Chances of UN Banning Killer Robots Looking Increasingly Remote

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The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots warns chances of achieving a U.N. treaty banning the development, production and use of fully autonomous lethal weapons, also known as killer robots, are looking increasingly remote.  Experts from some 80 countries are attending a weeklong meeting to discuss the prospect of negotiating an international treaty. 

Representatives from about 80 countries have been meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems since 2014.  They have to decide by November to begin negotiations on a new treaty to regulate killer robots. 

Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams says Russia has been in the forefront of a group of countries, including the United States and Australia, trying to block movement in this direction.  At the opening session, she tells VOA that Russia argued for drastically limiting discussions on the need for meaningful human control over lethal autonomous weapons.

“It is very unlikely as they finish up this year that there will be a mandate to meaningfully deal with meaningful human control, which is fundamental in our view to how you deploy such systems,” Williams said. “There would be no utility in continuing to come here and hear the same blah, blah, blah over and over again.” 

Williams said the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots may have to resort to civil activism to get an accord banning killer robots.  She said such tactics successfully achieved international treaties banning land mines and cluster munitions outside the United Nations framework.

But for now, the activists are not giving up on persuading U.N. member countries to take the right course.  They said delegating life-and death decisions to machines crosses what they call a moral red line and should not be allowed to happen.  

They said they have strong support for their stance from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. In a statement to delegates attending the meeting, he warned of the dangers of giving machines the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement.

He called this morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.  He said these weapons should be prohibited by international law.

 

 

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Apple Spotlights Services with TV, Gaming and Credit Card Offerings

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Apple attempted to reintroduce itself on Monday as an entertainment and financial services company that also makes iPhones as it launched a streaming television service, a credit card and an online gaming arcade.

The world’s second-most valuable technology company lifted the curtain on a television and movie service called Apple TV+ that will stream original television shows and movies to a television-watching app for users of its 1.4 billion gadgets worldwide, as well as owners of smart TVs and other devices.

But Apple, known in the tech industry for keeping its products secret until they are finished, left out key pricing details for several of its new services, unnerving investors and sending its shares down slightly.

The move could be seen as a first step to challenging streaming video leaders Netflix and Amazon, although Apple is taking a different approach by offering paid “channels” from HBO, Starz and Showtime alongside its own content.

Its revamped app for subscribing to channels from others will come out in May, but Apple’s own original shows will not arrive until autumn, with pricing not yet announced. Apple said both its TV+ shows and the new version of the TV app will be available in more than 100 countries.

Apple also introduced a credit card, a video game arcade, and added hundreds of magazines to its news app at an event at its Cupertino, California, headquarters.

As Apple struggles with saturated markets and sales of its iPhone fall, the company is turning more of its attention to services that provide regular subscription revenue.

Hollywood celebrities helped debut the revamped television offering. Apple has commissioned programming from Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

Throughout the presentation, Apple executives stressed privacy protections for consumers as they shop and consume content across a range of Apple phones, iPads or other hardware.

They also emphasized content that would appeal to young audiences, potentially setting the stage for a rivalry with Walt Disney Co. Winfrey announced a global book club.

The company, second only to Microsoft in market value among tech giants, led off the event with an announcement that its free news app will now come in a paid-subscription version, called Apple News+, which curates a range of news articles and will include 300 magazines including National Geographic, People, Popular Science, Billboard and the New Yorker. Apple said it would cost $9.99 a month.

Apple also introduced a titanium, laser-etched Apple Card backed by Goldman Sachs Group and Mastercard that can track spending across devices and pay daily cash back on purchases.

Cook also said Apple Pay, its digital wallet, will soon be usable on public transit systems in Portland, Oregon, Chicago and New York City. Apple Pay will be available in more than 40 countries by the end of the year.

Crowded Field

With its new media push, Apple joins a crowded field where rivals such as Amazon.com’s Prime Video and Netflix have spent heavily to capture viewer attention and dollars with award-winning series and films.

The big tech war for viewers ignited a consolidation wave among traditional media companies preparing to join the fray.

Walt Disney Co., which bought 21st Century Fox, and AT&T, which purchased Time Warner Inc, plan to launch or test new streaming video services this year.

Revenue from its “services” segment – which includes the App Store, iCloud and content businesses such as Apple Music – grew 24 percent to $37.1 billion in fiscal 2018. The segment accounted for only about 14 percent of Apple’s overall $265.6 billion in revenue, but investors have pinned their hopes for growth on the segment.

The company also introduced Apple Arcade, a game subscription service that will work on phones, tablets and desktop computers and include games from a range of developers.

Apple said the gaming service will feature more than 100 exclusive titles from gaming partners such as Annapurna Interactive and that the service will arrive this autumn.

But as with its original content service, Apple did not say how much its gaming service will cost consumers. With details about the new services missing, Apple shares fell 1.7 percent on Monday.

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Ethiopian Airlines Chief: ‘Many Questions’ Remain About Boeing Aircraft

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The head of Ethiopian Airlines said “many questions on the B-737 MAX airplane remain without answers” and he pledged “full and transparent cooperation to discover what went wrong.”

“Until we have answers, putting one more life at risk is too much,” CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said Monday in a statement.

“Immediately after the crash and owing to the similarity with the Lion Air Accident, we grounded our fleet of Max 8s. Within days, the plane had been grounded around the world. I fully support this,” Gebremariam said.

A March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash and Indonesia’s Lion Air crash in October were both Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes. Everyone on board the two flights was killed.

The Ethiopian Airlines flight data recorders revealed that there were “clear similarities” between the two doomed flights.

Gebremariam asserted that his crews were “well trained” on this aircraft.

“We are the the only airline in Africa, among the very few in the world, with the B-737 full flight Simulator,” he said. “Contrary to some media reports, our pilots who fly the new model were trained on all appropriate simulators.”

“In a nation that sometimes is saddled with negative stereotypes, accidents like this affect our sense of pride,” Gebremariam said. “Yet this tragedy won’t define us. We pledge to work with Boeing and our colleagues in all the airlines to make air travel even safer.”

 

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US Official: China’s Race to 5G Raises Global Security Concerns

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Michael R. Wessel is a commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a U.S. government organization that investigates the national security implications of trade and economic relationship between the U.S. and China.

He recently discussed with VOA his concerns about China’s race to 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity being built worldwide. With a 5G network, users will be able to send and receive more data in less time, which could have implications for self-driving cars, smart cities and other technologies.  

 

Q: How much does it matter which country is first to fully functioning 5G?

 

Wessel: It does matter. First mover advantage is crucial in any new technology, but it is particularly important in 5G because it is foundational for cutting-edge innovation and applications including smart cities, network manufacturing, and integrated warfighting capability.

When standards are created, controlled, and sold by other countries, there is enhanced pressure on the U.S. to adopt those standards, which would have significant economic and national security costs.

For example, U.S. 4G leadership contributed to around $125 billion in U.S. company revenue from abroad and more than $40 billion in U.S. application and content developer revenue, and created 2.1 million new jobs from 2011-2014. And, from a national security perspective, the “control” of technologies raises unacceptable risks.

Q: How far ahead is Huawei or China on 5G?

 

Wessel: China’s leadership in 5G depends on how we define competition. Some U.S. companies are already offering 5G devices and are running pilot projects in select cities, so they have beat China to the punch. However, Chinese investment into 5G is vast.

 

As of early February 2019, Huawei owned 1,529 “standard-essential” 5G patents, the most of any company, according to data-analytics firm IPlytics. By comparison, Qualcomm, a U.S. company, owned 787 standard-essential patents. All Chinese companies together own 36 percent of all 5G standard-essential patents, while U.S. companies (Intel and Qualcomm) own 14 percent.

 

In terms of 5G network build out, China is also racing ahead: China Tower, a monopoly created by the Chinese government to build the country’s 5G infrastructure, said it would likely cover the country by 2023. One estimate said China Tower built more sites in 3 months than U.S. did in 3 years. In the United States, the process is likely to take much longer, with each company handling its own networks, and will need to negotiate with local governments for tower locations.

Q: The U.S. is urging its allies to not work with Huawei in building their 5G networks out of concern that the Chinese technology giant could give the Chinese government access to the new network for spying. Some countries such as Germany say they won’t rule out working with Huawei. Why is this a problem for the U.S.?

Wessel: We tend to focus on the economic cost and not consider the national security cost of something as significant as a nationwide 5G network rollout.

Huawei products, services and activities have already raised significant concerns and our allies have to consider how much more investment they are willing to make into their technology.  

No amount of risk mitigation or false attempts at transparency are adequate. The problem is Germany and other allies have already incorporated some Huawei equipment into their tech infrastructure. Much like a virus, our allies can choose to inoculate themselves against this danger now, or run the risk of painful and costly treatment later. Unfortunately, this is a great risk to intelligence-sharing among allies and partners.  

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US House to Vote in April to Reinstate Net Neutrality Rules

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The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives will vote in April on a bill to reinstate landmark net neutrality rules repealed by the Federal Communications Commission under President Donald Trump. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said in a letter to colleagues on Thursday, seen by Reuters, that lawmakers would vote on the “Save the Internet Act” during the week of April 8. 

The bill mirrors an effort last year to reverse the FCC’s December 2017 order that repealed rules approved in 2015 that barred providers from blocking or slowing internet content or offering paid “fast lanes.” 

The reversal of net neutrality rules was a win for internet providers like Comcast Corp., AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., but opposed by content and social media companies like Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. 

and Alphabet Inc. 

The bill would repeal the order introduced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, bar the FCC from reinstating it or a substantially similar order and reinstate the 2015 net neutrality order. 

Republicans oppose reinstating the 2015 rules that grant the FCC sweeping authority to oversee the conduct of internet providers. 

The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, voted in May 2018 to reinstate the rules, but the House did not take up the issue before Congress adjourned last year. The White House opposes reinstating the net neutrality rules and it is not clear that proponents will be able to force a vote in the Senate. 

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Facebook Left Millions of Passwords Readable by Employees

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Facebook left millions of user passwords readable by its employees for years, the company said Thursday, an acknowledgement it offered after a security researcher posted about the issue online.

By storing passwords in readable plain text, Facebook violated fundamental computer-security practices. Those call for organizations and websites to save passwords in a scrambled form that makes it almost impossible to recover the original text.

“There is no valid reason why anyone in an organization, especially the size of Facebook, needs to have access to users’ passwords in plain text,” said cybersecurity expert Andrei Barysevich of Recorded Future.

Facebook said there is no evidence its employees abused access to this data. But thousands of employees could have searched them. The company said the passwords were stored on internal company servers, where no outsiders could access them.

The incident reveals yet another huge and basic oversight at a company that insists it is a responsible guardian for the personal data of its 2.2 billion users worldwide.

The security blog KrebsOnSecurity said Facebook may have left the passwords of some 600 million Facebook users vulnerable. In a blog post, Facebook said it will likely notify “hundreds of millions” of Facebook Lite users, millions of Facebook users and tens of thousands of Instagram users that their passwords were stored in plain text.

Facebook Lite is a version designed for people with older phones or low-speed internet connections. It is used primarily in developing countries.

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted a new “privacy-focused vision” for the social network that would emphasize private communication over public sharing. The company wants to encourage small groups of people to carry on encrypted conversations that neither Facebook nor any other outsider can read.

The fact that the company couldn’t manage to do something as simple as encrypting passwords, however, raises questions about its ability to manage more complex encryption issues — such in messaging — flawlessly.

Facebook said it discovered the problem in January. But security researcher Brian Krebs wrote that in some cases the passwords had been stored in plain text since 2012. Facebook Lite launched in 2015 and Facebook bought Instagram in 2012.

Recorded Future’s Barysevich said he could not recall any major company caught leaving so many passwords exposed internally. He said he’s seen a number of instances where much smaller organizations made such information readily available — not just to programmers but also to customer support teams.

Security analyst Troy Hunt, who runs the `haveibeenpwned.com’ data breach website, said that the situation is embarrassing for Facebook, but that there’s no serious, practical impact unless an adversary gained access to the passwords. But Facebook has had major breaches, most recently in September when attackers accessed some 29 million accounts.

Jake Williams, president of Rendition Infosec, said storing passwords in plain text is “unfortunately more common than most of the industry talks about” and tends to happen when developers are trying to rid a system of bugs. He said the Facebook blog post suggests storing passwords in plain text may have been “a sanctioned practice,” although he said it’s also possible a “rogue development team” was to blame.

 

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EU Fines Google $1.7 Billion for Abusing Online Ads Market

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European Union regulators have hit Google with a 1.49 billion euro ($1.68 billion) fine for abusing its dominant role in online advertising.

It’s the third time the commission has slapped Google with an antitrust penalty, following multibillion-dollar fines resulting from separate probes into two other parts of the Silicon Valley giant’s business.

 

The EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, announced the results of the long-running probe of Google’s AdSense advertising business at a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday.

 

“Today’s decision is about how Google abused its dominance to stop websites using brokers other than the AdSense platform,” Vestager said.

 

The commission found that Google and its parent company, Alphabet, breached EU antitrust rules by imposing restrictive clauses in contracts with websites that used AdSense, preventing Google rivals from placing their ads on these sites.

 

Google “prevented its rivals from having a chance to innovate and to compete in the market on their merits,” Vestager said. “Advertisers and website owners, they had less choice and likely faced higher prices that would be passed on to consumers.”

 

AdSense is an older Google product that lets web publishers such as bloggers place text ads on their websites, with the content of the ads based on results from search functions on their sites. Microsoft filed an EU antitrust complaint about the service in 2009 and the EU Commission formally launched its probe in 2016, although it said at the time that Google had already made some changes to allow affected customers more freedom to show competing ads.

 

Last year, Vestager hit the company with a record 4.34 billion euro ($5 billion) fine following an investigation into its Android operating system. In 2017, she slapped Google with a 2.42 billion euro fine in a case involving its online shopping search results.

 

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Goodbye Console? Google Launches Game-streaming Platform

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Google on Tuesday unveiled a video-game streaming platform called Stadia, positioning itself to take on the traditional video-game business.

The platform will store a game-playing session in the cloud and lets players jump across devices operating on Google’s Chrome browser and Chrome OS, such as Pixel phones and Chromebooks.

Google didn’t say how much its new service will cost, whether it will offer subscriptions or other options, or what games will be available at launch — all key elements to the success of a new video-game platform. It said only that Stadia will be available in late 2019. 

Google made the announcement at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Some industry watchers were expecting a streaming console, but Google’s platform centers squarely on the company’s cloud infrastructure.

“The new generation of gaming is not a box,” said Google Vice President Phil Harrison. “The data center is your platform.”

Much like movies and music, the traditional video-game industry has been shifting from physical hardware and games to digital downloads and streaming. 

Video-game streaming typically requires a strong connection and more computing power than simply streaming video, since there is real-time interaction between player and game. Google says it is leveraging its data centers to power the system.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google said playing video games will be as simple as pressing a “Play Now” button, with nothing to download or install. An optional dedicated Stadia controller will be available. The WiFi-enabled controller has a button that lets players launch a microphone and use Google Assistant to ask questions about the games being played. Another button lets users share gameplay directly to Google’s video streaming service, YouTube.

Harrison said he expects all gaming will eventually take place outside consoles, in cloud-powered streaming platforms similar to what Google announced. But not right away.

“It won’t replace traditional games devices overnight,” he said in an interview after the announcement. “And we wouldn’t be here if not for the existing traditional platforms.”

CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler said Google’s approach that ties YouTube sharing and video-game playing is unique.

“It is not necessarily at this point the easiest thing for people to livestream their games and now you can do it with the push of a button,” he said. “What they’ve done with Stadia is to connect and unify both the gaming platform and the streaming platform which obviously is new.”

The company said Stadia will be available in late 2019 in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and parts of Europe. Google showed demos of “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” and “Doom Eternal.” More information about games and pricing is due this summer.

The U.S. video game industry raked in revenue of $43.4 billion in 2018, up 18 percent from 2017, according to research firm NPD Group.

BTIG Managing Director Brandon Ross said Stadia will be a positive for game publishers “assuming that it works and works at scale, which is a big assumption.”

That’s because the platform could bring in players not willing to spend the money upfront for a gaming PC or a console.

“What they’re presenting is a feasible way to play video games in the cloud, and utilizing the cloud so you can play anytime, anyplace and anywhere,” he said. “There’s no friction, including the friction of upfront hardware costs.”

Ross added that Google’s platform could set up a distribution battle between Microsoft, which owns the Xbox, Sony, which owns the PlayStation, Google and perhaps Amazon, which reportedly is working on its own video-game service, as they race to lock down distribution of the most in-demand games.

To that end, Google launched Stadia Games and Entertainment which will develop Stadia-exclusive games.

“The differentiator for any of the distributors on a console or in the cloud is going to be available content,” he said. 

Harrison said Google will rely on outside publishers and game developers to provide many of the games available on the platform. But having its own inside studio will also allow the company to fully test and make use of new features.

“We can be the advance party, so to speak, and we can be testing out the latest technology,” he said. “Once we’ve proven it we can help bring that up to speed on the platform even more quickly with our third-party partners.”

Harrison acknowledged Google faces stiff competition from longtime rivals Microsoft, Sony and others. Google has been working on Stadia for more than four years, he said, and has been working with game developers through Android and Play Store for longer.

The others have more than a decade of experience. But Google believes it brings something new.

“We are not a historical console or PC platform,” he said. “We are built specifically for this new generation.”

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