package delivery is the one sector that appears to show the promise of significant growth for the U.S. Postal Service, which has lost money every year since 2007 and recently announced another loss of $5.5 billion this year. The struggling institution has tried a number of ways to get back in the black: reducing its workforce, closing distribution plants, cutting Saturday delivery, even urging Congress to allow it to deliver beer and wine. Some of those moves have cut costs (reducing employees and plants). Others have been blocked by Congress (eliminating Saturday delivery and shipping alcohol). But the only move that is driving significant revenue growth is packages.

“We lost the bill payment world, which was very profitable for us,” says Patrick Donahoe, the outgoing postmaster general. “But the nice thing is, with e-commerce and the Internet, we’ve had the opportunity to deliver packages for companies like Amazon.”

The postal service has increasingly looked to the Internet, the rise of which has been at the heart of the post office’s declines, as its possible savior, partnering with sites like Stamps.com, for instance, which allows people to print postage from home without trekking to the post office. More significantly, the USPS inked a deal with Amazon allowing it to deliver the online retail giant’s packages on Sundays at regular rates, beginning in New York and Los Angeles before moving out to other metropolitan areas around the U.S.

The agreement with Amazon is reflection of an ever-more-convenient and competitive delivery industry that includes companies like the direct-to-time grocery shipper FreshDirect, alongside eBay, Walmart and Google, all three of which are experimenting with same-day delivery, as is Amazon. But it’s also a sign of the USPS’s increasing commercialization and its continued reliance on partnerships with other companies. While the USPS has long helped FedEx and UPS get its packages to their final destination in what’s called “last mile” delivery, the post office has recently expanded its services into big-box retailers like Staples and Costco, as well as establishing “village post offices” inside convenience stores. And that’s likely just the beginning.

“The obvious area to grow, because people are doing more Internet shopping, is the parcel post,” says Rick Geddes, a Cornell University public policy professor who studies the post office. Still, Geddes says packages alone can’t fix the post office’s problems. “The notion that delivering parcels will somehow be a magic bullet is false,” he says. “[The USPS] needs to become more like a regular commercial entity.”

So far, package delivery is nowhere close to making up for revenue losses from first-class mail, because the volume isn’t as high and it’s not as profitable. Geddes argues that the postal service has to reform in a similar way as post offices in the European Union, New Zealand and Australia, which have all eliminated their monopoly on first-class mail, allowing them to enter new commercial markets while setting their own rates without government approval. Australia’s post office, for example, runs actual retail stores that sell greeting cards, gifts and stationary alongside a postal services section.

But for now, the post office is hoping that 7-day holiday delivery, which will last through Christmas Day, will not only be a convenience for customers, but will give the faltering institution a financial boost. USPS is predicting parcel growth to increase by 12% from last year’s holiday season—equaling 450 million to 470 million packages.

TIME Social Media

5 Trends That Will Change How You Use Social Media in 2015

Facebook
Dado Ruvic—Reuters

Big changes are afoot for the likes of Twitter, Facebook and others

This year started with a death sentence for Facebook. In January, a research company called Global Web Index published a study showing that Facebook had lost nearly one-third of its U.S. teen users in the last year. Headlines pronounced the network “dead and buried.”

Fast forward to the present and Facebook is reporting record growth. The company earned $2.96 billion in ad revenue in the third quarter of 2013, up 64 percent from just a year ago. More impressively, the network has added more than 100 million monthly active users in the last year.

All of which goes to show how difficult it can be to predict the future of social media. With that caveat in mind, here’s a look into the crystal ball at five ways social media will (likely) evolve in 2015.

Your social network wants to be your wallet

Hacks released in October show a hidden payment feature deep inside Facebook’s popular Messenger app. If activated by the company, it will allow the app’s 200 million users to send money to each other using just debit card information, free of charge. Meanwhile, the network has also already rolled out a new Autofill feature (a kind of Facebook Connect for credit cards), which allows users who save their credit card info on Facebook to check out with 450,000 e-commerce merchants across the web.

So why does Facebook want to handle your money in 2015? Right now, some of tech’s biggest players are battling it out in the mobile payments space, including Apple with its new Apple Pay app, upstarts like Square and Stripe and even online payments veterans like PayPal. The endgame at this stage isn’t exactly clear. Facebook may eventually charge for its money transfer services, leverage customer purchasing data to pull in more advertisers or even try to rival traditional credit cards like Visa and Mastercard (which make billions on fees). One thing’s for sure: You can expect to see major social networks jockeying more aggressively to handle your transactions in 2015.

New networks proliferate, but will they last?

2014 saw the rise of a number of niche social networks, many built specifically in response to the perceived failings of the big boys: the lack of privacy, the collection of demographic and psychographic data, the increasingly pervasive advertising. Newcomers range from Ello, which launched in March with promises to never sell user data, to Yik Yak, which allows users to exchange fully anonymous posts with people who are physically nearby, and tsu, which has promised to share ad revenue with users based on the popularity of their posts.

Will these networks grow and stick around? New social platforms that try to replicate the Facebook experience while promising, for instance, fewer ads or more privacy, have the odds seriously stacked against them. The biggest challenge – one that even Google+ has struggled with – is attracting a sufficient userbase so the network doesn’t feel like a ghost town compared to Facebook’s thriving 1.3-billion-user global community.

On the other hand, new networks that map onto strong existing communities or interests (interest-based networks, as opposed to Facebook-style people-based networks) have a much better chance. In fact, thousands of these networks are already thriving below the radar, from dedicated sites for cooks and chefs like Foodie to sites for fitness junkies like Fitocracy.

Shopping finally comes to social media

Earlier this year, both Twitter and Facebook began beta-testing “buy” buttons, which appear alongside certain tweets and posts and allows users to make purchases with just a click or two, without ever leaving the network. Expect e-commerce and social media integrations to deepen in 2015. In fact, it’s a little surprising it’s taken so long.

For starters, this approach eliminates one key dilemma all merchants face – how to get customers in the door (or to your website). On Facebook and Twitter, you’ve already got a receptive audience, happily chatting with friends, browsing the latest trends, sharing photos and videos, etc. Once their payment details are on file, purchases are a tap or two away. Then it’s back to cat GIFs and updates on weekend plans.

In addition, since Facebook and especially Twitter are real-time media, they’re perfect for short-term deals tied in with fleeting trends. With time-sensitive offers literally streaming by, consumers may well be inclined to act quickly and seal the deal, forgoing the obsessive comparison shopping that characterizes lots of Internet transactions.

Finally, there are major benefits to advertisers. Connecting individual Tweets and Facebook posts with actual purchases has thus far proved a huge analytical challenge. But with the advent of buy buttons, concrete revenue figures can be attached to specific social media messages in a way that hasn’t been possible until now.

Smart devices get more social

Cheap sensors have led to an explosion of smart devices. Everything from home appliances like thermostats, bathroom scales and refrigerators to wearables like fitness bracelets and smart watches are now collecting data and zapping it off wirelessly to the Internet. Lots of these devices are also pushing notifications to Facebook, Twitter and other networks, a trend that will continue in 2015. The question is: Is that a good thing? The prospect of growing legions of washing machines, smoke alarms and Nike FuelBands spitting out Facebook posts isn’t exactly something to get excited about.

The challenge in 2015 becomes how to more intelligently integrate the fast-growing Internet of Things with social media. In short, smart devices need to improve their social intelligence. This might start with tapping users’ social graph – their unique network of friends and followers – in better ways. A very simple example: a smart fridge that tracks your Facebook Events, sees you’re planning a party and how many people have RSVP’d and alerts you to make a beer run. By listening to social media in more sophisticated ways – tracking users’ activities and interactions with friends and followers, then responding accordingly – smart devices stand to get even smarter in the year ahead.

The illusion of social media privacy gives way to the real thing

2014 saw a number of anonymous and ephemeral social networks – Snapchat, Secret, Whisper, Yik Yak and Telegram, to name a few – surge in popularity. Not everyone wants every conversation over social media broadcast to the world, after all. At the same time, savvy users are increasingly aware – and concerned – about ways personal data is being collected and later sold to advertisers, manipulated in tests or accessed by government agencies.

The problem is that few of these “private” networks fulfill their mandates. Snapchat has been hacked, repeatedly, with hundreds of thousands of sensitive – supposedly disappearing – user photos posted on the Internet. And in October, it was revealed that the anonymous network Whisper was actually saving users’ posts and locations and compiling this information in a searchable database. As Venture Beat points out, real anonymity and privacy on the Internet is extremely difficult to achieve. While it’s easy to make promises, it’s nearly impossible to deliver.

But demand for anonymous social media will only get bigger in 2015. In fact, there are signs that even the major players are beginning to acknowledge the issue. In October, Facebook rolled out its new chat app Rooms, which allows users to create chat rooms around shared interests, with no requirement to reveal name or location. Meanwhile in November, Facebook became the first Silicon Valley tech giant to provide official support for Tor, the powerful, open-source anonymizing service – popular among journalists, political dissidents and law enforcement – that allows users to conceal their identity, location and browsing history.

Ryan Holmes is CEO of Hootsuite. Follow him @invoker

Read next: 9 Super Simple Ways to Make Facebook Less Annoying

TIME technology

Uber Rides into New PR Storm Over Digging Dirt on Hostile Press

Senior VP told celebrity guests the company should hire investigators to expose details of critics’ private lives

Ride-sharing app firm Uber has just ridden into another major PR storm after one of its senior executives suggesting the company should dig dirt on hostile journalists.

The comments, made by Emil Michael, the company’s senior vice-president for business, give further ammunition to critics who accuse the company of being arrogant and unethical.

Michael made the remarks at a dinner Friday at Manhattan’s Waverly Inn attended by luminaries such as actor Ed Norton and publisher Arianna Huffington. While he obviously thought he was talking off the record, a Buzzfeed editor who was invited to the dinner by journalist Michael Wolff says that that wasn’t communicated to him. And he promptly spilled the beans.

According to Buzzfeed, Michael “outlined the notion of spending ‘a million dollars’ to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into ‘your personal lives, your families,’ and give the media a taste of its own medicine.”

Buzzfeed has been aggressive in covering what it sees as Uber’s cultural shortcomings, recently highlighting an apparent initiative by Uber in Lyon, France, to partner with an escort agency.

That episode had prompted the PandoDaily blogger Sarah Lucy to accuse the company of “sexism and misogyny” and announce publicly that she would boycott the service. Buzzfeed reported that Lucy was top among the targets of Michael’s anger, saying that she “should be held ‘personally responsible’ for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted” by a driver from a different taxi service.

The company didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment by Fortune, but the BF article carried the following statement from Michael:

“The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”

Buzzfeed also quoted Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian as saying that “the company does not do “oppo research” of any sort on journalists, and has never considered doing it.”

She also distanced herself from Michael’s comments about Lacy specifically.

The partnering initiative with the escort agency in Lyon, meanwhile, has quietly died a death.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

 

TIME technology

Report: iPhone 6 Outsells 6 Plus by 3-to-1

Apple iPhone 6/6 Plus Launch in Japan
New iPhone models at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 plus at the Apple Omotesando store on September 19, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Chris McGrath—Getty Images

And buyers are after more storage, too

The iPhone 6 sold at three times the rate of the 6 Plus, according to a new report, indicating that consumers are swinging to the smaller, more budget-friendly model by a wide margin.

A survey by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners broke down iPhone purchases by model in the first 30 days of availability, figures that Apple does not normally disclose to the public. The results show a strong uptake of the iPhone 6, which accounted for 68% of purchases, followed by the iPhone 6 Plus, at roughly one-quarter of sales. The remainder went to older models.

And an interesting note about storage: The buyers’ average was 48 gigabytes, or double from a year ago.

TIME Companies

Facebook Will Remove ‘Overly Promotional’ Posts From News Feed

Paid ads are still fair game, however

Facebook will reduce the volume of promotional material that appears in users’ news feeds beginning early next year, the company announced Friday.

“Our goal with News Feed has always been to show people the things they want to see,” said a statement on the company’s site. “People told us they wanted to see more stories from friends and Pages they care about, and less promotional content.”

The effort will target promotional material posted by pages that a user likes, but not paid advertisements. The company said it would target three types of posts placed on the pages of companies and products: “posts that solely push people to buy a product or install an app,” “posts that push people to enter promotions and sweepstakes with no real context” and “posts that reuse the exact same content from ads.”

Facebook said that most pages will not be affected by the change, but provided a guide so that businesses with pages can adapt to the change. The move will force businesses to pay to reach Facebook’s 1.35 billion monthly active users and follows a previous News Feed tweak in September aimed at showing users more timely stories shared by their friends.

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