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ACLU says it’ll fight DHS efforts to use app locations for deportations

By Jonathan Shieber

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to fight newly revealed practices by the Department of Homeland Security which used commercially available cell phone location data to track suspected illegal immigrants.

“DHS should not be accessing our location information without a warrant, regardless whether they obtain it by paying or for free. The failure to get a warrant undermines Supreme Court precedent establishing that the government must demonstrate probable cause to a judge before getting some of our most sensitive information, especially our cell phone location history,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Earlier today, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Homeland Security through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agencies were buying geolocation data from commercial entities to investigate suspects of alleged immigration violations.

The location data, which aggregators acquire from cellphone apps including games, weather, shopping, and search services, is being used by Homeland Security to detect undocumented immigrants and others entering the U.S. unlawfully, the Journal reported.

According to privacy experts interviewed by the Journal, since the data is publicly available for purchase, the government practices don’t appear to violate the law — despite being what may be the largest dragnet ever conducted by the U.S. government using the aggregated data of its citizens.

It’s also an example of how the commercial surveillance apparatus put in place by private corporations in Democratic societies can be legally accessed by state agencies to create the same kind of surveillance networks used in more authoritarian countries like China, India, and Russia.

“This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government,” said Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a think tank that pushes for stronger privacy laws, told the newspaper.

Behind the government’s use of commercial data is a company called Venntel. Based in Herndon, Va., the company acts as a government contractor and shares a number of its executive staff with Gravy Analytics, a mobile-advertising marketing analytics company. In all, ICE and the CBP have spent nearly $1.3 million on licenses for software that can provide location data for cell phones. Homeland Security says that the data from these commercially available records is used to generate leads about border crossing and detecting human traffickers.

The ACLU’s Wessler has won these kinds of cases in the past. He successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Carpenter v. United States that geographic location data from cellphones was a protected class of information and couldn’t be obtained by law enforcement without a warrant.

CBP explicitly excludes cell tower data from the information it collects from Venntel, according to a spokesperson for the agency told the Journal — in part because it has to under the law. The agency also said that it only access limited location data and that data is anonymized.

However, anonymized data can be linked to specific individuals by correlating that anonymous cell phone information with the real world movements of specific individuals which can be either easily deduced or tracked through other types of public records and publicly available social media.

ICE is already being sued by the ACLU for another potential privacy violation. Late last year the ACLU said that it was taking the government to court over the DHS service’s use of so-called “stingray” technology that spoofs a cell phone tower to determine someone’s location.

At the time, the ACLU cited a government oversight report in 2016 which indicated that both CBP and ICE collectively spent $13 million on buying dozens of stingrays, which the agencies used to “locate people for arrest and prosecution.”

SpaceX will now let you book a rocket launch online starting at $1 million

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched a new web-based booking tool for its rideshare Falcon 9 launches, a service it announced last year to expand its addressable market to include small satellite customers who don’t have the budget or need to book a full rocket, which can cost upwards of $60 million. Prices for the rideshare services that SpaceX is offering through the website start at $1 million for payloads ranging up to 200 kg (440 lbs), with additional weight adding $5 per kg to the cost.

The selection tool asks you to specify the desired orbit (Sun synchronous, low Earth or polar) and your minimum readiness date (the earliest your payload can possibly fly), with dates starting this June as of this writing. You then input the total mass of what you want to fly and get an estimated cost. Proceeding brings you to a series of screens where you select whether you’ll need either a 15-inch or 24-inch port on the launch vehicle (which is largely a function of volume and mass), as well as the specific rocket you’re looking to book a ride on (from upcoming scheduled missions).

Other options include add-ons like port adapters to meet the standard sizes that SpaceX uses, as well as a SpaceX-provided separation system in case you don’t have your own, along with options for on-site fueling if your spacecraft has its own propulsion system, and insurance for up to $2 million in value. It’s a little bit like configuring a car through Tesla’s configurator — but for launching something into space.

This isn’t just a lead-generation form, either; once you’ve selected all your options, and confirmed that you’re not subject to any actions or International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, you can put in a credit card number to instantly pay $5,000 as a deposit, with three installments due thereafter to make up whatever your total is, including the largest one due within five days of SpaceX confirming acceptance of your request.

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SpaceX has also published an accompanying Rideshare User’s Guide that goes into a lot more detail about the program, including technical requirements, details about things like environmental testing, legal considerations and much more. But it’s still amazing that I could, in theory, have just put up a down payment to send something to space as easily as I could reserve a Tesla Model Y.

Of course, I would forfeit that deposit because I don’t have the slightest clue about getting anything to space from a regulatory perspective, or the minimum $995,000 required to pay the balance for even the smallest payload without any additional frills. But if you do know what you’re doing, there’s now no easier way to book an orbital flight.

Trump to halt immigration from Africa’s top tech hub, Nigeria

By Jake Bright

The Trump administration announced Friday it would halt immigration from Nigeria Africa’s most populous nation with the continent’s largest economy and leading tech sector.

The restrictions would stop short of placing a full travel ban on the country of 200 million, but will suspend U.S. immigrant visas for Nigeria, along with Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar.

That applies to citizens from those countries looking to live permanently in the U.S. The latest restrictions are said not to apply to non-immigrant, temporary visas for tourist, business, and medical visits.

The news was first reported by the Associated Press, after a press briefing by Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. The Department of Homeland Security later provided TechCrunch with Wolf’s remarks and a summary on the measures.

The primary reason for the new restrictions, according to DHS, was that the countries did not “meet the Department’s stronger security standards.”

Secretary Wolf noted, “the restrictions are not permanent if the country commits to change.”

The move follows reporting over the last week that the Trump administration was considering adding Nigeria, and several additional African states, to the list of predominantly Muslim countries on its 2017 travel ban. That ban was delayed in the courts until being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.

Restricting immigration to the U.S. from Nigeria, in particular, could impact commercial tech relations between the two countries.

Nigeria is the U.S.’s second largest African trading partner and the U.S. is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria, according to USTR and State Department briefs.

Increasingly, the nature of the business relationship between the two countries is shifting to tech. Nigeria is steadily becoming Africa’s capital for VC, startups, rising founders and the entry of Silicon Valley companies.

Recent reporting by VC firm Partech shows Nigeria has become the number one country in Africa for venture investment.

Much of that funding is coming from American sources. The U.S. is arguably Nigeria’s strongest partner on tech and Nigeria, Silicon Valley’s chosen gateway for Africa expansion.

There are numerous examples of this new relationship.

In June 2019, Mastercard invested $50 million in Jumia — a Pan-African e-commerce company headquartered in Nigeria — before it became the first tech startup on the continent to IPO on a major exchange, the NYSE.

One of Jumia’s backers, Goldman Sachs, led a $20 million round into Nigerian trucking-logistics startup, Kobo360 in August.

Software engineer company Andela, with offices in the U.S. and Lagos, raised $100 million from American sources and employs 1000 engineers.

Facebook has senior management from Nigeria, such as Ime Archibong, and opened an innovation lab in Nigeria in 2018 called NG_Hub. Google launched its own developer space in Lagos last week.

Nigerian tech is also home to a growing number of startups with operations in U.S. Nigerian fintech startup Flutterwave, whose clients range from Uber to Cardi B, is headquartered in San Francisco, with operations in Lagos. The company maintains a developer team across both countries for its B2B payments platform that helps American companies operating in Africa get paid.

MallforAfrica — a Nigerian e-commerce company that enables partners such as Macy’s, Best Buy and Auto Parts Warehouse to sell in Africa — is led by Chris Folayan, a Nigerian who studied and worked in the U.S. The company now employs Nigerians in Lagos and Americans at its Portland, Oregon processing plant.

Africa’s leading VOD startup, iROKOtv maintains a New York office that lends to production of the Nigerian (aka Nollywood) content it creates and streams globally.

Similar to Trump’s first travel ban, the latest restrictions on Nigeria may end up in courts, which could delay implementation.

More immediately, the Trump administration’s moves could put a damper on its own executive branch initiatives with Nigeria.

Just today the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy — who was appointed by President Trump — posted a tweet welcoming Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama to the State Department hosted U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission Meeting, planned for Monday.

The theme listed for the event: “Innovation and Ingenuity, which reflects the entrepreneurial, inventive, and industrious spirit shared by the Nigerian and American people.”

Update: This article was updated to include information provided by Department of Homeland Security.

Google’s Dataset Search comes out of beta

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced that Dataset Search, a service that lets you search for close to 25 million different publicly available datasets, is now out of beta. Dataset Search first launched in September 2018.

Researchers can use these datasets, which range from pretty small ones that tell you how many cats there were in the Netherlands from 2010 to 2018 to large annotated audio and image sets, to check their hypotheses or train and test their machine learning models. The tool currently indexes about 6 million tables.

With this release, Dataset Search is getting a mobile version and Google is also adding a few new features to Dataset Search. The first of these is a new filter that lets you choose which type of dataset you want to see (tables, images, text, etc.), which makes it easier to find the right data you’re looking for. In addition, the company has added more information about the datasets and the organizations that publish them.

A lot of the data in the search index comes from government agencies. In total, Google says, there are about 2 million U.S. government datasets in the index right now. But you’ll also regularly find Google’s own Kaggle show up, as well as a number of other public and private organizations that make public data available as well.

As Google notes, anybody who owns an interesting dataset can make it available to be indexed by using a standard schema.org markup to describe the data in more detail.

Capella Space reveals new satellite design for real-time control of high-resolution Earth imaging

By Darrell Etherington

Satellite and Earth observation startup Capella Space has unveiled a new design for its satellite technology, which improves upon its existing testbed hardware platform to deliver high-resolution imaging capable of providing detail at under 0.5 meters (1.6 feet). Its new satellite, cod-named “Sequoia,” will also be able to provide real-time tasking, meaning Capella’s clients will be able to get imaging from these satellites of a desired area basically on demand.

Capella’s satellites are ‘synthetic aperture radar’ (SAR for short) imaging satellites, which mean they’re able to provide 2D images of the Earth’s surface even through cloud cover, or when the area being imaged is on the night side of the planet. SAR imaging resolution is typically much higher than the 0.5-meter range that Capella’s new design will enable – and it’s especially challenging to get that kind of performance from small satellites, which is what Sequoia will be.

The new satellite design is a “direct result of customer feedback,” Capella says, and includes advancements like an improved solar array for faster charging and quicker recycling; better thermals to allow it to image for longer stretches at a time; a much more agile targeting array that means it can switch targets much more quickly in response to customer needs; and a higher bandwidth downlink, meaning it can transfer more data per orbital pass than any other SAR system from a commercial company in its size class.

This upgrade led to Capella Space locking in contracts with major U.S. government clients, including the  U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). And the tech is ready to fly – it’ll be incorporated into Capella’s next six commercial satellites, which are set to fly starting in March.

Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2020 is a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has announced its first mission for 2020 – a dedicated rocket launch on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) with a launch window that opens on January 31. The Electron rocket Rocket Lab is using for this mission will take off from its Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand, and it’ll be the first mission Rocket Lab secured under a new contract the NRO is using that allows it to source launch providers quickly and at short notice.

This new Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract model is pretty much ideal for Rocket Lab, since the whole company’s thesis is based around using small, affordable rockets that can be produced quickly thanks to carbon 3D printing used in the manufacturing process. Rocket Lab has already demonstrated the flexibility of its model by bumping a client to the top of the queue when another dropped out last year, and its ability to win an NRO mission under the RASR contract model is further proof that its aim of delivering responsive, timely rocket launch services for small payloads is hitting a market sweet spot.

The NRO is a U.S. government agency that’s in charge of developing, building, launching and operating intelligence satellites. It was originally established in 1961, but was only officially declassified and made public in 1992. Its mandate includes supporting the work of both the U.S. Intelligence Community, as well as the Department of Defense.

Increasingly, the defense industry is interested in small satellite operations, mainly because using smaller, more efficient and economical satellites means that you can respond to new needs in the field more quickly, and that you can also build resiliency into your observation and communication network through sheer volume. Traditional expensive, huge intelligence and military satellites carry giant price tags, have multi-year development timelines and offer sizeable targets to potential enemies without much in the way of redundancy. Small satellites, especially acting as part of larger constellations, mitigate pretty much all of these potential weaknesses.

One of the reasons that Rocket Lab opened its new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) launch pad in Wallops Island, Virgina, is to better serve customers from the U.S. defense industry. Its first mission from that site, currently set to happen sometime this spring, is for the U.S. Air Force.

Epsagon scores $16M Series A to monitor modern development environments

By Ron Miller

Epsagon, an Israeli startup that wants to help monitor modern development environments like serverless and containers, announced a $16 million Series A today.

U.S. Venture Partners (USVP), a new investor, led the round. Previous investors Lightspeed Venture Partners and StageOne Ventures also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $20 million, according to the company.

CEO and co-founder Nitzan Shapira says that the company has been expanding its product offerings in the last year to cover not just its serverless roots, but also giving deeper insights into a number of forms of modern development.

“So we spoke around May when we launched our platform for microservices in the cloud products, and that includes containers, serverless and really any kind of workload to build microservices apps. Since then we have had a few several significant announcements,” Shapira told TechCrunch.

For starters, the company announced support or tracing and metrics for Kubernetes workloads including native Kubernetes along with managed Kubernetes services like AWS EKS and Google GKE. “A few months ago, we announced our Kubernetes integration. So, if you’re running any Kubernetes workload, you can integrate with Epsagon in one click, and from there you get all the metrics out of the box, then you can set up a tracing in a matter of minutes. So that opens up a very big number of use cases for us,” he said.

The company also announced support for AWS AppSync, a no-code programming tool on the Amazon cloud platform. “We are the only provider today to introduce tracing for AppSync and that’s [an area] where people really struggle with the monitoring and troubleshooting of it,” he said.

The company hopes to use the money from today’s investment to expand the product offering further with support for Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform in the coming year. He also wants to expand the automation of some tasks that have to be manually configured today.

“Our intention is to make the product as automated as possible, so the user will get an amazing experience in a matter of minutes including advanced monitoring, identifying different problems and troubleshooting,” he said

Shapira says the company has around 25 employees today, and plans to double headcount in the next year.

China nears completion of its GPS competitor, increasing the potential for internet Balkanization

By Jonathan Shieber

On Friday, China announced that it would complete its competitor to the U.S.-operated global positioning system network by the first half of next year, increasing the pace of its decoupling from U.S. technologies.

China’s Beidou network of satellites — named after the “Big Dipper” constellation — will be the first service to compete with the U.S. Air Force’s global positioning system and already has a potentially massive user base as more than 70% of Chinese smartphones are now ready to use its positioning services, according to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review.

The Beidou network is integral to China’s long-term plans to dominate the next generation of telecommunications services and — coupled with China’s advances in fifth-generation wireless communications technology — represents a significant challenge to the U.S. hegemony over telecommunications infrastructure.

China plans to launch by June 2020 the final two satellites needed to make the Beidou system operational, according to a statement from the project’s director, Ran Chengqi quoted by The Associated Press.

Envisioning a system where China’s global positioning system and fifth-generation wireless networking technologies work in tandem, China could command a lion’s share of the market for new telecommunications services.

A test of how these technologies could work in tandem is being developed in Wuhan, where both 5G and Beidou’s mapping technologies will be used to create an autonomous vehicle testbed on a 28-kilometer stretch of road.

Beidou already has 120 partners signed up to work with the service — all linked to agreements made under China’s expanding Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, according to Nikkei.

Chinese smartphone manufacturers accounted for more than 40% of sales worldwide as of the second quarter of 2019, the latest data from Counterpoint Research shows.

China’s GPS rolled out in phases, beginning with a domestic service launched in 2000 and a regional service for Asia Pacific coming online in 2012.

By 2020, the nation’s network of 35 satellites will exceed the U.S. system that’s currently in place.

“There is certainly an aspect of this that is about expanding influence, but part of it is likely also about economic security,” Alexandra Stickings, from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, told the BBC last year. “The main advantage of having your own system is security of access, in the sense that you are not relying on another country to provide it. The US could deny users access over certain areas, for example in times of conflict.”

Space is an area of strategic importance for the Chinese government. The country has already achieved significant milestones, including quantum communications powered by its space capabilities and the first exploration of the far side of the Moon. And current plans are in place for China to send a probe to Mars in 2020 as it prepares to complete a space station by 2022.

It’s against this backdrop of increasing activity in space — even as tensions mount terrestrially — that the U.S. created the latest branch of its armed forces under the moniker of the Space Force.

Citing Chinese state media, the Nikkei Times reported that the value of goods and services tied to Beidou will reach $57 billion by 2020. The figure itself is nebulous, but points to the kind of economic power Beijing hopes to yield through the new satellite positioning service.

The development of these alternative internet realities matters a great deal.

As Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive officer of Google — and no stranger to the operations of Chinese technology companies — noted last year at a private dinner (first reported by CNBC):

[The] Chinese Internet is a greater percentage of the GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number. If you think of China as like ‘Oh yeah, they’re good with the Internet,’ you’re missing the point. Globalization means that they get to play too. I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc. Look at the way BRI works – their Belt and Road Initiative, which involves 60-ish countries – it’s perfectly possible those countries will begin to take on the infrastructure that China has with some loss of freedom.

 

FBI secretly demands a ton of consumer data from credit agencies. Now lawmakers want answers

By Zack Whittaker

Recently released documents revealed the FBI has for years secretly demanded vast amounts of Americans’ consumer and financial information from the largest U.S. credit agencies.

The FBI has used these secret demands — known as national security letters — to compel credit giants to turn over non-content information, such as records of purchases and locations, that the agency deems necessary in national security investigations. But these letters have no judicial oversight and are typically filed with a gag order, preventing the recipient from disclosing the demand to anyone else — including the target of the letter.

Only a few tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have disclosed that they have ever received one or more national security letters. Since the law changed in 2015 in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures that revealed the scope of the U.S. government’s surveillance operations, recipients have been allowed to petition the FBI to be cut loose from the gag provisions and publish the letters with redactions.

Since the Snowden revelations, tech companies have embraced transparency reports to inform their users of government demands for their data. But other major data collectors, such as smart home makers, have lagged behind. Some, like credit agencies, have failed to step up altogether.

Three lawmakers — Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren, and Republican senator Rand Paul — have sent letters to Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, expressing their “alarm” as to why the credit giants have failed to disclose the number of government demands for consumer data they receive.

“Because your company holds so much potentially sensitive data on so many Americans and collects this information without obtaining consent from these individuals, you have a responsibility to be transparent about how you handle that data,” the letters said. “Unfortunately, your company has not provided information to policymakers or the public about the type or the number of disclosures that you have made to the FBI.”

Spokespeople for Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion did not respond to a request for comment outside business hours.

It’s not known how many national security letters were issued to the credit agencies since the legal powers were signed into law in 2001. The New York Times said the national security letters to credit agencies were a “small but telling fraction” of the overall half-million FBI-issued demands made to date.

Other banks and financial institutions, as well as universities, cell service and internet providers, were targets of national security letters, the documents revealed.

The senators have given the agencies until December 27 to disclose the number of demands each has received.

Northrop Grumman lands customer for first OmegA rocket launch in 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Space industry heavyweight Northrop Grumman has signed a customer for the launch of its first OmegA rocket, a medium/heavy-lift launch vehicle that it’s currently readying for flight with a target of spring 2021 for its first-ever flight.

OmegA will unlock additional payload capacity versus the launch systems that Northrop Grumman has developed and flown previously, with the primary goal of being able to serve the interests of the company’s top customers — defense and national security agencies. OmegA’s development has been funded in part through U.S. government contracts, including a $792 million Launch Services Agreement it signed with the U.S. Air Force to finish the rocket’s design, as well as to furnish and prepare the launch sites from which it’ll take off.

The first customer, however, won’t be the USAF, but will instead be Saturn Satellite Networks. This is a certification flight for the Air Force, in fact, but it’ll also carry two of Saturn’s NationSats satellites to orbit.

Commercial service is definitely part of the plan for what OmegA will seek to provide, on top of the work it’s going to do delivering national security payloads on behalf of the U.S. NationSats are intended to be smaller geostationary orbital satellites (ones that remain in a specific place above the Earth as it rotates) to serve the needs of smaller clients. They can range between around 1,300 lbs and 3,800 lbs, but OmegA can carry more than 17,000 pounds to geostationary transfer orbit, so even with two on board it’s not straining capacity of the launch system.

Is your startup protected against insider threats?

By Zack Whittaker

We’ve talked about securing your startup, the need to understand phishing risks and how not to handle a data breach. But we haven’t yet discussed one of the more damaging threats that all businesses large and small face: the insider threat.

The insider threat is exactly as it sounds — someone within your organization who has malicious intent. Your employees will be one of your biggest assets, but human beings are the weakest link in the security chain. Your staff are already in a privileged position — in the sense that they are in a place where they have access to far more than they would as an outsider. That means taking data, either maliciously or inadvertently, is easier for staff than it might be for a hacker.

“Organizations need to understand that the threats coming from inside their organizations are as critical as, if not more dangerous than, the threats coming from the outside,” said Stephanie Carruthers, a social engineering expert who serves as chief people hacker at IBM X-Force Red, a division of Big Blue that looks for breaches in IoT devices before — and after — they go to market.

Insider risks can become active threats for many reasons. Some individuals may become disgruntled, some want to blow the whistle on wrongdoing and others can be approached (or even manipulated) by career criminals over debts or other matters in their private life.

There are plenty of examples, many not too far back in recent history.

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