Internet News (May 2017)

Massive attack foiled by blogger

An unprecedented cyberattack using ransomware was unleashed last Friday, using tools believed to have been sourced from the US National Security Agency (NSA), affecting 99 countries around the world, with some companies, institutions and organisations badly affected.

Cyber-security firm Avast reported that it had recorded over 75,000 cases of the ransomware – known as WannaCry worm and its variants utilised for the attack – the perpertrator or perpertrators remain unknown and at large. Amongst the biggest casualty in the UK was the National Health Service, notorious for using out of date operating systems such as Windows XP which are particularly vunerable to this type of attack. Doctors and administrative staff claimed that computers were literally going down one by one in rapid succession. The WannaCry program then demands a payment of $300 in Bitcoins to unlock the files on each infected computer. Russia in particular was badly affected, with targets including several domestic banks, interior and health ministries and one of their largest mobile phone operators. Its Interior Ministry was keen to stress that no sensitive data was compromised.

What is impressive is that the ‘kill switch for this worm was accidentally discovered by Marcus Hutchins, blogging as @MalwareTechBlog, a UK-based cyber-security researcher who had noticed that the web address the virus was hunting for had not been registered. So, he registered the domain name and from that moment on, the attack stopped.

Companies that were globally infected included Telefonica, Renault and FedEx. Several universities and research establishments were also hit badly by the WannaCry Worm. Worms are malicious programs that spread themselves from computer to computer and other networks, replicating along the way. Normally, these use human interaction to spread from machine to machine – this particular worm, believed to have been designed for cyberwarfare was originally codenamed EternalBlue by the NSA spreads itself rather than relying on an unwitting human initiator.

Unfortunately a group of hackers known as The Shadow Brokers stole the code back in April as a protest against Donald Trump. In terms of destructive capability this particular worm is several years old, and patches to protect against it had already been released by Microsoft and patched into Windows systems later than XP. Last Friday, Microsoft said that it would roll out the updates to users of the older versions of Windows, namely Windows XP, Windows 8 and Windows Server 2003. Users of these older systems are urged to patch their OS as a matter of urgency, as it is believed that there will be another attack sooner rather than later.

Internet giants combat fake news

Following the events that have been building over the past year, many of the biggest sites on the internet, from Facebook to Wikipedia, have been refocusing their efforts on eradicating fake news or web content of poor quality such as offensive and/or misleading headlines.

After some embarrassingly inaccurate statements garnered from search results that Google’s voice assistant, Google Home had produced, the company has also started taking action in the fight against fake news.

At the end of March they updated their Search Quality Rating guidelines document, a document provided to the over 10,000 contractors that Google utilizes to, as the name suggests, ensure quality in their search results. They were then given a list of real searches that happen on Google, and asked to rate the quality of the results found by these search based on the guidelines in said document.

Not only is this guideline document changed to better ensure the removal of fake news and inaccurate results, they have trimmed it down from 160 pages to 146. Some of the major changes in the document versus its older version include less supplementary content and a larger focus on local results, termed “Visit-in-Person” by Google.  There is also going to be a greater emphasis on E.A.T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness).  The remaining focus of the guidelines focuses on mobile accessibility and ease of use, with more examples for comparison.

The main take away from this, at least with regards to fake news, is that third point, E.A.T: striving to keep the search engine a place for trustworthy information that can be relied upon. Guidelines for identifying misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and more are in the document and it seems like a positive step in the right direction.

At the beginning of April, they launched a fact checking tool for both search and news results.  News related results will now have data drawn from sources PolitiFact and Snopes, with the results also having summaries that attribute how truthful the related article is, in order to attempt to add credibility and fact checking to results without having to fact check everything in-house.

Progressing on from that, Google has recently announced, at the end of last month, an article on their latest efforts to improve search quality. This primarily focused on three areas – a feedback form for search suggestions that users find incorrect as well as information regarding why suggestions might be removed, a feedback form for “featured snippets”, and renewed emphasis on authoritative content in order to improve search quality.

This endeavour falls under Google’s new “Project Owl” which is the company’s internal name for their constant battle against ‘problematic’ search results which has broad reaching consequences.

Despite all this, Google explains that they have numbers in excess of trillions of searches each year and around 15% of those made each day are entirely new, making it even harder to preside over searches in order to return meaningful results, so anything they can do to improve their algorithms in the long run is going to make a huge difference in the future.

What is now collectively termed ‘fake news’ is a problem that is inherently difficult to solve, if it’s even possible to solve at all.  But that hasn’t prevented people from attempting to solve it including many large internet organisations such as Facebook and Google.

A recent example that springs to mind is the Brexit leavers campaign, repeatedly stating in no uncertain terms and in huge print on the sides of buses around the country that “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Statisticians proved that this was, in fact, not the case at all and that actually the net annual payment to the EU was considerably smaller,  but the damage was already done and the words were already stuck in British voters minds, even if they were later told it was drastically incorrect.

Economist Tim Harford elaborates on why this phenomena occurs.  He states that “several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.“

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia has recently begun setting up WikiTRIBUNE. His approach to tackling the primary issue that leads from high quality, fact checked, properly sourced, paid news (newspapers and traditional media), to low quality, opinionated, free ‘news’ flooding social media and search results, “a news platform that brings  journalists and a community of volunteers together.”  Wales describes it, “We want to make sure that you read fact-based articles that have a real impact in both local and global events. And that stories can be easily verified and improved.”

In the video on the website, Wales explains that the main issue with modern news on the internet is that most of it is funded by advertising in some form or another. At some point people just stopped wanting to pay for quality news, citing the internet as the cause but not the problem.

The video begins with him stating boldly “The news is broken.”, which in times of the prominence of fake news, is inarguably true. “Before the internet, we could only get our news from traditional news organisations. Editors, fact checkers, and reporters were the gatekeepers of news and we trusted them to tell the truth, we even paid for them to tell the truth, that’s how much we respected the news.”, he continues.

“Then the news went online and suddenly we wanted it all for free, and we wanted advertisers to pay for it. This is a problem, because ads are cheap, competition for clicks is fierce, and low quality news sources are everywhere. Social media, where most people get their news these days, is literally DESIGNED to show us what we want to see, to confirm our biases and to keep us clicking at all costs. It fundamentally breaks the news, and the truth is, on the internet, no one is guarding the gate.”

This age of free, non fact-checked news where advertising pays for it all is, as Wales says, fundamentally broken, and needs correcting if we’re ever to trust online sources for news. The basic premise behind Wales’ WikiTRIBUNE is to make an internet version of a newspaper organisation, but modernised a bit. You have paid, professional journalists who are funded through monthly subscribers to the service, combined with their peers and unpaid volunteers “working side by side as equals, and supported not primarily by advertisers, but by readers who care about good journalism enough to become monthly supporters”, to help with fact checking, citations, and quality control in an effort to run a trustworthy news source for the modern internet.

Wales, having a non-executive position in the Guardian Media Group, has stepped down in order to start this project because of the clear conflict of interest it would represent.

The site is currently soliciting initial subscribers on its website in hopes of garnering enough initial attention and funding to hire ten journalists for the project; at the time of writing this, they are up to six already.

Of course, Wikipedia has, and by extension WikiTRIBUNE will most likely have, its own set of problems but at this point is still a better alternative to the onslaught of fake news that bombards us every day.

A few years back, Harvard scholar Jonathan Zittrain published an incredibly insightful book, “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”, which contained incredibly accurate predictions about what would happen to the internet once the invention of smartphones came about.

He states “Wikipedia has come to stand for the idea that involvement of people in the information they read – whether to fix a typographical error or to join a debate over its veracity or completeness – is an important end in itself, one made possible by a network that… welcomes new ideas without gatekeepers but that asks the people bearing those ideas to argue for and substantiate them to those who question.”

Amazon creates 1,200 new jobs in the UK

Amazon is in the process of creating 1,200 new permanent jobs in Warrington, Cheshire, when it opens its new warehouse there. The company stated that the new fulfillment centre, which in itself is a part of a larger expansion process spanning the UK, will bring its workforce in the UK to 24,000 by the end of the year.

Amazon intends to hire across a broad range of roles for the new facility, everything from operations managers, to engineers, human resources, and IT specialists. This warehouse is just one of two sites due to open later this year, the other site to be located in Tilbury, which will be furnished with Amazon’s latest advanced robotics technology, which employees will be working alongside in their day-to-day duties. The company also states that they are offering ‘competitive wages and comprehensive benefits’ to said employees.

“The Amazon teams are dedicated to innovating in our fulfilment centres to increase efficiency of delivery while enabling greater selection at lower costs for our customers,” said Stefano Perego, director of UK Customer Fulfilment at Amazon UK.

“The introduction of Amazon robotics in Warrington and Tilbury is the latest example of our commitment to invention in logistics on behalf of our employees and our customers.”

The company currently has 13 fulfillment centres spanning the UK, these two bringing it to a grand total of 15 later this year. They are also opening their first dedicated ‘Receive Centre’ in Coventry next year. This will, as the name implies, be a central hub to receive and sort the millions of products sold by the UK’s version of the site each year, with recruiting for the 1,650 jobs required for this facility starting next year.

Microsoft launches new To-Do app

Microsoft have announced and launched a new To-Do app simply called…’Microsoft To-Do’, original and catchy, right? The problem is that Microsoft already had an app for this which they acquired back in 2015 by the name of Wunderlist (See The Bulletin’s Guide to Wunderlist, first published January 2016), which, for all intents and purposes, was a very usable piece of software that had the tools its customers needed.

Microsoft have said that they are killing off Wunderlist in favour of their new To-Do app, having been working on integration with other Microsoft services since its acquisition.

Originally, just a few years back, Microsoft already had one of the world’s most widely utilised to-do apps in the form of Outlook, Microsoft’s offering for email, calendars, and contacts, along with other related functions such as, unsurprisingly, a to-do list. However, when they made the transition to Outlook.com, Hotmail.com’s successor, a number of features were gutted from the product, and the ‘to-do list’ was included. While the website version had a meagre offering of the functionality of to-do lists that the older app had, the mobile teams were simply uninterested in doing the same on their end. Even the Windows Phone platform itself had an incredibly crude offering in its Tasks app, which severely lacked the features that most users wanted.

OneNote was then positioned as a combination note taker and to-do list app to rival Evernote, but this also didn’t make a dent in market share that Microsoft was hoping for; they then proceeded to buy Wunderlist in June 2015 for reportedly, around $200 million.

Until recently, its acquisition of Wunderlist had been touted as the be-all and end-all of to-do lists and tasks. Microsoft have changed tack again and released Microsoft To-Do as a replacement. This new app is its simplest to-do app yet, merely supporting multiple lists, but no robust features such as tags, folders, priorities, attachments, sharing, or utilising any of the intuitive features inherent in Wunderlist. In fact the app smacks of being the kind of product that was thrown together by, if we’re being generous, a small team, or more likely a single intern in a short amount of time and then pushed out the door.

Numerous fundamental features from previous offerings are missing, on top of which it doesn’t even integrate with Exchange tasks, one of the most requested features that is sorely lacking at the time of writing.

Microsoft reassures customers that more of the features from Wunderlist will make it over to the new To-Do app, stating, “We’ll bring more of the favorite elements of Wunderlist into the To-Do experience, adding features such as list sharing, apps for Mac, iPad and Android tablet, as well as additional integrations with other Microsoft services. Once we are confident that we have incorporated the best of Wunderlist into To-Do, we will retire Wunderlist. While the name and icon may change, the team that brought you Wunderlist continues on.”

If there’s one thing that Microsoft seems intent on continuing it’s their inherent lack of interest for their customer’s opinions and requirements, plowing through with seemingly almost no regard. Whether they can live up to their words of incorporating more features from Wunderlist into the new app will remain to be seen, but don’t hold your breath for anything game changing.

Twitter blocks third-party firm as UK Home office loses the plot

Twitter has blocked an unnamed third-party firm that the UK Home Office uses from accessing its real-time API firehose, in an attempt to clamp down on the services use as a source for surveillance. This prompted the Home Office to create a press release summarily stating that one of its convenient spying solutions had been withdrawn.

This is most certainly not the first time this has happened, with Twitter cracking down on the CIA last year for similar reasons, relating to public tweets correlating with criminal intent predictions.

Twitter spokesperson Chris Moody wrote an article on their official blog late last year about such matters, explaining that “Using Twitter’s Public APIs or data products to track or profile protesters and activists is absolutely unacceptable and prohibited, our commitment to social justice is core to our mission and well established.”

Amber Rudd, a British Conservative politician who is not shy on sharing her misguided opinions about requiring backdoors into social apps in order to spy on people, had boasted on live TV that she would find people who “understand the necessary hashtags” to prevent objectionable content from being uploaded to social media.

The government later attempted to assuage those about what Rudd meant, saying she had intended to mean “hashing” and not “hashtags”, which have completely different meanings that can be inferred based on which she may actually have meant to say.

Internet News – April 2017

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The Starjammer Bulletin is the official newsletter for The Starjammer Group, its customers, clients, affiliates and subscribers. With over ten years under our belt, we are proud of our commitment to our clients, and of our assurance that we provide them with the best level of service and help that they have come to know and respect us for. The Starjammer Group is proud of its track record to date, and strives to improve its products, services and standing on all fronts. Our mantra has always been '21st century thinking'. Why? Simple: we love doing what we do, enjoy our work, and work on the principle that our customers, clients and associates should share in the fun. Business shouldn't be a chore: we spend on average 8 hours per working day in the office, or factory, behind a desk, stall or wheel. We employ people who are not only competent and good at their job, but people who have that something; that little spark that grabs our attention. It can't be defined, and it's not always obvious. Nethertheless, we have been lucky to attract and keep the right people. Something we are proud of.