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Leveling the playing field

By David Riggs
Williesha Morris Contributor
Williesha Morris has been a journalist and freelancer off-and-on for over a decade. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, playing video games or chatting about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2011, a product developer named Fred Davison read an article about inventor Ken Yankelevitz and his QuadControl video game controller for quadriplegics. At the time, Yankelevitz was on the verge of retirement. Davison wasn’t a gamer, but he said his mother, who had the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, inspired him to pick up where Yankelevitz was about to leave off.

Launched in 2014, Davison’s QuadStick represents the latest iteration of the Yankelevitz controller — one that has garnered interest across a broad range of industries. 

“The QuadStick’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback as to what it means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games.”

Laying the groundwork

Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive gaming tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team. 

Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a college student who came in with a spinal cord injury. She says he liked playing video games, but as a result of his injury could no longer use his hands. So the rehab regimen incorporated Davison’s invention, which enabled the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny. 

QuadStick

Jackson “Pitbull” Reece is a successful Facebook streamer who uses his mouth to operate the QuadStick, as well as the XAC, (the Xbox Adaptive Controller), a controller designed by Microsoft for use by people with disabilities to make user input for video games more accessible. 

Reece lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of his upper body. He says he remembers able-bodied life as one filled with mostly sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his mental health.

Fortunately there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community. 

But while not every major tech company has been proactive about accessibility, after-market devices are available to create customized gaming experiences for disabled gamers.

Enter Microsoft

At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged

“We were at the same time developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eight generations of gaming consoles created barriers for disabled gamers.

“Controllers have been optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them. 

Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for gamers with disabilities), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a U.K.-based charity for disabled young gamers. 

Xbox Adaptive Controller

The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a gamer with limited mobility to seamlessly play with other gamers. One of the details gamers commented on was that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.

“We knew that we couldn’t design this product for this community,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “We had to design this product with this community. We believe in ‘nothing about us without us.’ Our principles of inclusive design urge us to include communities from the very beginning.”

Taking on the giants

There were others getting involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of serendipity.

At his booth at an assistive technology (AT) conference, ATMakers‘ Bill Binko showcased a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers Joystick, a power-chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the brain trust behind AbleGamers.

Spohn saw the Joystick and told Binko he wanted a similar device to work with the XAC. The Freedom Wing was ready within six weeks. It was a matter of manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device didn’t require months of R&D and testing because it had already been road tested as a power-chair device. 

ATMakers Freedom Wing 2

Binko said mom-and-pop companies are leading the way in changing the face of accessible gaming technology. Companies like Microsoft and Logitech have only recently found their footing.

ATMakers, QuadStick and other smaller creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry. 

“Everybody gets [gaming] and it opens up the ability for people to engage with their community,” Binko said. “Gaming is something that people can wrap their heads around and they can join in.” 

Barriers of entry

As the technology evolves, so do the obstacles to accessibility. These challenges include lack of support teams, security, licensing and VR. 

Binko said managing support teams for these devices with the increase in demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to assist with the creation, installation and maintenance of devices. 

Security and licensing is out of the hands of small creators like Davison because of financial and other resources needed to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing enforcement technology has become increasingly complex with each new console generation. 

With Davison’s background in tech, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control every aspect of it,” Davison said. “Just makes it tough for the little guy to work with.”

And while PlayStation led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is stringent. He doesn’t understand how it benefits the console company to prevent people from using whichever controller they want. 

“The cryptography for the PS5 and DualSense controller is uncrackable so far, so adapter devices like the ConsoleTuner Titan Two have to find other weaknesses, like the informal ‘man in the middle’ attack,” Davison said. 

The technique allows devices to utilize older-gen PlayStation controllers as a go-between from the QuadStick to the latest-gen console, so disabled gamers can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there are no immediate plans for an adaptable PlayStation or controller. However, they stated their department works with advocates and gaming devs to consider accessibility from day one.  

In contrast, Microsoft’s licensing system is more forgiving, especially with the XAC and the ability to use older-generation controllers with newer systems. 

“Compare the PC industry to the Mac,” Davison said. “You can put together a PC system from a dozen different manufacturers, but not for the Mac. One is an open standard and the other is closed.”

A more accessible future

In November, Japanese controller company HORI released an officially licensed accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch. It’s not available for sale in the United States currently, but there are no region restrictions to purchase one online. This latest development points toward a more accessibility-friendly Nintendo, though the company has yet to fully embrace the technology. 

Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone. Our products offer a range of accessibility features, such as button-mapping, motion controls, a zoom feature, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gameplay options. In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to expand this accessibility in current and future products.”

The push for more accessible hardware for disabled gamers hasn’t been smooth. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases corporations with a determination for inclusivity at the earliest stages of development became involved. 

Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is moving forward in ways that can make the experience much more accessible for gamers with disabilities.

 

Facebook’s tardy disclosure of breach timing raises GDPR compliance questions

By Natasha Lomas

The question of whether Facebook will face any regulatory sanction over the latest massive historical platform privacy fail to come to light remains unclear. But the timeline of the incident looks increasingly awkward for the tech giant.

While it initially sought to play down the data breach revelations published by Business Insider at the weekend by suggesting that information like people’s birth dates and phone numbers was “old”, in a blog post late yesterday the tech giant finally revealed that the data in question had in fact been scraped from its platform by malicious actors “in 2019” and “prior to September 2019”.

That new detail about the timing of this incident raises the issue of compliance with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which came into application in May 2018.

Under the EU regulation data controllers can face fines of up to 2% of their global annual turnover for failures to notify breaches, and up to 4% of annual turnover for more serious compliance violations.

The European framework looks important because Facebook indemnified itself against historical privacy issues in the US when it settled with the FTC for $5BN back in July 2019 — although that does still mean there’s a period of several months (June to September 2019) which could fall outside that settlement.

Not only is @Facebook past the indemnification period of the FTC settlement (June 12 2019), they also may have violated the terms of the settlement requiring them to report breaches of covered information (ht @JustinBrookman ) https://t.co/182LEf4rNO pic.twitter.com/utCnQ4USHI

— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) April 7, 2021

Yesterday, in its own statement responding to the breach revelations, Facebook’s lead data supervisor in the EU said the provenance of the newly published dataset wasn’t entirely clear, writing that it “seems to comprise the original 2018 (pre-GDPR) dataset” — referring to an earlier breach incident Facebook disclosed in 2018 which related to a vulnerability in its phone lookup functionality that it had said occurred between June 2017 and April 2018 — but also writing that the newly published dataset also looked to have been “combined with additional records, which may be from a later period”.

Facebook followed up the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC)’s statement by confirming that suspicion — admitting that the data had been extracted from its platform in 2019, up until September of that year.

Another new detail that emerged in Facebook’s blog post yesterday was the fact users’ data was scraped not via the aforementioned phone lookup vulnerability — but via another method altogether: A contact importer tool vulnerability.

This route allowed an unknown number of “malicious actors” to use software to imitate Facebook’s app and upload large sets of phone numbers to see which ones matched Facebook users.

In this way a spammer (for example), could upload a database of potential phone numbers and link them to not only names but other data like birth date, email address, location — all the better to phish you with.

In its PR response to the breach, Facebook quickly claimed it had fixed this vulnerability in August 2019. But, again, that timing places the incident squarely in the period of GDPR being active.

As a reminder, Europe’s data protection framework bakes in a data breach notification regime that requires data controllers to notify a relevant supervisory authority if they believe a loss of personal data is likely to constitute a risk to users’ rights and freedoms — and to do so without undue delay (ideally within 72 hours of becoming aware of it).

Yet Facebook made no disclosure at all of this incident to the DPC. Indeed, the regulator made it clear yesterday that it had to proactively seek information from Facebook in the wake of BI’s report. That’s the opposite of how EU lawmakers intended the regulation to function.

Data breaches, meanwhile, are broadly defined under the GDPR. It could mean personal data being lost or stolen and/or accessed by unauthorized third parties. It can also relate to deliberate or accidental action or inaction by a data controller which exposes personal data.

Legal risk attached to the breach likely explains why Facebook has studiously avoided describing this latest data protection failure, in which the personal information of more than half a billion users was posted for free download on an online forum, as a ‘breach’.

And, indeed, why it’s sought to downplay the significance of the leaked information — dubbing people’s personal information “old data”. (Even as few people regularly change their mobile numbers, email address, full names and biographical information and so on, and no one (legally) gets a new birth date… )

Its blog post instead refers to data being scraped; and to scraping being “a common tactic that often relies on automated software to lift public information from the internet that can end up being distributed in online forums” — tacitly implying that the personal information leaked via its contact importer tool was somehow public.

The self-serving suggestion being peddled here by Facebook is that hundreds of millions of users had both published sensitive stuff like their mobile phone numbers on their Facebook profiles and left default settings on their accounts — thereby making this personal information ‘publicly available for scraping/no longer private/uncovered by data protection legislation’.

This is an argument as obviously absurd as it is viciously hostile to people’s rights and privacy. It’s also an argument that EU data protection regulators must quickly and definitively reject or be complicit in allowing Facebook (ab)use its market power to torch the very fundamental rights that regulators’ sole purpose is to defend and uphold.

Even if some Facebook users affected by this breach had their information exposed via the contact importer tool because they had not changed Facebook’s privacy-hostile defaults that still raises key questions of GPDR compliance — because the regulation also requires data controllers to adequately secure personal data and apply privacy by design and default.

Facebook allowing hundreds of millions of accounts to have their info freely pillaged by spammers (or whoever) doesn’t sound like good security or default privacy.

In short, it’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal all over again.

Facebook is trying to get away with continuing to be terrible at privacy and data protection because it’s been so terrible at it in the past — and likely feels confident in keeping on with this tactic because it’s faced relatively little regulatory sanction for an endless parade of data scandals. (A one-time $5BN FTC fine for a company than turns over $85BN+ in annual revenue is just another business expense.)

We asked Facebook why it failed to notify the DPC about this 2019 breach back in 2019, when it realized people’s information was once again being maliciously extracted from its platform — or, indeed, why it hasn’t bothered to tell affected Facebook users themselves — but the company declined to comment beyond what it said yesterday.

Then it told us it would not be commenting on its communications with regulators.

Under the GDPR, if a breach poses a high risk to users’ rights and freedoms a data controller is required to notify affected individuals — with the rational being that prompt notification of a threat can help people take steps to protect themselves from the risks of their data being breached, such as fraud and ID theft.

Yesterday Facebook also said it does not have plans to notify users either.

Perhaps the company’s trademark ‘thumbs up’ symbol would be more aptly expressed as a middle finger raised at everyone else.

 

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